Facing Fear of Biotechnology

Science  16 Jul 1999:
Vol. 285, Issue 5426, pp. 335
DOI: 10.1126/science.285.5426.335

In recent years, the U.S. agricultural community has adopted new plant varieties developed through modern technologies, including genetic transformation. Some of the new varieties include plants producing an insect-toxic protein from Bacillus thuringiensis and plants resistant to a popular herbicide, Round-up. Benefits derived from these varieties include reduced tillage, thus saving topsoil, and reduced use of harsh herbicides and chemical insecticides that can contaminate soil and water.

The commercial use of genetically modified crops in the United States since 1993 has taken place after comprehensive scientific reviews and approval by regulatory processes in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency. The inclusion in foods and feeds of products such as oils, proteins, and whole grains from modified crop plants followed approval of their use by the Food and Drug Administration. During regulatory review, plant and animal scientists and members of the medical science community participated in discussions that described the technology and the results of studies related to the safety of the process and the resulting products. As a result, more than 40% of the corn, 50% of the cotton, and 45% of the soybean acres planted in the United States during 1999 will be genetically modified, reducing the use of chemical pesticides by millions of pounds.

In the past year, we have witnessed a growing number of editorials and articles in the popular press, first in Europe and more recently in the United States, that describe in exaggerated language the “dangers and unknown effects” of adoption of the new crop varieties and the foods derived from them. In some countries in Europe, the hysteria threatens to undermine the public's confidence in the entire food supply. Clearly, the U.S. system of review and approval failed to convince the public in Europe. Although many of the relevant technologies used in modern crop improvement were codeveloped in the United States and Europe, the response of the public to resulting products on the two continents has been very different. In Europe, factors such as concern over mad cow disease, dioxin contamination in animal feeds, lack of effective and transparent regulatory oversight, and the mistrust of government and large organizations appear to promote the current furor. The public response to field tests in Europe during the early 1990s failed to draw governmental agencies into the discussion. In contrast, the initial U.S. field tests in 1986 and 1987 followed open discussions among scientists, regulators, farmers, and environmentalists. Questions and data were shared, experiments were conducted to address concerns, and appropriate decisions were made.

To what extent are scientists to blame for the current hysteria and doubt, and how can we move forward? Today, concurrent with growing activism, some scientists report the results of poorly designed experiments that have little or no relevance to agriculture, environment, food safety, or medical reality. The popular press also often inflames rather than informs. It is important for scientists to realize that times have changed and to engage in dialogue with the public rather than retreat from it. And it is important to convey to the public that the great majority of reputable scientists working in the field consider both the processes and the products of agricultural biotechnology to be beneficial to the environment and safe for the consumer. Scientists should submit editorial pieces to the local and national press to report errors and correct misconceptions. Participation in appropriate radio and television interviews can be risky, but silence can be more so. Scientists must learn to use the news media to advance the work of science and to gain the trust of our stakeholders, including the consumer. But be prepared! Write the op-ed pieces and have them checked by a neutral party to ensure accuracy and that the message is what you intend. If scientists do not participate in the discussion, we risk encouraging a misinformed and enraged public to believe that they will not benefit from the results of our work. What a tragedy that would be, in light of the challenges facing our planet.

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