Global Food Fight

Sunday, January 30, 2000
illustrationIllustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest  

Controversy about food from gene-spliced plants continues to rage, and opinions vary widely. A recent survey of about a thousand citizens in each of twenty-five countries regarding their views on the new biotechnology, or gene-splicing, yielded widely disparate results throughout the world. Approval of gene-splicing "to grow pest-resistant crops that require less farm chemicals" ranged from extremely positive (China, the United States, India, and Canada) to very negative (the United Kingdom and Spain). Similar results were seen in questions about medical applications of gene-splicing, although there was greater acceptance everywhere.

The issues involved are ideological and emotional, not scientific, but they have important implications for the scientific and technological communities.

It is clear that there is nothing fundamentally new about gene-splicing. The scientific consensus holds that the risks associated with new biotechnology products are basically 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 result 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. Although 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 even 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 its exploitation of 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. It is worth noting that, 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 virulent new strain of E. coli bacteria.


Scientific realities notwithstanding, antagonism toward gene-splicing applied to agriculture and food production has been widespread across Europe, where there has been much 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 producers.

One 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 and the amount of new land needed for farming. Even the editors of British scientific and medical journals seem to have taken leave of their senses. Nature published a critique of the way gene-spliced foods are evaluated that was filled with errors and misapprehensions, and The Lancet’s decision to publish a paper describing methodologically flawed experiments that purportedly showed toxicity in rats fed gene-spliced potatoes outraged some of 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 to eliminate biotech foods completely. "A moratorium is the goal of this movement," admits Charles Margulis of Greenpeace.

When it comes to biotechnology, science and common sense must underlie public policy—not the bullying pressure tactics of extremists.

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 antitechnology 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 largest producers of baby food in the United States, 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. Worse still, Gerber has announced that it will use mostly organic corn, which is especially prone to insect and bacterial infestations. 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 and Heinz 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 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 rice."

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 Philippines, where they were to be tested to confirm that they would grow and produce high yields of rice with less chemical pesticide. In the Philippines and many developing countries in Asia where rice is a staple food, disease-resistant and insect-resistant rice is 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 any notice being taken by Greenpeace.

If Greenpeace and its allies were to prevail, 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 serving?

Greenpeace is attempting 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. As Kennedy has argued, "‘We 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."

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 to the affluent. Consider, for example, 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 increases the amount of beta-carotene, which is metabolized in the body into vitamin A. This is the kind of innovation that if widely available could dramatically improve the health of the population of entire continents.

But the continuing capitulation by food and beverage producers to the blandishments of extremists 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. Inevitably, there will be less interest in—and resources for—basic research on plants for food and fiber.

The ripple effects of these phenomena are already evident. Axis Genetics, a British firm that makes vaccines in gene-spliced plants, was put up for sale in September after failing to raise funds needed to expand its R&D program. According to Nature Biotechnology, investment conditions hostile to "green" biotechnology were thought to be responsible for the shortfall.

It is wrong, and in the end futile, to mollify extremists. Their agenda is to determine what research can be performed, what tools can be used, and what new products can be brought to market.

Another kind of disincentive is to be found among university researchers. Vandalism of field trials of transgenic plants has been common throughout Europe for many years, and one German postdoctoral researcher was injured defending his sugar beets. Recently, there was similar destruction of experimental plots at University of California campuses and field stations at Berkeley and Davis, where (not surprisingly) the vandals had difficulty discriminating gene-spliced from conventionally engineered plants and actually destroyed mostly non-gene-spliced plants. At least two researchers will be set back more than a year as a result, undoubtedly discouraging others from undertaking such research in the first place.

In conclusion, let me offer several remedies for biotech’s malaise. First, the university community must bestir itself to defend not just biotechnology but the principles that law-abiding researchers must be protected from criminals and that science and common sense must underlie public policy. Second, in the short term, government leaders must lead, and the police and judiciary must defend against, what amounts to extortion and terrorism toward both universities and industry. Third, in both the short and long term, education of the public and of opinion leaders is essential if we are to avoid making public policy in a way that uncannily resembles the Salem witch trials. Finally, companies such as Gerber, which sells $1 billion worth of baby food annually (and which knows that gene-spliced foods are safe and can offer other advantages, inasmuch as another subsidiary of Novartis, its parent company, develops and sells gene-spliced plants), should rethink their decisions to reject gene-spliced foods and should aggressively and publicly defend their position. The companies would enjoy the advantages of the widest and best array of production tools, and consumers would be assured that they are purchasing the best product that technology can offer.