Gilbert J. Meyer, Jr.
E.I. duPont de Nemours Company
Mr. Gilbert J. Meyer, Jr. is Director, Issues and Program Management in the division of Agriculture and Nutrition of E.I. DuPont Company. He is responsible for issues, crisis management and future trends related to Dupont’s businesses in seeds, crop protection, soy protein and diagnostics. Mr. Meyer served on a task force created by the National Corn Growers Association to assess the “future of agriculture” and is a member of the Board of Directors of the International Food Information Council, a food industry organization. He received his B.S. degree in journalism and his M.S. degree in plant pathology from the University of West Virginia.
Biotechnology has been broadly defined as “the use of organisms or their products for commercial purposes.” In this context biotechnology has been practiced as long as there has been agriculture. During the past 30 years genetic techniques have been developed suggesting that in theory any trait in one organism can be transferred to another organism. The emergence of these techniques has raised ethical, moral, economic and other kinds of new issues with which modern biotechnology now has to contend. Examples are the moral and ethical issues associated with proposals to clone humans and the economic and social issues associated with the use of genetically modified food products.
Genetically modified soybeans that permit more effective use of herbicides or genetically modified corn that is resistant to the corn ear worm are immensely valuable to the farmer but not of direct value to processors, retailers and consumers. When consumers assess the risks that activists suggest may be associated with these types of products, consumers are not motivated to adopt them in the absence of clearly defined advantages. Antagonists of biotechnology have forced the debate about genetically modified plant and animal products to the consumer level because presently that is the point of least benefit for most developments of use to agriculture. For example, preliminary reports indicated that pollen from genetically modified corn was toxic to larvae of Monarch butterflies in laboratory tests. The media and activists widely and quickly distributed the findings to consumers who viewed this kind of risk unnecessary. More thorough research has demonstrated that in the field Monarch larvae are rarely ever exposed to significant levels of corn pollen and thus the Monarch butterfly population is not at risk from the use of this type of genetically modified corn. Within a few years crops will begin to appear that offer clear advantages to consumers and at that time consumer acceptance will follow.
Genetic modification of plants and animals by moving genes between species is very new. The technology has fostered societal, moral and ethical questions for which standards are just now being developed. Each of these issues must be resolved either by society, government agencies or scientists if the technology is to go forward. The discovery of the extent to which DNA can be manipulated has been considered as significant as the invention of the wheel. This assessment emphasized the care that needs to be taken by all segments of society to adopt the technology only after appropriate testing in view of its enormous potential for contributions to humanity.
Electricity and vaccines were great discoveries that consumers were also slow to accept. Progress was made ultimately by carefully taking numerous small steps and making few serious errors. This pattern is applicable for the adoption of new products of biotechnology. Biotechnology is at a stage where serious errors could set the technology back a decade or more. An assessment of the new science indicates that development is probably about where it should be in view of the kinds of the technical, ethical and economic questions remaining to be solved.
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