CHICAGO - Entering to a standing ovation from a packed ballroom at the McCormick Place convention center at BIO 2006, former President Bill Clinton expounded on the role biotechnology must play in the coming decades in the areas of agriculture, health care and energy.
Following a brief introduction from BIO President Jim Greenwood, Clinton took the stage Tuesday to express his support for biotech research and development, and to challenge the industry to continue working on ways to help developing countries and boost global interaction while strengthening the American economy.
"I did everything I could as president to help support biotechnology," said Clinton, including the support of genetically enhanced crops.
He also took a few jabs at the current conservative administration, stating that the country should be governed by science and education, and not by "muzzling findings" of science and education.
"We have to take the facts as we find them," he said, "and keep trying to move America forward."
Biotech advances in food and agriculture are in the spotlight at this year's conference, which for the first time takes place in a Midwest state. To highlight this aspect of the industry, several farmers from developing countries were on hand to talk about how genetically enhanced farming has improved crop growth and added to their quality of life.
"There's nothing inconsistent about supporting organic farming and genetically" enhanced crops, Clinton said, adding that he had a chance to meet with those farmers while stopping by the conference. "We need more people to be able to grow their own food."
Advances in agriculture likely also will be needed as the world becomes more affected by global warming, which is progressing more rapidly than ever. Those climate changes, as well as the erosion of topsoil, could make farming in the future much more difficult, he said.
Clinton added that work on the agricultural side might also help to address America's most serious health problem, the "explosion of the obesity rate among children," which has led to an "explosion of the onset of Type II diabetes among children."
While a lack of exercise and too-large portions primarily are to blame, the changing composition of food has contributed to the obesity epidemic. As an example, the use of fructose, a sweetener that is made cheaply from corn, "metabolizes differently from beet or cane sugar," he said.
The task for biotech is to figure out a way to "get the [cost] benefit [of fructose] for farmers, while fixing the metabolic problems."
But, even as the U.S. suffers from its food consumption, developing countries are facing threats from infectious diseases such as AIDS, as well as diseases like tuberculosis and malaria, which were eliminated in the developed world years ago. Biotech also has a responsibility against the "threat of the spread of infectious diseases," Clinton said, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which was reported in China and Canada in 2002 and 2003. But after governments and scientists began getting information out, the virus was contained and no outbreaks have been seen since June 2003.
While agriculture and disease are ongoing areas of focus for the industry, Clinton said the most pressing concern should be how to "move to a biofuel future."
With the U.S. spending about 70 percent of its oil consumption on transportation, it's obvious that work needs to be done to find alternative fuels, as well as finding clean energy sources to reduce the impact on the environment.
Work in that area would have another benefit for the U.S. "This move will also reverse the declining wages, and ultimately provide sources of new jobs," Clinton said, much the same way that the advent of information technology in the early 1990s spurred a whole new industry.
This decade should focus on finding clean energy sources, he said.