USDA biotech advisory panel plots uncertain course

About one week before the NRC report was released, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman also sought new ways to quell some of the unrest that currently surrounds agricultural biotechnology. He personally welcomed the 38 members of a newly formed USDA advisory committee—the Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology (ACAB)—to the committee's inaugural meeting. Almost immediately, however, it appeared that ACAB is being torn in several directions at once—an inevitable outcome of the diverse opinions held among its members about several key issues, such as the safe use of GM organisms to make food and fiber, and the labeling of products that derive from such organisms. Members range from Linda Fisher of Monsanto and C.S. Prakash of Tuskegee University, who favor agricultural biotechnology, to Rebecca Goldburg of Environmental Defense and Michael Hansen of the Consumers Union. These contradictions did not seem to faze Secretary Glickman. “I am a strong believer in the potential for agricultural biotechnology,” he says. “Your thoughts and guidance on our role as a public research body and how we can be more inclusive and responsive to public needs will be of great value,” he added, urging committee members to engage in “civil and thoughtful discussion” about a wide range of mainly nontechnical issues, rather than “shrill debate.” Glickman also noted that USDA has arranged with NAS to establish a “Standing Committee on Biotechnology, Food and Fiber Production, and the Environment,” whose main purpose will be to subject the department's regulatory process to “rigorous, independent, and credible scientific review.” This new NAS committee, which is being co-chaired by biologist Barbara Schaal of Washington University (St. Louis, MO) and former National Institutes of Health (Bethesda, MD) Director Harold Varmus of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (New York), plans to hold its first meeting early in May.


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Fox, J. USDA biotech advisory panel plots uncertain course. Nat Biotechnol 18, 486 (2000).

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