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Who's Afraid of the Biotech Boogie Man?
Vinca Chow and Jennifer Rilstone BioSynergy
June 2008. Issue 2. p 120-127

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"Biotechnology holds radiant promises, but applications such as GMO foods have been violently denounced by protest groups. Are we unleashing dangerous biological organisms akin to Frankenstein? Or is the bad press due more to poor communication by scientists to the public?"

Hi doctor, I need something for my diarrhea. Let's see, a vial of this bacteria, Lactobaccilli, should do.
Thanks. Also, since I am here, can I get the Hep B vaccine you told me I would be needing soon?
Sure, the nurse will give you some Hep B-vaccine carrots according to your weight.

Is this conversation pure science-fiction or does it predict a revolution in medical technology? Edible vaccines and ingestible bacteria are two of numerous groundbreaking clinical tools that biotechnology may bring to the dinner table. Live preparations of bacteria for ingestion, called probiotics, are already frequently prescribed for diarrhea complaints and are even suggested to protect against allergies and cancer. Likewise, vaccines are commonplace in developed countries, however, problems of cost, refrigeration and delivery/injection limit their application in Third World countries.

Transgenic fruits and vegetables may help us overcome these barriers by providing an edible form of vaccination that does not require cold storage and transport or costly injection programmes. Preventive health measures also involve nutrition. Some transgenic cows produce milk with altered protein or fat content-a technology that could be beneficial to both human health and industry. Even more exciting are the limitless possibilities that synthetic microbes could realize. Dr. J. Craig Venter and his company, Synthetic Genomics, are working to engineer novel microbial genomes in a modular, cassette-like fashion. They imagine popping in a cassette of genes to make a bacterium that produces vitamins or degrades oil spills. This technology holds great promise for addressing an array of energy, environmental and human health challenges.

One area in which the fruits of biotechnology have prospered is genetic modification of crops. In the first decade of its use, biotechnology has increased crop production by 27 billion, 13 billion of which is in developing countries. Dr. Clive James, chairman and founder of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, heralded it as "a technology that can contribute in a very significant way to food, feed, fibre and fuel security." One of the most promising genetically modified (GM) crop is golden rice.

Seven years ago, golden rice had entered onto the biotechnology stage with standing ovations. Genetically modified to produce Vitamin A, golden rice was projected to prevent one million deaths, plus half a million cases of blindness each year. But despite the high expectations, no single grain has yet been planted for commercial distribution.

Anti-GM groups such as Greenpeace claim that golden rice is "all glitter, no gold." Similar hostile criticisms have been leveled against other GM crops that scientists, humanitarians, and politicians hoped would reduce hunger and disease. Harsh environmental conditions commonly plague developing countries, but anti-biotechnology groups have hindered the progress of GM crops that could enhance agricultural output through drought-resistance, salt-resistance or cold tolerance. In 2002, 2.5 million famine-stricken people in Zambia were cut off from vital UN food aid when the government banned all GM food aid due to alleged health concerns.

Why have the promises of GM technology not been fully embraced? Critics of genetic engineering (GE) denounce it from both ethical and biosafety perspectives. Some fear that profit-seeking commercial companies would exploit voiceless farmers, thereby exacerbating poverty rather than alleviating it. But before pondering social problems, let us first examine whether GM technology is fundamentally flawed. Are there grains of truth in the health and environmental biosafety controversies that have beleaguered what has been dubbed "Frankenfoods?"

If the purported health concerns over GM foods were true, then the North American and Asian populations would be in grave trouble. GM crops have been on the market since 1994. The acreage of GM plantings in the United States and other parts of the world has increased at such an exponential rate that 91% of U.S.-grown soybean is transgenic. Free from compulsory label identification, well-accepted GM species of corn and soybean have passed quietly into the supermarkets and onto the dinner tables of approximately 300 million Americans and a billion Chinese.

However, despite the extensive human exposure over the last thirteen years, no health problems have been caused by GM foods. True, one specific strain of corn called the StarLink corn has been linked to two dozen cases of allergic response, but blood tests of the patients contradict the GM corn-induced allergy claim. Moreover, StarLink corn was actually intended only for pig feed, not human consumption. The problem had arisen from miscommunication between the biotech company and the farmers. In the absence of any evidence for health problems, critics of GM technology are, nevertheless, remarkably vocal. Do the environmental concerns hold more water? Beneath the giant corn cob suits sported by GM protestors, what objections are being raised?

The first roadblock in the acceptance of biotechnology by the public is a question of moral versus scientific concerns. Disentangling these two concepts is not always easy. A recent Biotechnology Journal article by Dr. Klaus Grebmer of the International Food Policy Research Institute (Washington DC) and Dr. Steven Were Omamo of the World Food Programme (Rome, Italy) discusses this issue. The authors highlight that, "as soon as the use of technology is defined as a moral question, people feel free to discuss the function and effects of a particular technology without knowing any technical details. They believe it is sufficient to know only that adverse effects are theoretically possible to justify a moral judgement."

When a debate is reduced to the moral question of right versus wrong, it is no longer possible to compromise democratically. The consequences for the acceptance of biotechnology are obviously severe. Well-conducted and methodologically sound scientific studies on GM crops are more likely to be published in academic journals rather than the New York Times. Thus, the public has little access to accurate information on GE. It is clear that acceptance of biotechnology is strongly dependent upon the perception of risk, and this is not necessarily correlated with expert technical risk assessments.

"The fact is that there is not a shred of any evidence of risk to human health from GM crops," wrote Lord Dick Taverne, author of several books on GMOs. He elaborates, "Every academy of science, representing the views of the world's leading experts-the Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Brazilian, French and American academies as well as the Royal Society, which has published four separate reports on the issue-has confirmed this." Taverne quotes a review released by the EU commission of 81 scientific studies funded by the government (not by the private sector). Over the 15-year period under examination, there was no evidence that GM products could harm humans or the environment.

Organizations like Greenpeace oppose current efforts to bring genetically engineered organisms into industrial production. They highlight scientific uncertainty and place the burden of proof of product safety on the scientists who create it. Proof that items created by genetic engineering are entirely safe for human consumption is not an unreasonable request-in fact, it is quite an important one-but it raises questions of policy. What level of testing provides reasonable "proof " of a genetically-engineered product's safety? Who is in a sufficiently unbiased and knowledgeable position to interpret results? How can the safety (and efficacy) of a product be adequately and accurately communicated to a general public that lacks scientific education? It is clear that the role of scientists in the coming age of biotechnology will need to expand to fulfill these duties.

Drs. Grebmer and Omamo discuss four communication strategies that will be key components of public perception of biotechnology. The first is that there is often a 'crisis of confidence' in spokespeople. This, rather than a lack of information, affects public acceptance. The politicians and civil servants who are promoting the message of biotechnology need to be trustworthy and their behaviour needs to be transparent. Also, consumers are likely to believe opinions of experts who appear to hold similar values to themselves-so it is important that information received is not only believable but credible. Secondly, providing too much information to the public can create 'cognitive stress.' When people are presented with conflicting information, consumers tend to favour their prior beliefs. Unfortunately, if their prior beliefs are founded on a misconception, this does not bode well for the acceptance of biotechnology.

A third issue is total, unbiased communication- presenting both positive and negative aspects of the technology. This is a cornerstone of trust, and the only way to allow the public to draw its own conclusions. Scientists are rarely without bias. Funding and peer-reviewed publication are the backbone of any research endeavour. Both are increasingly geared toward research that has an obvious societal or industrial application and relevance. The National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1998 added a requirement for societal relevance to their funding criteria, in addition to their previous qualification of "scientific excellence." In this funding climate, providing scientific information in an unbiased manner may produce a conflict of interest to the research scientist interested in making future scientific progress.

Finally, it is essential to have open communication that fosters honest relations over public relations. It should not be assumed that the general public is "too stupid" to see the truth. As the authors write, "dogmatism leads to polarization and moral crusading, but offers no rational solutions." And, to drive this point home: "acceptance can be won only by risking its loss through open communication."

So how do these strategies get implemented? And what role and responsibility do research and industry scientists hold? The goal of generating biotechnology acceptance is to balance both political and technical priorities. This acceptance needs to occur at two levels-consumer acceptance and appropriate public policy decisions.

For consumers, the problem of "too much information" can be alleviated by interactive communication- using blogs and chat rooms, for example, to answer unforeseen questions at a pace that is comfortable for the learning consumer. For products that come to market, product labelling is a way to increase consumer acceptance. Honest product labelling can provide additional information about genetic modifications and their benefits, improve the transparency (and thus foster trust) of the industry, and give individuals a sense of personal control over their purchasing choices. Product labelling can be influenced by both regulation and by the product companies themselves.

So what role should scientists play? Simply providing information leaves the public no more able to make decisions about the technologies. They need guidance to make decisions, and guidance needs to be provided by those with the technical understanding and expertise to present the options. At the level of policy, there need to be regulatory and scientific assessment structures put in place to address all of these issues-regulation, testing, marketing and distribution. Concerns have arisen over trade, and over intellectual property rights. This will require high-level panels of experts and opinion leaders- respected scientific leaders, high-level policymakers and senior representatives of a variety of stakeholder agencies-to work together to provide and expand the range of policy options. For agricultural biotechnology, panels and discussions to address the use of biotechnology to promote food security in Africa have already been formed as part of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) in South Africa.

As all these communication strategies show-in the end, acceptance comes down to trust. Scientists have often viewed themselves as separate from, or even 'above,' issues of policy and politics. This is the 'ivory tower' ideal, but it may no longer be enough to simply create functional biotechnologies.

Scientists must also learn to communicate these technologies to consumers and the public. Furthermore, they have a responsibility to do so in an honest and fair way-a credible way-and allow the public to make their own consumer choices and competent, informed decisions about biotechnology policy. Not only does this provide a service to the public, but scientists must realize that their technologies are only useful if the public is willing to implement them in society. With the availability of funding so strongly dependent on results-this may become a hard lesson learned in the research community.

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