Over the years, Beck has carefully documented the number of times he has proven A&M wrong. “I’m up to thirteen,” he says. Malcolm Beck in his greenhouse s ince its founding as the state’s land-grant institution in 1876,Texas A&M has been the official repository of agricultural knowledge in Texas. The university disseminates research conducted in College Station or at one of 13 regional research stations to farmers \(as well as to horticulturAgricultural Extension Service. Virtually every county in Texas has an extension agent, and the vast majority of them are A&M graduates. Dr. Andy Vestal heads the extension’s biotech outreach efforts from his office at the Institute for Food Science and Engineering in College Station: “This is Not a Public Building,” reads the glass front door of the building that houses the Institute, which is located in the Research Park area of campus, an array of low, modern buildings with large black windows and vast, treeless lawns of well-fertilized Bermuda grass. Vestal explains that the building also serves as a “business incubator” for young biotech companies, which take advantage of low rents and access to laboratory facilities to develop their products on campus before taking them to market. The son of a Panhandle farming family and a former extension agent from Lubbock,Vestal looks anything but earthy in his crisp black pants and loafers, familiar maroon Aggie sweater, and shiny A&M class ring, his ultra-slim laptop computer within easy reach. His recently completed dissertation examined journalists’ attitudes toward biotechnology, and his job as he describes itseems to have more in common with public relations than science. “I think our role as an extension service is to avoid promoting biotech products, but to share information all that we know, both benefits and hazardsso the public will have the ability to participate in this discussion,” he says.To that end,Vestal has created a slide show, which he happily shows me on his laptop.There were no hazards mentioned in the portion I saw, although the benefits were listed in no uncertain terms, beginning with the potential for higher yield crops to feed the coming population explosion in the developing world. Higher yields, Vestal points out, means more food with less acreage planted, which might save pristine areas, like the Amazon rain forest, from being burned for farmland. “It’s interesting that much of the effort to regulate this technology is coming from Europe and the U.S., where food stores are fairly secure,” he notes. In fact, in 1998 farmers in India rioted and burned fields planted by Monsanto with grain containing an experimental Terminator gene, which prevents seeds from forming on plants. Other developing countries, such as Brazil, have also resisted the industry’s considerable overtures. Much to their credit: Brazil is now supplying an unprecedented portion of the European and Japanese markets with grain, while neighboring Argentina, which planted heavily in biotech, is losing market share. Vestal’s show goes on to list a number of soon to be released biotech inventions, including a calorie-free super-sweetener developed by a Texas company, and some still on the drawing -board, like a cotton plant being developed at Texas A&M that grows collagen, for Band-Aids that prOmote faster healing. “It’s more than just Roundup Ready soybeans and Bt corn, I keep telling people,”Vestal says. The real future, he says, is not in improved food crops, but in using crops like corn as “biofactories” to produce enzymes or proteins needed in food processing or the manufacturing of medicines, such as insulin. Thus far, Vestal has taken his pitch chiefly to producers, including large chemical and food companies, as well as associations of growers, grocers, and processors. He recognizes that the next battle will be in the court of public opinion, however. Vestal feels that much of biotech’s public relations problem stems from private industry’s insistence on keeping the technology secret during the development stage, because of the fierce competition between giants like Novartis, Monsanto, and Pioneer. “I urged Monsanto back in the early nineties, before any of this came out, to let us introduce the public to some of the technology coming down the pipeline,” he says, but Monsanto was not interested. 3/30/01 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7
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