The San Francisco Chronicle
There was an embattled air about the 50 or so academics who met at the University of California at Davis last week for a conference on how to deal with the growing controversy over bioengineered foods.
"We've really got the feeling some people think we're the bad guys," said Neal Van Alfen, dean of agricultural and environmental sciences at Davis. It was Van Alfen who organized the event that drew agricultural bioscientists from as far as Cornell University in New York and the University of Hawaii.
The conference came after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed two initiatives aimed at preventing bioengineered foods from becoming the hot-button issue that has made such products so unpopular with European consumers.
The FDA said henceforth it would require pre-market reviews of bioengineered foods. The reviews used to be voluntary. The FDA also proposed voluntary labeling guidelines that seem to be modeled after those used on organic produce.
It's up to organic farmers to label their goods, since the FDA certifies the safety of crops grown with pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The same logic would hold true with biotech crops. Since the FDA has said there's no problem with splicing genes into foods, the agency believes the best label would be one along the lines of saying, "This product is not grown using biotechnology."
Although the FDA proposal amounted to an affirmation of their technology, the scientists at the UC Davis conference remained uneasy. They complained about the vandals who uproot their test crops and harass pro-biotech speakers at public debates. They decried the attacks on their scientific integrity.
But some of the the criticisms are tough to dismiss. Nature Magazine, a leading scientific journal, wondered in a recent editorial whether academic scientists haven't gotten too cozy with the biotech industry.
"Nowhere is this more so than on the West Coast of the United States," Nature wrote, adding, "One third of all the world's biotechnology companies were founded by faculty members of the University of California."
The editorial dealt with both medical and agricultural biotechnology. But Nature singled out one agricultural biotech deal for criticism. Ever since the Swiss firm Novartis made a 5-year, $25 million investment in plant research at the University of California at Berkeley, some students and faculty on the campus have protested the relationship, Nature said.
Such a deal gives academic scientists a black eye, said Michael Hansen, a scientist with Consumer's Union, who was invited to bring a critical perspective to the Davis event.
Hansen told the biotech scientists at the meeting that companies didn't used to put strings on the money they contributed for agricultural research. When they gave universities grants to do crop improvements, they left it up to the professors to decide how to handle them.
Hansen suggested that instead of helping to design bioengineered foods, university scientists should be doing ecological studies about how modern farming methods -- fertilizer and pesticide use in addition to biotechnology -- affect the sustainability of the soil.
"This is the sort of research that can only be done in a public university," Hansen said. "This will never be done by the private sector because it doesn't result in a product." But the Davis conference really wasn't a soul-searching session about where academic bioscience should be going. It was more of a strategy conference for university officials who believe they are helping feed a hungry world with crops bioengineered to grow with fewer pesticides or less water.
"That's a powerful message with consumers," said Therese St. Peters, a spokeswoman for the Council for Biotechnology Information, a national group formed by the largest companies in agricultural biotechnology.
St. Peters, a Bay Area resident, admitted that despite spending $52 million last year, her group was not very effective in making the case for bioengineered foods. "We may be a case study in how not to do a PR campaign," she said. Her advice to the university officials was to find simple ways to explain biotech foods to a public with a limited understanding of science. "The more people learn about biotechnology, the more comfortable they are," she said. "You want the mother of a 7-year-old to feel comfortable feeding Cheerios to her child in the morning."
I was invited to the event as well, to provide a media view on the genetically engineered foods debate. I apologized for the shortcomings of news professionals like me, who have a limited time to boil complex issues down to a few paragraphs that often miss the subtleties.
It was a lively group. Gene Sander, dean of agriculture at the University of Arizona, rose to ask why he should bother to spend 20 or 30 minutes explaining some intricate situation to a reporter on deadline, knowing he'll be lucky to get in two sentences that may miss the point.
That got a laugh from the room, and a shrug from me, because I understand the unfairness of the system. Consider this: Having spent four hours discussing everything from gene patents to the historic role of public universities with a room full of smart people, I snuck back to my computer to create this microscopic version of the event.
But at the risk of adding ingratitude to my long list of sins, I believe it was a flawed premise that brought the agricultural scientists to Davis. They came to discuss biotech communication. By this they meant how to get people to understand their work.
That's only natural; everybody wants to be understood. But communication implies listening as well convincing. And I didn't get the sense the biotech scientists really got the critique of their work. It was good of them to invite Hansen as resident critic. But that invitation was only a start.
There's a community of ecologists and soil scientists who oppose the current drift in agriculture, who think we're putting too much emphasis on bending nature to our will and too little effort in simply understanding it. But you rarely see these scientific camps together. Perhaps they'd only argue and call each other names.
But it seems worth trying to patch things up. Agriculture is the science that started civilization. The desire to improve agriculture was the impulse that led to the founding of our great public universities more than a century ago.
Today there is a scientific schism among academics over how we should be doing agricultural research at public universities. Last's week's meeting at UC Davis should be only a warm-up for a more ambitious meeting of the minds.
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Last Updated on 1/22/01