Commentary: Biotech Foods Aren't Out Of The Woods Yet

After a year's deliberation, the National Academy of Sciences on Apr. 5 released the most authoritative report so far on one of the biggest controversies of the new century--the safety of biotech foods. The academy's expert committee said it had found no evidence that gene-spliced crops are unsafe to eat. And it endorsed the central principle of the government's existing biotech regulations: that genetically engineered foods pose no special risk simply because they are produced by a new process.

The conclusions are a welcome boost to the beleaguered biotech industry. Indeed, moments after the academy's press conference, a relieved Biotechnology Industry Organization said it was "pleased this timely report reassures consumers that foods derived from plant biotechnology are thoroughly tested and safe."

BEHIND OUR BACKS. But for the industry and its supporters, the report may be too little, too late. The crowd of protesters in the streets outside the academy's offices was a reminder that the scientific issues are only one part of a broader public debate. Many critics are angry that biotech foods slipped quietly into the food supply back in '95 without public debate. Most consumers didn't find out they were eating them until the past year. So it's not surprising that they're concerned and upset.

Indeed, after years of explosive growth in the use of biotech crops, such consumer suspicions are causing farmers to cut back. In 1999, 33% of U.S. cornfields were planted with gene-altered varieties. This year, biotech strains will make up only 25% of the U.S. crop. With soybeans, biotech's share went from 57% last year to 52% in 2000. Farmers are worried that the markets for the crops will shrink.

Better communication might have prevented this backlash. While the academy report was generally favorable to government regulatory agencies, it did take note of many shortcomings in their handling of biotech foods. "Regulatory agencies should do a better job expanding public access to the process," the academy said in a statement released at the press conference. The report also criticized a 1994 Environmental Protection Agency ruling that exempts some categories of pest-resistant biotech crops from special scrutiny. It should have been making sure right along that the new crops were being adequately studied. And it should have told the public that regulators were on the job.

Communication alone won't end all the questions. Biotech's critics will take some comfort from the report's long list of scientific questions requiring further research. The list includes the need to develop methods to spot, and weed out, allergens or high levels of natural toxins that might be inadvertently introduced into food through gene-splicing.

Another set of unanswered scientific questions concerns the environmental risks of biotech crops. The report called attention to the widely publicized May, 1999, study that found that pollen from pest-fighting corn could slow the growth of monarch butterfly caterpillars and sometimes kill them. The academy committee said "rigorous field testing" should be done to determine the effects of pest-resistant plants on a whole range of insect species. And the committee said that research should be done to minimize the chance that pest- resistance genes will spread to weeds, potentially creating superweeds that could be difficult to eradicate.

The report did not say how much this research would cost or who should pay for it. But such research is the only way to put the criticism to rest. Ultimately, biotechnology offers the promise of foods with more nutrition than conventional foods as well as higher yields and lower chemical use down on the farm. The academy report is likely to lead to improvements in the U.S. regulatory system, and it will probably speed the pace of research on the unanswered scientific questions. Those changes may eventually help the biotech industry answer its critics. But until research is completed, the protests aren't going away.

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