Let's Not Ignore Sound Science Senator Richard Lugar

February 3, 2000
Progressive Farmer

Galileo, if he is looking down from the heavens as he once gazed up at them, must find the current public discussion of the emerging science of biotechnology uncomfortably familiar. Myth, rather than scientific fact, has come to predominate the debate.

The European press refers to genetically engineered grains as "Frankenstein food," and respected research scientists are accused of "playing God."

Galileo's crime was that he challenged the popular but mistaken belief that Earth was the center of the universe. It was a myth firmly ingrained in the societal values and institutions of his time. Eventually and inevitably, Galileo's science triumphed over myth. It offered an incalculable benefit to society.

I recently held two days of hearings of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry to begin sorting the facts about biotechnology from the myths.

The testimony the committee received suggests, in sharp contrast to what has been written in the popular press in Europe, that biotechnology holds in its logic and ingenuity enormous potential to improve the human condition. Some of the country's leading scientists and the three federal agencies charged with the oversight of biotechnology spoke of the tremendous potential benefits that could result from the genetic engineering of crops.

They detailed the approval and regulatory oversight processes, which evaluate new products in terms of food and environmental safety. They spoke of the hope that biotechnology offers to developing nations of the world.

Dr. Bob Buchanan of the University of California-Berkeley believes the research he has been conducting could, in the not-too-distant future, result in nonallergenic forms of wheat. This could unburden millions of people who currently cannot eat this common food. Dr. Dean Della Penna of the University of Nevada-Reno is doing groundbreaking research on using bioengineering techniques to enhance basic foodstuffs with vitamins.

Increased vitamin E in vegetable oil could potentially reduce the risk of heart disease or of certain cancers by significant amounts. Increased vitamin A in basic foods such as rice, corn and casava could help address serious diet deficiencies in the Third World that result annually in 500,000 children going irreparably blind.

Witnesses also spoke of environmental benefits. Dr. Roger Beachy of the Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri, told how insect-resistant potatoes, cotton and corn are removing millions of pounds of chemical insecticides from the environment. Dr. Ray Bressan of Purdue University discussed his research on making crops more drought resistant, which would help prevent human incursion on marginal and environmentally sensitive lands.

I only wish there had been greater media coverage of our hearings, because the public deserves to hear both sides and to understand the promise of biotechnology. The hallmark of a progressive society is the ability to engage in an informed, logical and balanced discussion. It has been written that the greatest enemy of the truth is not the intentional falsehood, but rather the pervasive and enduring myth.

Myth has, heretofore, characterized the European debate over biotechnology, and we must take great care that it does not prevent a truly informed discussion here.

Richard G. Lugar is a Republican senator for Indiana, chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, and has a 604-acre corn, soybean and tree farm in Marion County, Ind.

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