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July 20, 2000


Statement of 42,000 member-American Society of Microbiology on


(Thanks to Klaus Ammann for forwarding this information)

Statement of the American Society for Microbiology
on Genetically Modified Organisms

Jack Cooper on July 18 at 8:30 pm

In recent months public understanding of biotechnology has been challenged by
controversy concerning genetically modified organisms. The public has been
confronted with charges and counter charges regarding the risks and benefits
associated with using biotechnology to produce quality food in quantity.

Since biotechnology enables well characterized genes to be transferred from
one organism to another with greater precision and predictability
than is possible
using traditional breeding procedures, the American Society for Microbiology
(ASM) is sufficiently convinced to assure the public that plant varieties and
products created with biotechnology have the potential of improved nutrition,
better taste and longer shelf-life.

Nothing in life is totally free of risk. However, to minimize risk it is
important to rely on fact rather than on fear, and the ASM is not aware of any
acceptable evidence that food produced with biotechnology and subject to FDA
oversight constitutes high risk or is unsafe. Rather, plant varieties created
with biotechnology are grown more efficiently and economically than
traditional crops.

This eventually should result in a more nutritious product at less cost to the
consumer as well as to reduced pesticide use and greater environmental
protection. Those who resist the advance of biotechnology must address how
otherwise to feed and care for the health of a rapidly growing global
population forecast to increase at a rate of nearly 90 million people per
year. However, a continued expression of public concern at the
current level should
be understood by federal agencies as reason to support more research, and to
improve the quality and public accessibility of information on the regulation
of products of biotechnology.

The ASM, which represents over 42,000 microbiologists worldwide, has special
interest in issues and policies related to biotechnology research and
development. The ASM includes scientists working in academic, governmental and
industrial institutions with expertise in medical microbiology and infectious
diseases, molecular biology and genetics, environmental microbiology,
agricultural and industrial microbiology, including the microbiology of food.

ASM members pioneered molecular genetics and were principals in the discovery
and application of recombinant DNA procedures which have advanced
biotechnology's prominence. Moreover, ASM members have for several decades
participated in discussions concerning biotechnology before federal agencies
and Congress.

The ASM methodically reviews safety issues associated with biotechnology and
its applications to assure that oversight and regulation are consistent with
current scientific principles and practices. The ASM has long held the
that oversight and regulation should be based on the risk associated with
products of biotechnology, and not on the processes used to create or produce
these products. This is necessary not only to protect public health and the
environment, but also to encourage continued biotechnological research and
development which is in the national interest, and in the interests of the
health and welfare of people worldwide. Indeed, the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) is to be commended for constructing a framework for
safety evaluation that is product base, and for taking the position "that the
critical consideration in evaluating the safety of (bioengineered)
foods should be the
objective characteristics of the food product or its components rather than
the fact that new development methods were used."

Although the public appears to recognize a direct personal benefit from
applications of biotechnology in medicine, it remains skeptical that similar
benefit will result from applications of biotechnology in agriculture and the
environment. It is imperative that an understanding of the rigor of oversight
of the science-based regulatory systems used by the FDA, the Department of
Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to manage
biotechnology is shared with consumers in this country. A greater public
awareness of our regulatory process is needed. Nevertheless, the ASM
recognizes that for the public to feel secure, mandatory FDA
assessment of the safety of
genetically modified foods is warranted. Scientifically based regulatory
systems to identify and monitor potential adverse effects on human health and
the environment need to be established in every country to ensure and promote
public confidence in biotechnical advances.

Fear of the unfamiliar has created a clamor for labeling of genetically
modified products. The ASM believes that labeling on the basis of process is
not scientifically warranted. Genetic modification has long been used to
enhance the production of plants and animals for food. Indeed it is doubtful
that there exists any agriculturally important product that can be labeled as
not genetically modified by traditional breeding procedures or otherwise.

Biotechnology as practiced in agriculture today is part of a continuum of ever
more refined attempts to breed better plants and animals for food or show.

Plant and animal genomic research are legitimate areas for public funding, and
they deserve increased attention and support from federal and state funding
agencies. Because of the improved precision and predictability of
biotechnology, it can be anticipated that in the future food will be more,
rather than less, safe.

Food labeling is justified if it identifies real risk and provides information
for the safety of consumers. To label a product only because it is genetically
modified would be punitive. Moreover, labeling will probably impose
significant costs to farmers and others who would have to separate
genetically modified
from non-genetically modified products in the field, during processing and in
the marketplace. This increased cost ultimately would be borne by the

Since there are no simple, inexpensive procedures to differentiate genetically
modified from non-genetically modified products, a requirement to label would
invite deception, and be exceedingly difficult and costly to regulate.

The ASM is strongly involved in programs of science education for the public,
and encourages its membership to strive collectively and individually to
increase public understanding of biotechnology. It is important for the public
to comprehend just what biotechnology and genetic modification entail as well
as their history and various applications in agriculture, the environment and
medicine. Familiarity will diminish fear, and reliable and responsible
knowledge will result in informed choice.

MEDIA INFORMATION CONTACT: Janet Shoemaker (202) 942-9294