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NSF & Congress
Hearing Summary: House Science Subcommittee on Research's Hearing on Agricultural Biotechnology

September 25, 2001

The House Science Subcommittee on Research held a hearing September 25, 2001, titled Strengthening NSF Sponsored Agricultural Biotechnology Research: H.R. 2051 and H.R. 2912 to receive testimony on these two bills that propose to expand the National Science Foundation's research efforts related to plant genomics, particularly as they relate to food crops. Subcommittee Chairman Nick Smith (R-MI) opened the hearing saying, "The use of biotechnology to produce new varieties of plants - for food or other uses - has been of great interest to this subcommittee in the past." He went on to say, "-potential benefits are limited only by the imagination and resourcefulness of our scientists. The two bills we'll consider today both attempt to help unleash some of that imagination and resourcefulness."

Witnesses:

  • Dr. Mary Clutter, Assistant Director, Biological Sciences Division, National Science Foundation (Testimony)
  • Dr. Catherine Ives, Director, the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project, Michigan State University (Testimony)
  • Dr. Charles Arntzen, Professor of Plant Biology, Arizona State University (Testimony)
  • Dr. Robert Paarlberg, Professor of Political Science, Wellesley College (Testimony)

Attendees:

Chairman Smith, Ranking Member Johnson, Mr. Gutknecht, Mr. Etheridge, Ms. Rivers, Mr. Baird, Mr. Moore, Ms. Hart, Mr. Baca.

Testimony:

Each of the witnesses expressed support for the goals of the proposed legislation. Drs. Ives, Arntzen, and Paarlberg were particularly enthusiastic about bills' potential to improve agricultural productivity in third world countries threatened by malnutrition and famine. They expressed the belief that publicly sponsored, biotechnical research could focus on crops that might achieve significant improvement in yield and nutritional value but that are not commercially viable and therefore not the focus of private sector biotech research. They also noted that publicly sponsored research might find greater acceptance in overcoming societal resistance to genetically modified crops than research performed by commercial interests. Dr. Arntzen also testified on the success of his research into plant based oral (edible) vaccines. Dr. Clutter noted that the NSF did not need additional statutory authority in order to pursue the laudatory goals of the proposed legislation.

Members Questions:

Chairman Smith asked about strategies for overcoming the resistance to the acceptance of genetically modified crops outside of the US.

Dr. Arntzen answered that such resistance will be overcome only when we can demonstrate a significant benefit, particularly a health or nutritional benefit, of the GM crop over presently used crops.

Rep. Johnson asked about the role of private sector investment in biotech research on the acceptance of GM crops in poor countries.

Drs. Ives and Paarlberg noted that intellectual property issues can be an additional barrier to introducing GM crops overseas and that we must address in any public/private research collaboration ways to encourage technology transfer to the third world.

Rep. Hart asked why should the federal government fund research already being done in the private sector.

Dr. Paarlberg responded that what is contemplated by these proposals is research that is complementary to ongoing, private sector research and that addresses research subjects and crops that are not addressed by the private sector for commercial reasons.

Rep. Baca: "What are the risks of using GMOs."

Dr. Arntzen responded that he biggest risk, given the expanding world demand for food, is not developing and using GMOs.

Rep. Baca: "How will US food aid change over the next several years?"

Dr. Arntzen answered that the U.S. has historically worked to transfer agricultural technologies to poorer countries, but we have slacked off that effort for the last couple of decades. We need to reemphasize the technology transfer component of our international food policy.

Dr. Paarlberg said that no amount of direct food aid will solve the malnutrition problems of Africa the only solution is to improve the agricultural productivity of that continent to avoid future famines.

 

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