Proponents and opponents of biotechnology may have more in common than meets the eye, according to Owusu Bandele, an organic farmer and a professor at the College of Agriculture, Family and Consumer Sciences, at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La. Both groups, he says, tend to share ideas only with those who believe as they do, and often fail to appreciate other points of view.
Bandele, who spoke recently at the joint meeting of the Louisiana Plant Protection Association and the Louisiana Association of Agronomists, admits that his cynical view of genetic engineering is different from most people in the agricultural industry. However, he says, “That doesn't mean we can't use the opportunity to learn from each other.”
It has been his experience, he says, that there are often obstacles involving open dialogue between the two opposing viewpoints when it comes to genetic engineering, and biotechnology in general. “Many of us, including myself, often find ourselves in the company of those who share our own ideas and we are, in essence, preaching to the choir,” Bandele says.
“Sometimes, we're so caught up in our own point of view that we fail to recognize even any truth in some of the criticisms that are stated,” he says. “There are different ways of looking at the same information, and this lack of appreciation is even worse when there is name-calling involved. A lot of times when scientists who are pro-genetic engineering discuss the opposition, so to speak, they refer to them using terms like ‘radical environmentalists,’ regardless of the nature of their criticism. This name-calling cuts off any type of real discussion.”
Communication between those on both sides of the issue is imperative, Bandele says, because as the adoption of biotech crops increases, so to do the concerns by those who question the safety of the science behind the technology.
Biotechnology, in its broadest sense, is the application of biological sciences for uses by people. However, many of those people voicing their opinions both for and against biotechnology equate it with genetic engineering.
“Is genetic engineering an extension of traditional breeding? Most proponents will tell you that it is. However, many critics think that genetic engineering is really in direct opposition to traditional breeding in that it enables crosses to be made that would never occur in nature,” he says.
In spite of his concerns, Bandele is cognizant of the reported benefits of genetic engineered crops. These benefits, he says, include an increased tolerance to unfavorable climactic conditions and insects, an increased plant nutrient status, increased production efficiency, and the potential health benefits to humans through the use of animals as sources of drugs or organs.
On the other side of the coin, those opposing the use of biotechnology fear, among other things, the possibility of creating altered life forms, the inadvertent production of new allergens or toxins, and the ability to transfer genetic traits without affecting other characteristic traits. Opponents of biotechnology are also concerned about antibody-resistant marker genes leading to antibody resistance, the possibility that the use of genetic engineering could reduce animal and plant diversity because of similarities in genetic makeup, and the further monopolization of global food supplies due to the worldwide use of transgenic crops.
More specifically, those vocal in their opposition to glyphosate-tolerant crop varieties believe the technology will result in an increased use of herbicides, the production of ‘super weeds,’ cross-contamination of conventional crops, and increased pesticide residues.
Similarly, opponents of Bt crops believe the opportunity is there to harm non-target organisms and insects and develop resistance to Bt with transgenic crops. Ironically, many organic farmers use Bt formulations for insect control.
“Any new technology is likely to produce both proponents and critics,” Bandele says. “It's not always a cut-and-dry situation, and the scientific basis for safety decisions are not always as extensive as are needed.
Questioning whether the “good science” yet exists for genetic engineering, he says, “There are scientists who believe that unfortunately right now we lack the necessary data to predict the consequences of widespread planting of transgenic crops, largely because the technology itself is so new. In addition, the people who deal with the safety of these crops are often also the people who manufacture them, so there is a possible conflict of interest problem there.”
In the final analysis, the public should determine the fate of genetic engineering in agriculture, Bandele says. “These decisions should be based on the gathering and assessing of pertinent information. That's not to say that even the majority of transgenic crops are unsafe, but the public should decide. And, market demands for non-genetically modified products should be respected, regardless of the reasons for that demand, and regardless of whether or not it's founded in science.
“There may be some unscientific reasons why people prefer one type of crop to another,” he says.
“There's no scientific reasoning for the fact that some people prefer a Toyota over a Ford for example, but we respect their right to choose. Shouldn't we take advantage of those niches in agriculture as well?”