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Fear Of Technology Becomes Britain's Biggest Export

Cradle Of Scientific Discovery Is Rocked By Green Activists Who
Exploit Consumers' Worries To Promote Anti-Capitalist Agenda

BridgeNews Forum
By C.S. Prakash
May 6, 2000

Based on history, one could have legitimately predicted that the United Kingdom would be among the world's leaders in developing biotechnology today. Instead, the U.K. is known worldwide as the nation most responsible for impeding introduction of this technology.

Those of us who work in agricultural biotechnology know that it has the potential to solve many of the food production problems of the world, whose population will increase by at least 50% in the next 30 years or so. Biotechnology can improve nutrition among developing nations. It can help fight disease by delivering vaccines in common foods such as bananas. It can improve crop yields, thus preventing natural areas from being converted to agriculture to meet global food demand, and it can drastically reduce the use of chemical pesticides. Biotechnology has the potential to save and improve millions of lives worldwide.

Yet many in the United Kingdom, which produced scientific icons such as Edward Jenner, Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick, Alexander Fleming and Charles Darwin, demonize this new technology as ''Frankenstein food.'' Who would have predicted it? Certainly not Jenner, the 18th century physician who discovered the vaccine that eventually eradicated smallpox. By injecting a cattle virus into people, he prevented them from getting the disease. His work set the course for the science of immunology, which could be further advanced through plant biotechnology. British biophysicists Wilkins and Crick teamed with American biophysicist James Watson to unlock the mysteries of DNA. The three received the 1962 Nobel Prize for their discoveries, which are the basis for all genetics research. Sir Alexander Fleming, a British bacteriologist, discovered lysozyme and penicillin. For his discovery of penicillin, he shared the 1945 Nobel Prize with other British scientists -- Howard Walter Florey and Ernst Boris Chain. British influence in genetics is most famously represented by Charles Darwin and his discoveries and theories on natural selection, which revolutionized global thought. Does anyone believe Darwin would oppose research in biotechnology? And there are, of course, British giants in other fields, such as Sir Isaac Newton, who explained the mysteries of gravity and light, and Stephen Hawking, whose work with quantum theory and thermodynamics has extended the work of Albert Einstein.

The United Kingdom has been a cradle of scientific discovery, so it is ironic that British consumers have so rapidly coddled green activist groups, who use fears rather than science to extend their anti-capitalist agenda. To paraphrase the great British poet John Donne, no man (or island nation) is an island. The influence of one of the great nations of the world extends well beyond its shores. Likewise, British insistence on biotech-free foods sends a negative message with sad repercussions around the globe.

Consider Thailand, the largest rice exporter in the world. Only 1% of Thai rice gets to Britain, but because of British opposition, the Thai government is reducing support for its own biotech rice research. This means that a poor child in rural Thailand could miss out on the benefits of Golden Rice, which is rich in vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of childhood blindness in developing countries. The cutback in research could also bring to a halt rice varieties that are resistant to insects, meaning Thai farmers will continue to work with harmful chemical insecticides, if they can afford crop protection products at all.

In Africa, where mass starvation is a very real problem, governments have halted introduction of improved food crops, such as virus-resistant sweet potatoes that would protect tons of food from disease. They have done this because the British response to biotechnology has frightened them.

The same is true in India, the Philippines and several nations in Southeast Asia British consumers are frightened as well, and understandably, because of recent food safety scares. BSE, bovine spongiform encephalitis (mad cow disease), has damaged people's faith in regulatory mechanisms, even though the failure in the regulatory process was not by scientists. A well-financed campaign against biotechnology exploits these fears. The biotech opponents' agenda, however, has nothing to do with risk assessment or science. It is based on opposition to global capitalism. The same agenda that has spawned the vandalism and destruction of biotech research sites across the United Kingdom culminated in the desecration of British war memorials and Winston Churchill's statue on May Day. The British press finally got it right, identifying the protesters as ''anti-capitalist anarchists'' and ''thugs.''

More than 2,000 scientists around the globe, including many outstanding British scientists and Nobel Prize winners, have signed a petition supporting biotechnology (at www.agbioworld.org). My fellow signers and I sincerely hope that Great Britain will soon re-embrace its proud scientific past, because, sadly, the most notable British export today is fear.


C.S. PRAKASH is a professor of plant molecular genetics and director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama. He recently participated in a series of biotechnology debates in England. His views are not necessarily those of BridgeNews, whose ventures include the Internet site www.bridge.com.