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Friday, October 8, 1999 Published at 13:47 GMT 14:47 UK


Sci/Tech

Bob Shapiro: In his own words



Bob Shapiro, the chairman and chief executive of Monsanto, is passionate about the benefits that can come from biotechnology. He believes that genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) can improve the quantity and quality of food for all the world's people.

Read the entire speech he gave to the 4th Annual Greenpeace Business Conference and then e-mail us with your opinions.

You can also read the speech Peter Melchett, executive director of Greenpeace UK, gave to the same conference.

Agriculture and biotechnology: Considerations for the future - by Bob Shapiro

I've recently been learning about a distinction that I want to share with you that I'm finding useful as I think about the issues of biotechnology and public reactions. It's a distinction between debate on the one hand and dialogue on the other.

We're all, I think, familiar with debate - debate in the view I'm coming to understand is a zero sum kind of process. It's a win-lose process, it's one in which the protagonists defend their position and attack the positions of their opponents and in which they try to score as many rhetorical points as they can in the process.

Dialogue, on the other hand, is a search for answers. It is a search for common ground, for constructive solutions that work for a wide range of people - debate tends to be either or, and dialogue tends to be both and.

There's no question in my mind or I suspect in yours that the public discussion of biotech up to this point has had the form and characteristics of a debate, and a rather raucous debate at that. Positions have been fiercely attacked and fiercely defended. There has been no hint of the possibility of common ground or of common interests or of common purposes or of common concerns.

'Good technology'

Monsanto, and I personally, have to bear our share of responsibility for that situation. We started with a conviction that biotechnology was a good technology, was and is safe, useful and valuable. We've been working on it for 20 years and that's the source of that conviction, but because of that, I think we have tended to see it as our task to convince people that this is good technology. And we've tried to convince people that we're right and that by extension people who have different points of view are wrong or at best misguided.

We've behaved then as though this is or should be a debate and the unintended result of that has probably been that we have irritated and antagonised more people than we've persuaded. Our confidence in this technology and our enthusiasm for it has widely been seen, and understandably so, as condescension or indeed arrogance. Because we thought it was our job to persuade, too often we've forgotten to listen.

Now, we continue to believe in this technology. We think it can bring important benefits to people around the world and we remain committed to developing good, safe, useful products, but we are no longer going to be engaged in a debate. We are now publicly committed to dialogue with people and groups who have a stake in this issue. We are listening, and will seek common ground whenever it's available and to the extent that it's available, and we'll seek solutions that work for a wide range of people.

'Real benefits'

The underlying premise of dialogue is pretty straightforward In this case, it is that there are both real benefits to the use of biotechnology and at the same time there are real concerns about its use. If you don't believe that there are real benefits then there is no room for dialogue.

If you don't believe that there are real concerns, there's no room for dialogue. All you can have then is a debate with people yelling at each other and generating a lot of noise and a lot of heat but not generating the kinds of constructive solutions that will work for people around the world.

I want to talk briefly about both the potential benefits and the potential concerns. I want to start by emphasising that biotechnology is a tool. It consists of the rapidly expanding knowledge that scientists have generated over the last 30 years about biology at a molecular level, at the level of genes and the proteins they express and the effects those proteins have in living systems.

And it also consists of a set of techniques that are also rapidly evolving that enable us to translate that knowledge into practical applications in agriculture, in nutrition and in human health. Like most tools, like most scientific knowledge itself, biotechnology in itself is neither good nor bad - it can be used well or it can be used badly, and like any important new tool it creates new choices for society.

'Attractive and empowering'

Most of the tools that people have used throughout our history since Neolithic times have had the same kinds of characteristics, starting with fire, which I guess is one of our earliest technologies, and coming down to automobiles, television and computers, the technologies of today.

They're all tools, they all create possibilities for people and some of those possibilities are attractive and empowering and some of those possibilities are less attractive and potentially damaging.

The question for society in the case of biotechnology, as it is in the case of all these other important technologies, is how should it be used. How should it be regulated in order to create benefits for people, to avoid risks and possible abuses of the technology and to make sure that the benefits are distributed widely and fairly and equitably among society?

The benefits, which I suspect most people are familiar with, really fall into three basic categories. There are benefits for agriculture, there are potential benefits for the environment and there are potential benefits for consumers. I'm going to sketch them very briefly without going into any great depth.

Sustainable agriculture

In agriculture, the starting point, I think, has to be the recognition that the commercial industrial technologies that are used in agriculture today to feed the world are technologies that are not inherently sustainable and they have not worked well to promote either self-sufficiency or food security in developing countries. No-one would argue that biotechnology alone is the solution to issues of sustainability in agriculture or food security for the world, but it is, as I said, a tool. It unquestionably can improve productivity while reducing some of the negative effects of current agricultural practises like excessive pesticide usage.

In recent tests, for example, in India, cotton that was genetically modified to control an important pest on the crop reduced the number of insecticide sprays used by seven. In other words, there were seven insecticide sprays that are normally used in the growing season that were not needed at all while producing a 40% increase in yield.

In that connection, I'd like to quote from an article by Dr Paul Christou, who's a scientist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. In summarising the results of biotechnology in agriculture so far, he says we've seen up to an 80% reduction in insecticide use in cotton crops alone in the United States as a result of the introduction of insect-resistant plants.

He goes on to say that US DA statistics now clearly show a 30 - 40% reduction in herbicide use with herbicide-resistant plants. Last week, the African Centre for Technology Studies in Kenya said that in Africa, and I'm quoting, "biotechnology offers new opportunities to transform rural agriculture without undermining local ecologies and economic landscapes.

Human health

My point is only that properly used biotechnology can help. It can help decrease water use, decrease soil erosion and decrease carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Obviously, many other things besides biotechnology have to come into play in order to make agriculture more sustainable, but biotechnology can help. I said earlier that there are potential benefits for consumers and let me just list three because there's been very little discussion, that I've seen at least, in the popular media about those benefits.

One is that biotechnology can be used to put vitamins and nutrients directly into common grains and vegetable oils, in order to deal with very difficult, intractable problems of malnutrition in large parts of the world. Biotechnology can be used to improve the qualities of the oil that are found in our crops in order to make them more valuable from a cardio-vascular health standpoint, and biotechnology can be used to create novel pharmaceuticals using plants as factories for growing them.

Now, for all these potential benefits, there are also potential concerns. Some are questions of fact, but others are questions of beliefs, of traditions and of values. Questions like: Will the food be safe to eat? Is the regular trade process that each nation has in place sufficient to give consumers assurance that they can consume these foods without risk to themselves and their families? Are the products going to be safe for the environment? How are they going to affect bio-diversity?

How are they going to affect other plants and insects and birds? What about out-crossing of genes? What happens if genes do out-cross into wild species? Will consumers have meaningful choices based on the kinds of information that they want to have? How are the new technologies going to affect traditional agricultural practises? How will it affect rural life? How will it affect organic farmers? Will corporations like Monsanto gain too much power over agriculture, which raises questions like what should be patentable and how can society make sure the developing countries have access to these technologies? Is this application of science ethically correct? Are we playing God and in the end do we collectively have the wisdom to use these technologies well?

'Valid concerns'

I think each of these concerns is valid. I mean valid not only in the obvious sense that because people have those concerns - because the concerns exist, they have to be taken account of - I mean valid also in the sense that the questions are not trivial and they don't provide obvious or self-evident answers. They require careful and thoughtful examination.

We - and I believe the same is true of other companies who are engaged in developing these technologies - want to participate constructively in the process by which societies around the world try to develop good answers to those questions. To me, that means, among other things, listening carefully and respectfully to all points of view.

In that connection, you may have seen the public commitment that we made not to commercialise the technologies popularly known as "terminator" or sterile-seed technologies. You should know that we reached that decision after extensive consultation and dialogue with people and groups around the world who had a variety of points of view, especially in the developing world.

I want to emphasise that we remain fully committed to the promise of biotechnology, because we believe it can be a safe, sustainable and useful tool in agriculture, nutrition and human health - and in meeting, in particular, the world's needs for food and fibre. At the same time, we plan to continue the kind of dialogue and the kind of consultation that led to the decision about sterile-seed technology.

As we work to help develop constructive answers to all the questions that people around the world have at the dawning of this new technology, we are committed to engage openly, honestly and non-defensively in the kind of discussion that can produce good answers for all of us.

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