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July 31, 2000




July 27, 2000 The Western Producer
Ed White -- Saskatoon newsroom

Swiss scientist Klaus Amman walked out of a room containing many of
the world's leading experts in biotechnology and walked into a
protest led by the opponents of genetic engineering. The white-haired
professor mingled with young people who were singing a protest song
to the beat of a drum and the dancing of a tall green monster called
Mr. Frankenfood.

It wasn't an accidental meeting. Amman was eager to communicate with
the protestors and calm their worries about the health, environmental
and social aspects of genetically modified organisms. He even shared
a few of their concerns, though he generally supports the
introduction of genetically modified organisms. Amman admitted it is
hard to explain the complexities of genetic engineering to people who
know little about science.

"It's really difficult. This is not easy," said Amman, a leading
European scientist who attended a biosafety conference in Saskatoon.
"You have to go into so much detail. You have to make points one to
10. That's the difficulty about science." Peter Garden, one of the
protestors, admitted he understands little about the science that
creates genetically modified foods, but said that does not calm his
fears. "I would just like to see long-term studies done," said
Garden, a university student. "Who knows? There may not be any
long-term implications. And great. But I think we need to be
cautious." This encounter is typical of the debate surrounding
genetically modified foods. Experts who understand the science find
that only other scientists understand what they're saying.

Opponents and members of the public are fearful of something they
don't understand. At this conference, scientists tried to communicate
with the public and with GMO opponents. The conference began with a
session in which members of the public were able to confront
scientists and representatives of the biotech industry with their
worries and fears. Amman, who moderated the session, tried to keep it
polite and civil. Garden, who attended the session, said he was
pleased to see scientists are trying to explain their work.

Few members of the public attended the sessions to hear lively
discussion over the impact of GMOs. As the conference wrapped up,
University of Saskatchewan scientist and GMO flax developer Alan
McHughen tried to think his way through the contradictory demands
that are being placed on scientists. He told his colleagues they must
explain the science of GMOs to the public but can't let themselves
pander to groundless fears. "We have to get them involved. We have to
learn to communicate better with ordinary citizens," said McHughen.

"But we must resist the temptation and the pressure to perform bad science,
to perform unnecessary experiments simply to appease somebody who thinks you
should be doing this."