My organization, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has waged many campaigns over the last three decades to improve the nutritional quality and safety of our food. From advocating nutrition labeling to attacking olestra and sulfites, we know how to publicize problems. Predictably, we’ve been vilified more than once on this page.

      But the campaign we have not joined is the one aimed at halting agricultural biotechnology and genetically engineered foods. While biotechnology is not a panacea for every nutritional and agricultural problem, it is a powerful tool to increase food production, protect the environment, improve the healthfulness of foods, and produce valuable pharmaceuticals. It should not be rejected cavalierly.

      Too many biotech critics have resorted to alarming the public about purported environmental and food risks. For example, one environmental group has stated:

“If deadly toxins that kill butterflies are being introduced into our food supply, what effect are these toxins having on you and your family? Is it possible that these toxins will build up over time in our systems? If so, what effect will they have? The scary answer is that no one really knows.”

Actually, we do know: The Environmental Protection Agency and others have concluded that the “toxins” approved for human consumption have no adverse effect on health.

      While current biotech crops have not been shown to cause any health problem and only minor environmental disturbances, they have begun to yield major benefits. Biotech cotton, for instance, has reduced insecticide usage by more than two million pounds a year. That saves a lot of beneficial insects (not just butterflies) and reduces farmers’ exposure to dangerous chemicals. Biotech cotton also has meant higher profits for farmers.

      Likewise, soybeans engineered with immunity to certain herbicides have allowed farmers to replace more-toxic herbicides, which pollute water, with relatively benign ones and to reduce soil erosion. And in Hawaii, biotech papayas resistant to a devastating virus are saving that industry.

      In developing countries, biotechnology will protect sweet potatoes from viruses, increase yields of rice, and reduce contamination in corn from mold-produced carcinogens. Some critics complain that biotechnology’s promise has not yet been widely fulfilled in those nations. That however, does not constitute a compelling indictment of this emerging technology. Who would have predicted the Internet from the meager beginnings of home computers?

      Of course, not all the fruits of biotechnology deserve a place on the dinner table. Used injudiciously, biotechnology could wreak havoc: weeds resistant to herbicides, novel toxins or allergens in foods, pesticide-bearing crops that kill beneficial insects, and loss of genetic diversity. And in developing nations it could jeopardize the livelihoods of small farmers.

      James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, makes a telling point: “[N]ever put off doing something useful for fear of evil that may never arrive.” Instead of worrying about every remotely imaginable problem — and suffering with today’s known problems caused by conventional agriculture — we need a coherent system to reap the benefits and avoid any problems. Regulatory improvements are essential to building public confidence in biotechnology — a goal that industry on its own has been unable to attain.

      Last week, the Food and Drug Administration took a useful step forward by proposing a mandatory review system. While mandatory approvals would bolster public confidence more than reviews, the agency says it doesn’t have the authority to require that. Ironically, the biotech and processed-food industries oppose formal approvals for FDA-regulated foods, even though they manage fine at the EPA, which has just such a system for plants engineered to produce pesticides.

      The National Academy of Sciences and others have found that significant gaps abound in EPA’s system. Even so, the basic structures are there and need only to be strengthened by the agency or, where necessary, by Congress. But the FDA’s statutes were written long before genetic engineering was developed and need to be updated.

      The FDA also proposed guidelines for making voluntary label claims like “made without genetic engineering.” That won’t satisfy critics’ demand that labels of engineered foods declare “contains genetically engineered ingredients,” a statement that few companies would agree to put on their products. It would, however, help consumers choose non-engineered foods. Later, labels could be required for engineered foods themselves, provided they would not significantly increase costs or convey inferiority.

      For both humanitarian and selfish reasons, the biotech industry should join with others to support the sound measures that would help rescue the technology from doubt and controversy.

      For starters, Congress should give the FDA a legal mandate to review safety data on biotech foods, provide opportunities for public comment, and explain its decisions in the Federal Register. Also, Congress should invest more heavily in biotechnology research and development to bring more beneficial products and methods into the public domain. We need to develop better pre-approval testing methods and to conduct post-approval monitoring of products. And, biotechnology aside, to help farmers survive, we should encourage organic and sustainable methods, which are environmentally and socially sound and, unlike much farming, often highly profitable.

      Furthermore, the United States — and the biotech industry — must provide generous assistance to the developing world, where the need for food is greatest. We should help scientists develop locally appropriate products that benefit consumers, the environment, and small farmers, as well as help governments strengthen their oversight agencies.

      Sensible reform would overcome the extremism of both industry and its critics in a way most beneficial to the public interest.

* Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer-advocacy group funded by its members and foundations.

“This opinion piece originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on January 25, 2001.”