Genetically Modified Foods Debate — GEN has established a blog for readers who wish to comment on this Point of View by Dr. Miller, as well as on Mr. Smith's Point of View on GM foods, which appeared in our November 1 issue. Please go to the blog entitled Genetically Modified Foods Debate at www.genengnews.com
— John Sterling, Editor in Chief
Activism can be a good thing. Libertarians and civil rights advocates lobby for constraints on undue government intrusion into our lives, and professional associations further the interests of its members. We all benefit from getting to shop in the marketplace of ideas.
However, all is not good-faith constructive activism, and some of the goods in the marketplace are shoddy.
A good example is Jeremy Rifkin’s relentless, decades-old antagonism toward the new biotechnology, or gene-splicing, applied to the production of innovative new drugs, gene therapy for life-threatening diseases, agriculture, or anything else.
Thirty years ago, he and his followers disrupted a public meeting, chanting, “We shall not be cloned.” That was hardly radical by the standards of the 1970s. Rifkin’s statements about biotechnology threatening “a form of annihilation every bit as deadly as a nuclear holocaust,” however, are extreme and baseless traits that seem to increasingly characterize radical activism.
A broad scientific consensus has long held that the newest techniques of biotechnology are no more than an extension or refinement of earlier ones applied for centuries—and that gene transfer or modification by gene-splicing techniques does not, per se, confer risk.
Rifkin’s assertions about biotechnology ignore the seamless continuum that exists between old and new biotechnology and the monumental contributions that both have made to medicine, agriculture, and innumerable scientific disciplines.
The late Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, by his own admission, tried to be sympathetic to Rifkin’s views but was overwhelmed by his “extremism” and “lack of integrity,” and by his showing “no understanding of the norms and procedures of science.”
Professor Gould characterized Rifkin’s antibiotechnology book, Algeny, as “a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship,” concluding that he had not “ever read a shoddier work.” But Professor Gould had not read Rifkin’s later literary efforts on a variety of topics, which are at least as bad.
And then there is Greenpeace. During a House of Lords Select Committee hearing in 1999, Lord Melchett, then director of Greenpeace, was asked “Your opposition to the release of [gene-spliced plants], that is an absolute and definite opposition? It is not one that is dependent on further scientific research?” He replied: “It is a permanent and definite and complete opposition.”
Greenpeace International may have attained the nadir of antibiotechnology activism with several of its antics. In 1995 the organization announced that it had “intercepted a package containing rice seed genetically manipulated to produce a toxic insecticide, as it was being exported...[and] swapped the genetically manipulated seed with normal rice.”
The rice seeds “intercepted” by Greenpeace had been genetically improved for insect resistance and were en route to the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The modified seeds were to be tested to confirm that they would grow and produce high yields of rice with less chemical pesticide.
In the Philippines and many developing countries in Asia where rice is a staple food, disease-resistant and insect-resistant rice are desperately needed. In the Philippines, Greenpeace also reportedly told villagers that gene-spliced crops cause homosexuality, impotence, and baldness.
In Africa, they have promulgated the myth that these improved crops cause impotence and increase the spread of HIV/AIDS. Doreen Stabinsky, a “science advisor” to Greenpeace International, has claimed that cotton fiber (as in underwear), animal feed, and cotton-seed oil from Bt-cotton plants can lead to an increase in the occurrence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria including those that cause tuberculosis and gonorrhea (Times of India, November 2, 2001). There is no evidence whatever for such claims.
More Biotech Critics
Jeffrey Smith is as bizarre as any of the biotech critics and was, unfortunately, permitted to publish a commentary in this publication on November 1. His article consisted almost entirely of misstatements, misrepresentations, and outright falsehoods.
The piece cites a litany of wholly imaginary problems of toxicity, allergy, harm to animals and ecosystems, etc., allegedly caused by gene-spliced plants and foods. It ignores agbiotech’s manifest successes including higher yields, less use of chemical pesticides, and more environment-friendly cultivation practices to say nothing of the potential for drought-resistant plants and plant-derived pharmaceuticals. Smith’s creed is a vile parody of serious commentary. He seems ignorant of the entire history of agriculture, both pre- and post-gene-splicing, but exhibits an idée fixe about biotech.
Then, there are the supposedly more moderate groups, such as the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology (now defunct) and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, that pose as open-minded skeptics rather than antagonists. They are subtler, and therefore more insidious, than the antibiotech players who show their colors unambiguously.
Beneath the rhetoric, their arguments and actions, which consistently ignore the context necessary to understand the potential risks and benefits of the new biotechnology, lead us to the same place as biotech’s declared enemies. They too attempt to create a groundswell of anxiety and to elicit unnecessary, hugely burdensome government regulation that will make biotech product testing and commercialization untenable.
Hoodwinking the Public
Because the public’s understanding of science is meager, it isn’t difficult to hoodwink many consumers into believing all or part of The Big Lie—that biotech applied to agriculture and food production is unproven, unsafe, untested, unregulated, and unwanted. A study by the U.S. National Science Foundation found that fewer than one in four people know what a molecule is, and only about half understand that the earth circles the sun once a year.
The public’s muddled view of biotechnology, in particular, was reflected in the results of a survey of 1,200 Americans, released in October 2003 by the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University.
In an 11-item true/false quiz that was part of the survey, more than half of the subjects received a failing grade (defined as less than 70% correct answers). Only 57% recognized as false the statement, “ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do.” Perhaps most shocking of all, only two-thirds knew that eating genetically modified fruit would not alter their own genes. One wonders whether the one-third who got this question wrong think that if they eat rabbit stew, they will begin to hop.
Activists’ constant repetition of The Big Lie takes advantage of public ignorance about key facts: 1) with the exception of wild berries, wild mushrooms, wild game, fish, and shellfish, virtually all the organisms—plants, animals, microorganisms—in our food supply have been modified by one genetic technique or another; 2) because the techniques of the new biotech are more precise and predictable than their predecessors, biotech foods are likely to be even much safer than other foods; 3) food producers are already legally responsible for assuring the safety of their products, and the FDA does not normally perform safety determinations, but primarily conducts surveillance of marketed foods and takes action if any are found to be adulterated or mislabeled; and 4) unwarranted, excessive regulation including unnecessary labeling requirements discourages innovation and imposes costs that are passed along to the consumer, and are a disproportionate burden on the poor.
In both flagrant and subtle ways, Jeremy Rifkin, Andew Kimbrell, Margaret Mellon, Mae-Wan Ho, Jeffrey Smith, and other antibiotechnology zealots continue to perpetuate various elements of The Big Lie, ignoring our vast experience and the scientific consensus that gene-splicing is an extension or refinement, of less precise, less predictable techniques. To say nothing of the fact that North Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of foods that contain gene-spliced ingredients, with not a single documented untoward reaction.
Exposing False Claims
What makes false alarms about biotech—or any new technology—hard to expose is the virtual impossibility of demonstrating the absolute safety of any activity or product. There is always the possibility that we haven’t yet gotten to the nth hypothetical risk or to the nth dose or the nth year of exposure when the risk will finally be demonstrated. It is logically impossible to prove a negative, and all activities pose some nonzero risk of adverse effects.
Unconstructive, antisocial activism comes, not only from NGOs, but also from the mainstream media. Culprits here include former New York Times environmental reporter Keith Schneider and Andrew Pollack, who currently covers biotech for both the business and science sections of the Times.
Pollack’s “Biotech’s Sparse Harvest” on February 14, 2006, was no valentine to agbiotech. His thesis, “At the dawn of the era of genetically engineered crops, scientists were envisioning all sorts of healthier and tastier foods, including cancer-fighting tomatoes, rot-resistant fruits, potatoes that would produce healthier French fries, and even beans that would not cause flatulence...Resistance to genetically modified foods, technical difficulties, legal and business obstacles, and the ability to develop improved foods without genetic engineering have winnowed the pipeline.”
While Pollack missed many of the nuances about biotechnology applied to agriculture and food production, he devoted ample ink to the antibiotech crowd, including the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology and the radical Friends of the Earth.
Memo to Pollack: All points of view on scientific and technological issues are not created equal. Good journalism is not served by creating a kind of moral equivalence between those who hold ideological, antibiotech views and those with supportable, legitimate viewpoints; that is like equating creation theory with Darwinian theory.
Ignorance of Biotech
In fact, the use of gene-splicing to craft small, precise genetic changes that enhance or introduce desirable traits into plants has been a stunning technological success— but excessive and unscientific regulation and the intractable opposition of activists have slowed its translation into consumer-friendly foods.
How ironic that the same activists who have opposed agbiotech relentlessly for 20 years now decry the “hype” and “over-selling” of its benefits—rather like the teenager convicted of murdering his parents who pleads for mercy from the courts because he’s an orphan.
Pollack’s statement, “Developing non-allergenic products and other healthful crops has also proved to be difficult technically,” is simply untrue. A vast spectrum of such plants (the prototype of which is vitamin A-enhanced golden rice) has been crafted by laboratory scientists, but they cannot afford the gratuitously inflated regulatory costs to test the plants in the field.
Excessive and unwise regulation is a major reason that products in the development pipeline “do not include many of the products once envisioned,” in Pollack’s phrase. Unscientific and discriminatory EPA and USDA regulatory policies make field trials with gene-spliced plants 10–20 times more expensive than a similar plant engineered with less precise, less predictable conventional genetic techniques.
Unlike pharmaceutical development, agricultural R&D is a low-budget enterprise, and such counter-intuitive, unscientific regulation and gratuitous regulatory costs make the development of many promising and even important food products uneconomical.
Finally, Pollack’s disparaging assertion that industry “has been peddling the same two advantages—herbicide tolerance and insect resistance—for 10 years,” is puzzling. These traits have been of monumental importance—not only to farmers’ bottom line, but to occupational health and the natural environment.
Enhanced pest resistance in plants has obviated the need for hundreds of millions of pounds of chemical pesticides (and thereby reduced environmental and occupational exposures), and herbicide tolerance has made possible a shift to more benign herbicides and to environment-friendly no-till farming (less runoff of chemicals, less carbon dioxide production).
Antitechnology, antibusiness activists fear a world in which exploitative, multinational corporations conspire to strip away individual choice from the world’s farmers and consumers. Yet it is they who are guilty of the mendacity and manipulation they imagine they see in others; they who are guilty of stripping away the freedom of researchers to research, doctors to doctor, and consumers to consume vaccines and drugs that can be life-saving.
Like cheap knock-offs of designer goods, some of the offerings in the marketplace of ideas may be attractive at first glance but do not stand up to scrutiny. Only if we learn to distinguish the genuine from the fake will we be able to protect ourselves—and our supply of new plants and other products—from the tyranny of the of the activists.