The Benefits And Politics Of Biotechnology

Senator Christopher Bond
January 26, 2000
United States Senate

As we move into this next century, we face a great opportunity and great challenge. We need only to look backward to help contemplate the immense change and innovation that is in front of us. While positive change is to the long-term benefit of all, it typically results in short-term difficulties, anxiety, and fear for some. How we cope with those difficulties defines our vision and tests our courage. In the last century we saw the industrial age and the computer age. We experienced fits of fear regarding everything from aviation, penicillin, industrialization, computerization and most recently, the non-calamity, fortunately, known as Y2K.

Remarkably, plant technology in this half-century has helped make it possible for the U.S. farmer, who in 1940 fed 19 people, to feed 129 today. Meanwhile, worldwide population grows and farmland shrinks. Policymakers, farmers, doctors, business leaders, scientists, and others look ahead and search for critical tools to meet the increasing demands of a growing and changing world.

Nobel prizewinning chemist Robert F. Curl of Rice University said that, "It is clear that the 21st will be the century of biology." Scientists, medical doctors, Government officials, farmers, and others have testified before the Congress and elsewhere to the benefits of this new generation of technology, which may offer the sustainable production of safer and more abundant food sources, new vaccines and medicines, as well as biodegradable plastics and cleaner energy alternatives.

Recently, I received a letter signed by over 500 scientists revealing the exceptionally strong scientific consensus endorsing biotechnology. These are public- and private-sector scientists, the majority of whom are from academic institutions representing nearly every State, a number of foreign countries, the National Academy of Sciences, private foundations, Federal research agencies, and our National Labs. Here is some of what they told me about biotechnology:

The ultimate beneficiaries of technological innovation have always been consumers, both in the United States and abroad. In developing countries, biotechnological advances will provide means to overcome vitamin deficiencies, to supply vaccines for killer diseases like cholera and malaria, to increase production and protect fragile natural resources, and to grow crops under normally unfavorable conditions.

In an op-ed in the New York Times entitled `Who's Afraid of Genetic Engineers?' former president Jimmy Carter outlined the sad irony. He said:

Imagine a country placing such rigid restrictions on imports that people would not get vaccines and insulin. And imagine those same restrictions being placed on food products as well as on laundry detergent and paper. As far-fetched as it sounds, many developing countries and some industrialized ones may do just that. He concluded: If imports . . . 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 extremists groups before it is too late.

Renowned scientists have dedicated their lives to understanding biotechnology and using it to the benefit of mankind to solve problems of hunger, disease and environmental degradation. These problems are considerable now, but will grow in magnitudes in the years ahead. In the tabloid press, however, a teenager dressed up as a corn cob will get as much attention and is attributed the same credibility as leading scientists, whose work is subjected to rigorous peer review.

We need to be clear about several issues. First, our Government and its citizens are second to none in our collective commitment to food safety. We have a rigorous multi-agency approval process that has stood the test of time since 1938. It is based not on politics but on scientific consensus. It is supported by bipartisan Members of each body who have the strongest commitment to food safety and environmental protection. None of us are advocates for unfettered technology. As with any technology, there are limits that will be and must be subjected to law, not to mention common sense.

Second, we need to realize that there are strong elements in the European Union who are more than happy to exploit fears -- fears that they helped create -- to provide short-term protection to their farmers from imports. In a sentence, fear and hysteria, without scientific basis, is being used by some to limit the productivity of foreign farmers -- period.

Finally, let me emphasize this critical point. The issue of risk is not one-dimensional. Yes, we must understand and evaluate the relative risk to Monarch Butterfly larvae. Additional research has answered already many of those questions. But there is another risk. That risk is that naysayers and the protectionists succeed in their goals to kill biotechnology and condemn the world's children to unnecessary blindness, malnutrition, sickness and environmental degradation.

Dr. C.S. Prakash, who directs the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala., said the following in a column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Anti-technology activists accuse corporations of `playing God' by genetically improving crops, but it is these so-called environmentalists who are really playing God, not with genes but with the lives of poor and hungry people.

While activist organizations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote fear through anti-science newspaper ads, 1.3 billion people, who live on less than $1 a day, care only about finding their next day's meal. Biotechnology is one of the best hopes for solving their food needs today, when we have 6 billion people, and certainly in the next 30 to 50 years, when there will be 9 billion on the globe.

The development of local and regional agriculture is the key to addressing both hunger and low income. Genetically improved food is `scale neutral,' in that a poor rice farmer with one acre in Bangladesh can benefit as much as a larger farmer in California. And he doesn't have to learn a sophisticated new system; he only has to plant a seed. New rice strains being developed through biotechnology can increase yields by 30 to 40 percent. Another rice strain has the potential to prevent blindness in millions of children whose diets are deficient in Vitamin A.

Edible vaccines, delivered in locally grown crops, could do more to eliminate disease than the Red Cross, missionaries and U.N. task forces combined, at a fraction of the cost. But none of these benefits will be realized if Western-generated fears about biotechnology halt research funding and close borders to exported products.

For the well-fed to spearhead fear-based campaigns and suppress research for ideological and pseudo-science reasons is irresponsible and immoral.

Dr. Prakash just released a petition signed by more than 600 scientists declaring support of agricultural biotechnology. In his press release he noted, "We in the scientific community felt it necessary to counteract the baseless attacks so often being made on biotechnology and genetically modified foods. Biotechnology is a potent and valuable tool that can help make foods more productive and nutritious. And, contrary to anti-biotech activists, they can even advance environmental goals such as biodiversity."

Not content to live with their own brand of Ludditism, European activists have shifted the battleground and they are now looking to export -- not answers or solutions or constructive proposals -- but fear, hysteria and unworkable restrictions to Asia, South America and even the United States. Many have stayed out of this debate thinking the controversy will blow over as it does with most regulated technologies. Many, particularly those who understand the science of the issue, had been silent, thinking, possibly that people would understand and that the technology would sell itself.

I have said from the beginning that we could not take it for granted that people would embrace the technology because it is complex. I have said from the beginning that American consumers would want information. Consumers who know the facts -- who know the benefits this technology will provide -- will endorse it. American consumers demand food safety, but they also embrace technology and progress. They are not satisfied to say what we are doing is good enough. And finally, they want to base their decisions on science not fiction and it is the open discussion of facts that the vandals, the protectionists, and the Luddites fear the most.

President Clinton outlined what is at stake in proclaiming January 2000 as National Biotechnology Month:

Today, a third of all new medicines in development are based on biotechnology. Designed to attack the underlying cause of an illness, not just its symptoms, these medicines have tremendous potential to provide not only more effective treatments, but also cures. With improved understanding of cellular and genetic processes, scientists have opened exciting new avenues of research into treatments for devastating diseases -- like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, diabetes, heart disease, AIDS, and cancer -- that affect millions of Americans. Biotechnology has also given us several new vaccines, including one for rotavirus, now being tested clinically, that could eradicate an illness responsible for the deaths of more than 800,000 infants and children each year.

The impact of biotechnology is far-reaching. Bio-remediation technologies are cleaning our environment by removing toxic substances from contaminated soils and ground water. Agricultural biotechnology reduces our dependence on pesticides. Manufacturing processes based on biotechnology make it possible to produce paper and chemicals with less energy, less pollution, and less waste. Forensic technologies based on our growing knowledge of DNA help us exonerate the innocent and bring criminals to justice.

A question is whether we want to continue with a fixed number of agricultural uses or if we want to expand them to provide farmers and consumers new options and new opportunities. A question for some is whether we want to be more pro-environment and pro-health and nutrition than we are anti-corporate.

Like many of my colleagues here in the Senate, I have consulted scores of scientists in the academic world, in the public sector and in the private sector. I have consulted medical professionals and farmers for their practical experience regarding biotechnology. But let me finish by reading you a quote from a December 25, 1999, interview in New Scientist and you consider for yourself who might be the source:

I believe we are entering an era now where pagan beliefs and junk science are influencing public policy. GM foods and forestry are both good examples where policy is being influenced by arguments that have no basis in fact or logic.

The source is not a corporate leader, a Senator, or a university scientist. It is an ecologist with a Ph.D. That ecologist is Patrick Moore, one of the founding members of Greenpeace and a veteran of the frontline against everything from whaling to nuclear waste since the 1970s.

The scientific consensus amongst government and academic scientists in the U.S. is extraordinary. The scientific community in Europe, some of whom I have met with, agree but have been intimidated and silenced. Please give the scientific and medical communities the opportunity to speak to these complex issues before you are swayed by the tabloids in Europe, those who may have their head buried in the flat earth, and the vandals and extremists who have been condemned even by some of their very own.

We have a system in the U.S. to identify and evaluate relative risk, and, if necessary, mitigate those risks. The focus of international leaders should be on working constructively to identify and evaluate relative risk so that our people may have safely the options of biotechnology available to them. The development of this technology is not recreational. It is to solve real world problems and the possibilities are truly breathtaking. There is too much at stake for those who know better to remain passive.

In 1921, Missouri's renowned plant scientist, George Washington Carver said: "I wanted to know the name of every stone and flower and insect and bird and beast. I wanted to know where it got its color, where it got its life -- but there was no one to tell me." He added: "No individual has any right to come into the world and go out of it without leaving behind him distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it."

This issue will be a test of our collective vision, discipline, and courage.

Excerpted from a speech on the floor of the US Senate, January 26, 2000


Return to the home page of Better Foods