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Biotech pioneers have duties as well as rights


Your News report “California targets GM-trial vandals with new legislation” (Nature 404, 799; 2000) states that a committee of the California state assembly has approved a bill to create tough penalties for the destruction of transgenic research crops. This is very good news, and I hope the bill will be approved by the judiciary committee and the full assembly.

However, I think the bill as it stands is unfair. At the same time as protecting GM trials, some obligations should be enforced on those holding trials. Protesters would then be more likely to accept the bill.

First, the GM trial itself needs legal protection. Some activists are bound to oppose the trial and application of the new technology of transgenic plants, as they have done for other new technologies when first introduced, for example nuclear energy. Approved insect-resistant and herbicide-resistant transgenic cotton, maize and soybean have been planted in many regions of the world for some time, and have had no untoward effects. However, some radical protesters oppose all aspects of GM technology and want to kill these transgenic plants ‘in the bud’ — even though they have been approved — and prevent their development and application. Hence we need to protect properly planned GM trials and study via reasonable laws.

Second, GM trials and applications need reasonable regulation and control. Although transgenic plants have many merits, there may also be unknown environmental and ecological risks (although, up to now, no evidence of risk has been found). Thus, GM trials must be monitored, transgenic products must be labelled before being released into the market, and potential risks must be estimated. It is only fair to make these obligations enforceable by law as well.

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