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 Report from the Harvard Conference on Biotechnology Minimize

By Sharon Tisher, 1999-2000 MOFGA President

There is a touch of unreality about sitting in Orono, getting much of my information about developments in agro-biotechnology from news stories circulated on various e-mail networks. So as a reality-check, I attended an international conference on biotechnology policy hosted on September 2-3 by Harvard University. The conference was organized by Dr. Calestous Juma, a Kenyan and the former Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biodiversity, currently a Special Advisor to the newly created Harvard Center for International Development.

In response to Dr. Juma’s invitation, over 200 experts from all over the world flocked to Cambridge – scientists, academicians, and representatives of industry, national governments and international organizations, including the entire biotechnology panel of the U.N. Commission on Science and Technology, which was holding its meeting concurrently with the conference. A smattering of activist NGOs was represented, but none of the big ones, and the tenor of the conference was decidedly “mainstream.” Nonetheless, it was evident that these experts in biotech science or policy are asking many of the same questions as we are, and are just as lacking in answers.

Rather than attempt a narrative of a very intense two days, I will offer a collage of comments from both public proceedings and conversations during the conference.

“It hasn’t been a very good year if you’re a supporter of these technologies for their potential.” Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, Director, Harvard Center for International Development, noting that whereas 2000 articles in the U.S. press mentioned “genetically altered” or “genetically modified” in all of 1997, over 9000 appeared in the first eight months of 1999.

“Rarely has there ever been a global debate of such intensity on a subject on which there is so little substantive knowledge and such conjecture.” Dr. Sheldon Krimsky, Department of Urban and Environmental Policy, Tufts University.

“Hundreds of millions of people are eating GM food, and as far as I know no one has gotten sick and no one has posed a plausible theory of why they would get sick.” Dr. Peter Raven, Missouri Botanical Garden.

“The GM debate is a sideshow … Any Monarch butterfly that comes into contact with the eight to nine pesticides sprayed on a conventional corn crop will be dead as a doornail.” Id.

“Ninety-nine percent of the patents are originated in the rich countries. Monsanto’s annual R & D budget is three times that of the entire CGIAR [Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, a World Bank organization dedicated to funding research to address world hunger].” Dr. Jeffrey Sachs.

“The major problem is not that the biotech companies are ignoring the third world, but that they may be sucking the value out of the unique ecologies of the third world.” Dr. Richard Lewontin, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard, noting that the industry is developing soy that contains caffeine and rape seed that can produce palm oil. (“They’ll be able to produce palm oil in North Dakota; add the [coffee] taste to the soy, and who needs Costa Rica?”)

“It’s going to come to a head this fall. I don’t know what will happen. Maybe violent uprisings, farmers burning grain in the street.” W. Kirk Miller, Director of International Programs and Regulatory Affairs, North American Export Grain Association, commenting on diminishing markets for GM grains, and on the impossibility of guaranteeing, even with efforts of segregation, that American grain is not contaminated with GM strains.

“No one can claim any benefit of the Terminator technology to the consumer or the farmer, but the USDA put half the money in [its development].” Dr. Richard Lewontin.

“One and one-half billion people depend on farm-saved seed for food security. This [the Terminator technology] is the most important challenge to the Convention on Biodiversity. To sterilize a large section of the earth’s surface through trading in sterile seed ….” Edward Hammond, Consultant in Genetic Resources.

“The Terminator technology is not unethical. It is unethical to empower farmers with the ability to steal value added by companies.” Dr. Luther Val Giddings, Biotechnology Industry Organization.

“Those selling GM have done an appalling job of communicating with the public.” Dr. Peter Raven.

“Public research has to be somehow detached from the centers of power. How do you do that? Wave a red flag?” Dr. Richard Lewontin.

“Except in Denmark, we have no public debate of a reasoned nature on biotech research.” Prof. Lynn Mytelka, Chair, Division on Investment, Technology and Enterprise Development, UN Conference on Trade and Development.

“There is no existing scientific basis for developing specific legislation for transgenic organisms.” Dr. Michael Oborne, Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (an organization of the 30 developed nations, whose 1993 policy on biotech safety closely tracked the U.S. FDA’s 1992 policy statement).

“There are no canonical tests to evaluate crops that have been genetically modified. As opposed to the advances that have been made in chemical toxicology, each GM crop has to be examined on its own for nutrition, allergenicity, pathogenicity. Tests are being invented as products move off the assembly line.” Dr. Sheldon Krimsky.

“We actually are not quite sure of what has happened.” Dr. Julian Kinderlerer, Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, Sheffield University, U.K., on the consumer reaction to GM foods in Great Britain. Kinderlerer noted that biotech stories appeared on the front page of all major British papers one out of every three days this year.

“New drugs are only allowed on the market if tests demonstrate that they are better than existing drugs. Why not for foods? Because we don’t have anything to compare them with. We don’t test foods.” Dr. Kinderlerer.

“The House of Lords asked the USDA for details of its monitoring of the [then] 30 million [now 60 million] acres of crops being grown in the US. I’m afraid the USDA said they had not monitored the crops because they did not expect any unexpected events. That is recorded in the House of Lords. We found that astonishing.” Dr. Kinderlerer.

“The consumer has a right to know. Even if the scientist believes that a label is stupid, unnecessary, and possibly even false, the decision of the consumer that the label is necessary must be overriding.” Dr. Kinderlerer.

“Are we afraid to assert our ignorance? Are we willing to come to grips with the fact that we’re not sure how these genes are going to affect other genes down the line?” Dr. Krimsky.

[answering the preceding question] “While foods tested in Europe are believed to be safe, the view of many scientists is that we can’t predict the effect of releases into the environment. At the very least we need to monitor extremely carefully what we put out into the environment. This is very difficult to do. Effects are so small you don’t know what you’re looking for.” Dr. Kinderlerer.

“By going too far too quickly, we may kill this technology.” Dr. Helen Argalias, UN Commission on Science and Technology.

“Prince Charles never used the words ‘Frankenstein foods.’ “An unnamed employee of the Prince, responding to a characterization of the Prince’s opposition to GM foods.


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