PEOPLE: Scientist cites ethical imperative for modified crops
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------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------
TITLE: Scientist cites ethical imperative for modified crops
SOURCE: Wabash College, USA
AUTHOR: Steve Charles
Scientist cites ethical imperative for modified crops
"The public will always believe a simple lie rather than a complex truth."
Dr. Gary Bannon '76 says that paraphrase of French political thinker
Alexis de Tocqueville's aphorism sums up public fears concerning
Monsanto Corporation's genetically modified (GM) crops.
"Of course, I'm from Monsanto." The company's lead researcher in global
regulatory science smiled as he welcomed the audience on hand to hear
him deliver this year's Haines Biochemistry Lecture. "But my aim here is
to offer you a scientific view."
That science-based approach is often lost in the debate over GM crops.
"The scientific argument has mutated into a political argument," Bannon
said, citing the battle in the European Union over the use of GM crops.
Bannon insists that fears regarding the company's GM crops--plants
altered at the genome level to resist disease, pests, weeds or to
improve nutrition or quality of the food--are unfounded.
"We've not had a clinically documented negative affect [caused by GM
crops] in the 10 years since we started doing this," explained Bannon,
who researched food allergies and taught for 17 years at the University
of Arkansas Medical School before joining Monsanto in 2001. "The safety
checks we use keep them safe. I don't believe every GM crop is
necessarily safe, but those that go through the process we put them
through are safe."
Bannon offered numerous explanations for the disconnect between
scientific fact and public perception.
Quoting cosmologist Carl Sagan, Bannon said that "we've arranged a
civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science
and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one
understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.
"We're not equipping society to use this technology," Bannon said.
"People are unable to critically evaluate innovation based on the
"And sometimes there is too much information."
Bannon pointed to Internet sites attacking the safety of GM crops.
"Anyone can put anything up on a web site," he said, adding that he'd
received numerous email message earlier that morning concerning
accusations made by such a site. "It's the same old argument repackaged
by a different group, and it's not peer-reviewed or credible science."
Bannon admitted that Monsanto was partly to blame for not educating the
public when GM crops were introduced in the early 1990s.
"We were naive, even arrogant at first. We assumed that science would
tell the story," Bannon said. But with groups such as the Union of
Concerned Scientists, Consumer Union, and Greenpeace questioning the
safety of the crops on either health or environmental grounds, Monsanto
has pumped up it's counterattack.
Bannon cited studies by the World Health Organization, Food and
Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, and the International
Life Sciences Institute supporting the use of GM crops.
"We publish our research in peer-review journals, and we work within
academe," Bannon said, noting the contrast to many GM crop detractors.
And Bannon's job includes rebutting arguments by these groups, point by
point, with peer-reviewed science.
Monsanto is also expanding its focus from farmers to consumers.
"Our first generation of crops focused on being farmer friendly--how
these crops could benefit farmers," he said, referring particularly to
the insect-resistant and herbicide resistant soybeans and corn that
allowed growers to use broad-spectrum herbicides, reduce costs, and
But the second generation of GM crops, Bannon said, includes clear
benefits for consumers: corn with higher concentrations of the essential
amino acid lysine; and soybeans carrying fewer trans-fats and more
Omega-3 fatty acids.
Considering their benefits and safety in a world increasing in
population, Bannon claimed "an ethical imperative" to expand the use of
GM crops. But when Wabash senior Ben Tritle asked if a world food
shortage or similar crisis might lead to acceptance by countries
currently opposed to them, Bannon was doubtful.
"I'd like to think that crisis might change people's minds, but about
two years ago, the U.S. shipped food from GM crops to an African country
in the midst of a famine, and that donation was rejected," Bannon said.
"They rejected it because it was genetically modified, and people died."
"The tide is turning, but it's going to be a long battle."
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