Bombing Biotech

June 1, 2001 The Wall Street Journal

The misguided war on biotechnology is alive and well, as demonstrated by last week's arson attacks on a botany lab at the University of Washington and a tree farm in northwest Oregon. Firebombs simultaneously gutted the two facilities, causing millions of dollars in damage and destroying years of research (ironically, much of which was aimed at wetland restoration and endangered species protection).

Both acts of "eco-terrorism" are believed to be the work of the Earth Liberation Front, a criminal environmental group opposed to genetic engineering. A more popular tactic of biotech opponents, however, is to instill in consumers an irrational fear of biotech products. The result often has been scientifically unsubstantiated regulations designed to burden or obstruct research and development.

Many of biotech's detractors care least about "safety" -- standards are much higher for bioengineered goods than for nonbioengineered goods -- and most about political and ideological activism. Trade protectionists know that more efficient farms mean fewer farms and fewer farm subsidies. And, more generally, biotechnology has become an all-purpose proxy for anti-corporate environmental extremists like the Earth Liberation Front, Earth First! and Greenpeace.

Policy makers and regulators, however, shouldn't allow themselves to be distracted by hysterics. Let the scientific research speak for itself. Two years ago, David Aaron of the Commerce Department told Congress that "13 years of U.S. experience with biotech products have produced no evidence of food safety risks -- not one rash, not one cough, not one sore throat, not one headache."

Indeed, agricultural biotechnology is still young and full of potential. Properly nurtured, this fertile field of science is well on its way to reducing pestilence and hunger in the developing world; producing longer and healthier lives in the industrial world; and increasing efficiency and environmental safety in the production of crops and livestock everywhere.

Take rice, which feeds half of the world's population daily. It would feed more people, including millions who instead become ill or starve, but for the fact that rice needs iron-rich soil to grow properly. Many Third World countries lack such soil, which deprives inhabitants not only of rice but also of iron. According to the World Health Organization, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional disorder in the world. "It exacts the heaviest overall toll in terms of ill-health, premature death and lost earnings," reports WHO. One in five maternal deaths in Africa and Asia are linked to iron-deficiency anemia, which also can cause mental retardation and reduce resistance to other diseases.

With this in mind, a group of biotech scientists in Japan has set to engineering an iron-fortified rice capable of growing in arid climes. Through genetic manipulation, nutrient-rich rice yields for those most in need could increase by a factor of four. This not only would impact starvation but also, say researchers in the May issue of Nature Biotechnology, provide a solution for two of the three major nutrient deficiency problems facing the world today.

Biotech's benefits aren't limited to Third World maladies, however, as the latest advances in cardio-friendly tomatoes and environment-friendly animal waste demonstrate. Health officials have long known that tomatoes help guard against certain cancers, particularly prostate cancer. Now a growing body of data suggests that the fruit's peel, which contains nontoxic chemicals called "flavonoids," also reduces the risk of heart disease. Genetic scientists have been able to concentrate these chemicals and create "high-flavonol" tomatoes and tomato products such as ketchup and salsa.

Microbiologists in Ontario, Canada, are using biotechnology to address a scourge of the livestock industry -- naturally occurring phosphate pollution. The phosphate content of manure from certain animals -- such as poultry and swine -- pollutes waterways, killing fish and creating other serious environmental problems. Previous attempts to reduce phosphate pollution by supplementing the animal's diet have proven expensive and inefficient. New experiments -- so far, successful on mice -- are aimed at genetically manipulating phosphate metabolism in the animal itself. "The objective," reports Nature Biotechnology, "is surely worthwhile, because an animal that does not need phosphorus supplementation . . . would be economically advantageous as well as much more environmentally acceptable."

Of course, this is but a snapshot of biotech's possibilities. Nonetheless, it is clear that biotechnology is well on its way to addressing real-world problems. We would like to report that time and human ingenuity are its only limitations. Regrettably, however, the radical and misinformed politics of a few present the biggest obstacle to potentially lifesaving advances in the field.

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