Biotechnology: Issues, Ethics, and Regulations

Tina M. Prow

The public appears to lag behind in its understanding of technology in agriculture, and that concerns those who consider biotechnology to be a tool that could help solve problems ranging from environmental contamination to world hunger.

Issues

"In many ways, the public is still operating with the mentality of the 1970s," said George Kieffer, associate professor at the University of Illinois School of Life Sciences. "They're thinking in terms of creating monster organisms. But we've gotten experience on what can and cannot be done with biotechnology now; and, while those concerns are not to be dismissed as completely irrelevant, they are not the issues of the 1990s."

Public understanding of biotechnology as a science and technology is important because the products of biotechnology - and consequent benefits and risks - are going to affect everyone, Kieffer said.

"Some suggest a third agricultural revolution, in which we won't even grow plants - just cells in tissue culture rather than stems, roots, and leaves," Kieffer said. "That raises a social question about the effect on Third World economies that depend on agriculture."

The agricultural revolution is an extreme example, but represents how society must be involved in determining directions for biotechnology. "What are societal needs? What are the benefits? At what price? These are the kinds of questions we need to think about in the 1990s," he said.

Such questions may account for failure of the genetically engineered bovine somatotropin hormone to gain public acceptance, Kieffer said. It increased efficiency of milk production without improving milk's nutritional value. For consumers, he reasoned, the benefit did not offset their perceived risk from hormones on human health. After losing tomatoes to wilt yet again last year, however, he would find genetically engineered, wilt-resistant tomato plants acceptable.

"We have to ask what we are to gain from this - because there's no such thing as a completely benign engineered organism," Kieffer said.

Part of Kieffer's work is focused on making sure the next generation can understand biotechnology well enough to think through those questions. He helped develop a traveling kit for grades 7 through 12 and conducts workshops for teachers. The goal is to incorporate biotechnology topics into coursework.

Ethics

Scientists, too, are increasingly aware of their responsibility to help the public appreciate the role of science and technology in society, according to Robert Goodman. A former University of Illinois plant pathology professor, Goodman recently resigned from Calgene, Inc., a plant biotechnology company in California, to return to academia, as a professor at the University of Wisconsin­Madison.

Although it takes time and energy, scientists must talk about their work whenever they have an opportunity, Goodman said. He has spoken before legislators, explained proposed field research to communities, presented workshops, appeared on television programs, and been both author and subject of newspaper and magazine articles. He serves on the National Academy of Sciences Research Council's Board on Agriculture, which brings together panels of scientists to counsel government on science policy.

"For too long, we've had a very insular attitude in agriculture, and I think that's how we've come up with a public that has been deluded into thinking that our food supply is somehow pure and pastoral and basically free of technology, when in fact, it is very, very technology intensive," he said.

According to Goodman, biotechnology holds great promise as a tool to preserve and enhance environmental quality on and off farms. And years of plant breeding show that genetics is the most cost-effective, environmentally safe way to address problems that reduce yields.

But without public understanding, acceptance, and support, the role that biotechnology could play in solving environmental and food production problems could be stymied, he said.

"We've got a problem now with a society that doesn't completely understand agriculture; is deeply suspicious of biotechnology; and sees the same companies that sell what they consider nasty ag chemicals investing in biotechnology, or somehow controlling it," Goodman said. "At some level, that suspicious, cynical environment is actually reducing the interest of the public in investing tax dollars in research."

Annually, the public invests $110 million in agricultural biotechnology through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). At just 10 percent of the total USDA research budget, that is not enough, according to Alvin Young, director of the USDA Office of Agricultural Biotechnology, Washington, D.C.

Regulation

Young said most university scientists conducting biotechnology research receive federal money. And all scientists deal with the government before research moves from the laboratory to the field. At that stage, they go before regulatory agencies to prove their research is safe.

"We probably, for this new technology, have put more effort into putting in place a regulatory oversight mechanism than we have for any technology in the past," he said.

Young said there is no evidence that biotechnology poses additional risk, but there are uncertainties that concern the public. He pointed to public attitude as a reason for a regulatory system that critics say stifles research. But while biotechnology companies are asking for a more streamlined regulatory system, they are proceeding with field tests. Universities, however, had few of the permits for field testing that were issued in 1989.

The regulatory program may account for some of the lag in field testing, but it is just as likely due to a "funding crisis" in research, Young said. The research community may soon feel even more of a pinch as fewer students choose to become scientists, in part because of funding problems. The end result may be a significant slowdown in what he described as the biotechnology "pipeline."

"You're constantly putting in new ideas coming out of research; those new ideas work their way through; they're evaluated; they turn into products," Young said. He suggested that plant- related biotechnology research is progressing rapidly, and some potential products are in the pipeline. Animal- related biotechnology research, however, has proved to be more complex than scientists anticipated, both in terms of genetics and social issues.

"Most people haven't worried much about transferring genes from one plant to another or transferring a gene from a microorganism into a plant; most people don't care. But when you talk about transferring human genes into fish, for example, some people begin to picture mermaids," Young said.

For scientists, however, the process is one of taking a gene, examining it, and building its synthetic model. Where the public sees human genes and fish genes, scientists see a "commonality" in life that holds potential for such uses as curing or preventing diseases.

"Critics can spend much effort and resources on misinformation, and never be held accountable," Young said. "Public perception is something we have to deal with better. We must try to involve the public in our decision making and public hearings and invite them to see the kind of research we're doing."

That will happen more often this decade as research is completed for several promising products - disease-, insect-, or herbicide-resistant plants; leaner meats; and more nutritious crops - in the pipeline, he predicted, saying that consumer education will be a critical part of successful commercialization.

With an educated, 1990s viewpoint, then, consumers may see a genetically engineered, wilt-resistant tomato plant as Kieffer does - not as the coming of the killer tomatoes, but as opportunity to grow juicy, flavorful tomatoes.

Tina M. Prow, communications specialist, Office of Agricultural Communications and Education


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