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Some Tough Questions for Biotech Opponents

Telegram and Gazette
March 24, 2000
By Dr C. S. Prakash

The Biotechnology Industry Organization convention beginning in Boston today is bringing together companies, institutions and researchers who seek ways to use genetics to solve medical problems and improve food production on a global basis.

These events are of special interest to Central Massachusetts because of the growing number of people and companies involved in biotechnology in the region.

The event also is attracting the anti-technology activists who have made careers out of opposing the work of these scientists. Active organizations from around the world are sending their paid executives to Boston.

'Street Theater'

Some of the same people who sprayed urine and bleach on Seattle police officers will likely be among them. The antis are planning a public rally, parade and "street theater" to counter the exchange of scientific ideas that will go on inside the convention.

If you happen to see any of these people - they will be the ones dressed as butterflies, Frankenstein monsters of ears of corn - here are some questions you might please consider asking them:

  • Why do you people build opposition on simple laboratory studies, but pay no attention to extensive field studies that disprove the laboratory study?

    For example, a laboratory study showed that pollen from genetically modified corn could harm Monarch butterfly larvae if the larvae ate enough pollen. But actual field studies conducted last summer by about 20 researchers from several universities showed that Monarch larvae are rarely exposed to the pollen, and when it does fall on their favorite food, milkwood, it occurs at concentrations too low to cause harm. This confirms the assumption the Environmental Protection Agency made in approving the corn for commercial use.

  • Why do activist organizations, which paid for expensive full-page ads in The New York Times, never fund any research of your own? The answer is obvious. Legitimate scientific research would produce results you don't want to hear. There is much more job security in criticizing the research of others.

  • Before there was biotechnology to bash, you folks used to be opposed to pesticides. Why do you now oppose a technology that can greatly reduce the use of pesticides?

Eliminate Pesticides

Improved corn plants that resist two major pests - corn borer and corn rootworm - can potentially eliminate 90 percent of the insecticides used in corn production. During the first three years that insect-protected cotton was on the market, as estimated 5.3 million applications of chemical insecticides were eliminated.

The development of herbicide tolerant soybeans brought about an overall reduction in herbicide usage, but activists continue to claim that pesticide use has not decreased.

  • Why do you not condemn the destruction of regulated field trials?

    Field trials, conducted under government supervision, provide important scientific information. More than 24,000 field trials have been conducted on crops developed through biotechnology and have produced no evidence for any alarm.

    Activists claim that "not enough is known" about agricultural biotechnology, but they continue to destroy the research trials that could provide the information they claim to want.

    Recently, for example, some Australian activists destroyed a field trial that was seeking to produce pineapples with greater levels of proteins, vitamins and sugars. The aim of such activists is clearly to stop the technology. There should be no pretense about wanting more information.
  • Do you people honestly believe that low-yield, high-cost, labor-intensive organic agriculture can begin to feed the global population that is expected to increase by at least 50 percent in the next 50 years?

    If modern agriculture had not increased yields to keep pace with global population during the past 50 years, hundreds of millions of additional acres would have been plowed up to produce low-yielding crops. The technologies that allowed this yield increase - fertilizers, pesticides and hybrids have reached a plateau, but population continues to increase.

    Can yields keep pace during the next 50 years? Biotechnology holds the potential to significantly increase yields on existing lands so that more land is not put into production, land currently reserved for wildlife and human enjoyment.

Struggle For Food

In developing nations, especially in Africa, millions of people struggle to provide food for themselves and could greatly benefit from biotechnology. By simply planting a genetically improved seed, people could protect their crop against loss to disease and insects.

  • Is there no limit to your zealotry?

    The Rockefeller Foundation, working with a Swiss research institution, is spending millions of dollars to research and develop a new strain of rice enriched with vitamin A and iron. Such improvements to a staple crop for billions of people could eliminate millions of cases of childhood blindness and iron deficiency diseases among poor people.

    The profit motive, which activist groups oppose with such gusto, is not a factor here. The foundation intends to make the rice seed available to farmers in poor nations at no cost, but activist groups oppose this project because of imagined ecological effects. This arrogance of plenty is condemning millions to continued despair.
  • Do you have one shred of evidence that biotech crops are unsafe?

    Crops produced through biotechnology are intensely regulated by three agencies of the federal government. Nearly every aspect of a biotech crop is compared with its traditional counterpart. Every new crop on the market today has been reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration, which will not give its blessing unless the improved variety is found to be substantially equivalent to or as safe as the conventionally produced variety.

Federal Approval

The Environmental Protection Agency will not approve a crop if it poses unacceptable risk to human health, wildlife or the environment. And the Department of Agriculture will not approve new crops if they pose a risk of becoming a plant pest or creating a plant pest in the environment. The crops are tested for allergenicity and other possible effects. Since 1996, biotech crops have been used in foods and feeds consumed by millions with absolutely no adverse effect.

These people are not used to answering hard questions, but it is time someone started asking them.

== == ==

C.S. Prakash is a professor and director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Ala. He is a participant in the biotechnology conference that begins today in Boston.