Telegram and Gazette
March 24, 2000
By Dr C. S. Prakash
The Biotechnology Industry Organization convention beginning in Boston
today is bringing together companies, institutions and researchers who
seek ways to use genetics to solve medical problems and improve food production
on a global basis.
These events are of special interest to Central Massachusetts because
of the growing number of people and companies involved in biotechnology
in the region.
The event also is attracting the anti-technology activists who have made
careers out of opposing the work of these scientists. Active organizations
from around the world are sending their paid executives to Boston.
Some of the same people who sprayed urine and bleach on Seattle police
officers will likely be among them. The antis are planning a public rally,
parade and "street theater" to counter the exchange of scientific ideas
that will go on inside the convention.
If you happen to see any of these people - they will be the ones dressed
as butterflies, Frankenstein monsters of ears of corn - here are some
questions you might please consider asking them:
- Why do you people build opposition on simple laboratory studies,
but pay no attention to extensive field studies that disprove the laboratory
For example, a laboratory study showed that pollen from genetically
modified corn could harm Monarch butterfly larvae if the larvae ate
enough pollen. But actual field studies conducted last summer by about
20 researchers from several universities showed that Monarch larvae
are rarely exposed to the pollen, and when it does fall on their favorite
food, milkwood, it occurs at concentrations too low to cause harm. This
confirms the assumption the Environmental Protection Agency made in
approving the corn for commercial use.
- Why do activist organizations, which paid for expensive full-page
ads in The New York Times, never fund any research of your own? The
answer is obvious. Legitimate scientific research would produce results
you don't want to hear. There is much more job security in criticizing
the research of others.
- Before there was biotechnology to bash, you folks used to be opposed
to pesticides. Why do you now oppose a technology that can greatly reduce
the use of pesticides?
Improved corn plants that resist two major pests - corn borer and corn
rootworm - can potentially eliminate 90 percent of the insecticides used
in corn production. During the first three years that insect-protected
cotton was on the market, as estimated 5.3 million applications of chemical
insecticides were eliminated.
The development of herbicide tolerant soybeans brought about an overall
reduction in herbicide usage, but activists continue to claim that pesticide
use has not decreased.
- Why do you not condemn the destruction of regulated field trials?
Field trials, conducted under government supervision, provide important
scientific information. More than 24,000 field trials have been conducted
on crops developed through biotechnology and have produced no evidence
for any alarm.
Activists claim that "not enough is known" about agricultural biotechnology,
but they continue to destroy the research trials that could provide
the information they claim to want.
Recently, for example, some Australian activists destroyed a field trial
that was seeking to produce pineapples with greater levels of proteins,
vitamins and sugars. The aim of such activists is clearly to stop the
technology. There should be no pretense about wanting more information.
- Do you people honestly believe that low-yield, high-cost, labor-intensive
organic agriculture can begin to feed the global population that is
expected to increase by at least 50 percent in the next 50 years?
If modern agriculture had not increased yields to keep pace with global
population during the past 50 years, hundreds of millions of additional
acres would have been plowed up to produce low-yielding crops. The technologies
that allowed this yield increase - fertilizers, pesticides and hybrids
have reached a plateau, but population continues to increase.
Can yields keep pace during the next 50 years? Biotechnology holds the
potential to significantly increase yields on existing lands so that
more land is not put into production, land currently reserved for wildlife
and human enjoyment.
Struggle For Food
In developing nations, especially in Africa, millions of people struggle
to provide food for themselves and could greatly benefit from biotechnology.
By simply planting a genetically improved seed, people could protect their
crop against loss to disease and insects.
- Is there no limit to your zealotry?
The Rockefeller Foundation, working with a Swiss research institution,
is spending millions of dollars to research and develop a new strain
of rice enriched with vitamin A and iron. Such improvements to a staple
crop for billions of people could eliminate millions of cases of childhood
blindness and iron deficiency diseases among poor people.
The profit motive, which activist groups oppose with such gusto, is
not a factor here. The foundation intends to make the rice seed available
to farmers in poor nations at no cost, but activist groups oppose this
project because of imagined ecological effects. This arrogance of plenty
is condemning millions to continued despair.
- Do you have one shred of evidence that biotech crops are unsafe?
Crops produced through biotechnology are intensely regulated by three
agencies of the federal government. Nearly every aspect of a biotech
crop is compared with its traditional counterpart. Every new crop on
the market today has been reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration,
which will not give its blessing unless the improved variety is found
to be substantially equivalent to or as safe as the conventionally produced
The Environmental Protection Agency will not approve a crop if it poses
unacceptable risk to human health, wildlife or the environment. And the
Department of Agriculture will not approve new crops if they pose a risk
of becoming a plant pest or creating a plant pest in the environment.
The crops are tested for allergenicity and other possible effects. Since
1996, biotech crops have been used in foods and feeds consumed by millions
with absolutely no adverse effect.
These people are not used to answering hard questions, but it is time
someone started asking them.
== == ==
C.S. Prakash is a professor and director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology
Research at Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Ala. He is a participant in
the biotechnology conference that begins today in Boston.