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Who's Afraid of Genetic Engineering?

The New York Times
August 26, 1998
By Jimmy Carter

Atlanta - Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States and chairman of the nonprofit Carter Center, writes in this op-ed piece that many developing countries and some industrialized ones may impose restrictions on useful products because they are being misled into thinking that genetically modified organisms, everything from seeds to livestock, and products made from them are potential threats to the public health and the environment, threats to the public health and the environment.

Carter says that the new import proposals are being drafted under the auspices of the biodiversity treaty, an agreement signed by 168 nations at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The treaty's main goal is to protect plants and animals from extinction. In 1996, nations ratifying the treaty asked an ad hoc team to determine whether genetically modified organisms could threaten biodiversity. Under pressure from environmentalists, and with no supporting data says Carter,the team decided that any such organism could potentially eliminate native plants and animals.

The team, whose members mainly come from environmental agencies in more than 100 different governments, should complete its work within six months and present its final recommendation to all the nations (the United States is not among them) that ratified the treaty. If approved, these regulations would be included in a binding international agreement early next year.

But, says Carter, the team has exceeded its mandate. Instead of limiting the agreement to genetic modifications that might threaten biodiversity, the members are also pushing to regulate shipments of all genetically modified organisms and the products made from them. This means that grain, fresh produce, vaccines, medicines, breakfast cereals, wine, vitamins, the list is endless, would require written approval by the importing nation before they could leave the dock. This approval could take months. Meanwhile, barge costs would mount and vaccines and food would spoil.

How could regulations intended to protect species and conserve their genes have gotten so far off track? The main cause, says Carter, is anti-biotechnology environmental groups that exaggerate the risks of genetically modified organisms and ignore their benefits.

Anti-biotechnology activists argue that genetic engineering is so new that its effects on the environment can't be predicted. This is misleading. In fact, for hundreds of years virtually all food has been improved genetically by plant breeders. Genetically altered antibiotics, vaccines and vitamins have improved our health, while enzyme-containing detergents and oil-eating bacteria have helped to protect the environment. In the past 40 years, farmers worldwide have genetically modified crops to be more nutritious as well as resistant to insects, diseases and herbicides. Scientific techniques developed in the 1980's and commonly referred to as genetic engineering allow us to give plants additional useful genes. Genetically engineered cotton, corn and soybean seeds became available in the United States in 1996, including those planted on my family farm. This growing season, more than one-third of American soybeans and one-fourth of our corn will be genetically modified. The number of acres devoted to genetically engineered crops in Argentina, Canada, Mexico and Australia increased tenfold from 1996 to 1997.

The risks of modern genetic engineering have been studied by technical experts at the National Academy of Sciences and World Bank. They concluded that we can predict the environmental effects by reviewing past experiences with those plants and animals produced through selective breeding. None of these products of selective breeding have harmed either the environment or biodiversity.

Carter says that by increasing crop yields, genetically modified organisms reduce the constant need to clear more land for growing food. Seeds designed to resist drought and pests are especially useful in tropical countries, where crop losses are often severe. Already, scientists in industrialized nations are working with individuals in developing countries to increase yields of staple crops, to improve the quality of current exports and to diversify economies by creating exports like genetically improved palm oil, which may someday replace gasoline. Other genetically modified organisms covered by the proposed regulations are essential research tools in medical, agricultural and environmental science.

If imports like these are regulated unnecessarily, the real losers will be the developing nations. Instead of reaping the benefits of decades of discovery and research, people from Africa and Southeast Asia will remain prisoners of outdated technology. Their countries could suffer greatly for years to come. It is crucial that they reject the propaganda of extremist groups before it is too late.