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Though controversy swirls: Biotech genie won't go back into bottle

Acceptance of biotech crops and food is taking much longer than anyone anticipated. Controversy continues to swirl around genetically modified foods with no basis in science or logic, according to two leaders of American agriculture.

Dr. Henry Miller, founder of the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Biotechnology and Iowa farmer Dean Kleckner, chairman of Truth about Trade and Technology, said the debate has reached tragic proportions with starving Africans denied food because of what may or not happen to them in 20 or 30 years if they are given genetically modified corn.

Parents are worried about their children dying tonight. They don't care what might happen in decades ahead, said Kleckner, former president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. They want corn now to survive.

Miller, with degrees in life science, molecular biology and medicine, flatly says regulations and political trade barriers — not food or environmental safety nor any other valid scientific issue — have become limiting factors in international gene-spliced research, trade and food.

He cited research and policy pronouncements that state genetically modified food products are not more hazardous than traditional genetics and, in most cases, are safer.

Regulating gene-spliced organisms, he said, should be no different than traditional plant breeding; yet biotech crop development is unnecessarily singled out with very expensive and very burdensome regulations.

“There is no unique hazard” associated with biotech foods, said Miller, who first joined the FDA in 1979. Miller is currently at Stanford University where he is a fellow at the Hoover Institute, focusing on research into the relationship between science and regulation.

He was critical of government regulators, especially the Environmental Protection Agency in its monitoring of agricultural biotech. “There is nothing wrong with StarLink corn. What is wrong is public policy,” he said.

He called the current regulatory climate for genetically modified organisms “bizarre, unscientific and discriminatory.

“Nothing justifies the extraordinary paradigm” surrounding the regulation of gene-spliced organisms. All that it ensures is that there will continue to be what he calls “pseudo” crises like the corn and Monarch butterfly controversies that will only become public relations disasters for the biotech industry and agricultural research in general.

He offered little hope for the future of biotech, saying because of concerns about losing world trading partners; the United States and Canada are slowing down research on gene-spliced wheat.

“The chairman of the Canadian Wheat Board said the first wheat exporting country to develop gene-spliced wheat could immediately lose one-third of its export customer base,” Miller said.

Kleckner agreed with Miller's observations that biotech crops and foods are safe and the controversy surrounding them are little more than smokescreens for trade barriers and political agendas. However, he predicted, “We will win the fight.

“I read recently that world market for GM crops will reach $8 billion within three years and $25 billion by 2010,” he said.

Kleckner said 20 countries now embrace GM crops. China and India support genetically modified crops and together they represent one-third of the world's population.

“Not every nation has turned down genetically modified crops,” he said, predicting that the European Union will be forced to join this technological revolution because of the benefits it offers its farmers and people.

Kleckner predicts the overwhelming need to feed starving millions will eventuallly win acceptance of GM crops.

“The biotech genie is out of the bottle, and no one is going to put the genie back in the bottle,” Kleckner said.

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