Ambassador Works To Increase Understanding of Biotechnologys Benefits

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — As the U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands, Cynthia Schneider has spent a significant portion of her time working on the issue of biotechnology.

America is the leader in biotechnology, not just in the production of knowledge but in the production of products, she said.

“One of the main roles of an American ambassador is to advance American ideas and policies and products. I saw this as very much a part of my role to lead the public diplomacy initiative in this area.”

Schneider shared her expertise on biotechnology and its implications for worldwide commerce at a recent World Affairs Council of Western Michigan luncheon at the Women’s City Club.

The Van Andel Global Trade Center sponsored the ambassador’s visit to Grand Rapids.

“It’s much more targeted and controlled — and that’s exactly what frightens some people. The scare factor of biotechnology has been major in Europe. There is, in fact, a well-organized and very effective minority opposition,” she said.

Biotechnology is already a touchy subject because there’s a trade aspect to it, and the products and the knowledge are uniquely American, she explained. But because the conference involved a mixture of people with varying perspectives, people had a real opportunity to exchange views.

“The most exciting development in our lifetimes and maybe our children’s lifetimes is the sequencing of the humane genome. With that incredible development so much is possible.”

She heard about some of those possibilities, she added, when she toured the Van Andel Institute the day before. The VAI, she said, “gives me hope for a cure for cancer.”

Scientists now have the capacity to understand how the human body works and how genes are susceptible to and how they express disease, Schneider stressed.

“There literally is a very real possibility of eliminating serial disease. There will eventually come a time when each person’s genome will be known and science will be able to target medicines to fit that person.”

The field of medicine will subsequently become more prognostic rather than reactive, she added.

There are exciting possibilities in the application of biotechnology to agriculture as well, to make food more productive and more stress- and pest-resistant. Perhaps the most exciting development in that area is science’s newfound ability to infuse plants with nutrients and vitamins because it has long-term implications for world hunger.

In Europe, biotechnology is accepted in the pharmaceutical industry but not in agriculture, Schneider noted. In Europe, “food is culture” and Europeans don’t think Americans can understand that.

In light of food scandals of the past two years, such as hoof and mouth disease and tainted blood, the European consumer is naturally wary.

At the same time, the European biotech industry is developing. England is the strongest in that respect and also has the strongest resistance.

But she foresees the biggest problem in biotechnology as the intellectual property issue.

“Everyone wants the result of people being cured of disease and people being fed. But who’s going to pay and who is going to give up what?” she asked.

“Private companies have to have intellectual property rights to develop new products. That’s how they pay for research and development.”

In biotechnology, there are some highly interesting crossroads with a lot of different angles to them.

“But as with most things, there is a way to talk about it together and there is a way to reach a common understanding. We just have to keep talking about it,” Schneider concluded.

President Clinton appointed Schneider, of Sandy Spring, Md., to the post in 1998. Her ambassadorship ends in June. She has a Ph.D. in Fine Arts from Harvard University and served as an associate professor of art history at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. 

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