t. Paul campus hosts biotechnology debate

Max Rust

Two perspectives of agricultural biotechnology gently clashed Thursday night at the Earle Brown Center for Continuing Education on the St. Paul campus.
While one view purported the potential benefits of genetically modified crops, another expressed concern for potential environmental and human health risks associated with bringing biotechnology into the market without sufficient testing.
“The bottom line is, things look bad for biotech,” said Phil Regal, a University ecology professor who has been studying potential risks of genetically engineered crops since the 1980s.
In predicting the future of genetically modified agricultural goods, Regal estimated a 30 percent chance the biotech industry will collapse.
“I think we can see a backlash like we’ve seen in the nuclear industry,” he said. However, he noted a 60 percent chance that the industry will use Band-Aid approaches to problems, and “continual turmoil.”
Posing a more positive view of biotechnology was College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences Dean Charles Muscoplat.
Muscoplat, who was appointed dean in September after his post ended as vice president for medical affairs at local biotech company MGI Pharma Inc., devoted 20 minutes to profiling numerous potential medical and agricultural benefits of biotechnology as the food industry enters a globally competitive era.
“There’s a convergence of breakthrough technologies,” Muscoplat said. “There’s increased competition and the availability of technology.”
Billion-dollar ivory tower
Regal said he thinks the demand on biotech companies to produce revenue is bypassing needed experimental scrutiny of the technology. He used an example of a company that inserted genetic material from Brazil nuts into soybeans. The study found that people with nut allergies reacted to the soybeans. But before the discovery was made, it was almost approved for the market.
“What we see is rushing ahead and trying to exploit (biotechnology) very quickly and being sloppy about it, and I think it’s going to come back to haunt us,” Regal said.
Regal also said the many companies in the biotech industry treat skeptics as uneducated and misinformed nuisances.
“Anti-progress Neanderthals, or tree-huggers who don’t care if human beings starve … criminal types almost. That’s the way an awful lot of them tend to look at anyone who raises questions. And of course that backfires,” Regal explained. “You take people from MIT and Berkeley and everywhere else who ask perfectly reasonable questions, and they get characterized as being luddites … this is not good for public relations.”
Muscoplat emphasized the potential of the technology to solve social problems, particularly the plight of struggling farmers. He cited the potential benefits of disease-resistant wheat crop in northwest Minnesota where production was down last year because of disease.
“You talk about rural development in Minnesota, nothing would do more for rural development than to solve this problem and put $400 million back into the economy of northwest Minnesota,” Muscoplat said. “Maybe genetic technology can do that. Maybe it can make healthier foods, maybe it can prevent disease and maybe it can protect the environment.”

Undercurrents of controversy
The audience peppered the two speakers with questions about the University’s role in biotechnology.
One audience member asked Muscoplat about a recent controversy about the funding of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, an organization with the mission to bring together various agricultural sectors and promote sustainable farming.
An e-mail scripted by members of several agriculture groups affiliated with the institute alleged that Muscoplat wants to reduce the institute’s funding. The message also stated that Muscoplat forced the institute’s director Don Wyse to resign last Friday.
Although Wyse said he did resign April 6, he would not comment to the allegation that it was forced.
Muscoplat said he would not comment on the accusation either, but did mention that many departments in the college, including the institute, were being examined as an overall budget-cutting measure.
Wyse had not planned on resigning, said Greg Reynolds, an organic farmer who is also one of MISA’s board of directors. He said he and other board members were perplexed by the resignation in a letter sent to them from Muscoplat’s office indicating the news.