National Review
February 8, 2006.


Beyond the WTO Decision on GMOs.

By Jon Entine

The rebuke of the Europe-wide ban on bioengineered crops and food by
the World Trade Organization has sent anti-biotech advocacy groups
scrambling. The United States, Argentina, and Canada had argued that
the moratorium had more to do with protectionism than precaution, and
the WTO agreed.

Well-funded activists are now flooding the Internet with hysteria-
grams trying to recast this stunning victory for common sense and
careful science into a morality play: nefarious corporations aligned
with bully nations (Canada?) force feeding "Frankenfoods" to helpless

Even before the lengthy and complex decision was handed down,
Greenpeace blasted the WTO as "unqualified to deal with complex
scientific and environmental issues." Friends of the Earth Europe
scowled that "European safeguards" were being "sacrificed to benefit
biotech corporations." The U.S.-based Consumers Union lambasted what
it called a "preemptive effort to chill the development of new
policies for regulating GM crops."

Let's separate the chaff from the wheat. If this decision is upheld by
WTO members, Europe will not be forced to alter its regulations or
labeling requirements or "force" consumers to "buy and eat food that
they do not want," as Europe's leading consumer organization, BEUC,
claims. It will demand the EU observe its own regulatory process --
using sound science to evaluate new products. That's not been
happening. Although the EU officially lifted its legal ban on GM crops
and foods in 2004, squabbling among member states have left the
moratorium in place, with 16 products bottled up in committees.

Some European countries have been exploiting the controversy to
protect their farmers and keep prices high, international agreements
and public policy be damned. Even with this ruling, political
realities suggest this subterfuge may not end soon. Just last Monday,
the Greek agricultural minister announced Greece would defy EU
regulations and broaden its unauthorized ban on GM-modified maize

Greenpeace and Co. has been on the attack since the first generation
of biotech crops -- soybeans, wheat, cotton, and canola that generate
natural insecticides, making them more resistant to pests and drought
-- were introduced more than a decade ago. Why? Because they were
brought to market by corporations and aimed mostly at commodity crop
farmers. Biotech farming has generated enormous economic and
environmental benefits, dramatically reducing reliance on
environmentally harmful pesticides by supercharging the natural
defenses of a crop using genetic material already in place or by
introducing genes from other plants or animals.

We're now entering the second phase of the biotech revolution --
addressing malnutrition and aiding smaller farmers. Scientists are
developing nutrition-enhanced crops and foods such as "golden rice"
that could help tens of millions of malnourished children who go blind
or die each year from Vitamin A deficiency. On the horizon are
futuristic "farmaceuticals" -- medicines made by melding basic methods
of agriculture with advanced biotechnology, such as potatoes
transformed into edible vaccines against diarrhea, a leading cause of
death in the developing world.

Yet, in a dark, parallel universe of the privileged, anti-
biotechnology groups contend we should abandon even these
revolutionary life-saving uses of crop biotechnology. Egged on by
socially responsible investors and funded by the organic and natural
product industries, which thrive on GM food scares, professional
protestors are quick to cite the lowest common denominator in
fabricated scientific disputes: the so-called "precautionary
principle" -- the controversial notion, rejected by mainstream
science, that innovation should be shelved unless all risks can be
avoided. They assert that "Trojan Horse" genes not subject to built-in
checks and balances in nature could unleash a "genetic Godzilla,"
causing environmental havoc.

Slogans like "better safe than sorry" may have a nice ring of
moderation, but they are scientifically simplistic. There have been no
documented health problems linked to GM crops and absolutely no
evidence that genetic modification poses greater risks than
crossbreeding and gene-splicing, which have given us such products as
the tangelo and seedless grapes. The U.N."s Food and Agriculture
Organization has endorsed the safety and health benefits of biotech
crops, urging their extension to the developing world.

The hypothetical risk of biotechnology has to be balanced against the
lives being lost as new products remain trapped in a regulatory maze.
In 2002, Zambia and Zimbabwe, wary of offending their major trading
partners in the EU, cited the "precautionary principle" in rejecting
donations of bioengineered grain that could have helped feed ten
million undernourished people, thousands of whom ultimately died.

Today in the Philippines, where 42 percent of the diet comes from
white rice, a recent study by U.N. food experts estimates that Golden
Rice could avert 879 deaths, 1,925 corneal ulcers, and 15,398 cases of
night blindness each year. A Philippines-based based anti-
biotechnology group with ties to Greenpeace has aggressively lobbied
against Golden Rice on the grounds that the benefits from beta-
carotene are minimal -- claims rejected by scientists.

We should also be skeptical of opinion polls cited by biotech
opponents suggesting that consumers, particularly in Europe, are dead
set against these new products. "If you really want to understand
whether European shoppers will buy genetically modified foods given
the opportunity, ignore the agents provocateurs, the media, and the
panicked reactions of the big supermarket chains, and look instead at
the behavior of ordinary consumers," notes David Bowe, a member of the
European parliament's Committee on Environment, Public Health and
Consumer Policy. "When Safeway and Sainsbury's put GM tomato puree
side by side with their non-GM counterpart in 1999 the proof was
definitely in the puree. The GM product was seen to offer real added
value. It was less expensive and in numerous blind tastings consumers
seemed to prefer the flavor. It sold as well as the non-GM product."

While not a silver bullet, GM technology offers unique tools to
address international food needs. Biotech crops are grown mostly in
major farming nations like the U.S., Argentina, and Canada, but
farmers in developing countries such as Brazil, China, India, and in
Eastern Europe, with hungry stomachs to feed, are vigorously embracing
the technology. Last year, 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries grew
biotech crops on 222 million acres, an 11-percent year-to-year

There are valid concerns about biotechnology, including the degree to
which corporations should be allowed to patent beneficial seeds,
keeping in mind that Monsanto, Bayer, Novartis, and other firms need
to recoup their development costs, which have multiplied exponentially
because of the country-by-country Rube Goldberg-like approval process.

But years of demagoguery and misinformation have taken an enormous
toll -- polluting public opinion, profoundly altering the trajectory
of biotechnology applications, and damaging the financial wherewithal
of corporations and university research projects. The biggest losers
are the children, frozen out of the benefits of the green revolution
that many of us take for granted.

-- Jon Entine, adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is
author of Let Them Eat Precaution: How Politics is Undermining the
Genetic Revolution in Agriculture.