The Seeds Of Opportunity

By Nick Smith
May 10, 2000
Sacramento Bee

Given some of the publicity surrounding agricultural biotechnology, it isunderstandable that there is a climate of unease about "genetically modifiedorganisms."

On April 13, I released a report, "Seeds of Opportunity," which reflects thetestimony given to some of the Congress by the nation's leading scientists onthis new technology and the controversies surrounding it. What I found is thatbiotechnology has incredible potential to enhance nutrition, feed a growingworld population, open up new markets for farmers and reduce the environmentalimpact of farming.

Its potential benefits are limited only by the imagination andresourcefulness of our scientists. Biotechnology has been used safely for manyyears to develop new products. More than a thousand products have now beenapproved, and many more are being developed.

These products include human insulin for diabetics; growth factors used inbone marrow transplants; products for treating heart attacks; diagnostic testsfor AIDS, hepatitis and other infectious agents; and enzymes used in foodproduction.

New biotech plant varieties offer foods with better taste, more nutrition andlonger shelf life.

Farmers are able to grow these improved varieties more efficiently, leadingto lower costs for consumers and lower use of chemical pesticides andherbicides. Crops designed to resist pests and grow without the use of highresidual herbicides, tolerate freezing temperatures and less water will makeagriculture more sustainable.

Reducing the use of synthetic chemicals and irrigated water, promotingno-tillage farming practices, increasing productivity, and ultimately reducingthe pressure to convert valuable ecosystems, such as rain forests, toagriculture will help consumers, farmers and the environment.

Agricultural biotechnology also will be a key element in the fight againstmalnutrition worldwide. Moreover, the merging of medical and agriculturalbiotechnology will open up new ways to develop plant varieties withcharacteristics that enhance health. For example, work is under way that willdeliver medicines and edible vaccines through common foods, such as bananas,that could be used to immunize individuals against a wide variety of infectiousdiseases.

Set against these many benefits are the hypothetical risks of agriculturalbiotechnology. The weight of the scientific evidence is that the plantsdeveloped using biotechnology are not inherently different or riskier thansimilar products of conventional breeding. In fact, modern biotechnology is soprecise, and so much more is known about the changes being made, that plantsproduced using this technology maybe safer than traditionally bred plants.

This is not to say that there are no risks associated with biotech plants.Rather, it is to say that these risks are no different from those for similarplants bred using traditional methods, a view that has been endorsed in reportsby many prestigious national and international scientific and governmentalbodies, including the most recent report by the National Academy of Sciences.

These reports have reached the common-sense conclusion that regulation shouldfocus on the characteristics of the plant, not on the genetic method used toproduce it. In other words, regulation should focus on product, not process.

Although often overlooked, the United States has a rigorous regulatoryprocess in place to assure the safety of these new plants and foods. As Dr. R.James Cook, a leading plant pathologist, noted, "It is hard to imagine what morecan be done to assure the safety of genetically modified crops to people and theenvironment."

The FDA has adopted a regulatory approach that is consistent with scientificprinciples and provides essential public health protection. It underlined itscommitment to sound science in early May by ruling that food labels will nothave to disclose any genetically engineered ingredients. "The scientificevidence does not show that these products are any different from a health andsafety standpoint," noted Joe Levitt, director of the Food and DrugAdministration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

In the international arena, the United States should ensure that access toexisting markets for agricultural products is maintained and that internationalagreements are neutral with respect to the products of agriculturalbiotechnology.

Government, industry and the scientific community also have a responsibilityto educate the public and improve the availability of information on the longrecord of safe use of biotechnology products.

Thomas Jefferson once said, "The greatest service which can be rendered anycountry is to add a useful plant to its culture."

It is important that agricultural biotechnology, which offers such promise,does not become the victim of unscientific misinformation. Too much is at stake.

U.S. Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., is chairman of the subcommittee on basic researchof the Committee on Science. He can be contacted at 306 Cannon House OfficeBuilding, Washington, D.C., 20515.

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