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August 25, 2000


The Genetically Modified Organism Conflict


The Genetically Modified Organism Conflict

Chris Somerville, Member of the National Academy of Sciences

Plant Physiology, August 2000, Vol. 123, pp. 1201-1202

Few readers of this journal will have failed to notice the recent uproar,
particularly in Great Britain, concerning the release of genetically
modified organisms (GMOs). In response to the demands of activists,
European governments have restricted the import and release of GMOs, and
activists here and abroad have taken to destroying field plots and in one
case firebombing a laboratory. Multinational corporations, anxious about
preserving the public virtue of their brand names, have declared
themselves GMO-free in response to as little provocation as a single
letter of inquiry concerning their position on GMOs. Hundreds of Internet
sites proclaim the evils of GMOs, and some newspapers and radio
commentators, especially in Europe, fan the flames of public fear by
uncritically publishing activist propaganda.

Like most scientists in the United States, I have watched quietly as this
charade has unfolded. I would greatly prefer to spend my time doing
science rather than getting caught up in the public debate of the moment.
During my long and happy retreat into the ivory tower I have seen many
rancorous public debates come and go without the necessity of my
participation on one side or the other and without too much lasting harm
to the republic. However, because of my enthusiasm for the environmental
benefits that could result from many applications of plant biotechnology,
I have recently participated in a number of public discussions concerning
the current and future applications of the technology. My general view of
the technology is that many useful applications do not have deleterious
side effects, but that some of the things that could theoretically be done
should not be pursued because the potential for negative consequences
outweighs the benefits. My experience with American audiences is that most
people are intrigued by both the science and the promise of utility, but
apprehensive because of the strident and well-publicized claims by
activists that GMOs are dangerous to health and the environment. The
opponents of the technology have framed the issue as black and white GMOs
are dangerous and must be stopped. Proponents are faced with the difficult
task of trying to educate the public about the many shades of gray.

One of the ironies of the current conflict between the proponents and
opponents of GMOs is that the technology is inherently green. I cannot
help but think that if the technology had been advocated by any sector
except multinational chemical companies with an eye on the world market,
the technology would have been embraced by environmentalist groups in much
the same way that windmills and solar cells are. Indeed, I remain
optimistic that politically neutral groups such as the Environmental
Defense Fund and the Sierra Club will eventually endorse many of the
potential applications of plant biotechnology. The greatest threat to
biodiversity is expansion of agricultural land and, in the end, any
technology that can help stop the expansion of agriculture and minimize
chemical inputs will probably be welcomed by environmentalists. However,
based on my encounters with opponents, I am of the opinion that not all of
the organizations involved in the GMO debate are politically neutral.
Indeed, much of the rhetoric concerning GMOs has very little to do with
the underlying science and a lot to do with other issues such as
industrialization of agriculture and control of the food supply by
[American] multinational corporations. My impression is that many people
who reject the silence of capitalism on issues of social equity have been
attracted by the eco-reactionary groups who, among other things, oppose
GMOs. The recent unrest concerning the release of GMOs and the protests at
meetings of the World Bank and the World Trade Organization bear witness a
new manifestation of a familiar political conflict.

To the extent that GMOs raise social issues, there should be a vigorous
public debate. However, I think it is damaging to science to have the
terms of the debate focused on scientific issues in a forum that does not
support the traditional values of scientific discourse. The pronouncements
of professors are much less interesting to the media than those of
protestors dressed as corncobs. The challenge facing scientists is to try
to ensure that decisions about scientific and technical issues do not
become linked to underlying social conflict. I think it possible that the
debate about GMOs is symptomatic of a larger social trend that has
profound consequences for scientists. We are entering a new era in which
the social value of science and technology will be under attack by
political groups that are looking for simplistic solutions to the many
changes that are sweeping the planet. Because science is a powerful agent
of change, scientists will increasingly be viewed with suspicion or worse.
I think that to avert a downward spiral of mistrust, we must become more
involved in public discourse.

The GMO issue is a tremendous opportunity for plant biologists to engage
the public on a topic in which they are interested. The first step is to
become informed about the issues. We cannot be effective participants in
public discourse if we do not know the facts and the competing arguments.
In addition to articles in journals such as Science, Nature, and Nature
Biotechnology, I have found the online discussion group and archive
organized by C.S. Prakash at Tuskegee University (Tuskegee, AL) to be a
valuable source of informed discussion and news
(http://www.agbioworld.org/). Klaus Amman at the University of Bern (Bern,
Switzerland) also moderates a very useful newsgroup
(klaus.ammann@sgi.unibe.ch). The second step is to become proactive and to
use the media to promote discoveries and dispute falsehoods. The American
Society of Plant Physiologists (ASPP) has published a short document that
outlines some of the criteria for the design of letters to newspapers and
journals. In addition, the ASPP Education Foundation
(http://aspp.org/edfn/edfn.htm) is currently planning the production of
some high impact educational materials such as films. Finally, make your
views known to politicians and encourage the people you work with to do
likewise. The Internet has revolutionized the process of interacting with
government agencies and politicians. When you become aware of an
opportunity to comment on a federal rule or piece of legislation, take a
few minutes to express your opinion. Many politicians are enthusiastic
about the benefits of science and technology and are willing to work to
support the scientific enterprise (Bond, 2000).

Chris Somerville, Carnegie Institution, 260 Panama Street, Stanford,
California 94305

Literature cited

Bond CS (2000) Politics, misinformation, and biotechnology. Science 287:

(Thanks to Klaus Ammann for alerting me to this