(Page 2 of 4)
Another popular class of biotech crops incorporates an herbicide resistance gene, a technology that has been especially useful in soybeans. Farmers can spray herbicide on their fields to kill weeds without harming the crop plants. The most widely used herbicide is Monsanto's Roundup (glyphosate), which toxicologists regard as an environmentally benign chemical that degrades rapidly, days after being applied. Farmers who use "Roundup Ready" crops don't have to plow for weed control, which means there is far less soil erosion.
Biotech is the most rapidly adopted new farming technology in history. The first generation of biotech crops was approved by the EPA, the FDA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1995, and by 1999 transgenic varieties accounted for 33 percent of corn acreage, 50 percent of soybean acreage, and 55 percent of cotton acreage in the U.S. Worldwide, nearly 90 million acres of biotech crops were planted in 1999. With biotech corn, U.S. farmers have saved an estimated $200 million by avoiding extra cultivation and reducing insecticide spraying. U.S. cotton farmers have saved a similar amount and avoided spraying 2 million pounds of insecticides by switching to biotech varieties. Potato farmers, by one estimate, could avoid spraying nearly 3 million pounds of insecticides by adopting B.t. potatoes. Researchers estimate that B.t. corn has spared 33 million to 300 million bushels from voracious insects.
One scientific panel after another has concluded that biotech foods are safe to eat, and so has the FDA. Since 1995, tens of millions of Americans have been eating biotech crops. Today it is estimated that 60 percent of the foods on U.S. grocery shelves are produced using ingredients from transgenic crops. In April a National Research Council panel issued a report that emphasized it could not find "any evidence suggesting that foods on the market today are unsafe to eat as a result of genetic modification." Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture, a report issued in July that was prepared under the auspices of seven scientific academies in the U.S. and other countries, strongly endorsed crop biotechnology, especially for poor farmers in the developing world. "To date," the report concluded, "over 30 million hectares of transgenic crops have been grown and no human health problems associated specifically with the ingestion of transgenic crops or their products have been identified." Both reports concurred that genetic engineering poses no more risks to human health or to the natural environment than does conventional plant breeding.
As U.C.-Davis biologist Martina McGloughlin remarked at last June's Congressional Hunger Center seminar, the biotech foods "on our plates have been put through more thorough testing than conventional food ever has been subjected to." According to a report issued in April by the House Subcommittee on Basic Research, "No product of conventional plant breeding...could meet the data requirements imposed on biotechnology products by U.S. regulatory agencies....Yet, these foods are widely and properly regarded as safe and beneficial by plant developers, regulators, and consumers." The report concluded that biotech crops are "at least as safe [as] and probably safer" than conventionally bred crops.
In opposition to these scientific conclusions, Mae-Wan Ho points to a study by Arpad Pusztai, a researcher at Scotland's Rowett Research Institute, that was published in the British medical journal The Lancet in October 1999. Pusztai found that rats fed one type of genetically modified potatoes (not a variety created for commercial use) developed immune system disorders and organ damage. The Lancet's editors, who published the study even though two of six reviewers rejected it, apparently were anxious to avoid the charge that they were muzzling a prominent biotech critic. But The Lancet also published a thorough critique, which concluded that Pusztai's experiments "were incomplete, included too few animals per diet group, and lacked controls such as a standard rodent diet. ...Therefore the results are difficult to interpret and do not allow the conclusion that the genetic modification of potatoes accounts for adverse effects in animals." The Rowett Institute, which does mainly nutritional research, fired Pusztai on the grounds that he had publicized his results before they had been peer reviewed.
Activists are also fond of noting that the seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred produced a soybean variety that incorporated a gene-for a protein from Brazil nuts-that causes reactions in people who are allergic to nuts. The activists fail to mention that the soybean never got close to commercial release because Pioneer Hi-Bred checked it for allergenicity as part of its regular safety testing and immediately dropped the variety. The other side of the allergy coin is that biotech can remove allergens that naturally occur in foods such as nuts, potatoes, and tomatoes, making these foods safer.
Even if no hazards from genetically improved crops have been demonstrated, don't consumers have a right to know what they're eating? This seductive appeal to consumer rights has been a very effective public relations gambit for anti-biotech activists. If there's nothing wrong with biotech products, they ask, why don't seed companies, farmers, and food manufacturers agree to label them?
The activists are being more than a bit disingenuous here. Their scare tactics, including the use of ominous words such as frankenfoods,have created a climate in which many consumers would interpret labels on biotech products to mean that they were somehow more dangerous or less healthy than old-style foods. Biotech opponents hope labels would drive frightened consumers away from genetically modified foods and thus doom them. Then the activists could sit back and smugly declare that biotech products had failed the market test.
The biotech labeling campaign is a red herring anyway, because the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to issue some 500 pages of regulations outlining what qualifies as "organic" foods by January, 2001. Among other things, the definition will require that organic foods not be produced using genetically modified crops. Thus consumers who want to avoid biotech products need only look for the "organic" label. Furthermore, there is no reason why conventional growers who believe they can sell more by avoiding genetically enhanced crops should not label their products accordingly, so long as they do not imply any health claims. The FDA has begun to solicit public comments on ways to label foods that are not genetically enhanced without implying that they are superior to biotech foods.
It is interesting to note that several crop varieties popular with organic growers were created through mutations deliberately induced by breeders using radiation or chemicals. This method of modifying plant genomes is obviously a far cruder and more imprecise way of creating new varieties. Radiation and chemical mutagenesis is like using a sledgehammer instead of the scalpel of biotechnology. Incidentally, the FDA doesn't review these crop varieties produced by radiation or chemicals for safety, yet no one has dropped dead from eating them.
Labeling nonbiotech foods as such will not satisfy the activists whose goal is to force farmers, grain companies, and food manufacturers to segregate biotech crops from conventional crops. Such segregation would require a great deal of duplication in infrastructure, including separate grain silos, rail cars, ships, and production lines at factories and mills. The StarLink corn problem is just a small taste of how costly and troublesome segregating conventional from biotech crops would be. Some analysts estimate that segregation would add 10 percent to 30 percent to the prices of food without any increase in safety. Activists are fervently hoping that mandatory crop segregation will also lead to novel legal nightmares: If a soybean shipment is inadvertently "contaminated" with biotech soybeans, who is liable? If biotech corn pollen falls on an organic cornfield, can the organic farmer sue the biotech farmer? Trial lawyers must be salivating over the possibilities.
The activists' "pro-consumer" arguments can be turned back on them. Why should the majority of consumers pay for expensive crop segregation that they don't want? It seems reasonable that if some consumers want to avoid biotech crops, they should pay a premium, including the costs of segregation.
As the labeling fight continues in the United States, anti-biotech groups have achieved major successes elsewhere. The Biosafety Protocol negotiated last February in Montreal requires that all shipments of biotech crops, including grains and fresh foods, carry a label saying they "may contain living modified organisms." This international labeling requirement is clearly intended to force the segregation of conventional and biotech crops. The protocol was hailed by Greenpeace's Benedikt Haerlin as "a historic step towards protecting the environment and consumers from the dangers of genetic engineering."
Activists are demanding that the labeling provisions of the Biosafety Protocol be enforced immediately, even though the agreement says they don't apply until two years after the protocol takes effect. Vandana Shiva claims the food aid sent to Orissa after the October 1999 cyclone violated the Biosafety Protocol because it was unlabeled. Greenpeace cited the unratified Biosafety Protocol as a justification for stopping imports of American agricultural products into Brazil and Britain. "The recent agreement on the Biosafety Protocol in Montreal...means that governments can now refuse to accept imports of GM crops on the basis of the 'precautionary principle,'" said a February 2000 press release announcing that Greenpeace activists had boarded an American grain carrier delivering soybeans to Britain.
Under the "precautionary principle," regulators do not need to show scientifically that a biotech crop is unsafe before banning it; they need only assert that it has not been proved harmless. Enshrining the precautionary principle into international law is a major victory for biotech opponents. "They want to err on the side of caution not only when the evidence is not conclusive but when no evidence exists that would indicate harm is possible," observes Frances Smith, executive director of Consumer Alert.