The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
Office of Congressional and government Affairs
At A Glance
: Biotechnology Issues
: 10/07/1999
Session: 106th Congress (First Session)
: Bruce Alberts

President, National Academy of Sciences, and Chairman, National Research Council

: House
: Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry

Testimony of

before the

October 7, 1999

The Role of the National Academies in Agricultural Biotechnology

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee: Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to you today. I am Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences. In this capacity, I also serve as chairperson of the National Research Council (NRC), the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. I am pleased to testify before you.

We are at a crossroads in the history of agriculture. As biotechnology is being introduced, it has the prospect of not only changing the way in which crops are grown, but also the food that we eat. Today, I would like to describe the role of the National Academies in helping government, business, and the nation understand the scientific issues associated with this rapidly developing field -- as choices are being made that guide its future applications in agriculture. I do so, not only in my capacity at the National Academies, but also as a scientist whose career has been devoted to research and teaching in molecular biology.

The rapidly developing field of agricultural biotechnology

As you heard yesterday from the many distinguished witnesses who appeared before your committee, the potential for agricultural biotechnology is vast. Plants are currently being developed with enhanced nutritional value, with the ability to clean up toxic metals, or that contain vaccines and other drugs for human disease. As one example, a new variety of rice has recently been developed containing genes for production of Vitamin A and higher levels of iron. Vitamin A deficiency affects approximately 300 million people worldwide. Therefore, such rice may help dramatically improve public health in developing countries.

Other applications of agricultural biotechnology include crops with the ability to grow in harsher environments and with the inherent ability to resist pests. The use of genetically engineered pest-resistant plants may lead to a reduction in the use of harmful chemical pesticides -- as evidenced over the past three growing seasons in the U.S., in which some reductions in chemical pesticides have been observed.

In addition to plant biotechnology, genetically-engineered livestock are being developed for pharmaceutical development, enhanced meat quality, and waste reduction. Likewise, agricultural applications for genetically-engineered fish, insects, and microorganisms are being explored. The field of biotechnology is rapidly developing, and there is no doubt that it will create new opportunities in agriculture that we cannot even conceive of today.

Future of agricultural biotechnology and public concern

The pace of development and introduction of agricultural biotechnology will be determined by many different sectors of society. For example, there are the academic scientists who advance the basic knowledge of plant and animal systems and expand the range of potential applications. There are legislators, including those in Congress, who enact public policies and regulators in government agencies who must review and approve each new product introduction. And there are of course the scientists, engineers, and marketers in the biotechnology industry who commercialize the applications.

Most importantly, there are consumers and the general public, who will determine the market and social acceptance of such technologies. As you know, the world is encountering growing resistance to the revolution in agriculture made possible by biotechnology’s scientific and engineering developments. This resistance is based upon many different concerns. Some of these are scientific or technical in nature -- for example, human health or environmental concerns. Other concerns are social and economic, focused around the question of who gains and who loses from the new technologies. And yet others range from ethical to religious.

As impartial, independent advisors to the nation since 1863, the National Academies seek to provide all those involved in guiding the future of agricultural biotechnology with trusted, expert evaluations of the scientific and technical issues.

General role of the National Academies

There are more than 5000 distinguished scientists, engineers, and health professionals who have been elected by their peers to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. These honored members of the National Academies serve pro bono along with many other experts in committees that are convened by our operating arm, the National Research Council. During any given year more than 6,000 scientists, engineers, and other experts participate in such activities, most of them at the request of the federal government. In this way, our society benefits from the best efforts of a carefully balanced group of the nation’s best experts – each of whom brings a lifetime of experience to bear on the task at hand.

The final step in our rigorous quality-control process is a review by outside anonymous experts who did not serve on the study committee. Our independence is further protected by the fact that a study’s sponsors have no role in the process and do not see a report until it is ready for public release, with the full text made freely available to all on our website ( Recently, collaborations with national academies elsewhere in the world have been pursued in order to broaden the worldwide impact of such activities.

As a result of the above process, the National Academies are unique in our ability to provide independent and trusted advice to the government and the nation on the topic that we are discussing today, agricultural biotechnology.

Past activities of the National Academies in biotechnology

The National Academies started addressing biotechnology issues in the 1970s, when recombinant DNA, or genetic engineering methods first emerged. In 1974, the National Academy of Sciences convened a committee to assess the safety concerns involved in this type of research, recommending that recombinant DNA experiments should be postponed until further evaluation of the risks. Soon after, the International Conference on Recombinant DNA Molecules, which is better known today as the “Asilomar Conference,” produced an outline of guiding principles and restrictions for this research.

Approximately a decade later, the National Academy of Sciences helped to define the issues surrounding the release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment, publishing a 1987 statement that presented guiding principles by which engineered organisms should be evaluated. Two years later, a National Research Council committee produced guidelines for the field testing of genetically engineered organisms. This 1989 report has since been used by government agencies to establish their policies and procedures for evaluating the ecological risks associated with field trials.

Current and future National Academies activities in agricultural biotechnology

In the decade since these two reports were published, over 40 genetically engineered crop varieties have been approved for commercial planting; in the U.S., a significant portion of our crop of soybeans, cotton, and corn is now produced with these engineered varieties. Moreover, over 5,000 such varieties have been field tested. Given the many new developments, the National Academies have detected a need for updating the earlier reports, as well as for broadening their scope to deal with issues beyond field testing and ecological risks.

A study on genetically modified pest protected plants. This spring, the National Research Council used our own resources to begin a study to look at the U.S. Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology and how it evaluates scientific information concerning genetically engineered pest-protected plants. Pest protected crops constitute the second largest category of commercially grown, genetically engineered plants today (second to herbicide-tolerant crops), and their oversight involves a coordination between three regulatory agencies: the EPA, USDA, and FDA. The NRC committee is reviewing the scientific risks and benefits of genetically engineered pest-protected plants, as well as assessing how the Coordinated Framework uses scientific information for decision-making. The committee’s final study is focused on the scientific issues, in contrast to risk management and social issues. The report will include discussions of potential health and environmental effects of transgenic pest-protected plants, suggested guiding principles for regulatory oversight, research needs, and an evaluation of the multi-agency approach of the coordinated framework. The committee’s final report is expected to enter review in a month or so, for release in early winter. But it will only be a first step, since we expect the report to open doors to many new questions and areas needing further investigation.

A standing Committee on Biotechnology, Food and Fiber Production, and the Environment. In a period of such rapid change, a mechanism is needed that can provide timely independent advisory advice as new issues in agricultural biotechnology arise. With such a role in mind, the USDA approached the National Research Council to convene a standing Committee on Biotechnology, Food and Fiber Production, and the Environment. Last week, we entered into an open ended multiyear agreement with the USDA that provides for the establishment of this standing committee, including funds for the evaluation of one major issue in the committee’s first year.

Composed of about 15 experts in diverse fields related to agricultural biotechnology, this committee will be available to address a variety of scientific and technical issues surrounding the application of recombinant DNA methods to plants, animals, insects, and microorganisms. In addition to food and fiber production, it will consider other plant and animal related applications -- including bioremediation and pharmaceutical production. The committee will identify emerging issues surrounding applications of biotechnology, and it will either provide independent analyses of scientific information or convene other experts subcommittees to do so. It will also promote understanding and communication in this area by bringing together diverse groups to discuss particular issues surrounding agricultural biotechnology. We are pleased to be able to expand our advisory role through this mechanism, and we hope that this effort, begun with USDA, will also become an important vehicle for providing scientific advice for other federal agencies.

Seven Academy Statement on Plant Biotechnology

Decision-makers in both international organizations and national governments are faced with the following situation as we enter the 21st century:

• the pace of change (e.g. economic, social, political, environmental, technological) is accelerating,

• many of the challenges (e.g., in food, water, energy, education, health, security) are regional and global, and

• the major issues are increasingly intertangled with significant scientific and technical questions.

The present mechanisms for providing scientifically credible, cross-disciplinary advice for addressing the complex challenges and opportunities facing international decision-makers need to be strengthened and expanded. Clearly more options are needed. An urgent task for the worldwide scientific community is therefore to develop effective mechanisms for delivering timely advice that utilizes the best scientific expertise, while being so clearly multinational that it cannot be dismissed as reflecting the interests of one nation or a particular bloc of nations.

The world’s 80 academies of sciences, with their collective prestige and experience in advising national governments, offer one such mechanism for providing international decisionmakers with information and scientific judgments. The academies have been working together in an attempt to develop such a mechanism.

As a possible prototype effort, focusing on addressing biotechnology as it applies to world agriculture, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has joined with the Indian National Science Academy, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Mexican Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of London, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, and the Third World Academy of Sciences to draft a statement from the world scientific community about the global promise and concerns surrounding agricultural biotechnology as applied to plants. Prominent scientists representing each of these national academies met in London in early July 1999 to begin the preparation of this international statement, which is expected to be released this next winter.


Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee: we recognize that there are many deeply held, conflicting concerns about agricultural biotechnology in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. We badly need credible institutions that can be trusted to be objective on the subject. As always, the National Academies are focusing on finding balanced groups of experts who are able to be open, objective, and independent in their work, as they develop its findings and recommendations on the scientific issues associated with agricultural biotechnology. As scientists and engineers, we are honored to have the opportunity to serve our government and the nation in this capacity.

Thank you for this opportunity to testify. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.