Truth About Trade & Technology  [Printer-friendly version]
February 4, 2004


[Rachel's introduction: "Undercut by the mounting genetic evidence,
anti-G.M. forces have cooked up a new tactic, invoking the lowest
common denominator in fabricated scientific disputes: the
'precautionary principle.""]

By Jon Entine

[RPR Introduction: We have added links to provide clarification, and
in some cases a different perspective, to this diatribe against
foresight and forecaring. --Editors]

On cue, at last fall's World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun,
self anointed "Green" activists showed up to protest the use of gene
modification (G.M.) technology in agriculture. A bevy of teenagers
outfitted as monarch butterflies flitted through what resembled a
Halloween riot. Dotted amongst the chanting demonstrators was an
assortment of human side dishes including walking "killer" tomatoes, a
man dressed as a cluster of drippy purple grapes, and a woman in a
strawberry costume topped with a fish head peddling T-shirts that
warned of the weird and horrid mutants that will be created if
"Corporate America" and the "multinationals" get their way.

It would all be so very entertaining -- if there weren't so much at
stake, largely for the very people in Africa and Asia for whom these
protestors purport to speak. As Patrick Moore, co-founder of
Greenpeace, who split with environmental fundamentalists over their
didactic rejection of genetic modification, writes in his piece
beginning on page 24, "I cannot comprehend that anyone, let alone
someone who fancies himself as progressive, would argue against
pursuing research on putting a daffodil gene in rice that could boost
its Vitamin A content and prevent a half million children from going
blind each year. Yet, that's just what they're doing. They even oppose
basic research."

What a disheartening turn in the genetics revolution. Fifty-one years
ago this February, James Watson and Francis Crick hoisted pints of ale
into the air at the Eagle Pub near Cambridge University and declared:
"We have found the secret of life!" The two young scientists had
finally identified the elegant, double-helix structure of the DNA
molecule, which contains the chemical codes for all living things,
animal and plant. The era of genetic science had begun. In 2004 we are
just beginning to exploit its potential .We see the future in the
promising screening procedures and therapies developed to treat
hundreds of genetic disorders from breast cancer to sickle cell to
cystic fibrosis. It enables crime scene investigators to clear the
innocent and convict the real criminals.

But of most immediate importance, it is spreading the Green
Revolution to the poorest corners of the globe. G.M. technology has
led to the development of soybeans, wheat, and cotton that generate
natural insecticides, making them more drought resistant, reducing the
need for costly and environmentally harmful chemicals, and increasing
yields. Researchers are perfecting ways to increase the vitamin
content of staples like rice and bananas, which could dramatically
cut malnutrition and lengthen life spans. Yet, for all its vast
demonstrated value, this still-nascent technology, which promises
further breakthroughs in fields such as plant-based pharmaceuticals,
remains drastically underused, mired in controversy.

Some concerns are serious. There needs to be a vigorous discussion
about the degree to which corporations should be allowed to patent and
therefore control beneficial biotech products they develop. Monsanto,
Novartis, and other firms maintain they need to recoup their research
costs. There is an eminently reasonable concern over corporate
control, but it has taken a backseat to sensational and often
misleading allegations.

Consider the hyperbolic campaign against treating cows to increase
milk yields. Organic activists allege that 90 percent of our milk
supply is "contaminated" by being mixed with milk from cows treated
with a protein supplement, recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST). A
decade ago, farmers discovered that cows given supplements produce
more milk for a longer time. That means less feed and fuel are needed
than for other herds, which results in a host of environmental
benefits. But the bio-fermentation process, which is similar to making
beer and wine and doesn't change the milk, involves biotechnology, and
has sparked an outrageous scare campaign.

There is simply no evidence that biotechnology poses greater risks
than crossbreeding or gene-splicing, which have given us seedless
grapes and the tangelo. Virtually every plant grown commercially for
food or fiber is a product of crossbreeding, hybridization, or both.
Using traditional breeding methods, about which there is absolutely no
controversy, thousands of genes of often unknown function are moved
into crops and animals. The new biotech tools allow breeders to select
specific genes that produce desired traits and move them from one
plant or animal to another.

Time and again, dire warnings have been unmasked as little more than
hysteria-grams. Years of hammering away with misinformation have taken
an enormous toll -- polluting public opinion, profoundly altering the
trajectory of biotechnology applications, and damaging the financial
wherewithal of companies and university research projects.

Undercut by the mounting genetic evidence, anti-G.M. forces have
cooked up a new tactic, invoking the lowest common denominator in
fabricated scientific disputes: the "precautionary principle." They
assert that "Trojan Horse" genes not subject to built-in checks and
balances in nature could cause environmental havoc. They argue for a
halt to all commercial uses of biotechnology. They politicize the
issue by introducing into common usage the pejorative appellations
"pollution" and "contamination" to describe the mixing of genetically
modified seed or crops with conventional supplies. They claim to be
acting on behalf of innocent but unaware consumers and the natural

"Better safe than sorry" has nice a ring of moderation, but it's
deceptive in this context. Recall the dozens of serious injuries and
the death of a Seattle girl in 1997 from drinking unpasteurized, E.
coli-laced juice made by Odwalla from apples that had fallen in
"natural" fertilizer: dung. While there have been no documented health
problems and no deaths or injuries linked to bioengineering, people
die every year from eating "naturally" contaminated foods. If the
precautionary principle were applied to "natural" foods, they would be
stripped from the grocery shelves overnight.

Let's underscore what's going on here: Activists demonize
biotechnology by exploiting a general wariness about science. This is
not a scientific dispute, but an ideological and religious one: Don't
tamper with nature. It's a romantic and superficially seductive
message, but a blanket insinuation that nature is always benign or
better is obviously hokum. The anti-biotech industry is stocked with
scientific illiterates who worship the primitive over progress and
confrontation over reform even if it means freezing the developing
world out of the benefits that we take for granted.

Some mainstream environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, and
"ethical" investors, which could have taken the high road on a complex
issue, instead stand with anti-science hardliners in arguing for
mandatory labeling of products made with G.M. technology. More
disclosure seems reasonable, but mandatory labeling is a disingenuous
ploy designed to stigmatize biotech products with what amounts to a
skull and crossbones. Michael Passoff, of anti-biotech group As You
Sow, bragged about what would happen if the campaign succeeds. "We
expect that [the food industry] won't want to risk alienating their
customers with labeling, so they'll eventually decide not to use any
bio-stuff at all," he chortled. In other words, G.M. products with
proven health and environmental benefits would vaporize from the

The call for labeling, even absent evidence of problems, has
nonetheless resonated strongly in Europe, where scares involving mad
cow disease and dioxin-contaminated feed have rattled the public.
Supermarket chains have yanked G.M. products. The European Union has
had an unofficial moratorium on new bioengineered seeds and food for
five years, and will not lift the embargo until it is assured that the
U.S. won't resist its labeling rules. Japan, Korea, Australia, New
Zealand, and other countries support mandatory labeling of G.M.-
derived foods.

The ideological crosswinds have spawned regulatory bodies, global
protests, litigation, Internet campaigns, and an international
humanitarian crisis over whether people in famine stricken countries
should starve rather than eat crops grown using biotechnology. The
"earth firsters" are directly responsible for spooking Zambia into
rejecting donations of G.M. grain that would have helped feed its
desperately starving population.

There are certainly valid concerns that need to be addressed if
genetic modification is to get a fair shot in the marketplace.
However, in the current atmosphere, rational policy initiatives and
coordinated international trade policies are extremely difficult. What
is lacking in Europe, and increasingly in the U.S., is a public
discussion about the existing and potential benefits of biotechnology.
Let's hope this issue of TAE [The American Enterprise] furthers that

Guest author Jon Entine is an adjunct fellow at the American
Enterprise Institute and scholar in residence at Miami University of
Ohio. His book on the genetics of Biblical ancestry will come out this

Reprinted from The American Enterprise