RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Genetically engineered food from crops like soybeans and corn has aroused heated controversy in recent years. But some experts say that controversy will seem mild compared to what awaits when genetically modified meat and milk go on sale. The National Academy of Sciences has just released a report on the concern surrounding genetically engineered animals. NPR's Dan Charles reports.
DAN CHARLES reporting:
For the last decade, Thomas Hoban, a sociologist at North Carolina State University, has been asking consumers what they think about genetically engineered food. And one of his very first surveys revealed that in the mind of the public, plants and animals are very different.
Mr. THOMAS HOBAN (North Carolina State University): About 26 percent of the American public felt it was actually morally wrong to genetically engineer plants. We found 53 percent of the American public, over half, felt it was morally wrong to genetically engineer animals.
CHARLES: Back then, the consumer didn't have to face any genetically engineered animals, but that soon could change. One company wants to sell salmon that have been genetically modified to grow much faster. Another company has cloned some particularly prized bulls for continued productive insemination of cows across America. Other researchers are modifying cows or goats so they will produce pharmaceuticals or even spider silk in their milk. It's new territory for science and also for government regulators. So the Food and Drug Administration asked the nation's most prestigious scientific body, the National Academy of Sciences, to look at what it called science-based concerns raised by this research. That includes risks to food safety, to the environment and to animal welfare. John Vandenbergh, a zoologist also from North Carolina State, chaired the study group.
Mr. JOHN VANDENBERGH (North Carolina State University): The committee does not want to produce a report that impedes the progress of biotechnology. But it does want to make sure that any of that progress is done in a safe and responsible manner.
CHARLES: Government regulators need to make sure, for instance, that the meat and milk from cloned cattle really are identical and just as safe as the products of ordinary animals. So far, that's not been proven. But Vandenbergh says it's a question that science can answer.
Mr. VANDENBERGH: What it takes is more data, and we'll have that confirmed one way or the other, I think.
CHARLES: More difficult to resolve, he says, are concerns about potential dangers to ecosystems when it comes to creatures like fish or insects that can migrate and survive on their own. Faster, bigger salmon, for instance, if they got into the wild, could compete with normal salmon. The report doesn't make specific recommendations on how to resolve these concerns. Vandenbergh says that's something government agencies or Congress will have to address. Yet, Thomas Hoban, the sociologist, says the report is missing the forest for the trees. By focusing so narrowly on risks to food safety or the environment, he says, it misses what's more important.
Mr. HOBAN: I feel like they did not sort of head-on address the psychological, sort of emotional issues that are going to be attended with animals.
CHARLES: We humans care more about animals than we do about plants, Hoban says. They're closer to us. Whatever scientists do to a cow, we can imagine them doing to us. Hoban has been a consultant to biotech companies, and he's supported genetically engineered crops. But he's not so sure about animal biotech. And most of the companies currently involved in animal biotechnology, he says, don't seem to realize they're wandering into a mine field of emotion.
Mr. HOBAN: These are our companies that, in fact, have little or no track record and probably little or no connection with food and agriculture.
CHARLES: It's a shaky foundation, he says, on which to build a technology, and that won't change until both government and the biotech industry really know what consumers are thinking. Dan Charles, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: The time is 29 minutes past the hour.