In the worldwide debate over genetically modified (GM) food, some biotechnologists are perplexed at what they term "violent opposition" to the transgenic plants.
"Whatever positive things we scientists say about GM plants, they are against it," a European GM expert said bitterly at the food meeting on GM plants sponsored by EAGLES the European Action for Global Life Sciences in Brussels last week.
Some people are puzzled. One participant questioned Danish environment minister Connie Hedegaard at a public debate over Europe's stance on GM food preceding the EAGLES meeting: "GM food is a scientific issue, but why isn't the voice of science heard? The GM food applications passed by the advisory body of biotechnologists to EU as safe cannot get approval from the European Commission. Why?"
This is really a question worth asking. Probably here lies one cause of the antagonism between the GM proponents and opponents. Many organizations and individuals showing zero tolerance of genetically modified plants in Europe crown their campaign with "biodemocracy". They regard the issue as something to be decided by society at large rather than by scientists.
It is not fair to assert that biotechnologists are not pro-democracy. But they do seem to have been concentrating too much on GM products and not enough on communicating with the public.
Since food is a daily necessity, GM products indeed involve people's basic rights and are no longer a purely scientific or academic issue. It has become an issue of public policy, and societal participation is necessary.
Pluralism in science is also necessary. For instance, intervention from environmentalists, though annoying to biotechnologists, has made GM plant researchers more conscious of the novel technology's impact on environment, which would otherwise probably be neglected. According to Professor Chen Zhangliang, president of China Agricultural University and a GM plant researcher himself, about one-third of the input into GM projects in China now goes to environmental impact assessments and safety tests.
The antagonism over GM food seems to be rooted in the clash between the World Trade Organization rules and those laid out in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to "protect in the field of the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity".
The 7-year-old protocol's "precautionary approach" and principle of "advanced informed agreement" are often cited in blocking the importation of GM food. Such acts, according to trade experts, are against the WTO principles of "non-discrimination" and "transparency".
Critics observe that the protocol, with emphasis on "risks to human health" and "transboundary movements", does not give much attention to the development of trade, while the WTO agreements are not adequate for environmental protection.
As neither is subordinated to the other, the conflict of the two sets of international regimes plays out in antagonism between GM plant experts and environmentalists.
Opponents often associate GM food with multinationals, which are accused of mercilessly ignoring ecosystems and biodiversity.
GM food's introduction into China has not been so pleasant. Before we realized it, China had become the largest importer of GM soybeans.
Some GM plant researchers complain that China is following the EU suit with overly strict regulations on GM food. But if such strict regulations cannot discipline them, how can they convince the public to trust them?
In essence, biotechnology need not necessarily antagonize biodemocracy. They could and should go hand in hand, so long as the ultimate goal is to benefit the whole society.
The author is a media consultant with the Global Environmental Institute
(China Daily 03/07/2007)