"Part of what we do here is
begin to imagine what we
can do in North Carolina."
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty member was among the speakers at the 2002 Emerging Issues Forum, Biotechnology and Humanity at the Crossroads of a New Era. Dr. Thomas Hoban, professor and Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and director of the Center for Biotechnology in Global Society (CBIGS), was one of the experts focusing on biotech-nology and the controversial issues associated with it including cloning, stem cell research, gene therapy and
genetically engineered crops, as well as bioterrorism.
N.C. State Chancellor Marye Anne Fox and former N.C. Governor James B. Hunt, who founded the forum in 1985, hosted the event. Fox announced that Hunt had been named to serve as chairman of the board of the newly created Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University. The initiative will expand the EIF into a more comprehensive public policy institute that mobilizes expertise in the sciences, engineering and the humanities and social sciences to help solve public policy problems and address questions of economic and civic development.
This is our 17th year, and I have seen the excitement of ideas and the development of ideas here, Hunt said. The only problem is, when we left here, those issues were not pressed and pursued as they ought to have been. Now, with this institute, we want this to be an ongoing activity. We want this institute to help push forward these ideas to make change.
This years emerging issues were at the top of his list for action.
We are one of the five leading areas for biotechnology in America, Hunt said. We have the potential to build a new economy in North Carolina based upon this and other scientific research going on here. But we need to hear about it and learn what we need to do and about the effect it will have on our future workforce. Weve got to have a workforce with the knowledge and skills to cause these developments and make it all possible.
Part of what we do here is begin to imagine what we can do in North Carolina.
While locally significant, the issues discussed were of global importance. Hobans presentation, Biotechnology and Society, was part of the forum segment on the human genome, stem cells and the medical promise. Hoban, who has conducted research on public perceptions of food biotechnology, environmental issues and new products, discussed the challenges of integrating biotechnology into society. The enormous potential of biotechnology will be realized only if society accepts the science and resulting products as safe and ethical, Hoban said. Such acceptance is not guaranteed.
Speaking in the same segment was Sandy Thomas, director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in London, who offered a range of perspectives on the medical promise of biotechnology, including stem cell research. (Stem cells are the unprogrammed master cells that can turn into nearly every cell type in the body; scientists believe research on stem cells has the potential to prevent, treat or cure many illnesses, such as cancer, diabetes, Parkinsons and Alzheimers diseases, and paralysis.)
Scientists have isolated and cultured stem cells, opening up the possibility of new ways of making cells and tissues for patients with degenerative and other diseases, Thomas said. Stem cells are unique in that they can give rise to many other types of cells and tissues, and this feature is particularly well developed in early embryos. While this research has raised hopes among disease sufferers, others see embryo stem cell technology as a source of concern and fear, she said including fears that basic ethical principles, which concern respect for persons, will not be observed in the use of these new technologies.
One of our greatest challenges, she said, is to realize the medical promise of these new areas of scientific endeavor whilst ensuring that people are protected from exploitation, lack of respect or unsafe practices either in research or application of new treatments.
Meeting this challenge, she said, entails bringing together our scientific understanding with our ethical principles to help us decide what ought to be done: Just because something can be done does not mean that it should, said Thomas.
Addressing the issue of Agricultural Biotechnology: Savior or Scourge? was Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.
There is no doubt that if genetic engineering is used appropriately and regulated carefully, it could be a boon to mankind, he said.
However, he said, the biotech industry has done a lousy job of presenting its products to the world and winning over public opinion. A public which has accepted genetically engineered pharmaceuticals without any qualms whatsoever, he says, is suspicious when it perceives that genetically engineered food was snuck into the food supply.
Many people in the U.S. and abroad would think differently about agricultural biotechnology if they knew that growing biotech crops can reduce the use of dangerous insecticides and provide other environmental benefits.
In sum, he said, agricultural biotechnology is a valuable tool to be harnessed to enable farmers to produce more and better food and fiber in a more environmentally sound manner. But the only way to maximize benefits and minimize risks is to ensure careful regulation of the technology, keeping it in public domain, distributing products that benefit and helping needy nations to use the technology productively.
Also among the speakers were U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, U.S. Sen. John Edwards, U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, and N.C. Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Meg Scott Phipps.
Etheridge said that while the gains and benefits already reaped from biotechnology are many, the awesome potential of biotechnology has not even been tapped. As our knowledge of the building blocks of life increases, he continued, we must ask ourselves if we are ready to use this power wisely.
And now, after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, he said, We live in a new and different world from the one we thought we lived in. And in light of that we must look differently at biotechnology. A danger exists, the risk that some individual or group could use this power against the agricultural sector.
The threat is real, he said, noting that while the American food supply is the safest in the world, there are few barriers to terrorists using biotech for hostile purposes. In answer, he said he is supporting comprehensive protection legislation to step up efforts and funding for research to protect the agricultural sector.
The biotech research community must be funded so they can do their part in addition to their other research to develop tools and techniques to prevent and combat the use of biotechnology as a weapon.
final charge to the university and private sector scientists in attendance
encapsuled the dominating point of many forum presentations: I
want us to continue the wondrous exploration of this wonderful science
while protecting our citizens from misuse.