March of the Troglodytes

Thursday, April 30, 1998

On the imposing main building of my alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stands a frieze honoring the immortals of science: Archimedes, Newton, and Pasteur, among others. It reminds those who enter that science and its practitioners can profoundly change the world and our understanding of it.

Somewhere--perhaps in a dark, dank MIT basement--there should be a monument dedicated to those who have impeded science: a troglodyte frieze. It would immortalize, for example, the persecutors of Galileo and followers of Lysenko. And those of us who have served as midwives to the birth of the new biotechnology could add some contemporary figures: zealots who push for governmental overregulation in the name of consumer or environmental protection and sophists who spark fear in the hearts of the naive with chilling predictions of "Andromeda strains" and dysphemisms like "eugenics" and "Frankenfood."

The scientific consensus on the nature of biotech risk has long been unequivocal. That consensus holds that biotech risk is primarily a function of the characteristics of a product--whether the product is a recombinant organism (one which contains DNA from more than one source) to be field-tested or a purified derivative--but not a function of the genetic modification method itself. Yet activists continue to attack both gene-splicing techniques and even the most beneficial products they have produced.

Prominent opponents of the new biotechnology are not quixotic ideologues but well-financed specialists pursuing single-issue activism.

Those activists claim that even precise, minimal genetic modifications will have unpredictable, potentially disastrous effects. For example, they predicted that field trials of a recombinant bacterium designed to prevent crops from freezing ("ice-plus" Pseudomonas syringae stripped of the gene that promotes ice crystal formation in plant tissues) could disrupt weather patterns and air traffic control. They hold that using bovine somatotropin (bST) to increase milk production in dairy cows will cause breast cancer in women who drink milk. They whinge endlessly about the horrors of "moth genes in our tomatoes."

Prominent opponents of the new biotechnology are not quixotic ideologues but well-financed specialists pursuing single-issue activism. They have battled biotechnology for more than twenty years and, on occasion, have enjoyed modest successes. They appear at public hearings claiming, without corroboration, to represent numerous concerned citizens. I wonder, though, how the rank and file of the National Wildlife Federation would have polled on their organization's bitter, tenacious opposition to the development of a recombinant rabies vaccine for animals in the wild.

The activists' broadest demand is twofold: (1) that all bioengineered foods undergo clinical trials before marketing and (2) that product labels on bioengineered foods indicate which techniques, materials, and sources were used. Antibiotech antics range from the merely silly to the pernicious. In the 1970s activists disrupted a scientific conference chanting, "We shall not be cloned." (I would hope not!) Agricultural field tests have repeatedly been vandalized. A few hard-core activists have campaigned relentlessly against all applications of biotechnology, including the development of pharmaceuticals for treating or preventing AIDS, cancer, heart attacks, hepatitis, rabies, and gene therapy for incurable childhood diseases. In a well-orchestrated antibiotech campaign, Consumers Union groundlessly accused Michael Taylor, then deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), of a conflict of interest with respect to biotech policy formulation and product evaluation.

The Paranoid Style

I have consistently been taken aback by the ease with which opponents of biotech can capitalize not only on the public's scientific naïveté but also on other, less naive audiences. Antibiotech critics successfully gambled that government regulators, industry executives, and university scientists would panic over the possibility that the biotech hoopla would stir the public. Yet nearly all public opinion polls have shown that the public is not up in arms about biotechnology.

The motif of antibiotech activism is by no means new. It resonates with historian Richard Hofstadter's classic analysis, in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1952), of religious and political movements in American politics. Hofstadter described the "central image" of the religious and political activists' obsession as "a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life." According to Hofstadter, the activists' "paranoid style" is marked by a "leap in imagination that is always made at some critical point in the recital of events."

Greenpeace International, for example, may have attained the nadir of antibiotech activism when, on April 6, 1995, it 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 quotation is from their own press release.)

The rice seeds stolen by Greenpeace, genetically engineered for increased resistance to insects, had been en route from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Zurich, to the International Rice Research Institute, in the Philippines. There, researchers would have field-tested the recombinant seeds to determine whether their yield would continue to be high with less use of chemical pesticides. In the Philippines and many other developing countries in Asia, where rice is a staple, the need for disease- and insect-resistant rice is enormous.

Some well-intentioned members of the academic community would attempt rational public dialogue with anti-biotech activists. I advise against it.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes?

Let us examine the case of new, genetically altered varieties of tomatoes. The activists want the same regulations applied to this common food as are applied to new drugs. This is utterly unnecessary and would make the application of the new biotechnology to agriculture impossibly expensive--which is exactly the activists' goal!

To obtain FDA approval of any new drug, the manufacturer must submit the findings of clinical trials. But standards crafted by professional societies and adopted voluntarily by plant breeders have been used routinely and effectively for decades to test new varieties of fruits, vegetables, and grains and to certify the seeds of new cultivars. Plant breeders test yield, flavor, toxicity, and properties such as resistance to insects, molds, and viruses. Unsafe, unstable, or otherwise unacceptable plants are neither continued in breeding programs nor introduced into commerce.

Jeremy Rifkin, founder of the Foundation on Economic Trends, in early 1997 characterized biotechnology as threatening "a form of annihilation every bit as deadly as nuclear holocaust" and civilization as "on the cusp of a frightening new era of cloning, genetic engineering, and eugenics." Rifkin has opposed biotech applications ranging from cancer therapy to crop improvement and has deluged federal agencies with demands that they deny product approvals.

Plant breeding has an impressive record of safety based on professional, rather than government-imposed, standards of practice. Yet Rifkin, Greenpeace, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and other antibiotech groups demand extensive, government-mandated environmental and human testing of new agricultural biotech products. Profit margins for both fresh and processed foods are extremely narrow, and the markets are highly competitive. The antibiotech activists are counting on new regulations to increase the cost of developing biotech products and to make such products unaffordable to most farmers and consumers. It is hard to understand what the activists hope to gain by keeping improved staple crops out of farmers' hands and prolonging farmers' reliance on high-acreage, input-intensive methods.

Drawing Lines

Although freedom of expression and vigorous debate are conducive to science and science policymaking, we must distinguish science from pseudoscience. Organizers of National Institutes of Health–sponsored conferences on genetics do not invite creationists; applied physics meetings do not include sessions on the newest designs for perpetual motion machines.

Some well-intentioned members of the academic, government, industrial, and nonprofit communities would attempt rational public dialogue with antibiotech activists. I advise against it.

As political columnist George Will has observed, the hidden agenda of some activists is to expand the domain of some people's political will over that of others. The antibiotech activists' agenda is to dictate what scientific research may be done, how it may be done, and which types of products may be produced and marketed. Their rhetoric and actions have been incompatible with scientific discourse, with the scientific method, and with the primacy of empirical evidence. Because of their mendacity, the activists--not unlike scientists who falsify data--should forfeit participation in dialogues among the community of scholars.