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ANNOUNCER: Brought to you in part by ADM, feeding the world is the biggest challenge of the new century, which is why ADM is conducting research into aquiculture and other new food sources. ADM, supermarket to the world.
Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.
MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. Some Europeans call them Frankenstein foods, and some critics in America just call them Franken foods, but whatever they're called genetically modified crops, apparently safe and wholesome, at least so far, now cover one-fourth of all American crop land.
Joining Think Tank to discuss the benefits and possible risks of genetically modified foods are Margaret Mellon, director of the Agriculture and Biotechnology Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and co-author of the Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops; Morris Levin, research professor at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, and co-editor of the briefly titled volume, Engineered Organisms in Environmental Settings: Biotechnological and Agricultural Applications; and Mark Cohen of the International Food Policy Research Institute, and editor of Hunger in a Global Economy.
The topic before the house, harvesting biotech, this week on Think Tank.
MR. WATTENBERG: Genetic modification takes a gene from one species of animal or plant and inserts it into a different species, permanently changing its genetic code. In the past decade, this technology has been used to breed crops that can resist frosts, diseases, and herbicides. And some even come with their own built-in pesticides. No spraying required. In 1998, about 35 percent of America's corn crop and 45 percent of all soybeans were genetically modified. Furthermore, the biotechnology industry is promising consumers value-added foods as well by inserting additional vitamins, iron, and other nutrients into our produce. So far so good. Scientists have found no dangers associated with genetically modified foods. But some environmentalists fear potential safety risks for consumers for the possibility of upsetting a delicately balanced ecosystem.
In the past year, public outcry abroad has led the European Union to refuse some of America's genetically modified food stuffs. It will be a major issue on the table as the world trade organization opens its next round of talks in Seattle. Do existing benefits outweigh potential harm? Is there potential harm? Is European skepticism warranted?
To answer these and other questions, we turn now to our expert panel. Lady, gentlemen, thank you for joining us at Think Tank. Morrie, can you give us sort of the two paragraph layman's short course on what we're talking about?
MR. LEVIN: I certainly can try. I think you said it correctly. Biotechnology takes a gene from one species and puts it into another species, permanently changing the second species genome. It's inheritable characteristics. And those characteristics, those genes that are transferred, are ones that people feel will benefit the consumer. I think, of course, you have to think --
MR. WATTENBERG: And the producer, I mean, of course.
MR. LEVIN: That's part of the complication. The consumer is the farmer. The companies are dealing with it with the farmers, the farmers are dealing with the people who eat the food. So there's two different types of consumers. So, the first level, if you will, is company-to-farmer. And what's happening is, improvements in needs for fertilization, ability to resist insects, things that will give the farmer a higher yield, more bang for the buck, that's really what's going on right now. And the second part of what -- and you said it also, is additional nutritive characteristics, and a perhaps even better flavor, that's really far in the future. But that will benefit the general consumer, the person who eats the foods.
MR. WATTENBERG: Margaret, did he say anything wrong?
MS. MELLON: I just want to emphasize that it is a wholly artificial technology that takes genes from one organism and puts it into another. Because it is wholly artificial, these gene transfers are not bound or constrained by any natural boundaries. So, you can take a gene from any organism, from a cow, and move it into the genome of any other, a starfish, a corn plant, an oak tree. So, to that extent, it's a very powerful technology, but it is a new one. It puts us in new territory scientifically. It is a technology that is wholly unlike the gene transfer technologies we've relied on for eons -- i.e., traditional breeding, selective breeding of organisms to improve them for agriculture. The other point I'd like to --
MR. LEVIN: They're both the same thing, though. It enhances resistence to disease, that's been done commercially by commercial breeding. It enhances the ability to grow in different places. It really does the same thing.
MS. MELLON: It attempts in some instances to do the same thing. In others, it does things that you can't do at all using traditional breeding. I also have some comments about the notion of there being benefits. This is a technology that has been hyped from the day one. It was going to provide miraculous benefits, both to farmers and consumers. Sixteen or 17 years into the technology, I think it's proven to be much more difficult to do genetic engineering, much more costly than people expected, and in general what people have been able to accomplish with the technology has really been not very much.
MR. WATTENBERG: But, I mean, 16 or 17 years after the discovery of the commercial application of electricity, there wasn't a whole lot to see either, but 50 years later, and 100 years later, the world was turned upside down, mostly beneficially I think. I mean, is that -- just by saying, well, it's taken 16 or 17 years, does that prove much?
MS. MELLON: It may not prove much, but I think it does -- I think it's important to get the tone of this debate right. And it is, at least in my experience, biotechnology, at least to date, always promises far more than it delivers.
MR. LEVIN: You're correct in a sense. I mean, clearly, there are more things to come from biotechnology than have been delivered. But part of the reason that people are hyping it is because of industrial and commercial and financial concerns of the companies that are trying to raise money for their own benefits. There's no -- I won't argue with that at all. But, you really can't say that biotechnology hasn't produced things of benefit. If we look into the pharmaceutical world, thousands of medicinal products --
MS. MELLON: We're talking about agriculture here.
MR. WATTENBERG: Let's talk about agriculture.
MR. LEVIN: Even in agriculture there is a lot of debate, but many people will -- most people will agree that the amount of pesticide utilization where the pesticide resistence crops are being used is decreasing or has decreased, yield in many cases has been shown to increase. There are lots of graphs I could have brought with me showing you --
MS. MELLON: Well, under the recently approved budget, the U.S. taxpayers are paying $8 billion, largely because we produce too much commodity crops for the world market. There is an excess of supply in the world market, because farmers cannot get the prices that they need to cover their costs of production. As taxpayers, we're paying $8 billion in subsidies. So, we need to ask -- and that is an illustration of a number of things. One is whether we really need new production technologies in the United States at all. If we're paying through the nose because, in fact, we're already overproducing, but the other is how complicated the agricultural economy really is. And that there really are not direct relationships between reduced cost for farmers and consumer prices.
MR. LEVIN: But that's a whole different subject.
MR. COHEN: That's a red herring.
MR. LEVIN: Yes, we're paying a subsidy. Maybe the answer to the subsidy is to close off some farms and not grow. There's a whole other answer, nothing to do with biotechnology.
MS. MELLON: Well, I just want to --
MR. LEVIN: The biotechnology says, if a farmer buys Monsanto seeds with Round-Up built in, and then uses Round-up, he will produce more of whatever that seed grows for less money. He will make more money.
MS. MELLON: And sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't because Monsanto actually charges a technology fee which tries to capture whatever savings the farmer has.
MR. LEVIN: Of course, but the farmer is not a dummy, he's not going to do it if it does not make any money.
MS. MELLON: But some farmers will do it just for increased flexibility in operations.
MR. LEVIN: Sum game.
MS. MELLON: But the numbers are not there to prove increased profits at farm level.
MR. WATTENBERG: Hold up. Time out, time out. What are the potential dangers?
MS. MELLON: There are health risks associated with the consumption of the food, and there are environmental risks.
MR. WATTENBERG: Give us the one paragraph bite on each one.
MS. MELLON: Okay. And the health risks that we worry the most about right now is the allergenicity risk.
MR. WATTENBERG: As in allergy, allergenicity.
MS. MELLON: Allergenicity, that is moving new allergens into the food supply that haven't been there in the past, and most importantly moving allergens into foods that people don't know to avoid. The problem is the following, if you're allergic to shellfish, you know to avoid shellfish, you know to avoid shrimp. If a genetic engineer takes a gene for a protein from shrimp and moves it into a tomato, you don't know to avoid the tomato, and yet the science is quite clear that an allergen that causes a problem to you in shrimp will also cause a problem to you once it's moved into a tomato.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Item two is the environment generally?
MS. MELLON: Yes. There are environmental risks. The Round-Up Ready soybean is a good example. That's tolerant to a commonly used herbicide. If you move that into a crop and that herbicide tolerant trait moves into a weedy relative of that crop, you've just created a weed that resists commonly used herbicides. In Canada, they are creating Canola resistant to the three most popular broad-spectrum herbicides. That means they're creating -- if that's not a super weed, I mean, I'm not sure what would be.
MR. WATTENBERG: Morrie, a lot of perhaps in there.
MR. LEVIN: A lot of perhaps in there.
MS. MELLON: A lot of perhaps.
MR. LEVIN: A lot of perhaps. And, I think --
MR. WATTENBERG: How do you deal with -- just, again, because I want to get into this policy matter, but just give us the science.
MR. LEVIN: Starting in the beginning with allergy, the allergy issue is very real, of course. You could create new tomatoes to which people are allergic. The FDA has a program that will keep those tomatoes either off the market or labeled. That's very straight forward.
Now, in terms of ecological questions, super weeds have been created from commercial breeding. We have many super weeds now.
MR. WATTENBERG: You mean pre-biotech.
MR. WATTENBERG: You mean pre-biotech, that weeds have been created. This is not anything new and different or unique to biotech. This has been going on since time immemorial.
MS. MELLON: Single weeds that are resistant to the three broad-spectrum herbicides, I don't think there are equivalents for that.
MR. LEVIN: Single weeds that are resistant to different herbicides.
MS. MELLON: Well, we'll see.
MR. LEVIN: Johnson's grass in the West, for instance, now is a problem in farmland because it has acquired genes from corn that grew near it.
MS. MELLON: Sorghum, not from corn.
MR. WATTENBERG: Hold on for one minute. Let me just show you an insert. Earlier this year, we talked to Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, and this is what he had to say about exporting genetically modified foods to Europe.
SECRETARY GLICKMAN (From video): I grant they have a different culture over there, and they call these Frankenstein foods, and they think, I don't know what they think they'll do to you, but the fact of the matter is, is that as long as we make sure that good, objective, sound sciences prevails in these judgments, then we've got to let the chips fall where they may.
MR. WATTENBERG: Mark, your turn. Give us the quick breakdown on what the trade and commercial aspects of this scientific situation have led to?
MR. COHEN: Well, I think there's a couple of factors. First of all, the World Trade Organization agreement has provisions relating to what they call sanitary and phyto-sanitary standards. That is to say, phyto-sanitary plant health.
MR. WATTENBERG: How do you spell phyto?
MR. COHEN: P-h-y-t-o, not like the dog. But the point is, you can impose these standards under the rules of the World Trade Organization on the basis of what they call sound science, and they have to be applied across the board. You can't say, well, we don't think stuff from the United States is healthy, or we don't think stuff from developing countries is healthy. It has to be based on a set of standards that are uniform.
So, there's a disagreement between the United States and Europe as to whether this is being applied in the case of genetically modified foods. That's one area. Another important area in world trade is the provision on intellectual property rights. All members of the World Trade Organization are supposed to have intellectual property rights laws in place according to a time table that's been established. And this says that particular processes, as well as products can be subjected to patents and that includes plants, processes for arriving at plant materials, and so it means that if developing countries want access, and this doesn't just apply to biotech again, it applies to all science and technology relating to food potentially, they may have to pay licensing fees, or they may not have access.
MR. WATTENBERG: I know you're particularly concerned with the developing world. I gather the European situation is sort of -- well, Frankenstein foods sums it all up. I mean, there's some kind of a Dutch tulip disease going around that people are going into some kind of a mania, near as I can determine.
Hold on, Margaret.
But, sketch in for us your concerns about as this thing plays out what it is going to do to the developing world, the poor people?
MR. COHEN: Well, from our point of view the big problem --
MR. WATTENBERG: Our point meaning your institute?
MR. COHEN: Yes, the International Food Policy Research Institute, we're mostly concerned about developing countries. And I think there are some other aspects of biotechnology that differ from conventional crop breeding, that are important for developing countries. Most of the so-called green revolution breakthroughs in agriculture were developed in the public sector by international agricultural research centers, national institutions in both the developed and the developing countries. So there was a public sector/government role. The research in biotech has been very much a --
MR. WATTENBERG: And the Rockefeller Institute.
MR. COHEN: Absolutely, the foundation world was --
MR. WATTENBERG: Working in the Philippines with the miracle --
MR. COHEN: Precisely, the difference here is this is private sector research and in many cases it's proprietary research, which means then the companies that have done the research want to recoup the costs. Therefore, they focus on precisely the United States, other developed countries and large scale farms in better off developing countries, like Argentina, as opposed to developing, let's say, drought tolerant crops for West Africa.
MS. MELLON: Our trade policies do more to disadvantage, you know, farmers in very poor countries than anything we could offer them in terms of trickle down technology. You know, we flood the world with cheap commodity crops, that we subsidize, as I said, to the tune of billions of dollars. That does not help the world's poor farmers. In fact, what it does is depress --
MR. WATTENBERG: But, it helps the world's poor eaters.
MS. MELLON: It helps some of the world's poor --
MR. COHEN: Not necessarily, because the poor eaters may be farmers. So if they lose their livelihood then they're not eating. I mean, even if the food is cheap if they have no income they can't get it. And so I think it's important to focus on developing agriculture in the developing world. The poor people primarily living in rural areas, they're going to earn their income from agriculture. And this is where we see --
MR. WATTENBERG: Again, the whole flow of modernism is farm to city. I mean, that's happening because of all the things we're talking about. And it's going to continue to happen.
MR. COHEN: That's true and that's happening, but the poverty is staying rural. In Latin America, which is 70 percent rural, poverty is still --
MR. WATTENBERG: But, when you move people out of rural into urban you diminish the poverty rate.
MR. COHEN: Well, or the poverty moves to the cities. I mean, that happens, too.
MR. WATTENBERG: Now, I want to ask Morrie a question. In an earlier incarnation you were with the Environmental Protection Agency?
MR. LEVIN: I worked for them for 30 years.
MR. WATTENBERG: Thirty years, so you are not some gung-ho, free market, Adam Smith marketeer?
MR. LEVIN: Definitely not, I was a worry wart for the environment.
MR. WATTENBERG: That's my chair. Now, how do you view this environmental and market system blend, as we're talking about it? And I'm looking to you for some credibility in terms of a person who has a background in sort of many aspects of this field, and you're the last thing from a corporate spokesman.
MR. LEVIN: I think there is definitely a regulatory system in place. By the way, I'm also on a panel now looking at the regulatory system, The National Academy Panel. There is a regulatory system in place in the U.S. There are three agencies involved and we all know them, Agriculture, EPA and Food and Drug. And they look at the ecological and the human health problems related to food and crops and agriculture and all sorts of things. And the systems that they use were developed over the years with commercial breeding in mind. And the decision by eminent scientists, and I happen to agree, is that there is no difference in kind between commercial breeding and biotechnology. I cannot agree with you that it's completely different, because it really isn't. You produce the same product, you produce crops --
MR. WATTENBERG: You are saying that crossbreeding and -- I mean, Mendel did it, and lots of other people did it over the years, creating hybrids and all that, same deal except better equipment?
MR. LEVIN: We're better equipped, and furthermore, and this gets into the issue of labeling, which is also very major.
MR. WATTENBERG: Are you in favor of labeling?
MR. LEVIN: I'm in favor of labeling if you can figure out what it is you're trying to label.
MR. WATTENBERG: Are you in favor of labeling?
MR. COHEN: Even I'm in favor of labeling.
MR. LEVIN: But, how do you figure out what you're trying to label, that's the question. You see, you talk about natural. In Europe they produce beer with yeast, which we do too. The yeast that they use in Europe has been irradiated by gamma irradiation, peculiar varieties of those yeast are used because they've been irradiated to produce the beer. Is that natural? Should that be labeled engineered? Is that any different from taking a gene from a yeast and moving it into another yeast, or taking a gene from some place and moving it in? It's not any different.
MS. MELLON: No, irradiation is also a process that consumers care about, and where food has been irradiated that food ought to be labeled. That is a direct analogy to where food has been produced by genetic engineering.
MR. WATTENBERG: But, are you against irradiation? Let's just say we label it. Are you against irradiation?
MR. LEVIN: It's not natural, it's exactly what you said?
MS. MELLON: My organization has no position on it, although we do believe it should be --
MR. WATTENBERG: I'm asking you not your organization. Are you against irradiation, which as I understand it prevents things like salmonella and other bacteria from being transmitted through the food chain.
MS. MELLON: I don't think that's the reason it's being introduced, but I'm certainly not across the board against it.
MR. WATTENBERG: You had one thing to say, and then we've got to --
MR. COHEN: I want to come back to the health and safety issues, because we do have a regulatory system in this country. They're in their infancy or non-existent in many developing countries. And if the potential of biotechnology is going to be explored in those countries there have to be the development of the same kinds of health and safety before the introduction.
MR. WATTENBERG: By those countries?
MR. COHEN: Yes, with help from the developed countries and eight agencies, technical and financial assistants.
MR. LEVIN: And UNEP funds us amongst others.
MR. WATTENBERG: UNEP, United Nations --
MR. LEVIN: UNEP at the United Nations, they fund us to go to different countries and teach risk assessment, how you do it, give them the benefit of our experience.
MR. WATTENBERG: But, they remain sovereign decisions of the nations in themselves.
Let me just ask this question, brief answer, please. It's almost the year 2000. Let's fast forward to the year 2010, 10 years from now. Briefly, where are we going to be in this process?
MR. LEVIN: I think Margaret's questions are going to be answered, there are definite benefits to biotechnology, and I do believe, really, that agriculture will benefit. The farmer will be making more money, and ultimately the second level consumer will have a better product and it will be cheaper.
MR. COHEN: I would hope that we would have greater attention to poverty in the world, and to look at how biotechnology and conventional technologies might be used to reduce poverty.
MR. WATTENBERG: You think that's going to happen?
MR. COHEN: Well, I hope there is enough enlightened leadership in the world that it does.
MS. MELLON: I think the technology will -- it's rate of acceptance will be much slower than it is right now. I think that the developing world will step back and really look at whether it presents consumer benefits, and whether people want to take risks for those benefits. In large part I think people will pass up the technology, perhaps, at least as one that needs to pervade out entire food system and about which people don't have much choice.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Thank you very much, Margaret Mellon, Morris Levin, and Marc Cohen, and thank you.
We encourage feedback from our viewers via email. It's very important to us. For Think Tank, I'm Ben Wattenberg.
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Brought to you in part by ADM, feeding the world is the biggest challenge of the new century, which is why ADM is conducting research into aquiculture and other new food sources. ADM, supermarket to the world.
Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.
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