Got any good comments on this one? This is what the biotech folks are saying to each other.
BIOTECH OFFERS (BABY) FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Henry I. Miller, MD
PHONE (650) 725-0185; FAX (650) 723-0576; HOME PHONE (650) 368-1221
Controversies about food from gene-spliced plants and microorganisms rage,
and opinions vary widely. A recent survey of about 1,000 citizens in each
of 25 countries about their views on the new biotechnology, or
gene-splicing, yielded widely disparate results throughout the world.
Approval/disapproval of gene-splicing "to grow pest-resistant crops that
require less farm chemicals" ranged from extremely positive -- 79%/6% in
China, 78%/19% in the US and 76%/13% in India and Canada -- to very
negative -- 36%/55% in the UK and 29%/47% in Spain. Similar differences
were seen in questions about medical applications of gene-splicing,
although there was greater acceptance everywhere.
Antagonism towards gene-splicing applied to agriculture and food production
has been played out across Europe, where there has been widespread public
and political opposition to importing gene-spliced corn and soybeans,
vandalization of field trials, moratoria on commercial-scale cultivation of
plants, labeling required to identify gene-spliced foods and even their
banishment by major supermarket chains and food processors.
One balmy critic characterized gene-spliced soybeans, canola and the like
as "a form of annihilation every bit as deadly as nuclear holocaust." and a
Greenpeace spokesman admitted that his organization's goal is the complete
elimination of gene-spliced plants for food and fiber, even though they
could reduce the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Even the
editors of British scientific and medical journals seem to have taken leave
of their senses. Nature [[italics]] published a critique of the way
gene-spliced foods are evaluated that was filled with errors and
misapprehensions, and The Lancet's [[italics]] decision to publish a paper
describing methodologically-flawed experiments that purportedly showed
toxicity in rats fed gene-spliced potatoes outraged the scientists who had
reviewed it and recommended rejection. (What the paper actually
demonstrated was that rats don't like raw potatoes.)
Activists are trying to bring to America the kind of resistance to
genetically modified foods that has reached epidemic proportions in Europe.
Their goal is not to inform consumers or offer them wider choices among
improved products, but simply to eliminate biotech foods completely. "A
moratorium is the goal of this movement," admits Charles Margulis of
Americans have generally responded to this transatlantic turmoil with
apathy, but they are about to be affected whether they realize it or not.
Intimidation by anti-technology activists has induced several countries
doing business in the United States to reject gene-spliced ingredients used
to make their products. Japanese breweries Kirin and Sapporo, whose beer
is popular in the United States, have announced they will phase out
gene-spliced corn. Two of the United States' largest producers of baby-
food, Gerber and Heinz, have promised to use only non-gene-spliced
materials for their products -- even if these are nutritionally inferior or
less safe than those made from gene-spliced plants. Putting it another
way, they will reject out of hand materials from corn plants modified so
that they do not need to be sprayed with toxic chemical insecticides, and
soybeans modified in ways that make high quality soy protein cheaper to
The issues involved are ideological and emotional, not scientific, but they
have important implications for the scientific community.
The scientific consensus holds that the risks associated with new
biotechnology products are fundamentally the same as for other products.
Dozens of new plant varieties improved with traditional techniques of
genetic modification such as hybridization enter the marketplace each year
without special labeling or premarket review. Many products on the market
are from "wide crosses," hybridizations in which genes are moved from one
species or one genus to another to create a variety of plant that does not
and cannot exist in nature. While this may sound dramatic, the results are
as mundane as a tomato that is more resistant to disease or that has a
thicker skin that won't be damaged during mechanical picking. Plants that
have undergone these slight but important alterations have been an integral
part of European and American diets for decades; they are at the farm stand
and supermarket -- and in baby food.
Scientists around the world agree that new "gene-splicing" technology
lowers even further the already minimal risk associated with introducing
new plant varieties into the food supply. Thanks to this technology, it is
now possible to introduce pieces of DNA that contain one or a few
well-characterized genes, while older genetic techniques transferred a
variable number of genes haphazardly.
Gene-splicing enhances product safety not only by its greater precision but
by exploiting the subtleties of plant pathology. A good example is
so-called "Bt corn," crafted by splicing in a bacterial gene that
codes for a protein that is toxic to corn borer pests (and somewhat so
to other insects, including certain butterflies, but not to mammals). As
it fends off the insect pests, the gene-spliced corn also reduces the
levels of Fusarium, a toxic fungus often carried into the plants by the
insects. This, in turn, reduces the levels of fumonisin, a potent and
dangerous fungal toxin that can lead to fatal diseases in horses and swine
that ingest infected corn, and cause esophageal cancer in humans. Thus,
using the gene-spliced corn for food processing lowers the probability that
harmful levels of fumonisin will be found in the final product.
But because anti-biotechnology extremists have demanded it, companies like
Novartis AG of Switzerland, which makes Gerber baby food and H.J. Heinz Co.
of Pittsburgh will forego such genetically improved sources of foods that
could yield healthier and safer products. Worse still, Gerber has
announced that it will use mostly organic corn, which is especially prone
to insect and bacterial infestations. Therefore, it will likely have
greater amounts of fumonisin, and, according to recent data compiled by the
U.S. Centers for Disease Control, people who eat organic foods are eight
times as likely as the rest of the population to be attacked by a deadly
new strain of E. coli bacteria (O157:H7).
Finally, the cost to consumers of baby food may be inflated, inasmuch as
raising corn without insecticide and other chemicals is labor-intensive,
produces lower yields and will probably cost twice as much.
It is especially reprehensible that Gerber turned tail and ran for cover at
the first hint of action by Greenpeace, one of the more scientifically- and
ethically-challenged groups dedicated to opposing technological innovation.
It was Greenpeace International that attained the nadir of
anti-biotechnology activism when, on April 6, 1995, the organization
announced that it had "intercepted a package containing rice seed
genetically manipulated to produce a toxic insecticide, as it was being
exported ... [and] swapped the genetically manipulated seed with normal
The purloined rice seeds had been genetically improved for insect
resistance and were en route from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
in Zurich to the International Rice Research Institute in the Phillippines,
where they were to be tested to confirm that they would grow and produce
high yields of rice with less chemical pesticide. In the Phillippines and
many developing countries in Asia where rice is a staple food,
disease-resistant and insect-resistant rice are desperately needed.
Greenpeace interfered with this research project only because the seeds had
been gene-spliced. Each year, thousands of other genetically modified seed
samples are shipped to and from the International Rice Research Institute
and other agricultural research centers around the world -- without notice
by Greenpeace. Mindless of their folly (and no doubt breathless from their
adventure), Greenpeace proclaimed:
"Transports of hazardous waste have to be approved by both export and
import countries as well as by all transit countries along the way. In
Switzerland, the Federal Office of the Environment (BUWAL) watches over the
exports of toxic wastes. Unlike chemical substances, genetically
engineered organisms have the potential to multiply, spread and simply get
out of control. Obviously such organisms constitute a danger for people
and for the environment. ... It should be clear that the export of
genetically manipulated organisms needs to be even more tightly regulated
than the export of toxic wastes."
If Greenpeace were to prevail, the exchange of plant germplasm and the
enhancement of crops for indigenous farmers would cease to exist. Who
would underwrite the costs of regulation that is, without any
justification, more stringent than that for "export of toxic wastes?" New
technologies and products would become sequestered among industrialized
countries, whose populations could bear the inflated costs of overregulated
consumer products. What -- and whose -- public interest is Greenpeace
Greenpeace has attempted to induce regulators to discriminate against
gene-spliced plants, and to bludgeon companies into rejecting the powerful
and precise new technology. But these kinds of policy conflicts over
technological innovation are not new. Donald Kennedy, former FDA
Commissioner and former president of Stanford University, observed more
than a decade ago that bad decisions resulting in flawed policies are often
the result of decision-makers responding politically to some popular
movement, only to discover that they have mistaken its real motivation.
"ëWe did what they wanted, but after we did it they turned out to want
something else' is among the oldest of complaints. It has all kinds of bad
consequences. Not only is the wrong policy put in place, but those who
have tried to be responsive experience alienation and disillusionment when
they discover that they have not provided any satisfaction." An
illustration of the insatiable -- and bizarre -- appetites of the
anti-biotechnology extremists is the Friends of the Earth's threat against
British retailing giant Marks & Spencer that it will need to offer
gene-spliced-cotton-free underwear to its clientele if it is to escape a
"Frankenpants" campaign intended to elicit the kind of consumer backlash
that has savaged the food sector.
It is wrong, and in the end futile, to mollify extremists. Their agenda is
to arrogate control over what research is performed, what tools are used,
and what products are brought to market. Biotechnology is just a microcosm
of this greater struggle, in which science and the public interest are
early casualties. The extremists' agenda cannot be mitigated by
scientifically reasonable arguments, by asserting the primacy of empirical
evidence and the scientific method, or by invoking the benefits to the
public of new products and choices. There is little common ground to
negotiate with such people.
The big losers in this scenario? Developing countries and lower-income
consumers elsewhere, as gene- splicing becomes a boutique technology,
affordable only by the affluent. An example is the recent announcement by
researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology's Institute for
Plant Sciences about two new gene-spliced rice strains, designed to combat
nutritional deficiencies. The edible portion of rice, its endosperm, lacks
a number of vital nutritional elements, including iron and vitamin A,
causing widespread and devastating nutritional deficiencies that afflict
billions of people in countries where rice is a staple food. One of the
new varieties, for example, increases the amount of beta-carotene, which is
metabolized in the body to vitamin A.
But the continuing capitulation by food and beverage producers will spell
disaster to gene-splicing technology. If the end-users don't want the
products, plant breeders and farmers, denied a market for gene-spliced
crops, will stop developing and growing them, and the use of the technology
will disappear. That is, it will disappear except for high-value-added
applications in which hugely inflated costs of the final product can offset
high production costs.
Another kind of disincentive is to be found among university researchers.
Vandalism of field trials of transgenic plants has been common throughout
Europe, and one German post-doc was injured defending his sugarbeets.
Recently, there was similar destruction of experimental plots at University
of California campuses or field stations at Berkeley and Davis, where (not
surprisingly) the vandals had difficulty discriminating gene-spliced from
conventionally engineered plants, and destroyed mostly non-gene- spliced
plants. At least two researchers will be set back more than a year as a
result, perhaps discouraging others from undertaking such research in the
The university community must bestir itself to defend not just
biotechnology, but the principle that science and common sense must
underlie public policy. In the short term, government leaders must LEAD,
and the police and judiciary must defend against what amounts to extortion
and terrorism towards both universities and industry. In both the short-
and longer-term, education of the public and of opinion leaders is also
essential, if we are to avoid making public policy in a way that resembles
uncannily the 17thCentury Salem witch trials.
Dr. Miller is a senior research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover
Institution and the author of "Policy Controversy in Biotechnology: An
Insider's View" (R.G. Landes Co., 1997). From 1989-94, he was director of
the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.
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