Ignorance hinders food science advances

There is a wide disparity between the public's knowledge of DNA and biotechnology and the actual science and its applications. The greatest challenges in biotechnology are not technological, but that of public perception, as biotechnology education has not kept pace with the rapid growth of its science.

Biotechnology has now reached an exponential growth phase, evolving faster than society can assimilate it or its implications, with many important decisions reached by default on topics ranging from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food to stem cell research, personalized genomics and medicine, and forensic DNA data basing, to name a few. Isaac Asimov wrote, "Science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom" and in no other field is this more apparent than biotechnology.

The applications and developments in biotechnology are among the most provocative and socially relevant topics today; however, the lack of understanding about basic biology and how we can now work with life to provide substantial benefits to society inhibits scientific research and occludes meaningful debate on important social and moral issues.

Nearly all the plants, fruits, vegetables and grains, available in our grocery store do not grow in the wild and would not exist without human intervention. Comparable to the use of fire, the origin of agriculture is considered a crucial event in human history. Humans invented agriculture. The accumulation of surplus food supplies liberated humans from hunting and gathering and was the beginning of civilization.

Agriculture correlates with all other Neolithic developments, including written language. In fact, most of the plants that we depend on for food would not exist for very long without humans. The development of plant cultivation for food by humans has grown increasingly sophisticated, starting with selection of wild plants and domestication, to the use of genetics, hybrid plant development, and now the applications of DNA-based biotechnology.

Agricultural biotechnology is a significant tool for addressing current global needs. It is estimated that one half of the world's population lives on rice and one half of them live on less than two cups of rice a day. Since worldwide population now exceeds 7 billion and is projected to increase to over 9 billion in the next three decades, the need to improve agricultural production has been considered by some to be a moral imperative. To reach the maximum potential of agricultural output required to meet these needs, the power of advanced genomics and biotechnology tools need to be brought fully to bear on the improvement of agricultural crops.

The anti-GMO mentality that has persisted for the last two decades cannot be allowed to stand in the way of meeting this growing need. Val Giddings, vice president for Food and Agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said it well in a recent article in the Journal Nature. "To our knowledge, every claim of a negative consequence to health or the environment from the use of these crops has failed to withstand scrutiny," he wrote. "It is imperative that the impediments now obstructing innovations in these critical areas be examined, and those that cannot be justified must be removed."

Or as Norman Borlaug, founder of the Green Revolution and Nobel Laureate for his work using conventional breeding to increase grain yields put it: "Biotechnology is not a threat, starvation is."

After 20 years of widespread debate, all allegations concerning harmful effects from the use of GM crops to health or the environment have failed to be substantiated scientifically and fail scrutiny. Demands for mandatory labeling are a poor substitute for education. Such needless labeling conveys negativity to an important agricultural tool. A label will not serve to inform the consumer, but rather misinform the public that GMOs are to be avoided.

While those in the United States and Europe are wealthy enough to buy their food and enjoy opulent nutritional choices, the unintended consequences of restrictive regulations on GM agricultural applications is to unconscionably inhibit food production in less developed countries where the technology is most needed. Anti-GMO attitudes inhibit or impede further research and advances.

Albert Kausch is director of the Plant Biotechnology Laboratory in the Dept. of Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Rhode Island

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