Biotech pot continues to simmer

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Biotechnology foes skipped all the way to the reporters’ microphones, upon hearing Monsanto’s announcement Monday that it will discontinue breeding and field level research of Roundup Ready wheat.

The consumers have spoken, they declare.

No more genetically modified organisms.

They point to voters’ action earlier this spring in Mendocino County, Calif., approving a ban on genetically modified crops and animals.

The new law says it is “unlawful for any person, firm or corporation to propagate, cultivate, raise, or grow genetically modified organisms in Mendocino County.”

Debate continues. The reaction to Monsanto, the reaction to the ballot initiative, has been as split as the global biotechnology debate.

On one hand is the argument that consumers worldwide don’t trust genetically engineered food, don’t want it and don’t need it. On the other hand is the argument we can shrink our environmental impact through biotechnology by having to use less pesticides and herbicides, or we can increase much-needed nutrients available in food staples.

Both sides are well-meaning but close-minded.

Consumers are right: You don’t mess with food. Biotech researchers are right, too: There’s a whole world of good out there waiting to be discovered.

Around the globe. In Kenya, researchers are developing a sweet potato resistant to a virus that accounts for 80 percent of the yield loss experienced there.

Indian scientists have a biotech pigeon pea in field trials that is resistant to the legume pod borer. Despite heavy use of pesticides, the pod borer is to blame for 50 percent of all Indian crop losses attributed to pests.

In the United States, the USDA and DuPont researchers developed a corn with six times the vitamin E of conventional corn. An antioxidant, vitamin E protects cells from free radical damage (which is linked to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer).

Russian researchers created a biotech tobacco plant that produces spider silk, which is five times stronger than steel more elastic than Kevlar – and could be used in everything from medical sutures to space vehicles.

Medicines for world. And the phrase “nonprofit pharmaceutical company” may be an oxymoron, but there is one: the Institute for OneWorld Health.

Its CEO Victoria Hale is looking to biotechnology to deliver affordable medicines to patients in the developing world.

Speaking at a biotech summit in California May 10, Hale said biotechnology could achieve humanitarian goals by battling diseases like malaria and diarrhea, which are endemic in the developing world.

“The dynamics for significant change are under way,” Hale said.

In particular, Hale backs the biotech development of drugs containing artemisinin, an ancient Chinese herbal medicine extracted from the wormwood plant.

Forgot one. Oh, but wait, here’s one I forgot. University of California researchers have introduced a gene into corn that doubles the protein and oil content of corn (snooze) while reducing its carbohydrate content.

Low-carb corn? Now you’re talkin’! Fund that research!

An outright biotechnology ban is a giant scientific step backward, cutting down future technology that could help the environment and fight human diseases and hunger.

I’m not willing to have that decision rest on my shoulders.

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