Biotechnology is the subject of intense debate at an international seminar this week.
European countries refuse to import genetically modified crops, while major corporations like Seagram and Frito-Lay refuse to purchase genetically modified corn.
At the same time, bioengineering creates healthier foods and improves crop yields. Every day, people consume genetically modified crops with no ill effects and take lifesaving medications created by biotechnology.
Whether we know it or not, biotechnology already is part of our lives.
Biotechnology promises great benefits, economic and otherwise, for Texas. Last year, the Legislature created incentives for further biotechnology research and development.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization recently honored state Rep. Brian McCall, R-Plano, as state legislator of the year for his efforts to educate Texans about the industry.
But further education is needed to eliminate people's misconceptions and misunderstanding. As people learn more about incredible scientific breakthroughs in the industry, they will accept and appreciate the benefits to be gained.
Traditional agriculture relies on crossbreeding and hybridization to improve the quality and yield of crops and overcome natural pests and viruses. Biotechnology uses various scientific techniques, including genetic engineering, to create, modify and improve plants and animals in a less costly and more efficient manner.
Biotechnology can improve the nutritional quality of foods and retard spoilage. Genetically modified crops increase yields while requiring less land, less tillage and less fertilizer. They reduce the need for pesticides and other chemicals that can harm human health and the environment.
In the near future, genetically modified crops will be tolerant of environmental stresses. For example, drought-tolerant crops, requiring less water, would benefit areas of little rainfall, like Texas.
Genetically modified crops have vast potential to help people worldwide who don't receive adequate amounts of the vitamins and minerals needed to remain healthy. Genetic modification to add protein to corn, Vitamin A to rice and Vitamin E to certain food oil crops would help prevent diseases and improve people's health.
Almost daily, we hear about new medical treatments, medicines or vaccines that could improve our lives. An estimated one-third of those are biotechnology-based. Examples include home pregnancy tests, medicines to treat chronic diseases and medical diagnostic tests that keep our blood supply safe from AIDS.
In the not-too-distant future, bioengineered plants will be used to decrease our reliance on oil imports, reduce greenhouse emissions, increase recycling opportunities and create industries. For instance, biotechnology will be used to produce environmentally friendly non-petroleum-based fuel alternatives.
Biotechnology benefits us in many ways. Still, there are people who view it as harmful. That, despite the regulation of three federal agencies - the Agriculture Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA requires every genetically modified food to meet the same rigorous safety standards as other foods. The FDA and EPA jointly regulate genetically modified crops to ensure they don't harm the environment or those who eat them. And the Agriculture Department recently created an advisory committee to debate relevant issues and offer policy advice.
Knowing all that, one must question the motives of the opposition. Does the opposition stem from safety concerns or from economic and political self-interest? Are the fears about biotechnology legitimate or rooted in ignorance?
While we can't and shouldn't ignore the questions, we must acknowledge that biotechnology's real and potential benefits exceed even scientists' wildest imaginations. Clearly, we need to continue pursuing biotechnology's many opportunities.
Allison K. Exall is a lawyer with Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld in Dallas.