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7-Misc: The U.S. enters public debate on genetic engineering



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TITLE:  U.S. turns spotlight on genetic engineering
        "We can't force-feed consumers," Agricultural Secretary
        says
SOURCE: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, USA
DATE:   May 30, 1999

----------------- archive: http://www.gene.ch/ ------------------


U.S. turns spotlight on genetic engineering
"We can't force-feed consumers," Agricultural Secretary says

In the planting of genetically changed crops around the world,
the U.S. government has done just about everything it can to help
except drive the tractor. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has
been one of biotechnology's leading boosters, admonishing
reluctant Europeans not to stand in the way of progress and
urging the acceptance of food grown using the new, American
technology. But lately, Glickman has turned cautious. In St.
Louis last week, he warned that the United States must pay closer
attention to questions being raised around the world about
genetic engineering. "We can't force-feed . . . reluctant
consumers," he said. His words, along with a recent scientific
finding that biotechnology may harm butterflies, are helping
trigger an emerging debate in this country that could prove
pivotal for the new technology and for its driving force, St.
Louis- based Monsanto Co.

In an interview in Washington on Friday, Glickman said
biotechnology "shouldn't be a steamroller. . . . Ultimately, if
the consumer doesn't buy, the technology isn't worth a damn.
Period." He said European concerns about the potential health and
environmental effects of modified crops are taking a toll on U.S.
grain exports. "There are certainly more and more questions being
asked about biotechnology, and those questions must be answered,"
Glickman said. "They cannot be brushed off. They must be dealt
with. "You can't stop progress. . . . But it doesn't mean that it
is written on Mount Sinai that there aren't questions that have
to be answered. I believe that is the era we are entering right
now."

Emerging debate
After years of muted concerns about biotechnology in the United
States, Washington is suddenly brimming with new studies and
discussions:
- A White House task force will report as early as July on the
  prospect of labeling genetically engineered foods, the
  administration disclosed last week. One option is voluntary
  labeling to give consumers more information.
- The National Academy of Sciences met last week to plan a new
  biotechnology review that focuses on seeds and ownership of
  genetic materials. An academy panel also held a public hearing
  last week on a study of potential risks of crops engineered to
  resist pests.
- Glickman has resurrected a biotechnology advisory committee
  that will have a wide array of experts, members of the public
  and critics. Official notice of the committee might appear in
  the Federal Register as early as this week, with the first
  meeting held by summer.

If that weren't enough new activity, wealthy foundations are
considering plowing millions of dollars into a public awareness
campaign that would be conducted by environmental advocacy
groups. "There is a shift. It might even be a sea change,"
Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists said of the
new attention in the United States to genetic engineering.

Jay Byrne, a Monsanto spokesman, said he regards the attention as
positive. Three government studies published this month in the
United Kingdom -- by the Irish Food Authority, by a British
House of Commons committee and by a British Ministry of
Agriculture panel -- found no human health implications from
gene- altered food. As Byrne sees it, the flurry of new studies
in Washington can allay any fears that might be sprouting.
"People are getting engaged in a responsible manner seeking out
valid independent information from the science community on this
issue," he said.

Butterfly flap
The emerging debates will include topics as large as corporate
mergers in agriculture -- which Glickman also is warning about --
and as small as the butterfly. In a report that accelerated the
biotechnology debate globally, Cornell University scientists
reported 10 days ago that monarch butterflies could be threatened
by certain modified crops. They found that nearly half of the
caterpillars in laboratory tests died after eating the pollen of
corn engineered with Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) bacteria to
resist pests. With as much 25 million acres in the United States
being sown with engineered corn this year, many people took
notice. Unfortunately for the genetic science industry, the
report dealt not with spiders or cockroaches, but with the "Bambi
of the insect world," as a Washington Post headline put it. The
monarch study gave people a touchstone in a complex matter that
most Americans haven't thought a lot about.

For European leaders, it was evidence to raise more barriers to
the technology. The 15-nation European Union said it would
suspend further consideration of approvals for modified corn.
Austria banned cultivation of Monsanto's engineered corn, and the
French ambassador said his country might revisit its past
approval of a Monsanto hybrid. Those reactions could prove to be
ill-considered if the next round of studies showed that
cornfields are easier on monarchs than a college lab. For now,
Kathryn DiMatteo, executive director of the Massachusetts-based
Organic Trade Association, sees the Cornell study as galvanizing
groups that have paid scant attention to genetic science. "It's
getting to be critical mass," she said.

Glickman shift
Besides encouraging public debate, Glickman is raising eyebrows
among insiders who watch the politics of genetic engineering. His
public shift from cheerleader to probing realist began a month
ago in a speech at Purdue University. "It's not enough to
celebrate science for science's sake," Glickman said in the
speech. "When it's all said and done, the public opinion poll is
just as powerful a research tool as the test tube." In an
interview, Glickman said he was trying to send a message not just
to the American people, but to others in government. He said he
remains committed to biotechnology as important both to human
health and to farming.

But, he added, a better job has to be done about building
confidence. "There's a growing concern about what people eat,
what goes in their mouths," Glickman said. Glickman surprised
participants on all sides of the debate, among them Charles
Benbrook, a consultant who has worked for Congress and the
National Academy of Sciences since the early 1980s. When word of
Glickman's all-but-ignored speech at Purdue filtered out,
Benbrook said, "People's jaws dropped. . . . It was probably the
most dramatic turnaround in the message of a secretary of
agriculture that I've seen."

Fueling the debate
Unlike their European counterparts, most pro-environment
organizations in the United States have paid scant attention to
genetic engineering. Some American groups may have been persuaded
by the potential of modified crops to reduce the spraying of farm
chemicals. Some groups had their plates full, while others lacked
resources to pursue a complicated issue that requires scientific
expertise. This lack of attention has befuddled their European
counterparts but may change soon with an infusion of money from
foundations.

The Chicago-based Joyce Foundation is among several foundations
that have been gathering information on genetic engineering for a
meeting to be held next month in New York. Participants have put
together an inch-thick workbook on biotechnology that they will
distribute to representatives of foundations that fuel much of
the work of America's environmental advocacy groups. The Joyce
Foundation's Margaret O'Dell said she sees donors drawn to
biotechnology for several reasons, among them concern about
patenting genetic resources. "We feel that it is important to put
the appropriate regulatory framework and oversights in place so
that we don't find ourselves as a society jumping into a new area
without understanding the implications," she said. What that
might mean is new, louder opposition to biotechnology that would
turn up the heat on Monsanto and its rivals.

Jean Halloran is the executive director of the Consumer Policy
Institute, affiliated with Consumer Reports magazine. She
explained that foundation money means more organizers, media
specialists and experts writing reports. "Running a campaign on
issues with no money is a lot like running for Congress with no
money," she said. Monsanto's Byrne said that Monsanto is happy to
participate in any new talks. "All too often, this debate can be
polarized by the extremes of fear or concern and those of hope,"
he said. "The best public service is to have an informed debate
in the middle," he said.

(Copyright 1999) 



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