Pew on Pew
Regarding the Opinion by Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko on genetically engineered foods,1 their criticisms of our recent report on food allergenicity research and our other efforts to promote dialogue and consensus on agricultural biotechnology issues are off the mark.
Miller and Conko argue that the report2 reflects an "antibiotechnology" bias because it fails to stress that conventionally processed novel foods can also pose food allergy risks. Actually, the report discusses at some length the significance of food allergies caused by conventional foods. It explicitly states, "[I]t is important to note that understanding food allergy and being able to test for safety is also an issue for new foods developed by conventional breeding methods or those introduced to the US population through expanded world trade in agriculture."
The report focuses on genetically engineered foods simply because they are the only new foods that are required to be assessed for their potential to cause allergic reactions--a Food and Drug Administration policy put in place by the first Bush administration in 1992. The report addresses the widely acknowledged need for a better scientific foundation for such allergenicity tests and the current paucity of federal research on the topic. The report is intended to help ensure that regulatory decisions are based on the best possible science. Miller's and Conko's real complaint appears not to be with our report, but rather with the basic FDA policy that requires companies to assess new genetically engineered foods for possible allergic reactions, a policy largely supported by both biotechnology and food companies.
Far from being "antibiotechnology," the report makes it clear that the lack of better tests for possible food allergenicity could keep biotechnology products with potential benefits off the market. Unclear rules make it harder for biotechnology companies to prove their products' safety to regulatory agencies. Further, as the report also discussed, unresolved scientific questions about whether StarLink corn could cause allergic reactions led to an estimated $1 billion of product recalls and other actions to remove StarLink corn from the food supply--an effort that may have been entirely unnecessary from a public health perspective. The problem was not that questions were asked about allergenicity, but that scientists did not have a definitive scientific basis for answering them.
The remainder of Miller's and Conko's piece is a broadside attack on the Pew Initiative's efforts to move the agricultural biotechnology debate beyond its current polarized status by promoting dialogue and consensus-building. They cite as evidence of our bias the participation of several public interest group representatives in our Stakeholder Forum, which was established to develop consensus recommendations for regulatory policies regarding future agricultural biotechnology products. But they fail to mention the ongoing participation of representatives of other views, such as Monsanto, DuPont, Cargill, General Mills, Pioneer Hi-Bred, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, and several commodity groups (among others) in the Stakeholder Forum process.
Much of Miller's and Conko's criticism of our dialogue and consensus efforts appear to be based on the view that there really is nothing to talk about. According to them, there are only two positions: those that are supported by "sound science" on the one hand and "ideological, antibiotechnology views" on the other. We fundamentally and respectfully disagree that the debate is that simple or that the science is so one-sided. The National Academy of Sciences, for example, has completed several recent reviews of the science and regulation of genetically modified plants and recommended improvements to the current regulatory process.
The danger of dividing the world into us and them is that it implies that there is not, nor can there ever be, a reasonable middle ground. As with most divisive public policy debates, American public opinion falls somewhere in the middle while the extremes continue to do battle with no end in sight. We are striving to help both biotechnology critics and proponents find a middle ground so that this important, transformative technology will not only benefit society, but that concerns about risk are also addressed through appropriate regulatory review. This approach is not "antibiotechnology," but instead reflects our belief that the best way to make progress on controversial issues is not to exclude voices but to bring a wide variety of viewpoints to the table (including Miller's, which we featured in a recent monthly publication). Having an open and robust discussion is the right way to challenge assumptions, air facts, and move to a greater public understanding of these issues.
Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology
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1. H.I. Miller, G. Conko, "Pew on biotechnology? Pugh!" The Scientist, 16:12, 14, July 8, 2002.
2. L. Buccini, L.R. Goldman, "A snapshot of federal research on food allergy: Implications for genetically modified food," June 2002. Available online at www.pewagbiotech.org/research/allergy.pdf.