Dr. Peter H. Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, is encouraged by biotechnology’s ability to produce more food, lessening pressure to clear more cropland. Photo Courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden.

A biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles likes to tell colleagues about the fellow who came to his Topanga Canyon home to repair a propane tank. Biologist and repairman chatted. When the biologist mentioned his work on the genetic engineering of plants, the repairman became acutely interested.

Yes, the biologist explained, we're looking at ways to alter things like seed proteins -say, to make rice or corn produce all 20 amino acids that humans need. Or increase the solid content of fruit, perhaps to make a tomato that yields more tomato paste per pound. Or change the proteins in flowers to create a purple poinsettia or a blue rose for the ornamental market.

That evening. a stretch limousine pulled up in front of the biologist's house. Out stepped the repairman, followed by several hippies, then a few men in three-piece suits. Once inside the house, one of the visitors "slapped some green matter onto the table," the biologist recalls.

Then he said: "Can you increase the alkaloid component of these leaves?"

The plant was marijuana. The biologist says he declined the contract.

"But it shows that even the guys who deal in the green stuff and the white stuff know about what we're doing and want to use it," he concludes.

Scientists, planners and policymakers throughout the world, including the Third World, have equally high hopes for plants, animals, microbes and viruses altered by genetic engineering techniques.

For most of this decade, however, progress in the field has been stalled by the issue of safety -the suspicion that living creatures altered by these precise new methods might present some as-yet-unknown hazards not found in organisms manipulated by traditional breeding or cruder laboratory techniques.

In the United States, both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture scrutinize new varieties of bugs and plants much more stringently if they have been altered by recombinant DNA methods. The same approach prevails in many other countries, but with varying degrees of strictness.

For several years, the 12 nations of the European Community have been working unsuccessfully to devise a uniform set of regulations which, if approved by their joint political bodies, would be binding on all member states. In the absence of such a system, five countries have adopted their own regulations on the release or field testing of genetically engineered organisms.

The most stringent codes have been enacted in Denmark, which has so far forbidden all releases, and West Germany, where a parliamentary committee has proposed a five-year moratorium on outdoor testing of recombinant microbes. The German environmentalist party, the Greens, has even challenged the opening of a Hoechst pharmaceutical plant that would produce human insulin from genetically engineered bacteria strictly confined within large fermentation vats.

Great Britain, like the United States. has permitted several closely monitored releases of altered microbes and plants since 1986 under its regulatory system. So has the Netherlands.

Unlike the British and Americans, the French do not regulate small-scale research, and at least 10 field trials have been conducted in that country. A permit is required for field testing only if commercial sales are planned.

Italy and the remaining six Common Market nations have no regulations, despite considerable genetic engineering research in both Italy and Belgium. In fact, Italy is vigorously encouraging foreign firms to field test recombinant creatures there, earning the nation a reputation as "the testing ground of Europe."

A similar range of approaches can be found in the rest of the world. After a two-month review, Australia permitted its first release -an already-registered microbial pesticide with a single gene deleted -last summer. Japan has regulations similar to those in the U.S., but has so far permitted no field tests.

India, which could not feed its own people 20 years ago, now produces a surplus of grain thanks to agriculture's Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Indian scientists are looking to biotechnology for the next miracle as that nation's population is expected to soar toward one billion by the turn of the century. Yet because of strong concern among government officials about possible hazards, India has banned not only field experiments but also large-scale commercial use of genetically engineered organisms to produce drugs and chemicals.

Despite these worldwide misgivings, a special committee of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concluded last fall that there is no evidence that such creatures present any unique hazards. And most ecologists agree that even if we lack a general science of "predictive ecology," quite good predictions can be made about the behavior and fate of a specific organism released into a particular environment.

For anti-biotech activist Jeremy Rifkin, "quite good predictions" are not good enough. He favors a moratorium on releases in the U.S. and abroad.

But others see real costs, both economic and environmental, to excessive caution in the development of this field.

The Reagan administration, many members of Congress and the biotech industry worry that overly oppressive safety regulations could threaten the nation's international leadership in the field. Yet the U.S. clearly does not have the toughest regulations in the world. And according to Stuart Weisbrod, Ph.D., a biotechnology analyst for Prudential-Bache Securities, competition in the industry can no longer be viewed simply as a race between nations. Some 130 joint ventures have been formed by U.S. biotech companies and "foreign multinationals," including 65 Japanese companies and 40 Europeans. At least another 12 European firms and 20 Japanese have equity investments in U.S. biotech companies.

Weisbrod predicts the race will be like the competition over marketing of the genetically engineered anti-cancer substance interleukin-2, where "Cetus, the second largest U.S. biotechnology company. will compete...against a triumvirate composed of a small U.S. biotech company (Immunex), a multinational Swiss drug company (Hoffmann-LaRoche) and a Japanese food company (Ajinomoto)."

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A more profound worry among some scientists and policymakers is not that the U.S. will come in second, but that some of the potential benefits of biotechnology will not be realized at all if the field is bottlenecked at the level of small-scale research, especially in the nation’s universities. If there is value in approaching a new technology with caution, there is also a price to be paid for clinging too long to the status quo.

Most ecologists, even those who opposed early field tests, hope for a day when "biorational" technologies may mitigate the sheer presence of five billion human beings on the planet: when new pest-killing microbes or crop plants engineered for resistance to insects can reduce our reliance on chemical pesticides; and when bacteria can degrade polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other hazardous residues of our industries.

"Ecologists are now beginning to realize there's a risk of not doing some of these things, an environmental risk associated with say, the need to change some of our farming practices," says Dr. David Kingsbury, an assistant director of the National Science Foundation who helped to frame the current U.S. regulatory system. "There's a cost to society of not moving ahead because of public fears. For instance, we don't know what we lost in our current understanding of retroviruses and AIDs because of the moratorium in the mid-1970s on doing recombinant work with viruses."

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Dr. Peter H. Raven. director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and passionate defender of the earth’s remaining tropical forests, supported Rifkin in his first lawsuit to block field trials. Now he sees in biotechnology the means to increase productivity on already-cropped lands and thus, relieve pressures to clear more tropical forests.

"What we ought to be doing is rapidly figuring out ways to deploy these new technologies to produce better, more ecologically sound management of cultivated areas so that there can be room to save the rest," he said in an interview. The vast amounts of farm chemicals we use are a major threat to the health and diversity of the biosphere, Raven noted.

More than half of the pesticides applied worldwide are used in the cultivation of cotton. "It is amply clear that we do not live in a pristine forest populated by unique, genetically constant organisms," Raven told a National Wildlife Federation audience. "Equally obvious is the fact that the new technologies need to be understood and regulated properly. But any environmentalist who does not realize that genetically engineered cotton that would contain in itself the properties by which it could resist the pests that attack it, and which would, therefore, make unnecessary the application of millions of pounds of insecticides annually, has not thought carefully about the situation."

In the U.S., "biotechnology is still perceived primarily as a regulatory and legal problem, not an economic opportunity," the president of Monsanto Co., Earle H. Harbison Jr., told a Senate committee last fall. "In other words, much effort is being expended to see that nothing goes wrong, but little effort is being expended to see that things go right."

For Harbison and other industry leaders, having "things go right" means supporting U.S. biotech through patent protections, streamlined regulations, funding for agricultural research and training for scientists and technicians.

For others, doing it right means focusing on the larger economic and social impacts of biotechnology rather than the narrow issue of the safety of individual microbes and plants. While the industry is unlikely to embrace the engineering of illegal drug crops, it is clearly working on products which, in wide-scale use, have the power to enhance or disrupt economies, lifestyles and environments.

For instance, Raven believes the biotech industry can relieve pressures for deforestation of the tropics if it can increase the productivity and reliability of farming on land already cleared. This could be done by providing farmers with hardier, higher-yielding crops that can be grown more cheaply, without expensive fertilizers and pesticides.

But Dr. Daniel Janzen, a professor of biology at the University of Pennsylvania who is also working to save tropical wildlands, sees biotech as a potential threat -especially to the tropical rain forests, where the soil is poorly suited to farming and the climate nurtures weeds and pests. Genetic engineers are already examining ways to make crop plants thrive in marginal environments, those now considered too dry or marshy or salty to farm. The availability of such crops could increase incentives to clear forests, wetlands and other fragile ecosystems for agriculture.

Clearly, the actual impact of biotech in the tropics will depend less on scientific or safety issues than on the industry's development priorities and government land use policies.

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Even if industry and government follow the path Raven would wish, other developments in the genetic engineering labs could damage the agricultural economies of the Third World and create new pressures on social structures as well as wildlands. Already, American and European scientists are developing substitutes for imported products such as cacao, gum arabic, vanilla and the sweetener, thaumatin. Vats of yeast engineered to produce the plant protein thaumatin could reduce the market for the same substance now extracted from West African shrubs. Vanilla plant cells coaxed into growing in culture dishes and secreting vanilla flavoring could replace vanilla beans imported from Madagascar.

Again, the potential social and political consequences are not the province of government agencies assigned to review one by one the safety of new biopesticides or nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

Large-scale planting of crops genetically engineered for herbicide resistance could result in heavier use of chemical herbicides, another prospect that worries some environmentalists. Yet when farmers are unable to rely on herbicides to knock down weeds (because the sprays would kill crops as well as weeds), the alternative is often heavy soil tillage, a practice that accelerates soil erosion and also can retard crop growth. The USDA oversees the safety of engineered plants, but it is not set up to judge which farming practices are most desirable.

Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee told a National Research Council symposium that "the most lasting impact of biotechnology may come not from something going wrong, but from all going right. My biggest fear is not that by accident we will set loose some genetically defective Andromeda strain. Given our past record in dealing with agriculture, we're far more likely to accidentally drown ourselves in a sea of excess grain.

Yet industry leaders like Roger Salquist, president of Calgene, Inc., of Davis California, foresee the opening of vast new markets for farm commodities: plants altered to produce new industrial oils, human proteins, fibers, construction materials and feedstocks such as plasticizers for the chemical industry.

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How will these new technologies affect the small or marginal farmer?

Congressman George E. Brown, Jr. of California has urged evaluation of the "structural disruptions" biotech developments could cause when thrown into the mix with price supports and other realities of modern agriculture. "We must develop a clear picture of what we want American agriculture to look like in 20 or 30 years, and figure out how to use this technology to help us get there," he told a USDA forum. Such an evaluation is overdue, he noted, and advances in biotech have made it "more urgent."

"If I could set the agenda," University of Minnesota ecologist Philip Regal said in an interview, "I would say we ought to take a look at the way we do agriculture in the U.S. and abroad. There's a lot of talk about how biotech is going to result in environmental superiority, but nobody's looking at that carefully and closely. It's not clear that if you just give genetic engineering its head that it's going to result in a more environmentally safe world. All of that requires sound policy. But we don't have it."

Congress has before it a bill that would set up a National Biotechnology Policy Board, but its mission would be rather narrow: to stimulate research and promote commercial applications of the technology. Insiders see little chance for major new initiatives from Washington -either in regulating outdoor use of recombinant organisms or in evaluating larger policy issues -during an election year.

Regal believes the highly publicized battles between molecular biologists and government agencies on the one hand and Rifkin on the other -the green mutant monster vs. Mr. Clean -have obscured the real issues.

"Genetic engineering is like electricity," Regal said. "It is not inherently bad, it is not inherently good. It is a new force, a new concept. No one is going to bury it, and no one needs to save it. The big challenge now is to try to figure out how to incorporate it into our society safely and effectively."