Science Must Help Set the Global Agenda
By Bruce Alberts
Friday, 4th August, 2000 HMS Beagle
In the coming century, scientists will be judged not only for how well
they generate new knowledge, but also for how well they help solve local
and global problems. Scientists must take a more active role in helping
political leaders and the public make informed decisions
When the president of South Africa implied that AIDS may not be caused by
a virus, his statement was met with shock by much of the world. After all,
scientists established the link between human immunodeficiency virus and
AIDS years ago. But unfortunately, ignorance about - or even blatant
disregard of - the science behind many of the world's most controversial
issues is becoming all too common. No part of the world is immune. Just
look at the "Frankenfood" scare in Europe. Consumers there are refusing to
eat food products that contain contributions from genetically altered
plants, despite growing scientific consensus that these foods are safe.
And here in the United States, many public school systems are downplaying
the scientific theory of evolution in their classrooms.
This disregard for science is even more distressing in light of some of
the very real problems that will affect every nation in the coming
decades. The world population is expected to increase to about 10 billion
or 11 billion by the end of this century. How can the Earth accommodate
even the most basic needs of these people - providing enough food, water,
energy, and materials - without destroying the natural resources on which
we all depend? The science community is in a perfect position to help
answer these questions. But the best science in the world will be of no
use unless it helps to inform the critical decisions that will shape all
of our lives in the coming decades.
That is why scientific societies across the globe must take a more active
role in helping political leaders and the public make informed decisions.
It's not enough to recognize that every nation today needs its own
scientific capacity - both to address local issues and to take advantage
of the vast resources of science. This scientific capacity also needs to
be organized in a way that gives it a powerful voice.
In 1993, 50 of the world's academies of science met for the first time in
New Delhi, India, to produce a joint statement on using science and
technology to slow the increase in population growth around the globe.
This meeting soon led to the formation of a global confederation of 80
science academies, known as the InterAcademy Panel (IAP). The U.S.
National Academy of Sciences has long been active as an independent
advisor to government, publishing more than 200 reports a year. With help
from the IAP, many of the other academies are seeking a similar role in
their own nation's policy making. A few weeks ago, the IAP decided to
create a formal body called the InterAcademy Council. This new
organization will bring together scientists, engineers, and medical
experts to help advise international bodies, such as the United Nations
and the World Bank, on the many issues that involve science and
Increasingly, nations are recognizing that the striking advances in
scientific knowledge worldwide are important for their own economic
development and well-being. The new InterAcademy Council could go a long
way in disseminating the latest research for the benefit of many nations.
For example, every country needs to educate its children, protect its
water supplies and soil from degradation, and improve the health of its
people. The scientific basis for the many decisions that need to be made
in the United States is no different in Nigeria, Chile, or Bangladesh. So
the work that the United States does in education - such as analyzing how
people learn and transferring that knowledge to schools, or on teaching
science as inquiry - is as relevant to the rest of the world as it is to
our country. Likewise, we can learn a great deal from other nations about
how to improve our educational system.
Sustaining the world's resources will be of special concern to scientists
around the globe. Panels of scientists from many nations already have
collaborated successfully on politically charged issues, such as
protecting water supplies in the Middle East and Mexico. International
working partnerships will be essential for identifying solutions to many
of the world's most vexing problems, from ensuring that agricultural
production is adequate for feeding growing populations to maintaining
species diversity in fragile ecosystems.
In the 21st century, science and scientists will be judged not only for
how well they generate new knowledge, but also for how well they help
solve local and global problems. Scientists in every nation must take
action to ensure that policy makers and the public make their decisions
based on the best available information.
Bruce Alberts is president of the National Academy of Sciences,
Biotech On The Farm
Rodney W. Nichols
Bad money, says Gresham's Law, drives good money out of circulation.
Similarly, for biotechnology these days, hyperbole drives solid evidence
out of public view. As a result, the enormous potential for progress in
agriculture has been pushed into the shadows.
I am neither a farmer nor a plant biologist. But I have been mulling over
what the combatants say in the continuing, high-stakes quest for effective
innovation in food production. The challenge is urgent: the world
population will rise roughly 30 percent by 2020, and little new arable
land is available.
My conclusions are optimistic. Science and engineering are building the
knowledge to feed more people more economically, and to sustain
agriculture while improving the environment. Those outcomes will power
global economic development. But genuine problems may emerge as
biotechnology is widely applied, and I am concerned that nations may
ignore proven mechanisms for managing such risks. Junk science, thinly
veiled protectionist concerns and projections of distant dangers now
bedevil public understanding of the options. Those developments, in turn,
erode the public trust in scientific knowledge and politicize the evidence
relevant to choices that must be made.
Norman E. Borlaug, a pioneer of the green revolution and the winner of the
1970 Nobel Peace Prize, has noted: "Genetic modification of crops is...
just another step in humankind's deepening scientific journey... We cannot
turn back the clock on agriculture," he adds, "and only use methods that
were developed to feed a much smaller population." Biotechnology can
improve crop productivity with reliable transgenic procedures; it can
engineer plants with highly specific disease resistances; and it can help
fulfill nutritional goals by adding vitamins, protein and vaccines.
Developing nations can employ the new technology to assure their food
What about the risks? Bonfires of suspicion in England and the rest of
Europe about genetically engineered food have not been doused, despite the
careful statements of a number of unimpeachable authorities. In May 1999
the London-based Nuffield Council on Bioethics concluded: "We have not
been able to find any evidence of harm." Borlaug agrees: "There has been
no credible scientific evidence to suggest that eating transgenic
agricultural products damages human health, or the environment." Gordon R.
Conway, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation and an agricultural
ecologist who is acutely aware of possible future difficulties, says: "On
current evidence, we assess the potential benefits to the developing
countries as greatly exceeding the likely risks."
One kind of criticism leveled against agricultural biotechnology is
particularly unnerving: As a powerful new technology, genetically modified
crops may carry some risksay, the risk that they will accidentally give
rise to superweeds. Hence - so the argument goes - no uses for the
technology can be approved unless all possible future risks can be ruled
out. But such a conclusion would take a precautionary principle to an
absurd extreme, transforming intelligent risk management into an almost
mindless and endless restraint.
There is a middle ground. Wise observers such as Conway advocate a
measured approach akin to the one adopted in developing new drugs: test
extensively on a small scale for safety and effectiveness, and probe for
unintended side effects. U.S. farmers, a traditionally cautious lot, have
experimented with genetically modified seed on millions of acres of
cotton, soybean and corn - and confirmed its advantages. Yet consumers in
developed countries remain largely unconvinced, and environmental
activists see unresolved questions. Why not let the research flourish and
the technological advances unfold with evidence-based regulation?
In a halting and demoralized way, that process continues. But the paths
for innovators are bumpy. Research and development in biotechnology is
expensive, and the industry is undergoing a shakeout. The legal framework
governing biotechnology in many countries is not even in place, much less
enforced. Intellectual property in the agricultural context is a
culturally sensitive issue: crops are closely identified with a nation's
land and biological heritage. Yet economic incentives are critical for
inventors, firms and governments.
For the sake of the stuff of life, is it too much to call for a pause in
picketing and a renewal of reasoning? The future of agricultural
biotechnology is only as bright as the depth, clarity and persuasiveness
of the evidence for its benefits. This summer the New York Academy of
Sciences begins an effort to help shape a prudent consensus on the issues
RODNEY W. NICHOLS, President and CEO, the New York Academy Sciences
U.S. food companies seeing little biotech backlash
(Reuters World Report)
Tue, Aug 15, 2000
By Susan Kelly
CHICAGO, Aug 15 (Reuters) - There may be an uproar in Europe over
genetically modified (GMO) ingredients in food, but American consumers
have voiced only mild concern and food companies say they are under little
pressure to change.
As an expected record harvest of corn and soybeans gets under way in the
United States, with some 50 million acres planted from gene-altered seeds,
food makers say consumers are not alarmed even as advocacy groups step up
the pressure. What we're seeing and hearing from consumers indicates that
consumers in the U.S. are confident in the safety of the products that are
on the market," said Kathy Knuth, spokeswoman for the Kraft Foods unit of
Philip Morris Cos. (MO.N).
At least one recent study suggests Americans are becoming more sceptical.
The study, by the International Food Information Council, showed 59
percent surveyed in May thought biotechnology would benefit them versus 78
percent in 1997. "It's very clear that consumer confidence is slipping.
It's also clear that the issue is very volatile. People have not made up
their minds on it," Jean Halloran, director of the Consumer Policy
Institute at the Consumers Union, said.
But others say that American consumers, who spent $1 trillion last year at
supermarkets and restaurants, appear to be confident of government claims
that GMO foods are safe. In Europe, where consumers have faced major
health scares such as "mad cow" disease, the public lacks faith in
government to ensure food safety and is more sceptical about bioscience
itself, said Christine Bruhn, director of the Centre for Consumer Research
at the University of California at Davis. Americans have a basic trust in
scientific progress, Bruhn said. "Unless there is a major (food safety)
disaster, I believe the tide will swing back toward acceptance."
GMO USAGE IN U.S. ALREADY PERVASIVE
Bioengineered crops can better resist destructive pests and diseases,
reducing pesticide and herbicide applications in the field and producing
enhanced yields for farmers. As much as 70 percent of the foods on U.S.
grocery store shelves may contain ingredients derived from GMO corn,
soybeans, cottonseed, potatoes and other crops, in everything from cereal
to salad dressing to potato chips.
Consumer and environmental groups, the most vocal of which is Greenpeace,
say the research has not concluded the crops are without health risks and
urge mandatory safety reviews and labeling of foods that contain such
ingredients. The food companies, for their part, stress they back the
conclusions of U.S. government agencies that have deemed genetically
engineered crops safe, and many insist they have no plans to remove the
ingredients from their products. "Our policy is not going to change," said
Jerry Buckley, spokesman for Campbell Soup Co.(CPB.N), which last month
became the first company targeted by a coalition of activist groups taking
aim at major U.S. food concerns.
Fewer than one-tenth of 1 percent of calls to Campbell's consumer hotlines
have dealt with the biotech issue, Buckley said, echoing comments from
several U.S. food companies. "We have not seen great surges in calls to
our consumer hotline at all," Debbie Foster, director of corporate
communications for H.J. Heinz Co. (HNZ.N), said.
SOME FOOD MAKERS STILL HEDGING THEIR BETS Heinz, nonetheless, decided last
August to eliminate GMO ingredients from its baby food products to
reassure parents and set up a certification and testing programme for the
ingredients it buys, Foster said. Gerber Products Co., the biggest U.S.
baby food maker, avoids GMO ingredients and uses dedicated growers so it
can monitor the crops, Gerber spokesman Sheldon Jones said. "Even though
we felt that science shows genetically enhanced ingredients are safe, we
decided it would be best for our consumers, the parents, to protect them
from having concerns, and to eliminate us from the debate," Jones said.
Gerber's corporate parent, Novartis AG (NOVZn.S) of Switzerland, a major
provider of seeds for growing GMO crops, last week confirmed it has made
its own food products GMO-free -- a move that has not gone unnoticed by
U.S. farm groups. The Frito-Lay snack division of PepsiCo Inc. (PEP.N)
this year also asked its contracted growers not to plant gene-altered corn
and potatoes. "Some companies made a decision for marketing reasons to get
out of biotech," said Gene Grabowski, spokesman for the Grocery
Manufacturers of America, a trade group.
Food makers appear unlikely to make major policy changes unless consumer
sentiment shifts dramatically against biotechnology. "Food companies are
not really pro-biotech or anti-biotech," Grabowski said. "If consumers
decide for whatever reason that they don't want any biotech, companies
will not provide biotech." Companies say it is virtually impossible to
guarantee GMO-free foods in the United States, especially those derived
from corn and soybeans, because of opportunities for crops to
cross-pollinate or become mingled along the supply chain. "There really is
not a system in place for the total U.S. supply chain right now that could
guarantee that anyone that says they are making no genetically modified
food products can in fact guarantee that," Mark Dollins, director of
corporate communications for Quaker Oats Co. (OAT.N), said. The companies
say they can avoid using biotech crops in Europe because non-GMO supplies
are easier to source there.