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April 30, 2004

Technology’s Unworthy Adversaries

The enormous benefits of genetically engineered agriculture have been proven. What have not been proven are the spurious claims of its critics. By Hoover fellow Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko.

Controversies continue to beleaguer the newest manifestations of biotechnology—gene-splicing, or “genetic modification” (GM)—applied to agriculture and food production. Never mind that every new supposed problem has turned out to be nonexistent or inconsequential and that gene-splicing’s benefits are proven: They include less use of chemical pesticides, higher crop yields, and more environment-friendly farming practices. Yet each new scare story is given life by the half-truths and misrepresentations of biotech’s vocal, well-organized opponents, who are heavy on lobbying and lawyering but light on science and scholarship.

Gene-splicing’s hardcore antagonists don’t disguise their hostility. Technophobe Jeremy Rifkin claims that it threatens “a form of annihilation every bit as deadly as nuclear holocaust.” Greenpeace demands gene-spliced products’ “complete elimination [from] the food supply and the environment.” And sacked UK environment minister Michael Meacher, speaking on behalf of Greenpeace, admits that there could never be sufficient testing to convince him of the safety of biotech foods: “The real problem is whether 10, 20, 30 years down the track, serious and worrying things [will] happen that none of us ever predicted.”

Other groups pose as open-minded skeptics, rather than antagonists, but beneath the rhetoric their arguments and actions lead us virtually to the same place. Their goals are to create a groundswell of anxiety toward biotech and to elicit unnecessary, hugely burdensome government regulation that will make product testing and commercialization untenable. Nevertheless, their publications and pronouncements receive extensive media and government attention, largely because the lavishly funded organizations aggressively tout themselves as occupying the disinterested middle ground in the biotechnology debates. But their PR machines saying that doesn’t make it so.

These groups feign moderation by vaguely acknowledging gene-splicing’s potential, but their subtly alarmist messages invariably omit essential context and perspective. Never is there any hint of the broad consensus in the scientific community that gene-splicing is an extension, or refinement, of more conventional genetic techniques, or that similar—and often greater—risks accompany the earlier breeding methods. The emphasis is always on the things that might go wrong.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has voiced wide-ranging concerns about gene-spliced plants, including the “transfer of the engineered gene to other species, the emergence of pesticide-resistant pests, and the adverse effects on small farmers or developing nations.” They and other activists seem particularly troubled about gene transfer to wild relatives of plants that have been engineered for enhanced herbicide resistance because, once the herbicide tolerance gene has been transferred to the wild relative, exposure to the herbicide will exert selection pressure to maintain the gene there. Supposedly, this could create hard-to-control “superweeds.” And the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) recently announced the results of testing that allegedly found gene-spliced material in “conventional” seed material. They were quick to condemn this “contamination.”

The activists studiously avoid any mention of the context necessary to judge these concerns. In fact, gene flow is ubiquitous. All crop plants have relatives somewhere on the planet, and some gene flow commonly occurs if two populations are grown close together. And even the worst-case “superweed” scenario raises no issues of environmental or food safety; when the effectiveness of an herbicide is compromised by the appearance of
resistant weeds, farmers routinely move on to another. (Another key fact is that the gene-spliced herbicide-resistant-crop/herbicide combinations that have been commercialized employ glyphosate, an extremely environment-friendly chemical; so, as long as glyphosate remains effective against weeds, the environment is spared exposure to other, less benign chemicals.)

Gene transfer is an age-old consideration for farmers. Growing hundreds of crops, virtually all of which (save only wild berries) have been genetically improved, the practitioners of “conventional” agriculture in North America have meticulously developed strategies for preventing pollen cross-contamination in the field—when and if it is necessary for commercial reasons. In order to maintain an appropriate level of genetic purity of plant varieties, distinct variants of self-pollinated crops such as wheat, rice, soybeans, and barley need to be separated by no more than 60 feet, while certain insect-pollinated crops need greater separation—a half-mile for watermelon and a mile for onions, for example.

The history of canola—the general term for the genetically improved rapeseed developed by Canadian plant breeders a half-century ago—is illustrative. The original rapeseed oil, used as both a lubricant and an edible oil, was harmful when ingested because of high levels of a chemical called erucic acid. Conventional plant breeding led to the development of genetic varieties of rapeseed with low concentrations of erucic acid; this “canola” oil has now become the most commonly consumed oil in Canada. High-erucic-acid rapeseed oil is still used as a lubricant and plasticizer, however, so the high- and low-erucic-acid varieties of rapeseed plants must be carefully segregated in the field and thereafter during processing. Canadian farmers and processors accomplish this routinely and without difficulty.

A 2002 report from the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology agonized about the potential of foods from future generations of gene-spliced organisms to cause allergic reactions because of scientists’ supposedly limited understanding of “the fundamental mechanism by which people develop allergies” and because moving “genes from one organism into another creates the possibility of introducing allergenic proteins into foods that would not ordinarily contain them.”

When considered in a vacuum—as though farmers, plant breeders, and others had never before sought and wrought genetic improvement of food plants—these seem like legitimate concerns. However, all types of plant breeding—including traditional techniques as well as the newer molecular methods—routinely introduce new DNA, proteins, and other substances into the food supply. The possibility of consumers’ exposure to novel allergens is neither a new problem nor one that is unique to gene-splicing.

Consider, for example, a technique called induced-mutation breeding, which has been in use since the 1950s. It involves exposing seeds or cells to ionizing radiation or toxic chemicals to induce random, desirable genetic mutations. Thousands of mutation-bred crop varieties have been commercialized in North America and Europe during the last half-century. And since the 1930s plant breeders have performed “wide cross” hybridizations in which large numbers of “alien” genes are moved from one species or one genus to another to create plant varieties that cannot and do not exist in nature. Common commercial varieties derived from wide crosses include tomatoes, potatoes, oats, rice, wheat, and corn, among others.

In the production of new plant varieties using these conventional techniques, breeders and food producers lack knowledge of the exact genetic changes that produced the useful traits. More important, they have no idea what other changes have occurred concomitantly in the plant—including those that could alter the ability to cause allergic reactions. Consider, for example, the manmade “species” Triticum agropyrotriticum, which resulted from the wide-cross combination of the genomes of bread wheat and a grass called quackgrass or couchgrass. Possessing all the chromosomes of wheat and one extra whole genome from the wild grass, T. agropyrotriticum was independently produced for both animal feed and human food in the former Soviet Union, Canada, the United States, France, Germany, and China.

At least in theory, several kinds of problems could arise from a genetic construction that introduces tens of thousands of “alien” genes into an established plant variety. These concerns include the potential for increased invasiveness of the plant in the field and the possibility that quackgrass-derived proteins could be toxic or allergenic. Yet dozens of new varieties produced each year with these imprecise traditional methods of genetic improvement enter the marketplace and food supply without any governmental review or special labeling (or objections from activists who are supposedly concerned about environmental and food safety).

Only the molecular, gene-splicing methods allow breeders to identify and fully describe the changes that have been made in the progeny, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that only the imprecise, trial-and-error techniques of conventional plant-breeding methods have led to food safety problems. Two conventionally bred varieties each of squash and potato and one of celery were found to contain dangerous levels of endogenous toxins and had to be barred from commercialization. Such mishaps are far less likely when genetic changes are wrought with the more precise and predictable gene-splicing techniques.

Paradoxically, although the increased precision and predictability make gene-spliced foods safer than conventional ones, they are far more intensively regulated. Neither government regulators nor the minions at the UCS, CSPI, Pew, Greenpeace and other non-governmental organizations have shown the slightest concern about the real risks of plant breeding. Instead, they bleat endlessly about the hypothetical risks of gene-splicing, which never materialize.

Why? Because in the absence of outright bans, the activists’ agenda is to elicit ever more strict and burdensome regulations, in order to make gene-spliced products more expensive to develop, less competitive, and, therefore, less likely to survive in the marketplace. Unfortunately, they have had modest success.

The Pew Initiative’s 2003 report, “Public Sentiment about Genetically Modified Food,” is a typically disingenuous pastiche of truisms, half-truths, and sleight-of-hand. Their survey found that “Americans’ knowledge about [biotech] foods remains low,” with 54 percent saying they have heard nothing or not much about them. Then, without enlightening these naive subjects or offering them any sort of proper context, the survey goes on to pose leading questions about safety and regulation. Not surprisingly, 89 percent agreed with the statement that “companies should be required to submit safety data to the FDA for review, and no genetically modified food product should be allowed on the market until the FDA determines that it is safe.” That’s like asking people whether convicted child molesters should be allowed to teach kindergarten.

The almost nine-in-ten respondents who concurred with that statement undoubtedly do not know that (1) nearly all the organisms—plants, animals, microorganisms—in our food supply have been modified by one genetic technique or another; (2) gene-splicing’s precision and predictability make biotech foods even more safe than other foods; (3) food producers are already legally responsible for ensuring the safety of their products; (4) the FDA does not normally perform safety determinations but primarily conducts surveillance of marketed foods and takes action if any are found to be adulterated or mislabeled; and (5) unwarranted, excessive regulation, including unnecessary labeling requirements, discourages innovation, imposes costs that are passed along to the consumer, and imposes a disproportionate burden on the poor. The Pew survey purposefully exploits consumers’ (understandable) lack of familiarity with the nuances of both the new biotech and the way that food is currently regulated.

With critics raising the possibility of one hypothetical risk or another of gene-splicing at every opportunity—and a compliant, sensation-seeking media printing every word—it’s no wonder that many of those who have heard about biotechnology find it confusing and a little scary. But hoodwinking the public on scientific and technological subjects is not difficult. A study by the National Science Foundation found that fewer than one in four know what a molecule is and that only about half understand that the earth circles the sun once a year.

Another example of the public’s muddle over biotechnology is reflected in the results of a survey of 1,200 Americans, released in October 2003 by the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University. It found that, in an eleven-item true/false quiz that was part of the survey, more than half of the subjects received a failing grade (defined as less than 70 percent correct answers). Only 57 percent recognized the falsity of the statement “ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do.” Perhaps most shocking of all, only two-thirds knew that eating genetically modified fruit would not alter their own genes! One wonders whether the one-third who got this question wrong think that if they eat rabbit stew, they’ll begin to hop!

Such results are not surprising. For most citizens, the benefit of learning about issues and policies that do not directly affect them is small and the cost is large. Because there is vastly more to many public policy issues—tax policy, foreign affairs, farm subsidies, health care delivery, and so on than any one person can grasp—people triage; that is, they establish priorities and pursue primarily knowledge that they perceive is most useful to them. And they end up not knowing much about most government policies, let alone those that involve scientific phenomena.

Economists have dubbed these poorly informed citizens “rationally ignorant.” Incapable of coming to grips with the nuances of complex policy issues, they simply choose to focus their limited time and resources on other pursuits. NGOs have learned to exploit the public’s rational ignorance and have had some success at selling scare scenarios to an unsuspecting public and at convincing regulators to impose unnecessary, discriminatory regulation on the new biotechnology.

Overregulation has inflated the costs of research and development, made commercialization—and even the ability to perform field testing—uncertain, and put biotech off-limits to some philanthropists. Harvest Plus, an alliance of organizations devoted to producing and distributing staple foods rich in micronutrients such as iron, zinc, and vitamin A, is one that has been scared off. According to its director, the group has decided that, although they will “investigate . . . the potential for biotechnology to raise the level of nutrients in target crops above what can be accomplished with conventional breeding . . . there is no plan for Harvest Plus to disseminate [gene-spliced] crops, because of the high and difficult-to-predict costs of meeting regulatory requirements in countries where laws are already in place, and because many countries as yet do not have regulatory structures.”

Although efforts should be made to reassure the public about the safety of gene-spliced crops and foods, excessive regulation is not the way. The imposition of unwarranted regulation in order to quell public apprehension is not a legitimate use of government power, nor is it likely to succeed. As the president of Consumer Alert, a national consumer organization, testified to a panel convened by the National Institutes of Health, “For obvious reasons, the consumer views the technologies that are most regulated to be the least safe ones. Heavy involvement by government, no matter how well intended, inevitably sends the wrong signals. Rather than ensuring confidence, it raises suspicion and doubt” (emphasis in original).

It is apparent that biotech’s opponents will never be satisfied. At every opportunity, they will raise spurious questions and make disingenuous assertions, attempting both to prolong “controversy” and to maintain existing unscientific regulatory regimes. It’s past time that government agencies did more educating and less regulating.

Reluctant to let the world know their real agendas, biotech’s antagonists seldom tip their hand, but once in a while we get a revealing glimpse. In 2000, for example, a university research team based in Switzerland and Germany announced an extraordinary scientific tour de force that resulted in a marked enhancement of beta-carotene, or provitamin A, in rice grains. The creation of this “golden rice” (so-called because of its yellow color) was widely hailed as an example of how gene-splicing can benefit society, especially the inhabitants of less-developed countries. Vitamin A supplementation of the diet prevents blindness and can be lifesaving to the millions of children who are deficient in the vitamin.

Astonishingly, activists lost no time in attacking even this beneficent innovation. Golden rice’s developers were criticized for working with companies to distribute seed to the indigent. Greenpeace’s Benedikt Haerlin threatened vandalism against test plants in the field; torturing the data, the organization declared that golden rice was a fraud because an adult “would have to eat around 9kg [19.8 pounds] of cooked rice daily to satisfy his/her daily need of vitamin A.” Greenpeace’s radical media allies, including the Guardian, rushed to support them, with Michael Pollan of the New York Times dubbing golden rice “the great yellow hype.”

These assertions are absurd. Even small amounts of vitamin supplementation can have huge effects. Golden rice and similar products have the potential to be life-enhancing, lifesaving adjuncts to those with vitamin A deficiency—but only if its producers can ever overcome NGO opposition and regulatory hurdles, perform testing of candidate varieties, and get them to farmers and, ultimately, consumers.

Still, such blatant and rabid militancy makes those who “merely” lie and demand stifling regulation appear moderate by comparison. But correspondence published in the journal Science in 2003 opened a window into the motivations of the so-called moderate wing of the anti-biotech lobby. Steven H. Strauss, a professor of forest science at Oregon State University, proposed in an article in that journal a very modest streamlining of the regulation of negligible-risk genetic constructions of gene-spliced plants. The reform that he suggested would remedy, in a small way, the irreconcilable paradox in the current federal oversight of plant biotechnology: that the use of the most precise and predictable techniques is far more stringently regulated than techniques that are less precise and predictable. In other words, Strauss was lobbying for regulatory proportionality, recognition of the basic principle that the degree of oversight should be commensurate with the degree of risk.

Jerry Cayford, of Resources for the Future, responded with a letter published in Science: “Steven H. Strauss makes a plea for less onerous field trial regulations for less radical genetic modifications . . . thereby helping smaller companies and public-sector investigators to be able to afford to try out crop variants. Unfortunately, his pleas ignore the politics of the genetically modified (GM) food debate. . . . Strauss’ proposal, reasonable as it may be, asks critics to surrender a major bargaining chip—strict regulation of field trials—but offers them nothing in return.”

In other words, although it would favor consumers, researchers, and the public interest, sensible regulatory policy is not a goal in itself but is merely a bargaining chip to be held or given up in a negotiation among radical groups, business interests, academic researchers, and government regulators!

Strauss’s response to Cayford deplored this “hostage-taking” attitude because “the costs to people and environment of effectively losing genetic engineering from most agricultural sectors as a result of excess regulation are too great for so simple-minded a political approach.” For good measure, he added that there are few practices more “‘democratizing’ than protecting and promoting the ideas and work of society’s innovators when applied to improve food quality, dependability, and affordability.”

The coup de grâce in Strauss’s response serves as a worthy epilogue to the unworthy efforts and venal motivation of biotech’s antagonists, whether they are blatantly belligerent or subtly shifty: “with the high level of regulation and stigma successfully implanted in places such as Europe, policies and attitudes may take a generation or more to change course. The opportunity costs in dollars, and costs to human health and environment, will be incalculable.”

Gregory Conko is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

Henry I. Miller, MS, MD, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at the Hoover Institution. His research focuses on public policy toward science and technology encompassing a number of areas, including pharmaceutical development, genetic engineering in agriculture, models for regulatory reform, and the emergence of new viral diseases.

Special to the Hoover Digest. Available from the Hoover Press is To America’s Health: A Proposal to Reform the Food and Drug Administration, by Henry I. Miller. Also available is The Greening of U.S. Foreign Policy, edited by Terry L. Anderson and Henry I. Miller. To order, call 800.935.2882.