Opinion: Biotech - Keep it, but regulate it

By Gregory Jaffe -- Special To The Bee

Published Friday, June 25, 2004

WASHINGTON - Lately stories about GE, or genetic engineering, have bombarded Californians. The biotechnology industry held its annual meeting in San Francisco as protesters outside denounced GE as worthless and harmful. The Sacramento Bee ran a series, "Seeds of Doubt," setting forth the benefits, risks and issues surrounding biotechnology, and news reports have appeared on Ventria Bioscience's application to plant pharmaceutical-producing rice in California. There is plenty of reason the state's residents should get involved in the debate and take a few simple, effective actions to obtain biotechnology's benefits and avoid its risks.

* Keep an open mind and support safe and beneficial products.

GE is not a panacea for agriculture's problems, but it is also not inherently risky. As with most technologies, some applications are safe and beneficial while others may pose harmful risks.

In the past few years, farmers in the United States and other countries have planted record acreage of engineered cotton, soybeans and corn, crops found safe to eat by scientists and governments worldwide. Cotton implanted with a pesticide-producing gene has enabled the reduction of insecticide use and increased income. Soybeans engineered to resist an herbicide have increased environmentally friendly agricultural practices and freed farmers time to pursue non-ag income.

Although relatively little in the way of cotton, soybeans and corn is grown in California, those applications should be supported for their benefits. Without public support for current, safe crops, future applications that could benefit the state (such as drought-tolerant tomatoes or more nutritious vegetables) might never materialize.

* Urge the federal government to open up its regulatory process.

When Ventria Bioscience sought permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to plant biotech rice, a unique California law required the state to separately approve or deny the planting after disclosing the application's details and seeking public opinion. This appears to be the only such law in the country. So if a scientist or a company wishes to plant engineered grapes or tomatoes in California (or any other state), no similar state or federal process exists. USDA's regulatory process does not disclose a GE-crop permit application's details or provide for public comments on proposed plantings. The public does not know where the plants will be grown, what conditions will be imposed to safeguard the environment or even why the plant has been engineered.

Californians have seen firsthand how the state's transparent and public regulatory process for GE rice provides essential information to consumers and allows public input that helps ensure safety. The state should urge the federal government to set up similar procedures for all engineered crops planted in the United States.

* Help the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate biotech foods better.

Consumers are concerned most about whether GE crops and animals are safe to eat. While other countries require government approval for GE crops, the FDA has only a weak, voluntary consultation process. Here, the public must rely on a seed company's determination of safety. For animals, such as salmon engineered to grow extra fast, it is unclear whether the FDA would assess the risks and approve them before they are commercialized.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, has attempted to rectify these major regulatory gaps listed above with legislation that would assign the FDA to regulate safety for consumers of biotech crops and animals.

The industry itself should support the bill, which would not only protect consumers, but also shore up public confidence in biotechnology. Advocating for strengthened federal regulations for GE products and supporting safe plants and animals would not end the debate, but it would help prevent harm and allow future benefits to be realized.

About the Writer Gregory Jaffe is director of the Biotechnology Project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. He can be reached at gjaffe@cspinet.org. Web site: www.cspinet.org.