US Government & Biotech Industry Finally Acknowledge
that the GE Food Debate is Getting Serious


U.S. turns spotlight on genetic engineering
Posted: Sunday, May 30, 1999 | 8:13 a.m.

By Bill Lambrecht
St. Louis Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- 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. .o.o.
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. .o.o. 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.
.o.o. 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.

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