Truth About Trade & Technology, 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 environment.

"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 marketplace.

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 discussion.

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 year.

Reprinted from The American Enterprise