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Pioneering biotech work led to 20 years of progress

Talk about surprises: In the April 15 issue of the New Yorker magazine is a full-page photo of a biotech cotton stalk loaded with fluffy white bolls. The same ad appears in the May Conde Nast Traveler magazine, as well as other national consumer publications.

It is another in the ongoing series from the Council for Biotechnology Information, which through its advertising-information programs, has been doing an excellent job of fostering public awareness of the benefits of biotechnology.

The text that goes with the cotton ad is brief, but effective: “Would it surprise you to know that one way to get rid of bugs is to spray less? Advancements in plant biotechnology mean that we can now grow crops that are protected from insect pests, which means less spraying across our country's farmland. In fact, biotech crops, like cotton, require less spraying than before. If you want to learn more, we invite you to call us or visit our Website.”

The ad, judging from the publications in which it appears, is targeted to an upscale, high-income, metropolitan audience — one that is already being bombarded by negative images of agriculture and biotechnology by anti-farming organizations such as Greenpeace, the Environmental Working Group, and others.

Unlike the scare tactics of the anti-farming/anti-biotech groups, this ad and others from the council point to the positive aspects of biotechnology.

Coincident to this advertisement and the recent Earth Day observance (which still gets little attention in our part of the world) is a milestone: 2002 marks 20 years of progress in biotechnology.

When Mary-Dell Chilton started a series of experiments in her Washington University laboratory, she was trying to expand her knowledge of plants. But the work she and her group did would result in development of the world's first genetically enhanced plants (tobacco), and pave the way for the revolution that has led to improved crop varieties now planted on millions of acres.

For her pioneering work, Ms. Chilton, now a principal scientist at Syngenta Biotechnology, Inc., in North Carolina, was named one of this year's eight Franklin Institute laureates. The awards to researchers who have made seminal contributions to scientific thought and progress are considered “the American Nobel Prizes.”

Though she wasn't looking for controversy or fame, her work has resulted in both. She fails to see why environmental groups and other opponents are so anti-biotech, noting that many genetically engineered crops use fewer pesticides than conventional crops.

“I've never understood what they are so upset about,” she says. “I'm looking forward to the day when the fruits of this technology will be available to the people who need it most. Someday, we will be able to grow food in places that today are ridden with drought or flood, and grow crops with additional vitamins and nutrients to enhance the health of people around the world.”

The USDA estimates U.S. farmers this year will plant nearly 90 million acres of biotech soybeans, corn, and cotton — 74 percent of soybean acres, 32 percent of corn, and 71 percent of cotton.

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