Biotechnology Debate Steered by Myths, Not Science, Expert Says

September 5, 2003

Washington, 04 Sep 2003


By Calestous Juma, Professor and Director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Public debates about the safety of new products introduced in the market go back centuries and were often based less on science than on the politics of the time. Similarly, today, much of the debate about agricultural biotechnology is steered by myths driven by socio-economic concerns and not by science, writes Calestous Juma, professor and director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. The scientific community, with stronger support from governments, must do more to openly address science and technology issues with their publics, he adds.

Debates over biotechnology are part of a long history of social discourse over new products. Claims about the promise of new technology are at times greeted with skepticism, vilification or outright opposition -- often dominated by slander, innuendo and misinformation. Even some of the most ubiquitous products endured centuries of persecution.

For example, in the 1500s Catholic bishops tried to have coffee banned from the Christian world for competing with wine and representing new cultural as well as religious values.

Similarily, records show that in Mecca in 1511 a viceroy and inspector of markets, Khair Beg, outlawed coffeehouses and the consumption of coffee. He relied on Persian expatriate doctors and local jurists who argued that coffee had the same impact on human health as wine. But the real reasons lay in part in the role of coffeehouses in eroding his authority and offering alternative sources of information on social affairs in his realm.

In public smear campaigns similar to those currently directed at biotech products, coffee was rumored to cause impotence and other ills and was either outlawed or its use restricted by leaders in Mecca, Cairo, Istanbul, England, Germany and Sweden. In a spirited 1674 effort to defend the consumption of wine, French doctors argued that when one drinks coffee: "The body becomes a mere shadow of its former self; it goes into a decline, and dwindles away. The heart and guts are so weakened that the drinker suffers delusions, and the body receives such a shock that it is as though it were bewitched."


Today similarly charged stories are told about genetically modified (GM) foods. In addition to claims about the negative impact of GM foods on the environment and human health, there are wild claims that associate GM foods with maladies such as brain cancer and impotence as well as behavioral changes. Some of these rumors are spread at the highest levels of government in developing countries.

The tactics employed in the debates are equally sophisticated. Critics of the technology have used instruments of mass communication to provide the public with information that is carefully designed to highlight the dangers they attribute to biotechnology. Advocates of biotechnology have often been forced to respond to charges against the technology and have only on rare occasions taken the initiative to reach out to the public. This is particularly important because the general public does not readily understand the technical details of biotechnology products and so new communication approaches are needed.

While advocates of biotechnology have often tried to rely on the need for scientific accuracy, critics employ rhetorical methods that are designed to invoke public fear and cast doubt on the motives of the industry. The critics draw analogies between the "dangers" of biotechnology with the catastrophic consequences of nuclear power or chemical pollution. Indeed, they use terms like "genetic pollution" and "Frankenstein foods."

Critics have also relied on the general distrust of large corporations among sections of the global community to make their case. In addition, they made effective use of incidents, whose risks they have amplified. A much-quoted study by Cornell University researchers indicated that pollen from GM corn (producing a Bt toxin) killed the larvae of Monarch butterflies. This study was used to dramatize the impact of biotechnology on the environment. Subsequent published peer explanations of the limitations of the study and refutations of the conclusions did not change the original impression created by the critics of biotechnology.

In this case the real environmental issue was not if GM corn killed monarch butterfly larvae or not. The critical question was what impact the corn had on the environment compared to corn grown with chemical pesticides. It is the issue of relative risks that is important; not simply a single event examined outside the wider ecological context. But apparently, this kind of analysis would not serve the cause of critics.

It is notable that the critics of biotechnology have defined the rules of the debate in two fundamental ways.

First, they have managed to create the impression that the onus demonstrating safety lies with advocates of biotechnology and not on its critics. In other words, biotechnology products are considered unsafe until proven otherwise.

Second, they have been effective in framing the debate in environmental, human health and ethical terms, thereby masking the underlying international trade considerations. By doing so they have managed to rally a much wider constituency of activists who are genuinely concerned about environmental protection, consumer safety and ethical social values.

There is a general view that concerted efforts to promote public debate will improve communication and lead to the acceptance of biotechnology products. This may be the case in some situations. But generally, the concerns are largely material and cannot be resolved through public debate alone. This is mainly because the root causes of the debate lie in the socio-economic implications of the technology and not mere rhetorical considerations. It is possible that public debates will only help to clarify or amplify points of divergence and do little to address fundamental economic and trade issues.

What then can be done under the circumstances, especially in relation to developing countries that are currently the target of much of the attention of advocates and critics of biotechnology? Operating in the new global communication ecology will require greater diversity of biotechnology products, an increase in the number of institutional players, enhanced policy research on life sciences and society, and stronger policy leadership.


Much of the debate on the role of biotechnology in developing countries is based on hypothetical claims with no real products in the hands of producers or consumers. Under such circumstances, communication and dialogue are not enough until there is a practical reference point. In other words, rebutting the claim of critics is not as important as presenting the benefits of real products in the market place.


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US Department of State
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