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Trust Emotions or Facts on Biotechnology?

Birmingham News
By C.S. Prakash
May 17, 2000

I suspect that the average American, hearing or reading something about biotechnology, is at a loss to understand all that is involved. I suspect that for many, the discussion of genes and proteins boils down to this: Who am I going to believe, those who oppose biotechnology or those who support it?

Last month in Boston, 1,500 to 2,000 people, many dressed as Frankenstein monsters, butterflies and ears of corn, demonstrated outside the Biotechnology Industry Organization meeting. Inside, about 8,000 scientists, researchers, physicians and industry representatives exchanged ideas and discussed research on ways to improve crop yields, reduce pesticide usage, improve nutrition and develop cures for disease.

The evidence

On April 5, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report which stated that there is no evidence suggesting foods produced through biotechnology are any less safe than conventional crops. In fact, the scientific panel concluded, growing such crops could have environmental advantages over other crops. Another report was issued on April 13 by the Basic Research Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science. It makes a very strong case for the safety of biotechnology and warns against needless over regulation, which could delay development of a technology with great potential for good.

Around the world, more than 2,000 scientists, including two Nobel Prize winners, have signed a petition in support of genetically modified crops.Overwhelmingly, scientific organizations, professional societies, and inter national bodies such as the World Health Organization agree that over sight of biotech crops should focus on the characteristics of the plant, its in tended use and the environment into which it will be introduced, not on the method used to produce it. In other words, the scientific community is strongly united in the view that there is nothing inherently more risky about biotech crops than crops developed through conventional breeding methods.

But activists get more attention. On April 10, CBS Evening News aired a story about biotech opponents ripping up millions of dollars worth of research plots. On New Year's Eve, someone set fire to a 90-year-old building at Michigan State University, where genetic researchers had their offices. CBS quoted a professor as saying, "I lost basically my entire profes sional life. I lost every paper I ever wrote that analyzed the benefits and risks of this technology."

Prior to the Boston meetings, Seattle police told their Boston counterparts to beware of being sprayed with urine and bleach, a popular tactic in the street riots that accompanied the World Trade Association meeting in Seattle. Are these the kinds of people who engender trust? In truth, most activists are not like that. The Boston demonstration was peaceful, as are the vast majority of protests against biotechnology. But while they are peaceful, they do mimic more radical activities by focusing on emotion rather than fact.

While most Americans would never participate in street demonstrations or condone criminal vandalism, they must wonder if those who do have a valid point to make.

The new report from the House subcommittee is an excellent opportunity to read and understand. It would be a great source for student term papers or for anyone wanting a basic understanding.

The report tells how biotechnology works and how it can help solve problems. It discusses the risks and benefits,reviews the regulatory system and shows why many of the emotional issues raised by opponents have little scientific support. Testimony from 17 scientists, including some critics of biotechnology, was the basis for the report, which can be viewed on the Internet at www.house.gov/science.

The findings

The report makes several findings. Among them: Biotechnology is reduc ing chemical pesticides and will continue to do so; there is no greater risk of introducing allergens into biotech crops than with traditionally bred crops; the risk of biotech crops be coming weedy pests is no greater than that for other crops. And perhaps most comforting to those who have heard the activist claims, there is this statement: "The risks associated with plant varieties developed using agricultural biotechnology are the same as those for similar varieties developed using classical breeding methods."

The report gives enough pro and con for a reader to decide whom to believe.