Friday, April 18, 2008

Activism can be a good thing. Libertarians and civil rights advocates lobby for constraints on undue government intrusion into our lives, and professional associations further the interests of their members. We all benefit from getting to shop in the marketplace of ideas.

Unfortunately, not all activism is constructive and conducted in good faith. Some of the goods in the marketplace are shoddy.

Consider the relentless, decades-old antagonism of many extremists toward the new biotechnology, or gene-splicing, applied to the production of innovative new drugs, and gene therapy for life-threatening diseases, agriculture, or anything else. Never mind that a broad scientific consensus has long held that the newest techniques of biotechnology are no more than an extension or refinement of earlier ones applied for centuries—and that gene transfer or modification by gene-splicing techniques does not, per se, confer risk.

The extremists ignore the seamless continuum that exists between old and new biotechnology and the monumental contributions that both have made to medicine, agriculture, and innumerable scientific disciplines. Even worse are the (supposedly) moderate groups—such as the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology (now defunct) and the Center for Science in the Public Interest—that pose as open-minded skeptics rather than antagonists. They are subtler, and therefore more insidious, than the antibiotech players who show their colors unambiguously. Beneath the rhetoric, the supposedly moderate groups’ arguments and actions, which consistently ignore the context necessary to understand the potential risks and benefits of the new biotechnology, lead us to the same place as biotech’s declared enemies, as they too attempt to create a groundswell of anxiety and elicit unnecessary, hugely burdensome government regulation that will make biotech product testing and commercialization untenable.


Because the public’s understanding of science is meager, it isn’t difficult to hoodwink many consumers into believing all or part of the Big Lie—that biotech applied to agriculture and food production is unproven, unsafe, untested, unregulated, and unwanted. A study by the U.S. National Science Foundation found that fewer than one in four people know what a molecule is and that only about half understand that the Earth circles the sun once a year.

A broad scientific consensus has long held that the newest techniques of biotechnology are no more than an extension or refinement of ones applied for centuries.

The public’s muddled view of biotechnology was reflected in the results of a survey of 1,200 Americans, released in October 2003 by the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University. In an eleven-item true/false quiz that was part of the survey, more than half of the subjects received a failing grade (less than 70 percent correct). Only 57 percent recognized as false the statement that “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 will begin to hop.

Activists’ constant repetition of the Big Lie takes advantage of public ignorance about four key facts:

1. With the exception of wild berries, wild mushrooms, wild game, fish, and shellfish, virtually all the organisms—plants, animals, microorganisms—in our food supply have been modified by one genetic technique or another.

2. Because the techniques of the new biotech are more precise and predictable than their predecessors, biotech foods are likely to be much safer than other foods.

3. Food producers are already legally responsible for ensuring the safety of their products; 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.

4. Unwarranted and excessive regulation, including unnecessary labeling requirements, discourages innovation and imposes costs that are passed along to the consumer, placing a disproportionate burden on the poor. In both flagrant and subtle ways, antibiotechnology zealots continue to perpetuate various elements of the Big Lie, ignoring our vast experience and the scientific consensus that gene-splicing is an extension, or refinement, of less precise, less predictable techniques. To say nothing of the fact that North Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of foods that contain gene-spliced ingredients, with not a single documented untoward reaction.


What makes false alarms about biotech—or any new technology—hard to expose is the virtual impossibility of demonstrating the absolute safety of any activity or product. There is always the possibility that we haven’t yet gotten to the nth hypothetical risk or to the nth dose or the nth year of exposure when the risk will finally be demonstrated. It is logically impossible to prove a negative, and all activities pose some nonzero risk of adverse effects.

Unconstructive, antisocial activism comes not only from nongovernmental organizations but also from the mainstream media. Culprits here include former New York Times environmental reporter Keith Schneider and Andrew Pollack, who currently covers biotech for both the business and science sections of the Times.

Pollack’s “Biotech’s Sparse Harvest” on February 14, 2006, was no valentine to agbiotech. Consider his thesis: “At the dawn of the era of genetically engineered crops, scientists were envisioning all sorts of healthier and tastier foods, including cancer-fighting tomatoes, rot-resistant fruits, potatoes that would produce healthier french fries, and even beans that would not cause flatulence. . . . Resistance to genetically modified foods, technical difficulties, legal and business obstacles, and the ability to develop improved foods without genetic engineering have winnowed the pipeline.”

Although Pollack missed many of the nuances about biotechnology applied to agriculture and food production, he devoted ample ink to the antibiotech crowd, including the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology and the radical Friends of the Earth.

North Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of foods containing gene-spliced ingredients, with not a single documented untoward reaction.

Memo to Pollack: not all points of view on scientific and technological issues are created equal. Good journalism is not served by creating a kind of moral equivalence between those who hold ideological, antibiotech views and those with supportable, legitimate viewpoints; such moral equivalence is similar to equating creation theory with Darwinian theory. In fact, the use of gene-splicing to craft small, precise genetic changes that enhance or introduce desirable traits into plants has been a stunning technological success— but excessive and unscientific regulation and the intractable opposition of activists have slowed its translation into consumer-friendly foods. How ironic that the same activists who have opposed agbiotech relentlessly for twenty years now decry the “hype” and “overselling” of its benefits— rather like the teenager convicted of murdering his parents who pleads for mercy from the courts because he’s now an orphan.

Pollack’s statement that “developing non-allergenic products and other healthful crops has also proved to be difficult technically” is simply untrue. A vast spectrum of such plants (the prototype of which is vitamin A–enhanced golden rice) has been crafted by laboratory scientists, but they cannot afford the gratuitously inflated regulatory costs to test the plants in the field.

Excessive and unwise regulation is a major reason that products in the development pipeline “do not include many of the products once envisioned,” in Pollack’s phrase. Unscientific and discriminatory EPA and USDA regulatory policies make field trials with gene-spliced plants ten to twenty times more expensive than for similar plants engineered with less precise, less predictable conventional genetic techniques.

Unlike pharmaceutical development, agricultural R&D is a low-budget enterprise, and such counterintuitive, unscientific regulation and gratuitous regulatory costs make the development of many promising and even important food products uneconomical.

Finally, Pollack’s disparaging assertion that industry “has been peddling the same two advantages—herbicide tolerance and insect resistance—for ten years” is puzzling. These traits have been of monumental importance—not only to farmers’ bottom line but also to occupational health and the natural environment. Enhanced pest resistance in plants has obviated the need for hundreds of millions of pounds of chemical pesticides (and thereby reduced environmental and occupational exposures), and herbicide tolerance has made possible a shift to more benign herbicides and to environment-friendly no-till farming (less chemical runoff, less carbon dioxide production).

Antitechnology, antibusiness activists fear a world in which exploitative, multinational corporations conspire to strip away individual choice from the world’s farmers and consumers. Yet it is they who are guilty of the mendacity and manipulation they imagine they see in others; they who are guilty of stripping away the freedom of researchers to research, doctors to doctor, and consumers to consume vaccines and drugs that can be life-saving.

Like cheap knockoffs of designer goods, some of the offerings in the marketplace of ideas may be attractive at first glance but do not stand up to scrutiny. Only if we learn to distinguish the genuine from the fake will we be able to protect ourselves—and our supply of new plants and other products—from the tyranny of the activists.