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Biotech advances aren't getting the rational debate they deserve.
Published Feb. 6, 2008

Last month the Food and Drug Administration gave the green light to food made from cloned cows, pigs and goats, with the agency's top food safety expert, Dr. Stephen Sundlof, declaring, "It is beyond our imagination to even have a theory for why the food is unsafe." Opponents of biotechnology immediately let out a collective groan of disapproval - among them Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry's ice cream (who has called cloning "just weird"). Cloning, after all, will now join genetically modified crops as yet another threat to organic agriculture. I, too, let out a groan, but for a different reason.

It was because of the tone. "It is beyond our imagination to even find a theory..." The hubris here highlights the saddest aspect of our perennial food wars. Like abortion and capital punishment, biotechnology inspires knee-jerk rhetorical passion rather than rational debate. Sundlof's remark was the equivalent of an uppercut to the antibiotech camp, one offering an open invitation to fight back.

One need look no further than the battle over genetically modified crops starting in the 1990s to understand how this language undermines the qualified benefits of biotech innovation. Without a hint of doubt, probiotech forces insisted that genetically modified crops would end hunger and eliminate the need for pesticides. Genetic modification was supposedly a harmless panacea that would save the planet. Industry not only promoted this fiction, but it scoffed at the prospects of product labeling, insisting that it was the product, not the process, that mattered.

This arrogant attitude spurred the antibiotech forces to promote their own distortions. "Frankenfoods" became the term of choice for genetically modified crops. Chemical companies engaged in "biopiracy"; they were killers of monarch butterflies, engineers of future "superweeds," and according to Jeremy Rifkin, the prominent biotech opponent, monopolizers of an insidious technology that posed "as serious a threat to the existence of life on the planet as the bomb itself."

Lost in this rhetorical battle was a quiet middle ground where the benefits and drawbacks of genetically engineered crops were responsibly considered. What emerged from this investigation - undertaken by population experts, plant biologists, farmers, conservationists, nonprofit foundations and agricultural scientists - was cautious optimism for a new technology. These specialists recognized that such crops could reduce deforestation by increasing crop yields on less land, moderate overuse of synthetic insecticides, decrease dependence on irrigation through drought-resistant crops, and greatly reduce soil erosion through no-till farming. They also looked at the hundreds of studies finding that this technology was relatively safe.

But the middle ground also confronted the dangers that could arise through genetically modified crops. Indeed, it is possible for cross-pollination to "contaminate" wild varieties of food, decreasing biodiversity. Likewise, it is possible (if very unlikely) that animals fed modified crops could pass genes to humans that render antibiotics ineffective.

That patents of transgenic methods are controlled by a few deep-pocketed corporations is also unsettling. One need not be an antibiotech radical to have problems with a "terminator gene" that prevents crops from producing second-generation seed. Rather than dismiss these concerns (as Monsanto does) or grossly overstate them (as Greenpeace and Rifkin do), people like Per Pinstrup-Andersen, the former director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, have asked a profoundly productive question: What are the limits of modern society's precautionary principle? In other words, knowing that it is impossible to prove a negative, when should a society agree to accept a technology with proven benefits and potential dangers?

Dr. Pinstrup-Andersen, for one, decided that the benefits of modified crops outweigh the drawbacks. The public, however, was distracted by the rhetorical crossfire, which had no use for this reasoned, and necessarily imperfect, response to a complex technology.

I hope that the same situation does not play out on cloning. After all, our collective failure to grapple with genetic modification on its own terms has been accompanied by the equally unfortunate failure to bring its benefits to cultures that might gain the most from it - insect-resistant cassava or drought-tolerant maize could be a boon to subsistence farmers in Africa.

Cloning technology, too, has many possible benefits. It has the potential to produce products that are safer, healthier and tastier - bacon that has heart-protective Omega 3s, say, or milk produced by cows that are stronger and thus need fewer antibiotics. It might seem "just weird," but cloning deserves a fair hearing, one in which impassioned language yields the floor to responsible discourse.

James E. McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University at San Marcos, is the author of the forthcoming American Pests: The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT.

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