WASHINGTON -- Friday's debate at the Institute for Science inSociety's 1993 Food Biotechnology Conference focused on theindustry's responsibility to communicate with the public -- andthe risks it runs if it doesn't.

"It is important for the industry to be as open as possible," saidkeynote speaker Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "If you lose publicconfidence, the backlash will be severe."

The most important issue is labeling, Leahy said. "Consumerswant to know what goes into the food they eat. As chairman ofthe Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, I see themail from all over the country. They want not just food safetyinformation, but methods of production and processing."

Some in the industry think the mere discussion of "social andethical ramifications could end up stifling biotechnology," saidLeahy. But attempts to suppress the debate will only lead to"hysteria and the kind of controversy that is driven more bythe egos of (those who thrive on making trouble) than by the(rational) concerns of others."

Dorothy Nelkin, a professor of sociology at New York Universitywho studies controversies over science and technology warnedthat disrespect for the public's concerns would tar the industrywith the same brush that blackened nuclear power.

"Scientists often assume that public concerns about technologyreflect fears of risk caused by lack of knowledge, irrationalityor misunderstanding," Nelkin said. Denying the legitimacy ofthe public's concerns would only raise the level of mistrust.

The ethical implications of biotechnology are perhaps the majorsource of opposition," Nelkin continued. "An unlikely coalitionof religious, environmental and animal rights groups ... rejectthe definition of animals as resources, commodities or ...'compositions of matter.' "

Small farmers see biotechnology applications as "designed foragribusiness," said Nelkin. Others fear that "the inevitablecorporate control ... will sacrifice public interests to theimperatives of private profit."

Suspicion of corporations also runs deep. The previous day,Rebecca Goldburg, staff scientist at the Environmental DefenseFund, had shown a slide of an advertisement from the 1950s inwhich a smiling young woman was surrounded by smiling farmanimals and smiling vegetables. The caption read: "DDT is goodfor me." There were allusions from the same era that nuclearpower would be clean, safe and "too cheap to meter."

Nor do people trust federal authorities to regulatebiotechnology. "Americans believe environmental groups overfederal agencies by a margin of 63 to 26 percent," said Nelkin.

"In sum, biotechnology has become a lightning rod for ... ethical,economic and political concerns," and brings out a fundamentalclash of moral values, conflicting visions of progress andcompeting world views," Nelkin said.

But Dennis Avery, director of global food issues at the HudsonInstitute, failed to understand the importance of having adialogue with industry opponents. Avery insightfully describedthe potential benefits to the environment from biotechnology.Agricultural biotechnology, he said, would preserve wildlife bysaving millions of acres from the plow by making agriculturemore land- efficient. Habitat destruction, he explained, is themost significant cause of species extinction, and conversion ofwild lands for agricultural purposes is a major culprit.

However, AveryUs contemptuous attitude could alienateenvironmentalists. His remarks angered several people at theconference. Nelkin called AveryUs comments Rsnide,S andGoldburg and Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, associate editor of theVegetarian Times, walked out of the meeting.

-- David C. Holzman Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.

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