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(December 2, 1999, Gazette)

In support of biotechnology

Editor’s note: On Nov. 1, scientists from across Canada launched a national coalition to support the responsible development and application of biotechnology. In support of this effort, more than 100 leading Canadian scientists signed the statement reprinted here.

As scientists involved with the research and development of biotechnology and supporters of its use to provide better health and nutrition to people around the world, we urge Canadians to participate in a dialogue about the technology’s potential. We strongly encourage Canadians to base that dialogue on sound science, on facts and on the results of peer-reviewed research.

We hope that Canadians will not be influenced by those who resort to unfounded speculation and discredited science to alarm them about the safety of the foods they eat, the system that regulates those foods or the potential of new technologies to improve and expand the food supply.

Scientific knowledge continues to grow at a rapid rate. The advances in genetics over the last 20 years are remarkable and impressive. As working scientists who have devoted our careers to participating in and learning from these developments, we believe the understanding of the process of genetic modification is sufficient to be confident about its outcomes. In fact, the transfer of genes between species and the creation of new drugs and plant varieties by genetic enhancement have been part of medical and agricultural improvements for at least a decade with no proven negative effects on people. Of course, we are constantly reviewing and assessing new scientific information. We understand that those who have not kept abreast of these advances might find the sheer volume of new knowledge daunting. But we expect anyone who chooses to communicate to Canadians about science will do so responsibly, using facts and the best available information rather than unsubstantiated allegations and rhetoric as their platform.

We believe Canada has a regulatory system for the assessment and approval of all foods and drugs marketed in this country that ranks with the very best in the world. Health Canada demands that extensive data be submitted on the detailed chemical and biochemical composition of crops and drugs produced through biotechnology. When a genetic enhancement produces new plants resistant to insects and diseases, all of the altered plant proteins and other constituents, including secondary metabolites, are analysed for toxicological effects. This includes animal feeding trials. These tests are similar to those used to evaluate pharmaceutical products. Published research shows that these tests for safety are so rigorous that many natural food ingredients would actually fail to comply.

It’s important for Canadians to understand that food biotechnology uses the same tool that has provided more than 100 medical products, including insulin, hepatitis vaccine and products for counteracting cardiovascular disease. It has the potential for equally impressive results in crops. In developing countries, for example, at least 400 million women of child-bearing age suffer from anemia as a result of iron deficiency. This can lead to physical and mental retardation, premature births and natal mortality. About two million children die each year as a result of vitamin A deficiency. These illnesses could potentially be eradicated thanks to a new variety of genetically improved rice that dramatically enhances the dietary supply of vitamin A and iron.

We believe biotechnology will be needed to help us meet an even greater challenge. By the year 2035, the world’s population is expected to grow to at least eight billion. To feed that population, agricultural yield will have to at least triple. It is widely acknowledged that conventional growing techniques are not adequate to meet the need for self-sufficiency, food security or environmental sustainability. To quote Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, an organization whose mandate is to enrich and sustain the lives and livelihoods of the poor and excluded throughout the world: “The tools of biotechnology are going to be essential if crop-yield ceilings are to be raised, the environment preserved through reduction of pesticide use, the nutrient value of basic foods increased and farmers on less-favoured lands provided with varieties better able to tolerate drought and lack of soil nutrients.” We agree wholeheartedly.

We cannot afford to let this potential be put at risk through misinformation or fear disseminated by those with other agendas. We have formed a national coalition of scientists who support the development of the tools of biotechnology to improve and enhance the quality and quantity of our food supply, based on the best available scientific knowledge. We invite responsible scientists from across the country to join with us in standing up for this important technology and for the integrity of the system that regulates it.