Fear And Ignorance And Biotech
The Chicago Tribune
The first is already in the ground, the second should be in about five years and the rest still are in the laboratory. Remarkable developments all. But these breakthroughs and the science behind them are no longer being hailed. Instead, they are under attack as creating "Frankenfoods" and threatening the Monarch butterfly along with the rest of the natural order.
Agricultural biotechnology-transferring genetic code from a plant or animal to another plant, giving it a desired trait it didnÕt have before-has caused an uproar.
Interestingly, the same level of controversy hasnÕt accompanied pharmaceutical biotechnology. That may be because consumers see a clear benefit from advances like insulin for treating diabetes and enzymes that dissolve blood clots in heart attack victims.
But they donÕt see the benefits in agriculture, primarily because marketing was aimed at farmers who eagerly embraced these crops-they now make up half of all soybeans and one-third of corn in the U.S. Educating the public about the potential benefits and risks wasnÕt considered necessary. But nature abhors a vacuum and now it has been filled by the vociferous critics of biotech foods, a movement that began in Europe and has spread to America.
Monsanto is being sued for failing to adequately test these seeds and for trying to monopolize the market. Because of rising concerns, companies like Gerber and Heinz stopped using such products in their baby foods. The Food and Drug Administration has held hearings and Congress will take up a labeling bill this year. The backlash has forced some food processors to insist on separation of crops. Rather than take the chance their crops will be spurned by export markets, many farmers are reducing their use of genetically modified seeds.
European angst stems in part from a rash of recent scares-mad cow disease, dioxin-fed chicken and tainted Coca-Cola. But the vehemence of the movement has been breathtaking. How much of this stems from the lack of a trusted European version of the FDA and how much from resentment over yet another American export that threatens to overwhelm the Old World continent is almost irrelevant at this point. It is a fact. And it is perfectly attuned to the anti-trade, anti-globalization sentiment exploited so effectively in Seattle and in Davos, Switzerland.
It would be a travesty if the U.S. allows fear and ignorance to crowd out crucial public education about biotechnologyÕs potential.
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