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Date: Thu, 01 Feb 2001 13:57:12
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From: Mitchel Cohen <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: Please respond to this article on biotech
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Hi folks --
I received the following piece of insanity on biotechnology from a good
listserve, Portside, which keeps around 900 members of the socialist
Committees of Correspondence informed. Most of the members of CoC are good
people struggling with new ideas. I thought you might want to comment on
this article, which basically takes the Jimmy Carter approach to biotech,
and send it to Portside, as well as to the Wall Street Journal in which
this first appeared. I hope to get around to do so myself, but it may take
me a while. (Let's see how many other things I can use my heart attack to
get out of doing!!!)

- Mitchel

Date: Wed, 31 Jan 2001 20:49:05 -0500
   From: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Common Sense on Biotechnology

Common Sense on Biotechnology

By Michael F. Jacobson(*)

My organization, the Center for Science in the Public
Interest, has waged many campaigns over the last three
decades to improve the nutritional quality and safety of
our food. From advocating nutrition labeling to
attacking olestra and sulfites, we know how to publicize
problems. Predictably, we’ve been vilified more than
once on this page [The Wall Street Journal editorial
page -- Moderator.

But the campaign we have not joined is the one aimed at
halting agricultural biotechnology and genetically
engineered foods. While biotechnology is not a panacea
for every nutritional and agricultural problem, it is a
powerful tool to increase food production, protect the
environment, improve the healthfulness of foods, and
produce valuable pharmaceuticals. It should not be
rejected cavalierly.

Too many biotech critics have resorted to alarming the
public about purported environmental and food risks. For
example, one environmental group has stated: “If deadly
toxins that kill butterflies are being introduced into
our food supply, what effect are these toxins having on
you and your family? Is it possible that these toxins
will build up over time in our systems? If so, what
effect will they have? The scary answer is that no one
really knows.” Actually, we do know: The Environmental
Protection Agency and others have concluded that the
“toxins” approved for human consumption have no adverse
effect on health.

While current biotech crops have not been shown to cause
any health problem and only minor environmental
disturbances, they have begun to yield major benefits.
Biotech cotton, for instance, has reduced insecticide
usage by more than two million pounds a year. That saves
a lot of beneficial insects (not just butterflies) and
reduces farmers’ exposure to dangerous chemicals.
Biotech cotton also has meant higher profits for

Likewise, soybeans engineered with immunity to certain
herbicides have allowed farmers to replace more-toxic
herbicides, which pollute water, with relatively benign
ones and to reduce soil erosion. And in Hawaii, biotech
papayas resistant to a devastating virus are saving that

In developing countries, biotechnology will protect
sweet potatoes from viruses, increase yields of rice,
and reduce contamination in corn from mold-produced
carcinogens. Some critics complain that biotechnology’s
promise has not yet been widely fulfilled in those
nations. That however, does not constitute a compelling
indictment of this emerging technology. Who would have
predicted the Internet from the meager beginnings of
home computers?

Of course, not all the fruits of biotechnology deserve a
place on the dinner table. Used injudiciously,
biotechnology could wreak havoc: weeds resistant to
herbicides, novel toxins or allergens in foods,
pesticide-bearing crops that kill beneficial insects,
and loss of genetic diversity. And in developing nations
it could jeopardize the livelihoods of small farmers.

James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA,
makes a telling point: “[N]ever put off doing something
useful for fear of evil that may never arrive.” Instead
of worrying about every remotely imaginable problem —
and suffering with today’s known problems caused by
conventional agriculture — we need a coherent system to
reap the benefits and avoid any problems. Regulatory
improvements are essential to building public confidence
in biotechnology — a goal that industry on its own has
been unable to attain.

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration took a
useful step forward by proposing a mandatory review
system. While mandatory approvals would bolster public
confidence more than reviews, the agency says it doesn’t
have the authority to require that. Ironically, the
biotech and processed-food industries oppose formal
approvals for FDA-regulated foods, even though they
manage fine at the EPA, which has just such a system for
plants engineered to produce pesticides.

The National Academy of Sciences and others have found
that significant gaps abound in EPA’s system. Even so,
the basic structures are there and need only to be
strengthened by the agency or, where necessary, by
Congress. But the FDA’s statutes were written long
before genetic engineering was developed and need to be

The FDA also proposed guidelines for making voluntary
label claims like “made without genetic engineering.”
That won’t satisfy critics’ demand that labels of
engineered foods declare “contains genetically
engineered ingredients,” a statement that few companies
would agree to put on their products. It would, however,
help consumers choose non-engineered foods. Later,
labels could be required for engineered foods
themselves, provided they would not significantly
increase costs or convey inferiority.

For both humanitarian and selfish reasons, the biotech
industry should join with others to support the sound
measures that would help rescue the technology from
doubt and controversy.

For starters, Congress should give the FDA a legal
mandate to review safety data on biotech foods, provide
opportunities for public comment, and explain its
decisions in the Federal Register. Also, Congress should
invest more heavily in biotechnology research and
development to bring more beneficial products and
methods into the public domain. We need to develop
better pre-approval testing methods and to conduct post-
approval monitoring of products. And, biotechnology
aside, to help farmers survive, we should encourage
organic and sustainable methods, which are
environmentally and socially sound and, unlike much
farming, often highly profitable.

Furthermore, the United States — and the biotech
industry — must provide generous assistance to the
developing world, where the need for food is greatest.
We should help scientists develop locally appropriate
products that benefit consumers, the environment, and
small farmers, as well as help governments strengthen
their oversight agencies.

Sensible reform would overcome the extremism of both
industry and its critics in a way most beneficial to the
public interest.

* Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., is the executive director
of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a
nonprofit consumer-advocacy group funded by its members
and foundations.

“This opinion piece originally appeared in the Wall
Street Journal on January 25, 2001.”