Biotech Crops Break Out


In "Crop Busters" (January 2000), Michael Fumento warned that anti-biotech vandalism had arrived in the United States. Fringe groups with names like Cropatistas and Seeds of Resistance were emulating anti-biotech vandals in Europe, he reported, by sneaking into experimental farms and plots to tear out corn plants that had been genetically enhanced to resist herbicides. At the same time, Fumento predicted two countertrends that he believed would enable the industry to withstand the attacks. First, farmers would overwhelmingly choose to grow biotech crops, because they are cost-effective. Second, consumers would be enticed by biotech varieties that stay fresh longer and have more nutrients.

In the decade since Fumento's article appeared, every independent scientific body that has evaluated current biotech crops has found them safe for human health and the environment. As he predicted, farmers have strongly embraced biotech crops. According to the nonprofit International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, farmers in 13 countries planted 100 million acres of biotech varieties in 2000. Last year the figure had risen to 330 million acres in 25 countries.

Meanwhile, Americans don't appear to care overmuch that three-quarters of all prepared food products contain ingredients derived from biotech crops. Unfortunately, excessive regulation has impeded the development and marketing of crop varieties that offer consumers health or other direct benefits. Still, Monsanto is planning to release a biotech soybean that produces higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

Despite Fumento's fears, anti-biotech vandalism never really took off in the United States. In Europe, though, such attacks are still common. Last summer saw French activists rip out experimental biotech grapevines, while Spanish activists destroyed two biotech corn fields.

Anti-biotech scare stories do occasionally appear in mainstream American news outlets. In August, for example, there were breathless reports that researchers had discovered biotech varieties of the oilseed crop canola growing "wild" along roadsides in North Dakota. Calmer scientists responded that all sorts of crop plants are often found growing outside fields, but because they require constant farmer pampering they don't usually fare well in the wild. Either way, the plants pose no danger to the public.