A defence of modern biotechnology
Secretary-General of the OECD
Within the developed world, food has never been safer, life expectancy never longer. Yet scares, recently over mad cow disease and now over genetically modified food, have pushed biotechnology high on the popular and political agendas in several countries, with accompanying regulatory battles, public showdowns and trade disputes. Public opinion appears divided, with all sides making sense and at the same time adding to the confusion. The trouble is that amid all the noise, virtually anything to do with ‘genetic engineering’, whatever the benefits, is in danger of becoming -taboo.
Picasso’s cry, ‘I do not invent: I discover!’, has a parti-cularly true ring for today’s scientists in the rapidly growing field of biotechnology. It reminds us that the DNA strands in every living cell are the world’s oldest digital data tapes – not something created by Crick and Watson in 1953. Indeed, biotechnology has been with us, albeit in more primitive modes, since the time of homo habilis. The difference now is that those data tapes are being read, at high speed and low cost; in the first tentative scribblings of our genetic engineers, they are even being edited and re-spliced. In short, with modern biotechnology the world has discovered a vast new field which is full of potential for creative activity and, for the scientific community at least, patentable and profitable innovations.There are strong links between current projects to read, or sequence, human and other genomes, and the advent of the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century.The new knowledge and techniques are of fundamental significance in dealing with agro-food, health care and the environment. In fact, they are essential for making the transition to a sustainable world economy. Such knowledge is permanent, pervasive, disruptive, sometimes even subversive. Like it or not, it is irreversible. And thanks to the Internet, the knowledge is globally available.Applications are proliferating, in sectors old and new. There are few inhibitions in acceptance of safer vaccines, and remedies for hitherto incurable diseases. But when it comes to applications on the farm and in the food supply, the new knowledge is proving hard for some to digest. This indigestion might be cured by better communication and greater transparency, to assure the reluctant consumer of the benign intentions of scientist, farmer and food pro-cessor. -Transparency through consumer information is today a normal and perfectly laudable expectation. But it does raise practical questions. How to transmit that information is one issue. Another is to decide what information is in fact ‘relevant’, what should be obligatory and what best left to normal commercial self-interest.Consumer concern has recently been heightened in some countries by active campaigning against genetically modified organisms, particularly in food products. It is an emotive debate, with science caught in the middle of it. A clear political lead is therefore needed. The trouble is that short-term political press-ures do not always influence policies for the better. They can lead to ad hoc regulatory interventions, which focus on and stigmatise new techniques, dupli-cate existing systems and lead to needless -bureaucracy and the occasional trade dispute. How can all this be avoided? Can the OECD do anything to help?Many years have passed since the first high-profile debates about the safety of genetic engineering which followed the February 1975 conference at Asilomar, California, when scientists imposed a temporary moratorium on certain experiments. The OECD became a key forum in the international safety deliberations of the 1980s. It brought together the collective scientific expertise, policy judgement and increasing experience of its Member countries. Our contribution to the work is substantial and is outlined in the Spotlight pages of this Observer.
Work at OECD continues on developing and publishing expert consensus papers, to help regulators evaluating the safety of a growing number of major crop plants and traits being modified by modern biotechnology. At least now in the developed world we have well-established systems for managing the safety of food, pharma-ceuticals, agrochemicals and many other novel (and generally safer, more precisely crafted) products that are now appearing. Rather, it is the developing world which has the greatest need for the new knowledge and techniques promised by biotechno-logy. Unnecessary delay could have disastrous consequences for the food security of millions.And there should be no illusions about what is at stake for the environment either. Crops like cotton, whether in the United States or -India, receive vast tonnes of chemical pesticides which linger in the environment and accumulate in food chains. Crops with built-in pest resistance via modern biotechno-logy greatly reduce the need for pesticides. The simple fact is that current, so-called ‘traditional’ agricultural practices are polluting. In contrast, cultivation using biotechnology can reduce pollution.The rapid progress of modern biotechnology poses many challenges to public policy: in education, health care, research, intellectual property – which in a knowledge-based economy has a new, higher importance – and in industry, as companies attempt to manage and use new knowledge. There are issues of financing the global infrastructure for biotechnology – the databases and the collections of microbes, cell lines, seeds and other key biological resources – who pays and who benefits. There are also issues of privacy, data protection, property rights and public interest. The questions are many. The OECD can help policy-makers everywhere to find the answers. In the meantime, the knowledge mill will not stop grinding – and why would anyone want it to?©OECD Observer No 216, March 1999