Galileo, if he is looking down from the heavens as he once gazed up at them, must find the current public discussion of the emerging science of biotechnology, uncomfortably familiar. Myth, rather than scientific fact, has come to predominate the debate.
The European press refers to genetically engineered grains as "Frankenstein food" and respected research scientists are accused of "playing God."
The frontiers of science can be rancorous and inhospitable territory, especially where traditionally held views are challenged. Galileo was reviled by his 17th Century contemporaries for his writings on the solar system.
Today we recognize his work as one of the greatest achievements of science, but he so shook contemporary thinking that he was jailed, threatened with torture and forced to retract the truth of his findings.
His crime was that he had challenged the popular but mistaken belief that the Earth was the center of the Universe, a myth firmly ingrained in the societal values and institutions of his times. Eventually and inevitably, Galileo's science triumphed over myth because it offered incalculable benefit to society. Broad public acceptance of new technology occurs when there is public understanding of, and an eagerness for, the advantages it offers.
I recently held two days of hearings of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry to begin sorting the facts about biotechnology from the myths.
The testimony that the committee received suggests, in sharp contrast to what has been written in the popular press in Europe, that biotechnology holds, in its logic and ingenuity, enormous potential to improve the human condition.
Some of the country's leading scientists and the three federal agencies charged with oversight of biotechnology spoke of the tremendous potential benefits that could result from genetic engineering of crops. They detailed the approval and regulatory oversight processes which evaluate new products in terms of food and environmental safety. They spoke of the hope that biotechnology offers to developing nations of the world.
For example, Dr. Ralph Hardy, who is president of the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council, a consortium of leading agricultural research universities, spoke of research directed at eliminating the allergenic property of foods like peanuts and milk.
Dr. Bob Buchanan of the University of California at Berkeley believes that the research he has been conducting could, in the not too distant future, result in non-allergenic forms of wheat. This could unburden millions of persons who currently cannot eat these common foods because of allergenic reactions.
Dr. Dean Della Penna of the University of Nevada-Reno is doing ground-breaking research on using bioengineering techniques to enhance basic foodstuffs with vitamins. His research could contribute to improving health and to addressing the very serious vitamin deficiency problems both here and abroad.
Increased vitamin E in vegetable oil could potentially reduce the risk of heart disease or the risk of certain cancers by significant amounts. Increased vitamin A in basic foods like rice, corn and casava could help address serious diet deficiencies in the Third World that result annually in 500,00 children going irreparably blind.
Witnesses also spoke of environmental benefits. Dr. Roger Beachy of the Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri, told how insect-resistant potatoes, cotton and corn are removing millions of pounds of chemical insecticides from the environment.
Dr. Ray Bressan of Purdue University discussed his research on making crops more drought resistant, which would help to prevent human incursion on to marginal and environmentally-sensitive lands. Vagaries in climate, such as drought, account for 70 percent of all crop loss.
Reducing these losses would stabilize farm production on the most productive lands. We also heard testimony from Dr. John Ohlrogge of Michigan State University about genetic improvements that would permit farmers to grow crops for their pharmaceutical or energy use, improvements that would offer farmers new markets and potentially higher incomes.
That message particularly resonated during this time when grain prices are very low and farm families need new markets and new opportunities.
I was also impressed by the testimony of the federal agencies - the Food & Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Agriculture - which detailed a rigorous and thoughtful regulatory structure that has been in place and evolving over the past thirteen years.
A few days after our hearings, a full-page ad appeared in the New York Times decrying this new technology. The ad was signed by approximately two dozen activist groups. Nothing that I had heard from a wide array of scientists during the committee hearings justified the totally negative slant taken in the ad.
I only wish that there had been greater media coverage of our hearings because the public deserves to hear both sides and to understand the promise of biotechnology. The hallmark of a progressive society is the ability to engage in an informed, logical and balanced discussion.
It has been written that the greatest enemy of the truth is not the intentional falsehood, but rather the pervasive and enduring myth.
Myth has, heretofore, characterized the European debate over biotechnology and we must take great care that it does not prevent a truly informed discussion here. Even in Europe, however, there may be hope.
After more than a year in which the British press has made biotechnology its favorite whipping boy, a story in The Times of London on October 23rd reported many of the potential benefits discussed above and included this statement: "The issues surrounding genetically modified food have caused such a stir that they seem to have clouded ways in which this controversial technology can actually improve our lot."
Lugar, R-Ind.,is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and has 604 acre corn, soybean and tree farm in Marion County.
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Last Updated on 10/28/99
By Karen Lutz