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Editorial Battle over biotech brews in San Diego

Since man forged the first metal weapon, science and technology have been a lightning rod for controversy.

Many millennia later, that point hasn’t changed. So it really should come as no surprise that, as biotech’s keenest minds from around the world prepare to gather in San Diego for next month’s BIO 2001 conference, controversy and opposition will swirl around the San Diego Convention Center.

Protesters obviously have become much more sophisticated since the Bronze Age, but it nonetheless comes with the territory: Scientific discoveries often are born amid raging debate over the benefits and harmful effects the advances may cause. BIO 2001 will be no different in that respect, as protesters at the annual biotech industry summit , held this year in San Diego , already begin to muster in the county’s back country.

And it is biotech, perhaps more so than any other science- or technology-related field, that stirs the most controversy. From genetically altered crops to stem cell research to cloned animals proudly displayed on the news, biotechnology can be extremely unnerving, especially to many of the morals and values our society holds dear.

As alarming as such advancements may be, make no mistake: Many of these discoveries are allowing humans to live longer, healthier lives. From last year’s unlocking of the human genome to new cancer-fighting drugs, biotechnology ultimately creates a safer world.

Genetically engineered food once again will be among the conference’s most hotly debated topics. Should foods be insect- and disease-resistant as they are grown? Should plants and animals become more nutritious through scientific alteration?

Some local ag-bio companies are wrestling with these very topics. In an ever-hungrier world, such debates take on even more relevance. Yet it’s hard to argue the ultimate outcome that more food , more nutritious food , will raise the standard of living worldwide.

Debate over such issues has its place. Science must have a conscience as it pushes the boundaries, and public opinion plays a large role in guiding biotech’s ethical composition. Certainly, such projects as San Diego’s Advanced Tissue Sciences’ exploration of growing limbs in the laboratory raise questions.

We hope demonstrators make their points peacefully, but unfortunately, based on similar events held elsewhere in the world, law enforcement officials are already girding for the worst. There are dozens of issues that merit debate, yet violence will overshadow any serious dialogue that would take place.

Still, scientists must take note of the issues raised by protesters. Everyone, from those involved in the demonstrations to scientists conducting the research, has a stake in the type of food we put on the table and the technology used to save lives.

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