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Is There a Future for Genetically Engineered Food?

Discussant: Charlie Rose, executive producer and host, "The Charlie Rose Show"
Speakers: Gordon Conway, President, Rockefeller Foundation, Margaret Mellon, director of agriculture and biotechnology, Union of Concerned Scientists, and L. Val Giddings, vice president, Biotechnology Industry Organization
June 28, 2000
Council on Foreign Relations


Charlie Rose: Let me welcome you to the Council. My name is Charlie Rose and we are here for what I hope will be and what I’m sure will be an interesting conversation, debate, perspective, understanding on genetically modified foods. Having just returned from Europe, I can tell you the controversy is ripe. I should say to you first of all before we start, this is on the record, as opposed to off the record here at the Council. Secondly, please turn off any cell phones that might be on now. So just make note of doing that so you won’t be getting calls while you’re here. Secondly, we’ll be having a conversation for about thirty minutes, and then we’ll give you an opportunity to engage in the conversation. And I will recognize you, and remember to state your name and affiliation, and secondly make the question as short, precise, and directed as you possibly can and we will have a go at it, and I look forward to your participation. I wrote a few things here that you already know, so there’s nothing that I can tell you, I think, about this issue going on that you won’t know in a short time. I mean, it has been controversial, and has been divisive around the world. Sometimes it looks like it’s the United States versus Asia and Europe. We have been a pioneer here in bioengineering technology, and it’s allowed farmers to grow crops that are resistant to insects and herbicides. It has been reported that more than a third to a half of our nations biggest crops, corn and soy beans, are genetically engineered. In Europe, and much of the rest of the world, as I’ve said, governments and consumers question, one, the safety of the products, and they caution against the impact and effect of the ecosystem. We’ll talk about the implications in terms of science, in terms of trade, in terms of industry, and in terms of health. Just to have a specific question to address, we’ll raise this question: Is there a future for genetically engineered food?

Joining me to talk about that, we’ve come at this from different kinds of affiliations and different perspectives and experiences. To my right is Margaret Mellon, director of agriculture and biotechnology for the Union of Concerned Scientists. I suspect I don’t have to tell you where she comes down on some of the questions having to do with this issue. Next to her is Gordon Conway, President of the Rockefeller Foundation. The Rockefeller Foundation, as many of you know, has had long experience and long involvement in the question of agriculture around the world. And there’s also Val Giddings, Vice President of the Biotechnology industry Organization. It is a trade group that represents more than nine hundred biotech companies and institutions. I should also tell you that this meeting is made possible through the generosity of A.T. Kearny, an active member of the Council’s Corporate Program. And we want to thank Bob Burn for his ongoing support. Finally, I want to tell you that we plan to be out of here by 7:15. We’ve started a few minutes late, but no later than 7:20, but we want to end this by 7:15, so I will try to divide this sort oh half way in terms of our conversation us here, and giving all of you a chance to participate.

Let me start and ask Gordon to define genetically engineered goods for us.

Gordon Conway (Rockefeller Foundation): There’s a field of techniques called crop biotechnology, which includes three major techniques. One is tissue culture, one is mark rated selection, both of which are incredibly important, the third is genetic engineering whereby either using a bacterium or by using some micro engineering you deliberately transfer one gene from one organism into another. Usually from one plant to another, but it could be from one bacterium to a plant.

Mr. Rose: How long has it been going on?

Mr. Conway: I guess the first time it was done was in the late seventies or early seventies, sometime around there.

Mr. Rose: Val-

Val Giddings (Biotechnology Industry Organization): Well, the first time it was done was probably six hundred million years ago. Humans first did it in the early seventies.

Mr. Rose: Who was doing it six hundred million years ago?

Mr. Giddings: Microbes. The fossil record and the DNA record show very clearly that genes have moved between, not just species, but phyla in evolutionary history. There’s a vast and extremely interesting discipline devoted to looking at all that, but it is important to realize that this is not a suite of technologies that was dreamed up, but were developed by studying and learning what we find in nature.

Margaret Mellon (Union of Concerned Scientists): But it is also true to say, that although it’s happened, it’s happened very rarely over, just as Val has said, geologic spans of time. Moving genes purposely, from one organism to another without regard to biological boundaries by completely artificial techniques, has been done for about twenty years.

Mr. Rose: Why is this important?

Ms. Mellon: It’s important, really, for a lot of different reasons. It’s important because it could be one of the biggest changes in the food system, ever. If the proponents of the technology have their way, it’s a change that can affect most of the food that goes into most of the mouths here and around the world, so questions about a technology with that broad an application that’s that different from the technologies we’ve employed before, raises understandable questions about safety. There are also ancillary questions about control, control of the food system, who’s going to make decisions about the technology? Who’s going to enjoy the benefits of the technologies? At the same time, who’s going to have to incur the risks.

Mr. Rose: Gordon, why is there seemingly a difference in the attitude of the United States and Europe?

Mr. Conway: I get asked that one. You can tell by my accent, I’m a New Yorker. There’s a number of reasons why in Britain there’s a particular difference. One is the Mad Cow Disease, where people became very distrustful of government science, another is the concern of the take over of multinationals of the food change, and there’s a certain degree of anti-Americanism involved in that, although of course, as you all know, some of the big takeover companies are European. Ben & Jerry’s is now Unilever. This way, if you want to march, you ought to march up and down the avenue of Dutch takeovers. But there’s also an issue about the nature of the country. I’ve lived here for about two years; this is a very risky place to live. You have hurricanes, you have tornadoes, you have West Nile Virus here in New York, you have Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, two hundred and fifty million guns, and poisonous snakes. There’s one rare poisonous snake in Britain, period. There’s nothing else. So you have a smaller, more manicured, more tightly controlled environment that’s completely unnatural. There’s nothing left in Britain of the original nature. So in that sense, there’s a difference in the psychological attitude. You’re more used to technology and to risk than the Europeans are.

Ms. Mellon: But another take on is that Europeans were offered, and basically strong armed, into accepting a technology that they saw offering them virtually no benefits. Whatever risks they were asked to incur, whether they are large, small, or medium, most people are not willing to take risks where they don’t see any benefits.

Mr. Rose: Let me go to Val and ask to define, as you see it, both the risk and benefits of genetically engineered foods.

Mr. Giddings: Well, there’s a vast body of data and experience that shows, accompanied and preceded by a vast body of analysis, which shows that the risks of crops and foods and risks of biotechnology are not different in kind, from those we are experienced with from traditional foods. If there are risks associated with these new foods and crops, the data and experience seems to indicate that they are equal to or less than what we’ve seen in the past. A good example is the corn that’s been engineered to resist insect pests. As it happens, the principle avenue for infection with fungal diseases that leave cancer causing residues in corn, like aflotoxin, is through the vector of the European corn bore, as it infects the corn. You eliminate the corn bore, you eliminate the infections. Corn that is grown with the corn bore resistant gene inserted into it has substantially lower concentrations of these carcinogenic compounds. That’s just one example.

Mr. Rose: Gordon, do you want to jump in?

Mr. Conway: The interest of the Rockefeller Foundation is primarily in the interest of feeding developing countries. We have 800 million people who are undernourished. We have 180 million children who are grossly underweight for their age. We will have 1.5 billion more people to feed by the year 2020. That’s a huge order, and we believe we need every technology you can get, which includes ecological, it includes the other kinds of biotechnology that I mentioned to feed the world. We think there are real benefits from biotechnology in that process. It’s not a magic bullet, it’s not the only answer, but we see them as being there and if you don’t begin to weigh those benefits against the potential risks, we think that when that analysis is done, in most cases the benefits will far outweigh the risks.

Mr. Rose: But does that put your finger right on what the problem. When we know the benefits or the risks. That’s the problem, that nobody can be sure, as the Union for Concerned Scientists would suggest, what the risk is.

Mr. Conway: I’m talking about those in developing countries. At the moment, there are very few engineered crops grown in developing countries. There’s a whole lot right now in the pipeline. There in laboratories. They need to go out into field trials so you can asses benefits and risks. That’s what I’m talking about. You will never know for sure about anything whether it’s absolutely safe; anything in the world is absolutely safe. You don’t know for absolutely sure that this roof isn’t going to come down and crush you to death.

Mr. Rose: Do you think genetically modified foods are safe? That most genetically modified foods coming out of the United States are safe.

Mr. Conway: I think so. In terms of human health I think so.

Mr. Rose: And what about in terms of damage or threat to the ecosystem.

Mr. Conway: There are potentials there. Questions that still need to be answered.

Mr. Rose: Which questions are they?

Mr. Conway: Well, we start to get into technical issues, but Margaret can answer those-

Mr. Rose: All right, go ahead-

Mr. Conway: Remember, I can answer them, but she can-

Mr. Rose: Well I’ll assume you can. The Rockefeller Foundation would not want anyone who could not answer that question for their president. [laughter]

Ms. Mellon: I just want to go back to the food safety question, because I think it’s an important one. And I want to greet that as far as we know right now, the foods that are on the market right now in the United Sates that have been genetically engineered, and there are probably more foods than you would imagine, are safe. The problem is we don’t know very much. According to a letter that was in science magazine I think three weeks ago, it was from someone who had done a search of the literature for peer reviewed articles addressed to the issue of the safety of genetically engineered food, and they came up with, think, nine. Now, that’s three more than I knew about. If you think that that conclusion of safety is based on a body of peer review literature, than you are mistaken. I think the question is how far we ought to go to prove safety, especially in light, as I’ve said, that there is not much need. I also want to agree that the need question is entirely different if you live in the developing world than if you are among the 800 million people that are hungry today in this world to the shame of all of us. But we also need to appreciate that those 800 million people are hungry despite that there is more than enough food to feed them. So the problem of hunger is not a technological problem, and therefore is not amenable to a technological solution. And that goes to what I want to say is a very complicated equation of what it means- how the different responses to the questions about biotechnology or genetic engineering, is it safe enough, how those play out. It’s very complicated. The relationship between answers to questions here and answers to questions elsewhere. On the question of ecological risk, yes there are ecological risks. Again, just as with food safety, we don’t know as much as we ought to know about them, because we’ve never committed the scientific resources to actually coming up with an answer. Problems are likely to emerge in areas like gene transfer. If you put a new gene from a bacterium into a corn plant, it’s not going to stay in the corn plant. It’s going to move, via pollen, to the nearby relatives of the corn plant. And that is going to be true of virtually any gene and any crop combination. The gene that you put into the crop isn’t going to stay there, it’s going to move into the environment at large. What impact will it have? Well, it depends on what gene you put in, the crop you put it into, the weeds nearby, and that ecosystem. But it could make big difference, and I could give you one example, and that’s if we go and try to find salt tolerant rice. We put new salt tolerant genes into rice, those genes could enable that rice to survive outside of a rice paddy in saline waters and in a lot of cases, those could be in coastal ecosystems where the rice would be an invader. It could degrade the coastal ecosystems, and it could have impacts of fisheries.

Mr. Giddings: Charlie, we’ve put fifteen or twenty rabbits in motion here, and there is no way you will give me the time to bring all of them home. But there are a few that need to be addressed.

Mr. Rose: Go after the fastest rabbit you can find.

Mr. Giddings: Speaking as a geneticist who is a passionate environmentalist, I can only say that my good friend Dr. Mellon should be ashamed of some of the comments that she has said because they are absolutely outrageous, and Let me give you an example. The assertion that there are only nine peer review studies that have been done that address food safety issues relevant to genetically engineered foods. Benjamin Disraeli said that there are lies, there are damned lies, and there are statistics. As anyone who has ever done a search with any sort of a search engine knows, the keyword you use, how you define the field for searching, is extremely important. Now, I will say that if you draw your universe that you are trying to sample very, very narrowly, you will come up with a deceptively small number of peer reviewed studies that appear directly to address the issues of food safety for these genetically engineered improved crops and foods. If you take into account the fact that there are vast bodies of relevant literature that address different aspects in ways that the keywords may not adequately capture, then that will make it very clear why my own literature of scientific papers relevant to this topic numbers, I stopped counting, in excess of 2,000. There are over 5,200 separate regulatory decisions that have been taken on field trials and commercial plantings of genetically engineered crops in the United States, by the United States Department of Agriculture since 1987. Each and every one of those was accompanied by a site specific environmental assessment that looked at a whole host of questions and issues that are required to be examined before a field test can proceed. All of those are documented in decision documents which are supported by massive citations in the scientific literature. The FDA does something similar for their assessment of foods derived from crops and fruits in biotechnology. There is a vast amount of scientific experience and data that are relevant. Issues of risk are extremely important and they must be looked at and they must be dealt with. The issue of salt tolerant rice, were it to be developed, is one that would raise a serious problem. We would not want to have salt tolerant rice getting into mangrove swamps. But here’s a news flash. We are asking those questions about the development of new varieties of rice and other crops now for the first time in human history. Those sorts of questions have never been asked before about new varieties produced through conventional breeding. That illustrates what is very important when you are talking about risk, and it is important to talk about risk, but if you want to talk about risk in order that you may achieve a standard of zero risk, you are doomed to a life of disappointment. If you want to talk about risk in ways that require that you know absolutely what the precise negative outcome of x, y, or z under certain events, then again, there is so much that is difficult to predict with complex ecosystems and interactions that you’ll be doomed to more disappointment. But if you frame it, as we always frame our calculations of risk in our daily lives, how does the risk of this new activity compare with the risk of what we’ve been doing all along, when you do that sort of relative risk analysis, foods and crops improved through biotechnology come out way ahead of the game.

Mr. Rose: How should we define risk? What’s the barometer? How do we go about this?

Mr. Conway: Well, again, that gets to become complicated, because you can measure it mathematically, but you are largely trying to measure it in relations to other events that occur. When you can measure the probability of some event occurring, which is part of risk, and you can measure the magnitude of the effect. If there’s a low probability of an earthquake, very, very low, you’d still regard that as high risk because the earthquake is so potentially destructive. You’ve got to measure those two things up, and that’s what people do in this situation. I think this is where to get to the benefit risk in terms of developing countries. I half agree with Margaret about a number of things. I do think that there’s not enough transparency about the evaluation that’s going on. I also agree with her that the genes from genetically engineered crops will escape to near relatives. We know that. Genes escape all the time. Escape isn’t the right word- genes move from crops to wild relatives. They move from inorganic crops to organic crops. They move from organic crops to inorganic crops. The genes of the Prince of Whales’ organic garden float around. They go to other crops. His wonderful old apples contaminate this new golden delicious that are grown in orchards. We know that this happens all the time. Herbicide resistance is not something new to genetic engineering. We’ve been breeding herbicide resistant genes into plant for a long time. One of the big sources is a petunia. Perhaps you should all go home and kill your petunia as an offering to ecological sanity. We know that that goes on. That’s not the issue. The issue is what is the seriousness of that happening. Obviously, if it’s salt tolerance getting out` and of course, we have lots of salt tolerant rice already. Where I disagree with Margaret is I think nearly all of the questions she poses are true of conventional crop breeding. In fact, we have this argument quite a lot of the time. It’s actually quite small where the difference is in terms of the risks, I think. She thinks it’s bigger.

Ms. Mellon: I think it’s big enough. Here’s the real difference: the technology has been characterized, from its earliest days, by height. It is a miracle technology; it is going to accomplish so much. The truth is, that it’s turned out to be a very problematic, expensive, difficult technology for people to employ. As a result, even though there’s been a lot of genetic engineering, there are a lot of acres covered. Really, the number of successful applications of the technology is relatively few. For the most part, there are two applications. You put a single herbicide tolerant gene into a crop, or you put a single b-t toxin gene that’s an insecticide gene into a crop, and you put it into the crops that we plant on enormous acreage like corn, cotton, and soy beans, and you seem to have enormous acreage donated to the technology, but in fact that number of applications is very small and very limited. The risks associated with the technology, as I’ve said, are not generic. It isn’t that every time you genetically engineer you do this artificial gene transfer you give a crop some set of properties. They depend on which genes you put in, and the combination of that gene with the genes in the crop into which they’ve been put. My concern is that the risks and that the conclusions about risks that we’re deriving on these two limited applications don’t give us that much security about a technology that’s going to or could put three, five, ten, twenty genes into a crop and a much, much larger variety of genes that we’ve put in already so, we’ve got a limited base of experience from which to draw.

Mr. Rose: What would you like to see happen?

Ms. Mellon: I’d like to see a number of things happen. One, is that I’d like to see the people in this room empowered to make decision about the technology. Right now, in fact, I think there’s a lot to be said about the decision making process that takes the populace out of it, takes the consumer out of it. There’s no labeling. No choice in stores. Government knows best. I’d like the technology to slow down. I don’t think that in this country- we have 230,000 foods on our shelves. We add 10,000 new foods every single year without biotech, without genetic engineering. So the need of the folks in this room for this technology is really very small, if at all. So I think when you’re faced with a powerful, not well understood technology that you don’t need, that within the box of the industrialized world, the intelligent thing to do is to slow the technology down. Take the time to get the answers about risk. Take the time to get the answers about food safety. Take the time to have the broad discussions around the country in all sorts of settings so that we’ve had some sort of rich debate about the technology.

Mr. Rose: Take the time to slow down the technology?

Mr. Giddings: We’ve taken the time. Technology has moved forward far slower than it could have on a technical basis. Dr. Mellon cannot raise a question that has not been examined extensively and exhaustively in a review process by multiple federal agencies, USDA, EPA, and FDA, and each and everyone of those 5,200 regulatory decisions that I mentioned that have been taken by`. Truth in advertising, before joining Bio three years ago, I worked for nine years in the division at the USDA that did the environmental assessment for these new crops. In the course of the evaluation for each and every one of those 5,200 decisions that I mentioned, each and every one of those was published in the Federal Register at least three times. If anyone from the public wants to access the information in the folders, they can access all of that. There were provisions specifically provided for comment. All of the regulations under which this was done was established by notice of rule making. You can hardly have a more transparent system than we’ve had in the United States. In spite of that, we have seen in April the Administration announce measures to increase the transparency, more information will be posted on the World Wide Web so it will be more easily available, particularly with regard to FDA decision making. The crops and foods improved by biotechnology have been subjected to more scrutiny to more in-depth, in-detail, in advance than any others in the history of humanity. How much study is enough? Any new questions that can be raised, let’s look at them very carefully. The questions that we’ve already been asking, let’s keep asking them where they are appropriate. But a key part to asking questions has got to be, that when the answers present themselves, you have to be willing to recognize that. And we have a great many answers. We have good solid answers to the vast majority of questions that have been raised and those where we don’t, either the questions are in the process of being developed, or it seems quite clear based on what we know now, the answers are not likely to be of a problematic nature such as to create a problem, and we have the ability to rectify problems if we’ve made a mistake.

Mr. Conway: What I want to see is this technology applied in developing countries, because I believe that when the testing is done, the benefits are going to be considerable. Just one example, this isn’t on food, but b-t cotton is now grown extensively in China, millions of acres, are the amount of pesticide application in China has gone way down, the yields have gone up, and anecdotally, there are far fewer poisonings of farmers from pesticide application. That’s the kind of thing that can happen. That’s the kind of benefit that can be there. What I do want to take issue with Margaret, is when she said we don’t need more food, we need to distribute it more evenly. That’s a common argument that’s put out at the moment. It’s true, mathematically, if we took all of the food in the world and divided it equally, everyone would have 2,700 calories per person, which is enough to allow you to sit here and listen to me. When I do anything more energetic, either intellectually or physically, you’d have to get a bit more. We do need technology, and we do need increased yields. And that’s for two reasons, one is that increased production reduces prices. And what the Green Revolution did, and we were largely responsible for, was to bring prices of food way down. And when you bring the prices of food way down, then the urban poor can get the food they need, and you do that by increasing production, and I’ve got this 1.5 billion still to feed by 20 years from now. Secondly, the rural poor, of whom about a billion live in marginal lands, the only way they are going to become better off is through agriculture. They’re aren’t going to become software engineers. Not, at least, immediately. And so you need agriculture for both the urban poor and the rural poor, and you need technology. And this is one of the technologies that will deliver on that. Only one, but it is there.

Mr. Rose: And in your judgment, is it worth the risk?

Mr. Conway: I think it will be, yes.

Mr. Rose: Then I repeat myself, the question but in the context of what you just said.

Ms. Mellon: I want to agree. I mean, I want to agree that people in different parts of the world have a different risk-benefit calculus. If we lived in a country where people did not have enough food, we would have a different risk calculus than we have, and that in fact, in places in Southeast Asia, in Africa, there is enough of a lack of food that the calculus is different, and I do not argue that I would not put myself in the position of making decisions for the people in the world who are hungry. What I worry about are two things: one, that we’re asking the wrong question, which is what do we do with biotechnology, rather than what do we do to help the world’s hungry people. There are lots of things that we could do. Anything but biotechnology will not get you anything more than a snooze.

Mr. Rose: Surely you don’t believe that the people that are concerned about those issues are defining it only in terms of bio-modified foods.

Ms. Mellon: I believe that if you` If Rockefeller Foundation has a product that is produced by traditional breeding that is iron rich, that’s not encumbered by patents, that could help iron deficient people all over the world, it made no impact at all on the world debate. What I want to know is, why if we want to look to what we can do to help the world, why is the only thing that engages people’s interest biotechnology?

Mr. Conway: With all do respect, it’s the media. I sat on the Royal Commission on the release of genetically modified organisms in Britain in 1986. We produced a report on the risks of releasing genetically modified organisms. A Royal Commission. Blessed by the Queen, Prince of Wales I’m not sure [laughter]. It was published; there was a paragraph in the Times, and nobody cared. Then along came Greenpeace that wanted a new campaign; it’s a big multinational, and the only way it makes money is by working at a multinational level. You’ve got Greenpeace and Monsanto, and they’re two big multinationals in the world and it started a campaign. That’s why we have got this; that’s why it started. It’s a big political media event that made it happen. We didn’t start this at the Rockefeller Foundation. We’ve been working on genetic engineering for fifteen years.

Mr. Rose: So what was the error of the media in this? Did we publicize the fact that they were protesting? We took Greenpeace’s bait?

Ms. Mellon: I disagree. I think that the debate in Europe, I’m sure Greenpeace had a lot to do with it and the media had a lot to do with it, but this debate is an important one.

Mr. Conway: It’s a nasty one, too. I tell you that. It’s getting to be nastier and nastier.

Mr. Rose: Meaning? In what way is it nasty?

Mr. Conway: It’s going to get very dirty soon.

Mr. Rose: Well, what does that mean, dirty?

Mr. Conway: Well, because the battle has been moved from Europe to North America and the developing countries. And what the big activists are talking about, and not Margaret who has concerns to raise, I’m talking about Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, they are engaged in this major battle. They know now that battle is going to be won or lost in the United States, but in particular in developing countries. What they’re now going for is all those things that might be a benefit for developing countries. Watch it, I tell you, it’s going to get vicious.

Ms. Mellon: Well I’m not sure it’s going to get vicious or nasty. I think that if it does get vicious or nasty, I’m not sure whose fault it’s going to be. But I want to go back to the question of hype. Since this technology came to be, it has been characterized by hype. By enormous promises of all of the things it can do. In the beginning, I thought it was going to do, god knows, a lot more than it has. But I want to go back to why we believe it is biotechnology that is kind of the essential ingredient in order to meet the needs of the world’s hungry. So far, what it has produced is modest, if anything, certainly by the standards of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Mr. Rose: Let’s have Mr. Giddings at least an answer as to why those assertions, then I want to come to this audience and give you an opportunity to ask your own questions.

Mr. Giddings: As Dr. Conway pointed out, biotech is not the silver bullet that’ll solve all problems. But why is there so much emphasis on using biotech as one of the, if not the, major tools that we want to use now to face the challenges in production agriculture for a very simple reason. With your permission, I’ll talk about statistics. Look at the results of traditional breeding, particular in this century. You will find that the average yield increases for our major commodity has been on the order of two percent each year, for a stretch of about fifty years, from the twenties into the sixties, roughly. But then, along around the sixties, those average increases dropped off from two percent to one percent and in most major crops they’ve had a major plateau. Why is that? The plant breeders will tell you, because they additive genetic variance, the easiest ways to manipulate the genes that you’re modifying and selecting to improve yield, you’ve tapped out the potential of that. So what remains? Well, it’s pretty easy, for classical reasons, to work with single gene traits. But many of the important traits that govern fundamental physiological processes that are crucial to yield are polygenetic, or multigene traits. It’s very hard to manipulate them with classical breeding. With marker assisted selection you can do that, with genetic engineering, you can do much more than we could with classical breeding. That’s why there’s so much emphasis on genetic engineering. It is not true to say that the gains have been modest as you’ve heard. Look at the adoption rates of transgenic corn, cotton, and soy beans. They’ve been exponential. No new varieties that have ever been introduced have ever been adopted by farmers so rapidly. The farmers don’t adopt these new varieties because they give only marginal or sub-standard benefits. They adopt because they are substantial improvements over what they’ve been growing. Over forty species of crops have been the subject of research and development of field trials, there are huge numbers in the pipeline.

Mr. Rose: Margaret, then Gordon, then audience.

Ms. Mellon: I just want to point out that it’s true that the gains of traditional breeding on some crops, on major crops have slowed down. But two percent a year, for the twenty years between now and 2020 is a forty percent increase in yield.

Mr. Giddings: But you’re not going to get that.

Ms. Mellon: That’s about what you need. But then the other thing to ask is, why do we really think that genetic engineering, which is using a gene at a time, is going to deliver the goods and the polygenic traits? Right now, if we believe that that was true, I mean it’s true drought tolerance, which is one of the major achievements of traditional breeding, I mean, that’s one of the things that we have done with corn in this country to the, I mean it is everyone’s pride. That is the big technical question, is it more likely that you are going to be able to select for polygenic traits looking at a whole plant, like a rice plant or a corn plant with all of those genes working together, as opposed to having before you a set of 50,000 genes, figuring out which are the eight that have something to do with yield, and trying to put them, one at a time, back into the crop, making sure that they interact with one another in such a way that they’re actually going to deliver the trait. So far, I think that the track record of genetic engineering is not encouraging that it is actually going to do better than traditional breeding, that I want to remind us, got us into the situation that we’re in today in this country because we had enough money to actually plow into that technology.

Mr. Rose: Gordon-

Mr. Conway: I agree with Margaret on the last point. When you talk about multiple gene traits for like drought and so on, it’s going take a very long time before genetic engineering can produce there. And that’s why this mark rate selection is very important.

Ms. Mellon: Which I support completely.

Mr. Conway: Which is great. The importance of mark rate is, what you heard about last week on the human genome, there’s something comparable that has happened in the plant field that nobody really heard a lot about, the rice genome has been characterized roughly the same way that the human genome has, eighty percent or something in that nature. And Monsanto has done that and donated effectively to the world community. And the advantage of that donation is that you can use mark rated selection, which means it finds bits of DNA that tells you when a gene has moved across. And that will be an enormous benefit. And where I also agree with Margaret is that there has been too much hype on the part of the biotech companies in terms of, they will feed the world, or they are feeding the world. And that’s what I attacked Monsanto for when I spoke to them last year. That’s a claim that they should not be making. It’s not going to be the biotech companies because there’s no money in feeding the poor. It’s going to be public money, public-private partnerships. And the big thing that’s going to get in the way is the patent system. We haven’t talked about it, and I don’t want to raise it, but we’ve developed, through one of grantees, a vitamin A rice, which has got enormous potential. It has associated with it, 70 patents of various kinds. It’s a nightmare in terms of trying to deal with that and get it out to the poor. And we have to do something about that.

Mr. Rose: All right, let me get to the audience. Yes sir-

Mr. Norton D. Zinder (Rockefeller University): I’m involved in the Human Genome Project. Indirectly, Dr. Mellon, by not understanding what the word naturally means, implies that two members of my family have done exotic, irrelevant, and perhaps dangerous experiments. Now, one of the most important things in this world is the affixation of nitrogen. Nitrogen is affixated by bacteria such as ryzobia but by 40 some-odd genes. It is also fixated by alocan, which is another organization with thanogens. It was my son who discovered that the genes in Mythanogens are precisely those genes that are present in Ryzobia, the same 40 genes. Now, that was his discovery. Now, how did they get there? Well, that was my discovery. Several years ago I discovered a process called transduction, by which viruses carry genes from one organism to another. In fact, everything we know about early evolution is that it was a vast mix-up of genes from one organism to another, and these are two bacteria from archa. These are not close relatives, but the same genes are from two different kingdoms.

Mr. Rose: Thank you. Right here-

Mr. Deroy Murdock (Atlas Economic Research Foundation): We talked a bit about nutrition in the developing world, but not much about disease, and the potential for biotech foods to, perhaps, cure malaria or cure blindness through increased vitamin D or increased Malarial properties. I’m wondering if the United States and Western Europe don’t do this research, who will, and if we slow down this research, how much longer will these people have to wait? Mr. Conway: Well, there are about 1,000 biotechnologists now working in Asia. We trained about 300 of them. So, all of this is alive and well in Asia. And if it stops in Europe and it stops in the United States, it will go on in Asia, and they will take the world lead in biotechnology.

Ms. Mellon: I think that that’s an important, at least an operation, if not a question. And that is, the private sector in the industrialized world isn’t curing the world. It isn’t producing the medicines for those diseases because, of course, there isn’t enough of a return in it. I mean, I think people might want to ask themselves why we’re talking about the biotech companies feeding the world, when we’re pretty sure that the biotech companies are going to cure the world where there’s no financial incentive. And that’s because we’re talking about feeding the world because they want you to east this food, not because the interest is really in feeding the world.

Mr. Giddings: Biotech companies are not in the business of feeding the world. Biotech companies are in the business of making money. They have a fiduciary responsibility to their stock holders to make money. But the fact of the matter remains that Monsanto decoded the rice genome, not because they wanted to feed the world, but for their own selfish reasons, but as it happens, relinquishing the intellectual property to that genome and donating it to the global community is a material contribution of very valuable information that will go a very long way towards helping the developing world defeat itself, provided we support them with the appropriate technology transfer.

Mr. Rose: Yes, right here-



`it was almost as much resistance and dubiousness about the hype of the Green Revolution, and as much nervousness about the manipulations, what were considered manipulations, that went into the Green Revolution then, almost as much as there is now on this issue. And related to that, the philosophical question, would electricity have come about if the worries about safety at the time electricity was coming up, were proceed in quite the way that worries about safety are considered here. Would we have electricity?

Mr. Conway: Well, the stories go back with all new technologies. Small pox, the vaccination against small pox, there was huge resistance to that. When cars were invented, there were people in front with red flags. Do you remember that? [laughter] Sorry. Sorry. Do you remember the story? And then we discovered that they weren’t dangerous. But what is interesting about the Green Revolution is that now is being reinterpreted, and one of the major activists against genetically modified foods is now saying that the Rockefeller Foundation destroyed India by introducing the Green Revolution. I know that there are several Rockefeller Foundation people in the audience who were involved in that, and that’s the degree of the nastiness that is beginning to happen. They’re actually saying the Green Revolution destroyed`. What is interesting in India right now is that there’s a massive drought going on in India and there isn’t a massive famine. And that’s because India has been able to produce enough food that it can keep enough surplus in the center, and it can transport it around. There’s still two or three hundred million people who are chronically undernourished in India, but because of the Green Revolution, people who remember what was happening in the sixties, remember what was happening in India, that is getting reinterpreted. We’re getting new histories put out before us.

Mr. Rose: Yes sir-

Mr. Joel E. Cohen (Rockefeller University): I’d like to ask the participants if, a reasonable way to address the safety of genetically foods would be to conduct a prospective, longitudinal study of one million people, half a million of whom agreed to food without genetically modified components, and half which agreed to east food with every kind of cocktail of genetically modified food, and follow their health for a period of ten, fifteen, or twenty years, paid for by combination of U.S. Government and the biotechnology industry to find out really what’s the scoop. This could be really a great service. We will uses ourselves in the rich countries, since it’s already in our food supply, we use ourselves as guinea pigs for the benefit of the poor countries. And if it’s safe for us, then we let can let them use it.

Mr. Rose: Would you put everything on hold while you conducted this fifteen year study?

Mr. Cohen: No I would not. I would go forward as quickly as possible and at the same time, have an open monitoring system with a team of epidemiologists following people so that if trouble signs show up, we would take corrective action en route. My second question, that’s one, the second question is, when we introduced antibiotics, they were a tremendous cure for everything and we used them so profliglectly that they now are subject to resistance all over the place and we’re in danger of loosing them. If we introduce this, and feed another two billion people based on the genetically modified organisms and then the insects develop resistance to the b-t gene, where are we then?

Ms. Mellon: They will develop resistance against the b-t genes. The resistance genes are in the population, it’s only a matter of time. We can talk about what that means. It certainly does limit the benefits of b-t cotton, one of probably the only crop where you can demonstrate an environmental benefit as a result of the introduction of genetically engineered crops. It’s going to be very short-lived.

Mr. Giddings: Another outrageous statement that I must refute. Biotech b-t cotton is not one of the only crops that has a environmental benefit, it is one of numerous crops that will have environmental benefits and as Doctor Mellon’s colleague, Doctor Risler has often described this, we’re talking about switching from a chemical treadmill where you will switch from one chemical once it develops resistance to a new chemical. We’ve been on this chemical treadmill. Now they’re asking us to get on a gene treadmill. Well now, you know, the choice really is, you pick your treadmill. I’d a lot rather be on a gene treadmill because they’re a whole heck of a lot more genes to work with. The number of different b-t proteins that we know about exceeds two hundred.

Mr. Conway: Can I answer his question? I’d like to answer his question.

Mr. Giddings: Well, we were going after the first question, but somehow we got derailed. I’d like to address the issue of the longitudinal study, as well. The number of independent variables that you’d have to control there, would be such that to do that kind of study, the cost of it would make the Manhattan Project look like a ten cent cup of coffee. Now, it would be worth doing if someone could posit a reasonable basis for a risk sufficient to justify the expense of that kind of study. And so far`.

Mr. Conway: Joel, you’ve got the experiment. It’s England and the state of New York. That’s what’s going to be it for the next fifteen years. You just have to make sure that I’m not in either of the` [laughter]

Ms. Mellon: I actually think, I don’t know the numbers, but I think the notion of using our fabulous scientific establishment to answer that important question is` I welcome that.

Mr. Rose: Right here, the lady in the yellow. Yes-

Ms. Julia A. Moore (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars): I’d like to ask what this debate means for other science and technology issues in the 21st century, like cloning and zeno-transplantation. Last week on a great series that the Charlie Rose show did on the human genome, Francis Collins said, that if we don’t provide the public with assurances that this new genetic information will be used for their benefit, then they will reject this knowledge and they will make the GM debate look small by comparison. What do you think this debate means for science in the 21st century.

Ms. Mellon: This debate is just a warm-up. This technology is coming at us like a freight train. If we can’t get the complicated, but really relatively small issues right that arise in connection with GE food, we haven’t got a chance on the rest of them.

Mr. Giddings: But I disagree. I think that some of the questions of the sort that you mentioned are much bigger than the questions that we’re talking about here this morning. But I think because of that, they are for the most, easier to deal with. We know that we do not want employers using someone’s surreptitiously obtained genotype to discriminate against them in job applications. That would be completely intolerable. And it will not be long before Congress will take the necessary legislative steps to make sure that problems of that sort are not allowed to come to pass so that we can, in fact, take advantage of the numerous that biotech has to offer, not just in producing more food, but improving the healthcare and lives of each and every person in the room.

Ms. Mellon: If you think assuring privacy in an era when people can know everything about your genes by just cutting off a piece of your hair in a cocktail lounge, you’re`.

Mr. Sheldon J. Segal (The Population Council): In truth in advertising, I was a charter member of the Union for Concerned Scientists, and also a former officer of the Rockefeller Foundation, so I’ve listened to`

Mr. Rose: So we can’t wait to hear from you.

Mr. Segal: I think that if you look at the question that you posed, Charlie, originally, is there a future for genetically engineered food, we’ve gotten into an area that this discussion is not going to resolve. I think the real answer to that question has to do with how will it impact on the farmers of the developing countries who have to feed, not just the ones who are coming in the next twenty years, but in the next half century. As many as have come in the last half century. And I think that Gordon is in the best position, can we do better with this new technology then we did with the original high-yield grains as far as the developing world farmers are concerned?

Mr. Conway: I think so, because I think we did learn a lot about the mistakes that were made at the Green Revolution. Part of my history, as you may know, is that I was one of the critics of the Green Revolution. I developed integrated pest management which is minimal use of pesticides. I was the pioneer, or one of the pioneers of that forty years ago. One of the reasons that I like GM food, is that we can get away from the over-dependence on pesticides. I think that’s one of the potentials. But you have to do everything. If you take Africa today, you need fertilizers. You desperately need seeds, you desperately need roads to get food to markets. You desperately need markets when you get the foods there. And you need ecological approaches to sustainable agriculture. I don’t mean organic farming by that, while that may have a role to play. But ecological approaches to sustainable agriculture, and you need the other kinds of biotechnology I talked about. Mark rated selection and tissue culture, and you need genetically modified foods, and you need decent policies that favor farmers. And you need participation by farmers in the process itself. Now, all of those things together, can I advertise, I am giving a millennium lecture in Washington for the USDA on August the ninth, when I’m going to spell this all out. Is that all right? You’ve been advertised three times already.

Mr. Rose: I deserved it. [laughter]

Mr. Conway: I’m not disputing it, but I deserve it too.

Mr. Rose: Well maybe I should come down with cameras to that.

Mr. Conway: Well, you ought to.

Mr. Rose: Here’s what happened, Gordon. I just want you to know what happened. During the course of that monologue, Margaret was both nodding in approval, and shaking her head in disapproval.

Ms. Mellon: This is a complicated debate. I just want to say how difficult it is going to be to get that list of things done because, if for no other reason, our enthusiasm for biotechnology is actually draining the resources out of all of our universities that support traditional breeding, and there are fourteen molecular biologists coming in the front door for every traditional breeder coming out the back.

Mr. Giddings: Here’s an area where Dr. Mellon and I agree, emphatically. Every time I go up on Capitol Hill to lobby legislators, I always pitch in there, we need to reverse the generation long decline in support of public sector research that’s relevant to biology broadly, not just biotech. I’ve never yet run into her in the halls, so Margaret, I repeat now publicly what I’ve said in private before, please, join us in that effort.

Ms. Carole L. Brookins (World Perspective, Inc.): How many of you all in this room are involved in agriculture? I’d say all of you are because you do eat. And I think this is a real issue. We’re all talking about developing countries. How many of you remember the corn blight? How many remember the consumers marching in the 1970s over high meat prices because grain prices were too high and there wasn’t enough meat so we had to slaughter cattle? How many of you remember that at the supermarket? Helped bring down President Ford. The reason I’m saying this is what would this debate, the real question I’d like to ask regarding this, this is an issue that effects everyone in the world, in 1996, 1997, Lester Brown was not only talking about China starving the world, he was talking about the fact that we were running out of food tat that time. We were in a very serious short-supply situation, and thank goodness for modern plant breeding, including biotechnology that we were able to recover from that. My question to all of the panelists is this. And if at that time Europe cut off exports to the rest of the world because it wanted to keep its short supplies, where as the U.S. fulfilled its responsibility to the rest of the world and did not put export taxes on to keep supplies at home. My simple question to the panel, right now, is what we be talking about in terms of this debate today if we were still in a continued short supply situation that we were in two to three years ago. And had there not been a mad cow outbreak in the UK?

Ms. Mellon: We paid twenty five billion dollars last year in supports for agricultural products in this country because the supply, the global supply is greater than the capability of the people in the world who have the money to buy it. We paid 18 million dollars to move those exports into markets around the world. The notion that we are going to have a global shortage that is going to affect our consumer prices in the short term is a problem.

Mr. Rashid Shaikh (The New York Academy of Sciences): My question is a factual question. How much money is spent around the world on agricultural research. On crop research, and how much of that is spent on biotechnology research the way Professor Conway has described it? Is this picture changing in the last five or ten years as new developments and new debates has arisen on the biotechnology?

Mr. Conway: I can’t remember what those figures are. I did see them with. The amount that is spent on biotechnology in the developing countries in research is still very, very small. Nearly all of the research in Africa and Asia is on traditional plant breeding and on ecological approaches to sustainable agriculture. At the moment, it’s actually very small. If you take all the money that’s spent by the private seed companies, the companies that produce the seeds for the industrialized countries, then the proportion of the money is very high. I don’t know what it is, but the amount of that that goes into biotechnology must be sixty or seventy percent.

Ms. Mellon: It certainly is the lion share of our budget.

Mr. Giddings: No, I don’t believe that’s true. It’s a difficult question to answer. I have been trying to find the answer to that question for fifteen years. And I’ve yet to find good, accurate, reliable replicable budget numbers.

Ms. Mellon: One percent of it is supposed to be spent on risk assessment. That amount is seventy million dollars a year, which means seven hundred million is spent on biotech.

Mr. Giddings: The fact of the matter is, as I’ve said before, spending for public sector research in all of those areas that are relevant, for example, the integrated pest management, taxonomy and systematic and broader ecosystem studies. All that sort of funding has not kept pace with increases in particular areas in some aspects of biotech. But there are a whole bunch of sectors in biotech. What we need to do is take a more coherent view of support for research and we need to support all the areas of research in a way that will allow them to take advantage of each learns that can be used in the other disciplines. It is in fact true that there are vast needs unmet. The proportion of grants funded by NSF and NIH has dropped consistently and regularly in the twenty-five years I’ve been paying attention, and that’s a lot of good ideas that aren’t getting chanced that could bring enormous benefits. Mr. Rose: Congressman Green-

Bill Green: I’m a little puzzled where Doctor Mellon is coming out. I thought I heard her say earlier that while the risk-award ratio would argue against using genetically modified crops in the United States and Europe, the risk-reward ratio might be different and might argue for use of those crops in China, India, and Sub-Saharan Africa. If you’re going to allow those countries to do that, why aren’t you letting those same genes loose in the world, and maybe it won’t get here as fast as the Asian flu, but it’s certainly going to get here.

Ms. Mellon: Well, it isn’t clear that the genes will get here. There going to tend to stop where they are, particularly if you’re talking about crops. We’ve mostly been talking about crops. Obviously, there’s genetic engineering going on with fish. I think when you start talking about fish, you need to be more sophisticated when you talk about risks. But the risks, to be honest, are remote enough of releasing organisms elsewhere to us that I don’t think our concerns about them should weigh on other people adopting the technology.

Mr. Raymond Tanter (Michigan University): Charlie Rose asked the question, why the Europeans seem to be more concerned than the Americans about the risk involved in genetically modified foods. Well, I think Doctor Conway mentioned that Europeans are risk averse, and the American are risk acceptant. But with respect to biological warfare, nuclear and chemical warfare, the Americans are very risk averse and the Europeans seem to be rather risk acceptant. But I think more to the point, you gave a more valid answer when you said that Greenpeace had mobilized its political forces and this same kind of politics has not yet occurred in the United States. I think that’s the correct answer, not the risk disposition on the part of Europeans versus Americans.

Mr. Rose: Do you, if I can just believe that this argument based on what you just said on the context of it, that it’s going to get nasty and nasty and nastier?

Mr. Tanter: It being?

Mr. Rose: This debate.

Mr. Tanter: Oh yes. There’s no question about it. But I think that this kind of debate is wonderful at the Council, and I think that Les agrees.

Mr. Rose: One here, and then this will be the last question here.

Mr. Jamie Gamble (Simpson Thacher and Bartlett): Two sort-of related questions. The first is, isn’t the real question in terms of the profit center in the third world, what first world country will be willing to give them aid to purchase? If first world governments give them aid to purchase biotechnology seeds, but not non-biotech seeds, they’re going to buy biotech seeds. The second is, you talked about the drivers for using biotechnology, but you didn’t mention the fact that there’s a legal regime that is set up that allows us to create a profit center in biotechnology, but not one that allows us to create a profit center in teaching people different methods of farming. That seems to me to be the obvious driver for investing money in biotechnology.

Ms. Mellon: I agree with that. The products create industries, create income streams, and there’s a bias for any product based solution to a problem, over a process based solution because processes don’t have that advantage. I think that’s very true.

Mr. Conway: I don’t think we will be selling seed. I think most of the important biotech seed of all times will be produced in the developing countries themselves because they’ll be produced for their own varieties and forms and so on and so forth. We won’t be selling them, they’ll be produced in their own countries. But I think there is a way` I am really interested in the notion of what I call fast track development, which is that you start with poor farmers. You take a poor farmer in Africa- produces at the moment maybe two tons of maize a hectare, and along comes the pests, along come the weeds, along come the drought, and their lucky if they’ve got one ton, and there really on the starvation edge. You can get them up to three tons, and if you can then get the pest and diseases and drought figured out, you can then reduce the amount of land that poor farmer, usually a woman, has to put into maize. Only half a hectare, instead of a whole hectare. The second half of the hectare- that’s the big question. What does she do with the econ half of hectare? What I think she does, and what she needs to do, is start producing cash crops for the urban markets or cash crops, for example, for the European markets. That’s beginning to happen. So you can get situations in which people effectively catapult out of poverty, where there are real profit incentives, and we all know that poor people, if they can see a profit, will go for it, but they’ve got to be given that opportunity.

Mr. Giddings: I agree with that completely, and I think that one of the potential stumbling blocks here, as Doctor Conway mentioned earlier, is intellectual property. But I think, with all do respects, that often times too much is made of that. Patents exist for a reason- to encourage innovation. But it’s important to remember a few things about patents. Number one, first and foremost, they are limited, both and scope and particularly in time. Many of the patents that Doctor Conway mentioned as rapping up various innovations that went into the golden rice, the expiration of those patents is visible. Some of the most important are six or seven years off. But even so, even if we were able to put the golden rice into development for mass consumption in developing countries on a time frame that is less than that, I think that there is enormous potential for ceasing the sword and slashing this Gordian knot in a bold stroke. If a summit were convened on implications of intellectual property for developing countries, focusing on these sorts of biotech innovations, I think that you will find many of the CEOs from the big multinationals who hold most of these patents would be eager in exchange for the benefits they would derive by so doing to follow Monsanto’s example and donate just the genome, but a transformation technology and so fourth and so on. I think that there’s real potential for doing that with a bold stroke in the very near term.

Ms. Mellon: But I just want to point out that in the world of intellectual property, that the companies that hold this property are going to have to decide whether they want to give it away. It’s a matter of their largess. They reason they would be willing to do it right now is because these companies, by their nature, can’t want and don’t want to sell their products to the poor, they want to sell them to you. And they think that the only reason they can sell them to you, since they are rejected out of hand in Europe don’t give you that many benefits, is to somehow create some aura of goodwill associated with the products. But at the end of the day, their market is you. It is to convince you to buy it. And you need to keep that in mind. And your question, is that if you want to help the developing world, should you eat genetically engineered soy beans, or is there something else more important.

Mr. Giddings: But even if they were that cynical and black hearted, the results would be so unarguably beneficial to all, that how could they be objected to?

Mr. Rose: All right, last question here.

Mr. David Victor (Council on Foreign Relations): A question to Mr. Conway, exactly on this issue of intellectual property, strong intellectual property rights protection is the bedrock of the modern economy. It’s why firms make investments. You imply that getting golden rice out there is all tied up in this problem of intellectual property. The whole world is moving in the direction of ever stronger int

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