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Date:

June 5, 2000

Subject:

Fear Of Technology Becomes Britain's Biggest Export

 

ArialTHE BridgeNews FORUM: Viewpoints
on genetically modified foods.


OPINION:

Fear Of Technology Becomes Britain's Biggest Export

Cradle Of Scientific Discovery Is Rocked By Green Activists Who Exploit
Consumers' Worries To Promote Anti-Capitalist Agenda


Times_New_RomanBy C.S.
Prakash of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research


Times_New_RomanTuskegee,
Alabama--Based on history, one could have legitimately predicted that
the United Kingdom would be among the world's leaders in developing
biotechnology today. Instead, the U.K. is known worldwide as the nation
most responsible for impeding introduction of this technology.


Those of us who work in agricultural biotechnology know that it has the
potential to solve many of the food production problems of the world,
whose population will increase by at least 50% in the next 30 years or
so. Biotechnology can improve nutrition among developing nations. It
can help fight disease by delivering vaccines in common foods such as
bananas. It can improve crop yields, thus preventing natural areas from
being converted to agriculture to meet global food demand, and it can
drastically reduce the use of chemical pesticides. Biotechnology has
the potential to save and improve millions of lives worldwide.


Yet many in the United Kingdom, which produced scientific icons such as
Edward Jenner, Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick, Alexander Fleming and
Charles Darwin, demonize this new technology as ''Frankenstein food.''
Who would have predicted it? Certainly not Jenner, the 18th century
physician who discovered the vaccine that eventually eradicated
smallpox. By injecting a cattle virus into people, he prevented them
from getting British biophysicists Wilkins and Crick teamed with
American biophysicist James Watson to unlock the mysteries of DNA. The
three received the 1962 Nobel Prize for their discoveries, which are
the basis for all genetics research.



Sir Alexander Fleming, a British bacteriologist, discovered lysozyme
and penicillin. For his discovery of penicillin, he shared the 1945
Nobel Prize with other British scientists -- Howard Walter Florey and
Ernst Boris Chain. British influence in genetics is most famously
represented by Charles Darwin and his discoveries and theories on
natural selection, which revolutionized global thought. Does anyone
believe Darwin would oppose research in biotechnology? And there are,
of course, British giants in other fields, such as Sir Isaac Newton,
who explained the mysteries of gravity and light, and Stephen Hawking,
whose work with quantum theory and thermodynamics has extended the work
of Albert Einstein.


The United Kingdom has been a cradle of scientific discovery, so it is
ironic that British consumers have so rapidly coddled green activist
groups, who use fears rather than science to extend their
anti-capitalist agenda. To paraphrase the great British poet John
Donne, no man (or island nation) is an island. The influence of one of
the great nations of the world extends well beyond its shores.
Likewise, British insistence on biotech-free foods sends a negative
message with sad repercussions around the globe.



Consider Thailand, the largest rice exporter in the world. Only 1% of
Thai rice gets to Britain, but because of British opposition, the Thai
government is reducing support for its own biotech rice research. This
means that a poor child in rural Thailand could miss out on the
benefits of Golden Rice, which is rich in vitamin A. Vitamin A
deficiency is a leading cause of childhood blindness in developing
countries. The cutback in research could also bring to a halt rice
varieties that are resistant to insects, meaning Thai farmers will
continue to work with harmful chemical insecticides, if they can afford
crop protection products at all.


In Africa, where mass starvation is a very real problem, governments
have halted introduction of improved food crops, such as
virus-resistant sweet potatoes that would protect tons of food from
disease. They have done this because the British response to
biotechnology has frightened them. The same is true in India, the
Philippines and several nations in Southeast Asia.


British consumers are frightened as well, and understandably, because
of recent food safety scares. BSE, bovine spongiform encephalitis (mad
cow disease), has damaged people's faith in regulatory mechanisms, even
though the failure in the regulatory process was not by scientists. A
well-financed campaign against biotechnology exploits these fears.


The biotech opponents' agenda, however, has nothing to do with risk
assessment or science. It is based on opposition to global capitalism.
The same agenda that has spawned the vandalism and destruction of
biotech research sites across the United Kingdom culminated in the
desecration of British war memorials and Winston Churchill's statue on
May Day. The British press finally got it right, identifying the
protesters as ''anti-capitalist anarchists'' and ''thugs.''


More than 2,000 scientists around the globe, including many outstanding
British scientists and Nobel Prize winners, have signed a petition
supporting biotechnology (at www.agbioworld.org). My fellow signers and
I sincerely hope that Great Britain will soon re-embrace its proud
scientific past, because, sadly, the most notable British export today
is fear.



C.S. PRAKASH is a professor of plant molecular genetics and director
of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University
in Tuskegee, Alabama. He recently participated in a series of
biotechnology debates in England. His views are not necessarily those
of BridgeNews, whose ventures include the Internet site
www.bridge.com.


OPINION ARTICLES and letters to the editor are welcome. Send
submissions to Sally Heinemann, editorial director, BridgeNews, 3 World
Financial Center, 200 Vesey St., 28th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10281-1009.
You may also call (212) 372-7510, fax (212) 372-2707 or send e-mail to
opinion@bridge.com.