The Tao of Biotechnology

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Biotechnology Forum

During three months in 2001 I participated in the North Carolina Citizens’ Technology Forum on Genetically Modified Foods, under the auspices of the Center for Information Studies at North Carolina State University. We began as a group of sixteen individuals with little or no prior knowledge of the issues surrounding genetic engineering. Our task, as a panel, was to learn as much as possible about the subject, form opinions, and write a report with recommendations which would be distributed to policy-makers. We read voluminous source materials, watched a background videotape and, later in our deliberations, had the opportunity to ask questions from experts in the field of biotechnology. While I am not spokesperson for the Forum, I thought the public might be interested in knowing some of our conclusions and recommendations.

Our group believed that the public has a right to buy and eat food that is not genetically modified (GM) and that contains no genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This is interesting in light of the fact that some two thirds of the processed food in our grocery stores contains GMOs. More and more of the crops in this country are genetically modified. Many farmers don’t grow GM crops, yet find that GMOs turn up in their fields accidentally, perhaps blown by the wind. Organic farmers are finding GMOs turning up in their crops. And Mexico, which carefully guards its maize, recently found, to their consternation, that GMOs had even contaminated that crop. If the public has a right to buy non-GM food, how are we going to ensure that right? Contamination from GMOs is rampant and possibly irreversible. There was a major article in the New York Times June 10, 2001 about this very subject.

In a similar vein, we concluded that some labeling of GMOs should be done. The FDA does not presently require GMOs to be labeled. They have their reasons for not doing so (they don’t consider altered genes to be sufficiently different from unaltered genes to warrant labeling); the agricultural and food industries have their reasons for opposing labeling (I think they fear that consumers would be turned off by a label and perhaps choose products that contained no GMOs, although research has suggested that people really don’t discriminate against GMOs if they are clearly labeled as such); and some people have reasons for wanting GMOs to be labeled. For me it has much to do with caution and choice. No one knows the long-term effects of ingesting novel genes, so I’d rather be cautious for now. Besides, in this great country of ours, why shouldn’t I be able to choose non-GM food to eat if I want to, as I now do with organic food? I cannot make this choice, however, without adequate information. This is the major reason why I think labeling is necessary.

Perhaps most surprising, we thought the United States should adopt the “Precautionary Principle,” similar to the position held by the European Union. My interpretation of this principle suggests that whenever the full consequences or risks involved with genetic engineering are not known, then you refrain from releasing GMOs into the environment and introducing them into the food supply until they are known. This was the thorniest issue with which we dealt. Nine or ten of the remaining thirteen members of our group wanted to recommend it. Three or four were against it. Since this was a “consensus conference,” we couldn’t recommend it unreservedly, but you get the idea. At least two thirds of our members, who were well informed on the subject, wanted to adopt the Precautionary Principle. We even wanted to create an office in the federal government with a chief liaison officer to coordinate and oversee genetic engineering concerns.

All this should show everyone how important we considered the issue of genetic engineering to be. This was just a group of ordinary citizens who got together for a serious purpose and reached some serious conclusions. These were not positions that we arrived at lightly or hastily. What’s to be done now? Our report will undoubtedly be delivered to government agencies and the media. Will it be heeded? It’s a good first step, but in order to be truly effective more people like us need to become informed and to speak out. Noah Pickus, of the Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University said, “Policy-makers face the difficult and risky task of promoting the same technology they must regulate.” Without public involvement, the future may see more promoting than regulating.
March 2002

Here is a review of the forum, written by its organizer, Dr. Patrick Hamlett, NCSU.


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