GENTECH archive


Jimmy Carter on genetic engineering

Who's Afraid Of Genetic Engineering?
By Jimmy Carter

Imagine a country placing such rigid restrictions on imports that people
could not get vaccines and insulin.  And imagine those same restrictions
being placed on food products as well as on laundry detergent and paper.

As far-fetched as it sounds, many developing countries and some
industrialized ones may do just that early next year. They are being misled
into thinking that genetically  modified organisms, everything from seeds
to livestock, and products made from them are potential threats to the
public health and the environment.

The new import proposals are being drafted under the auspices of the
biodiversity treaty, an agreement signed by 168 nations at the 1992 Earth
Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The treaty's main goal is to protect plants and
animals from extinction.

In 1996, nations ratifying the treaty asked an ad hoc team to determine
whether genetically modified organisms could threaten biodiversity. Under
pressure from
environmentalists, and with no supporting data, the team decided that any
such  organism could potentially eliminate native plants and animals.  If
approved, these regulations would be included in a binding international
agreement early next year.

But the team has exceeded its mandate. Instead of limiting the agreement to
genetic modifications that might threaten biodiversity, the members are
also pushing to regulate shipments of all genetically modified organisms
and the products made from them.

This means that grain, fresh produce, vaccines, medicines, breakfast
cereals, wine, vitamins-the list is endless-would require written approval
by the importing nation
before they could leave the dock.

How could regulations intended to protect species and conserve their genes
have gotten so far off track? The main cause is antibiotechnology
environmental groups that  exaggerate the risks of genetically modified
organisms and ignore their benefits. This is misleading. In fact, for
hundreds of years virtually all food has been improved
genetically by plant breeders.

In the past 40 years, farmers worldwide have genetically modified crops to
be more nutritious as well as resistant to insects, diseases and
herbicides. Scientific
techniques developed in the 1980s and commonly referred to as genetic
engineering allow us to give plants additional useful genes.  Genetically
engineered cotton, corn and soybean seeds became available in the United
States in 1996, including those planted on my family farm.

The risks of modern genetic engineering have been studied by technical
experts at the National Academy of Sciences and the World Bank. They
concluded that we can predict
the environmental effects by reviewing past experiences with plants and
animals produced through selective breeding.  None of these products of
selective breeding have
harmed either the environment or biodiversity.

And their benefits are legion. By increasing crop yields, genetically
modified organisms reduce the constant need to clear more land for growing
food. Seeds designed to resist drought and pests are especially useful in
tropical countries, where crop losses are often severe. Other genetically
modified organisms covered by the proposed regulations are essential
research tools in medical, agricultural and environmental science.

If imports like these are regulated unnecessarily, the real losers will be
the developing nations. Their countries could suffer greatly for years to
come. It is crucial that they reject the propaganda of extremist groups
before it is too late.

Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States.


Former President Carter can be contacted at:

The Carter Center
Emory University
One Copenhill
Atlanta, GA 30307,