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Agricultural Technology Conference in Sacramento
Listen to sound science on agricultural technology

San Francisco Chronicle
June 20, 2003
C. S. Prakash and Martina Newell-McGloughlin

Beginning Monday, government ministers from more than 100 countries will join U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman in Sacramento for the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology.

These international leaders are meeting to discuss the critical role science and technology can play in improving agricultural productivity in developing countries. Ultimately, the goal is to alleviate world hunger and poverty in an environmentally sustainable way.

However, hundreds of misguided people also will likely travel to Sacramento to protest a variety of issues, including the use of biotechnology in agriculture. The theme of their gathering will be to promulgate fear based on unsubstantiated and misleading information.

On behalf of the poor and starving in the developing world, we urge the conference attendees to focus on the science and on each other. All too often, the voices of protest drown out sound science and experience.

Anti-biotechnology groups have a history of lobbing emotionally charged allegations, but the reality is that none of these groups has actually provided any credible scientific evidence that would call into question the safety of foods derived from biotech crops on the market or the demonstrated benefits to the environment.

Instead, anti-biotechnology groups use their rhetoric and allegations to advance their agenda, not to provide factual, informed perspectives. Unfortunately, sometimes they prevail to the detriment of the environment and the poorest and hungriest in the world, denying the benefits of less pesticides, higher yields and greater sustainability.

The reality is that crops developed through plant biotechnology are among the most well-tested, well-characterized and well-regulated food and fiber products ever developed. This is the overwhelming consensus of the international scientific community, including the British Royal Society, the U. S. National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the European Commission, the French Academy of Medicine and the American Medical Association.

Scientific and regulatory authorities all over the world have endorsed the extensive and growing base of published scientific information that upholds the safety and benefits of biotech crops and foods. Spreading false and misleading information in an effort to polarize opinion is irresponsible and does not serve the public good.

The public has a right to know that biotech crops and foods:

-- have been thoroughly assessed for food, feed and environmental safety and found to be wholesome, nutritious and as safe as conventional crops and foods by scientific and regulatory authorities throughout the world (examples include insect-tolerant corn and cotton and herbicide-tolerant soybean); and

-- have economic and environmental benefits that are significant and have met the expectations of small and large farmers in both industrialized and developing countries.

A study conducted by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy in Washington found that biotechnology-derived soybeans, corn, cotton, papaya, squash and canola increased the U.S. food production by 4 billion pounds, saved $1.2 billion in production costs and decreased the usage of pesticide by a whopping 46 million pounds in the year 2001 alone. Biotech crops are now grown on 58 million hectares in 16 countries, and more than three-quarters of the 5.5 million growers who benefited from these crops were resource-poor farmers in the developing world. For instance, South African farmers are already growing transgenic pest-resistant maize, and this year began planting transgenic soy. South African, Mexican and Chinese farmers have been growing transgenic insect-resistant cotton for several years, and the Indian government approved it for commercial cultivation in spring 2002.

Governments should thus resist the temptation to be distracted, and instead focus on the real work that's needed in order to take advantage of these benefits.

On hand to advise the ministerial delegates in Sacramento will be many scientific experts with direct experience in applying science and technology to food agriculture. And 40 of the countries represented are already so convinced of the safety and benefits of biotechnology that they approved field testing, import or commercial production of crops. This is an important opportunity for the governments of the world to exchange data and experiences with each other, and to resolve jointly to let sound science prevail.

Biotech crops complement conventional agricultural production systems and together can help to provide cost-effective and sustainable productivity gains necessary to help meet the growing food, feed and fiber demands of the 21st century.

C.S. Prakash is a professor of plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University and director of its Center for Plant Biotechnology Research. Martina Newell-McGloughlin is director of the University of California Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program at UC Davis.