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Butterflies at the Academy
New panel hears testimony on biotech foods; Varmus is co-chair
Edward R. Winstead

During testimony last week at the first meeting of a National Academy of Sciences committee on biotechnology and agriculture, a member of the committee asked this question: If I am a butterfly, am I safer landing near a field planted with corn containing a pest-resistant bacterium gene or near a field of organic crops sprayed with a pesticide containing a bacterium toxin—or do we know? Six expert witnesses were in the room. After an environmental advocate said, "We don't know," a representative of the biotech industry said, "We do know, and neither field poses a threat to adult butterflies." But his explanation was so technical (involving larvae and genetically modified pollen) that when he finished the questioner said, "This is the problem. As a consumer, I feel like I cannot get a straight answer."

Obviously, the frustration over a lack of clear information about these matters is shared by many. Last year, the US Department of Agriculture turned for guidance to the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences. The Research Council formed the Standing Committee on Biotechnology, Food and Fiber Production, and the Environment. Its mission is to identify issues related to the use of genetically modified organisms in foods and fiber and the latest scientific evidence on their safety. Smaller panels that include committee members and outside experts will focus on specific issues.

The committee is co-chaired by Harold Varmus, former head of the National Institutes of Health and president of Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and Barbara Schaal, an expert in plant evolution and professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis. Members include experts on food allergens and food safety, aquatic biotechnology, and international agricultural policy, as well as a British researcher who has studied consumer attitudes toward genetically modified foods in the United Kingdom.

The consumer was well represented at the meeting

At the meeting on May 4-5, the committee heard presentations from government officials, scientists, and representatives of industry, consumer and environmental groups. How gene-based technologies will be applied to fish, forestry, and meeting the nutritional needs of developing nations were among the topics. Also discussed were a range of issues related to human and environmental health, including the monitoring and labeling of genetically modified foods.

"This committee operates autonomously and does not have a political agenda," says Jennifer Kuzma, a program officer at the Research Council. Although the funding came from the USDA, Kuzma says sponsors are not involved in deliberations and are "kept at a distance." The Research Council soon plans to announce a panel to review the process by which the USDA allows the unregulated release of genetically modified plants.

Last month the Research Council published a study that found no scientific evidence that genetically modified crops pose any special health or environmental risks. The study, however, urged US government agencies to tighten regulation of these foods.

Although questions about ethics came up in the meeting's discussions, the committee will avoid that debate and focus on scientific issues. Still, the panel seemed to recognize the need for public outreach. Several panel members brought a European perspective on the genetically modified food debate to the meeting. The US consumer was well represented, as were farmers and organic growers.

A focus on science and public outreach

The final presenter during the open part of the meeting was Martha Herbert, a public health researcher at Harvard University. She was invited to present ideas about monitoring genetically modified foods, and she prefaced her remarks by saying she had some "wild ideas" for the committee to consider. One option for monitoring the long-term effects of genetically modified foods, she said, is an Internet registry of individuals worldwide who would monitor and report what they perceive as small or minor effects. Similar registries have been used in other areas of public health, she said.

After her presentation, Harold Varmus pulled out his cell phone to make a point. He said that millions of dollars and many years could be spent investigating concerns about the potential health hazards of using cell phones, and the same is true of genetically modified foods. And while he wasn't dismissing those concerns, he pointed out that with limited resources the committee could not study everything. Soon after, the members moved into a closed meeting where the prioritizing began.

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