The Attack on Plant Biotechnology
Chapter 7 in 'Global
Warming and Other Eco-Myths', Ronald Bailey ed.,
by Gregory Conko and C.S. Prakash
(Note: The following authors' text may have been changed slightly prior to publication. For quotation, readers are urged to consult the published work. Readers will also find complete tables and endnotes in the bound volume.)
... A century's worth of genetic improvements in plants and animals have made food more abundant and less expensive today than at any other time in history. Continuing improvements in productivity will be necessary to feed the world in the 2st Century without having to bring millions of acres of undeveloped wilderness into agricultural use.
... Despite opposition from ideological environmentalists, biotechnology - the next step in the continuum of genetic improvement - has been endorsed by countless scientific and health organizations, including the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
... Around the world, more than 70 bioengineered plant varieties are grown commercially on approximately 109 million acres, in countries ranging from the United States, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Mexico, and South Africa.
... Bioengineered varieties of corn, cotton, potato, soybean, and others, are raising yields, reducing pesticide use, conserving topsoil, and making other contributions to environmental protection.
... Biotechnology is helping scientists breed plants that mature faster, tolerate drought or extremes of heat and cold, and have improved nutrition. It is also being used to develop healthier cooking oils that are low in saturated fats, vegetables with higher levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants, and foods with better taste and longer shelf life. It is even possible to use bioengineered plants to create biodegradable plastics, better medicines, and to help clean up hazardous wastes.
... Due to activist pressures, governments around the world have created harmful regulations that make it harder for researchers to use biotechnology to improve crop plants and livestock.
1. The Attack On Plant Biotechnology
On a blustery November day in 1999, U.S. Food and Drug Administration scientists kicked off the first of three nation-wide public meetings on biotechnology and bioengineered foods at the Plaza Club in Chicago. In the wake of substantial and growing concern about the technology in some European countries, FDA officials wanted to gauge the public mood in the U.S. and head off any growing domestic crisis of confidence. What they found was not surprising - no scientific evidence supporting claims that biotechnology was particularly dangerous either for consumers or the environment, but a small and growing segment of the public that believe bioengineered crop plants to be truly hazardous. Outside, members of Greenpeace and several other activist environmental groups protested with signs declaring, "Genetically engineered food is poison."
Many Americans have never even heard of bioengineered crops, and most who have hold a neutral or positive opinion about them. But beneath this otherwise calm surface, there is a growing campaign led by ideological environmentalists against plant biotechnology. The U.S. Public Interest Research Groups argue that bioengineered foods "pose unacceptable risks to human health," risk "spawning new superweeds," or pose hazards to beneficial insects and soil organisms. The activist group Friends of the Earth warns that biotech crops could "seriously threaten biodiversity in agricultural areas" and that they "may also be toxic to humans." And when the United States Agency for International Development sent a shipment of corn and soy-meal that happened to contain some bioengineered varieties in the mix to aid the victims of a cyclone in the Indian province of Orissa, Vandana Shiva, director of the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, argued that, "The U.S. has been using the Orissa victims as guinea pigs for [bioengineered] products."
Other critics are even more shrill. Jeremy Rifkin, a notorious and longtime opponent of all forms of genetic research, calls the introduction of bioengineered plants "the most radical, uncontrolled experiment we've ever seen." Mae-Wan Ho, a biologist at London's Open University argues that biotech crop plants are "worse than nuclear weapons or radioactive wastes." What is it about agricultural biotechnology that inspires such attacks?
Ever since the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, ideological environmentalists have warned that mankind's use of modern farming technologies would lead to widespread ecological and human health catastrophes. Then, the villain was synthetic chemicals - particularly the use of insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides on farms to protect growing crop plants. Thirty years later scientific evidence clearly shows that those concerns were wildly exaggerated. Nevertheless, the use of agricultural chemicals can have some negative environmental effects. Ultimately, humanity must choose between using chemicals that can cause some minor harm on the one hand, or sacrificing tremendous gains in food productivity on the other.
For many, the choice is simple. At its heart, all of agriculture requires a never-ending struggle against the destructive forces of nature: pests, diseases, weather, and many others. Despite the steadily growing use of insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides on farms around the world, as much as 40 percent of crop productivity in Africa and Asia, and about 20 percent in the industrialized countries of North America and Europe, is lost to insect pests, weeds, and plant diseases. Without any means for controlling those pests, crop losses would climb to as much as 70 percent. Thus, something clearly must be done to prevent crop losses, or agricultural production would fall dramatically, possibly even subjecting humanity to the widespread famines predicted by Thomas Malthus more than two hundred years ago.
Today, a new crop protection revolution is underway that will help farmers combat pests and pathogens more effectively while also reducing humanity's dependence upon agricultural chemicals. Agricultural biotechnology* (alternatively known as bioengineering, genetic engineering, and genetic modification (GM)) uses 21st Century advances in genetics and cell biology, to move useful traits from one organism to another, allowing plants to better protect themselves from insects, weeds, diseases, and even from such environmental stresses as poor soils and drought. Biotechnology can also improve the nutritional quality of staple foods like corn and rice by adding healthful vitamins and minerals. The technique is so beneficial that it has been endorsed by dozens of scientific and health associations, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the United Kingdom's Royal Society, the United Nations Development Program, and many others.
By the year 2000, just five years after their introduction on the market, farmers around the world planted more than 109 million acres (44.2 million hectares) with biotech crops. It's easy to see why. In the United States alone, bioengineered varieties of corn that are resistant to some insect pests were about five percent more productive on average than conventional varieties during the period from 1996 to 1999. Biotech cotton varieties generated more than 10 percent higher yields and simultaneously reduced chemical insecticide use by an average of about 14 percent during that time. Not surprisingly, farmers have a very favorable view of the development of biotech seeds. By 2001, 26 percent of all corn, 68 percent of all soybeans, and 69 percent of all upland cotton grown in the United States were bioengineered varieties.
Although improved agricultural productivity might seem like a luxury that industrialized countries can do without, it is an absolute necessity for less developed nations. In a report published in July 2000, the UK's Royal Society, the National Academies of Science from Brazil, China, India, Mexico and the US, and the Third World Academy of Science, embraced agricultural biotechnology, arguing that it can be used to advance food security while promoting sustainable agriculture. "It is critical," declared the science academies, "that the potential benefits of [genetic] technology become available to developing countries."
Importantly, the increased productivity made possible by these advances will allow farmers to grow substantially more food and fiber on less land. Such productivity gains will be essential if we are to outpace the projected increase in global population over the coming decades while sparing more land for nature. During the second half of the 20th Century, in which the population increased from 3 billion to 6 billion, advances in conventional plant and animal breeding, and improved use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides allowed food production to grow much faster than population growth. But the average annual per acre increase in cereal yields has been slowing, from 2.2 percent per year in the late 1960s and 1970s, but only 1.5 percent per year in the 1980s and early 1990s, to as low as just 1.0 percent in the second half of the 1990s. More importantly, there has been little or no increase in the theoretical maximum possible yields of rice and corn in a decade.
Worldwide, farmers already use approximately one-third of the Earth's land surface area (excluding Antarctica) for agriculture, of which about one-third, or 5.8 million square miles, is dedicated to growing crops. If the average annual increase in productivity per acre for the cereal grains that make up the bulk of food and animal feed remains at its current rate of around one percent, the world will have to bring more than 700 million acres of new land into agricultural use by the year 2050 to meet projected demand. Nobel Peace Prize winning plant scientist Norman Borlaug argues that, "Extremists in the environmental movement, largely from rich nations and/or the privileged strata of society in poor nations, seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks."
The rate of increase in grain yields is slightly higher on average in less developed countries than industrialized ones, but population growth is higher there as well. And even this average obscures the fact that Africa was almost totally excluded from the productivity gains generated during the Green Revolution. Crop productivity there has much room for growth, but for a variety of reasons, Africa has not been able to take advantage of such production increasing inputs as fertilizers, irrigation, and pesticides. Yields of sorghum and millet in sub-Saharan Africa have not increased since the 1960s. Thus, the productivity gains expected to be generated by biotechnology-enhanced crop plants can not only help to reduce the use of agricultural chemicals, they could save millions of acres of sensitive wildlife habitat from being converted into farmland. Explaining his strong support for biotechnology to a Reuters interviewer, Borlaug said, "You have two choices. You need [biotechnology] to further improve yields so that you can continue to produce the food that's needed on the soil that's well-adapted to agricultural production. Or, you'll be pushed into cutting down more of our forests."
One might expect environmental activists to be pleased with the development of a technology that can make man's footprint on the environment lighter. But ideological environmentalists have launched a global campaign to suppress this vital technology on the specious grounds that it is unsafe for humans and the environment. Bioengineered products are denounced as "Frankenfoods," and claims that the new technology could result in "Andromeda strain"-like plagues abound. Lord Peter Melchett, head of Greenpeace's United Kingdom chapter declared that his organization's opposition to biotechnology is "a permanent and definite and complete opposition based on a view that there will always be major uncertainties."
Never mind that the weight of scientific evidence does not support such outlandish claims, or the belief of most crop scientists that biotechnology will have substantial benefits for environmental stewardship, as well as for farmers and consumers in poorer regions of the world. Kenyan crop scientist Florence Wambugu believes that biotechnology "can help us increase the production of food and other commodities, lowering their prices to consumers while raising the incomes of poor farmers." That may not be enough to satisfy most ideological environmentalists, though. At an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Conference in March 2000, Greenpeace anti-biotech campaigner Benedikt Haerlin, "dismissed the importance of saving African and Asian lives at the risk of spreading a new science that he considered untested."
2. What Is Plant Biotechnology?
Ever since the dawn of agriculture, which began thousands of years ago with domestication of wild plants and animals from their natural habitats, humans have continuously transformed the crops and animals that we have come to depend upon for food and animal feed. Over many millennia, the crop varieties that were chosen for domestication have been gradually modified by selecting individual plants that grew the best and produced the best grains, vegetables, and fruits. Over time, this process of artificial selection resulted in profound changes in the stature, productivity, and taste of crop varieties. Modern corn is derived from a wild Central American grass plant called teosinte. Through successive generations of selection, breeders developed an entirely new species of plant - corn - that shares very few of its characteristics with the wild teosinte.
Entirely new plant varieties were also developed by crossbreeding plants from different, but related species with one another. The progeny of such hybridizations expressed new traits resulting from the random mixing of literally tens of thousands of genes from the two parent plants. With these "natural" breeding techniques, entirely new proteins and other plant chemicals were routinely introduced into food crops, often from wild species never before part of the food supply. Bread wheat, for example, resulted several hundreds of years ago from the crossing of at least three different species of wild grasses from two different genera. And in the 20th Century, wheat and rye, plants from two different genera, were crossed to produce a new variety called triticale, which is used as food and animal feed. Hundreds of useful crop plants were developed with selection and hybridization techniques. But the flexibility of these techniques is limited by the need for the parent plants to be from species that can breed sexually.
The discovery of genes, chromosomes, and other mechanisms of plant genetics during the 20th century opened up new avenues for modifying plants. Scientists developed many novel tools that expanded the range of modifications that could be used to improve crop varieties. For example, in the late 1940s, agronomists began using x-rays, gamma rays, and caustic chemicals on seeds and young plants to induce random genetic mutations. Such mutations generally kill the plants (or seeds) or cause detrimental changes in the DNA. But on rare occasions, the result is a desirable mutation - for example, one producing a useful trait, such as altered height, more seeds, or larger fruit. In these cases, breeders have no real knowledge of the exact nature of the genetic mutation(s) that produced the useful trait, or of what other mutations might have occurred in the plant. But more than 2,250 mutation-bred varieties of corn, wheat, rice, and dozens of other varieties have been commercialized over the last half century, and they are grown in more than 50 countries around the world.
More sophisticated breeding techniques also permit agronomists to overcome natural barriers to ordinary sexual reproduction. They include methods such as protoplast fusion and embryo rescue, which join cells from sexually incompatible plants in a laboratory and over-come their natural inability to produce offspring. These techniques for genetic modification permit the artificial hybridization of plants of the same species, different species, and even different genera. "Wide crosses" of plants from different species or genera allow scientists to add into an existing crop species traits for disease and pest resistance, increased yield, or different nutritional qualities. They can even be used to create entirely new plant species. Examples of such artificial wide crosses include a wheat-barley hybrid, a tomato-potato hybrid, and a radish-rapeseed hybrid. Yet, none of these techniques are considered to be bioengineering, so they escape the wrath of ideological environmentalists.
These techniques underpinned the last century's spectacular increases in food productivity in all major crops around the world, including the Green Revolution in developing countries. This dramatic increase in food production has been critical in ensuring an affordable supply of food. For example, U.S. corn growers averaged 134 bushels per acre in 1998 compared to only 26 bushels of corn per acre in 1928. It will be possible to achieve additional productivity improvements through conventional breeding. But these techniques are crude and slow, and the traits that descendant plants eventually carry are not easily predictable. Typically, one or more unwanted traits are transferred to the offspring plants with any of these more conventional breeding techniques, so the breeder's job is not yet done. After the initial modification, agronomists must cross-breed the offspring again and again with the original plant for several generations to eliminate any undesirable traits. And many agronomists believe that we are already nearing the maximum possible gains in yield that can be achieved with conventional breeding. Fortunately, with the advent of modern biotechnology an alternative for boosting crop productivity is now available.
In the 1980s, scientists in the United States and Europe independently developed new and more precise methods for moving single genes directly into plants. This overcame the limits imposed by sexual incompatibility among species and opened up immense possibilities for developing novel crop varieties with improved traits. A naturally-occurring soil bacterium, Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which transfers its own DNA into plants, was modified to deliver desirable genes into plant cells instead of its own infective genes. Subsequently, a few other methods of gene transfer to plants were developed, including a "Gene Gun" that literally shoots gene fragments into the plant chromosomes. Since then, scientists have identified thousands of genes of potential value for agriculture from a wide variety of organisms, and have developed methods to reliably insert genes into every major crop plant. Genes are recipes for producing proteins and those proteins can improve a crop's nutritional value or protect it against pests. These are the various techniques that are now known as genetic engineering, bioengineering, genetic modification, or biotechnology.
In modern biotechnology, the genes coding for specific traits are inserted into plant cells, which are then cultured for development into full plants. The bioengineered plants will then express the new trait - such as resistance to an insect pest. Added genes are taken up into the plant's DNA in random positions, opening biotechnology to questions about unintended and unexpected effects. But such "pleiotropic" effects, brought about by the re-arrangement of DNA, occur even in the conventional breeding of plants from the same species. Compared with the mass genetic alterations that result from using wide-cross hybridization or mutagenic irradiation, the direct introduction of one or a few genes into crop plants results in much more subtle and far less disruptive changes that are relatively specific and predictable.
The process differs from more conventional breeding methods of hybridization, induced mutation, and others, in that only one or two specifically identified additional genes are typically introduced into an existing background of tens of thousands of genes. But, because DNA is identical from organism to organism, bioengineering techniques can transfer genes, not just between plants, but from any living organism to any other - such as between plants and animals, or bacteria and plants. This new flexibility aside, scientists see biotech gene transfer techniques as a logical extension of the continuum of methods used to improve crop plants. A report published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1989 concluded that:
"[Bioengineering] methodology makes it possible to introduce pieces of DNA, consisting of either single or multiple genes, that can be defined in function and even in nucleotide sequence. With classical techniques of gene transfer, a variable number of genes can be transferred, the number depending on the mechanism of transfer; but predicting the precise number or the traits that have been transferred is difficult, and we cannot always predict the [characteristics] that will result. With organisms modified by molecular methods, we are in a better, if not perfect, position to predict the [characteristics]."
Thus, with biotechnology, plant breeders are actually less likely to produce unanticipated effects in crops. As biotechnology researcher Nina Federoff of the Pennsylvania State University notes, "This is like the difference between having to depend on a lightening strike for the fire to cook your evening meal and learning how to make matches to be able to make a fire when and where you want it."
To date, more than 70 biotech plant varieties have been commercialized in the United States expressing a range of improved traits, such as heightened resistance to certain insects and diseases, tolerance to herbicides, and longer shelf life. Globally, bioengineered varieties are grown commercially on approximately 109 million acres, in countries ranging from the United States, Argentina, Australia, Brazil,* Canada, Chile, China, Mexico, and South Africa. Some critics have suggested that biotech crops are primarily an industrialized country interest. But the proportion of bioengineered crops grown in less developed nations has grown consistently since their introduction, from 14 percent in 1997, to 24 percent in 2000.
Some of the most successful crop varieties have been modified by adding a bacterial gene that produces a protein toxic to predatory insects, but not to people or other mammals. By reducing the need for spraying chemical pesticides on crops, such crops are environmentally friendly. Another popular trait is tolerance to a particular herbicide. Herbicide tolerance can be developed in some crop varieties through selection and breeding methods, but biotechnology can achieve the same goal much more quickly and effectively. Today, varieties of canola, corn, cotton, rice, soybean, and sugar beet, have all been bioengineered to tolerate one or another broad spectrum herbicide. Herbicide tolerant varieties allow farmers to control weeds by spraying fields without damaging growing crops. This, in turn, eliminates the need to plow under weeds, which loosens topsoil and contributes to erosion. And because the spraying of herbicides is more efficient, herbicide tolerant crops have even led to a modest reduction in herbicide use.
The purpose of the current generation of bioengineered crops is primarily to improve pest resistance and weed control. In turn, this should reduce the use of crop protection products and/or increase yields.
Table 7.3 Traits Included in Currently Cultivated Bioengineered Crops
Herbicide tolerance The insertion of a herbicide tolerant gene into a plant enables farmers to spray wide spectrum herbicides on their fields killing all plants but the crop.
Insect resistance By inserting genetic material from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into seeds, scientists have modified crops, allowing them to produce their own insecticides. For example, Bt cotton combats bollworms and budworms, and Bt corn protects against the European corn borer.
Virus resistance To date, a virus resistant gene has been introduced into squash, tobacco, potatoes, and papaya. The insertion of a potato leaf roll virus resistance gene protects the potatoes from the corresponding virus, which is usually transmitted through aphids. For that reason, it is expected that there will be a significant decrease in the amount of insecticide used. The introduction of virus resistance genes into other plants may offer similar benefits. Virus resistant papaya varieties have single-handedly revived the Hawaiian papaya industry, nearly totally destroyed by the rampant papaya ring-spot virus.
Quality traits Today, quality trait-improved crops are only sown marginally and represent less than 125,000 acres in Canada and the United States. They are high-oleic soybeans, high-oleic canola, and high-laurate rapeseed (see Table 7.4).
3. The Regulation of Biotech Crops
Soon after the creation of the first bioengineered organisms, scientists and policymakers began to ask themselves what type of regulatory oversight would be appropriate. During the last 30 years, dozens of scientific bodies, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the American Medical Association, the Institute of Food Technologists, and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization have studied the scientific literature and made recommendations about the oversight that is appropriate for bioengineered organisms, arriving at remarkably similar conclusions. The level of risk an individual plant might pose to human health or the ecology has nothing to do with how it was developed; it has solely to do with the characteristics of the plant that is being modified, the specific gene or genes that are added, and the local environment into which it is being introduced.
When introduced into new ecosystems, all types of plants, whether they are wild types or are developed with biotechnology or more conventional breeding methods, pose a danger of becoming invasive weeds and harming local biodiversity. Similarly, both conventional and modern plant breeding involve introducing new genes into established crop plants. Thus, they both pose a risk of introducing potentially harmful proteins and other substances into the food supply, some of which could be allergens or toxins. However, the mere fact that new genes are being added to plants, even from wholly unrelated organisms, does not make them less safe either to the environment or to people.
An analysis published by the Institute of Food Technologists, a professional society of food scientists, concluded that the evaluation of biotech food "does not require a fundamental change in established principles of food safety; nor does it require a different standard of safety" than those that apply to conventional foods. Under U.S. federal law, developers and marketers of all new foods have a responsibility to ensure that the products they sell are safe and in compliance with all legal requirements. Yet, that's where the similarity in regulation of conventional and bioengineered foods ends. Biotech plants are regulated much more stringently, even though scientists agree that the same practices used to regulate new crop varieties produced by means of conventional techniques are sufficient to ensure the safety of plants developed with biotechnology.
For plants developed with more conventional techniques, regulators rely on plant breeders to conduct appropriate safety testing and to eliminate plants that exhibit unexpected adverse traits before they are commercialized. No specific testing is required, nor is pre-market approval necessary, even though new varieties produced with these more conventional methods often contain hundreds of unique proteins and other chemicals that may never have been in the food supply before. Most of those newly introduced substances will be totally unidentified (and unidentifiable) by the plant breeders. But this rarely poses any real danger. Decades of accumulated scientific evidence confirm that even the use of relatively crude and unpredictable genetic techniques for the improvement of crops plants poses minimal risk to human health and the environment.
But bioengineered plants, in which breeders actually know which new genes and proteins are being introduced into the plant, are subjected to heightened scrutiny in every country in the world where they are grown. In the United States, they are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The USDA is charged with making sure that biotechnology-enhanced plants do not become environmental nuisances or problematic weeds, directly addressing the activists' concerns about "superweeds." The EPA has jurisdiction over bioengineered plants that have a built-in resistance to insects, plant diseases, or other substances - including those that are resistant to herbicides. They are regulated as strictly as synthetic chemical pesticides, and the agency is responsible for ensuring that "pest-protected" biotech plants are safe both for the environment and for human health. And the FDA is responsible for ensuring that foods made from biotech plants are safe for people and livestock to eat.
The differences in the way conventionally-bred and bioengineered plants are regulated are clearly substantial. For example, some varieties of canola, and soybean have been selectively bred with conventional methods to be herbicide tolerant, but only bioengineered herbicide tolerant plants are subject to special field-testing requirements by the USDA. Other plants, such as kidney beans, peaches, and potatoes, are known to contain naturally-occurring pest resistant chemicals that are toxic in very high doses and pose a small risk to human health, but only bioengineered pest resistant plants require pre-market approval as pesticides by the EPA before they can be commercialized. Both soybeans and potatoes are known to occasionally contain proteins that are allergenic, but only biotech plants face strict testing requirements for toxicity and allergenicicty.
In short, dozens of new plant varieties produced through less precise techniques like selection, hybridization, induced mutation, embryo rescue, and other, non-biotech methods enter the market every year without any special pre-market testing requirements. But every single bioengineered plant on the market has been tested and re-tested, going through several hundred - and in some cases, several thousand - different tests to ensure environmental and human health protection. Contrary to the assertions of ideological environmentalists, the regulation of biotechnology is actually far more stringent than necessary to ensure that bioengineered crop varieties are at least as safe as conventional ones.
4. Are Biotech Crops Safe?
Opponents of biotechnology have long claimed that bioengineered plants are unnatural and dangerous. Complaints range from general charges of random, unintended effects that could make the plants unsafe, to more specific criticisms alleging the possible introduction of new toxins or allergens in the food supply. Ideological environmentalists also claim that bioengineered plants are more likely to have negative environmental impacts, including the destruction of wild biodiversity. But, as mentioned above, all bioengineered crop varieties are subjected to much greater regulatory scrutiny than conventional crops, and the regulatory mechanism has been designed specifically to prevent such potentially harmful side effects.
Because different plant varieties will have different characteristics, and thus, different risks, the regulatory approach for biotech plants focuses on identifying the source of potential hazards to the environment and human health that specific plants might pose. Regulators draw upon the existing risk assessment process for chemicals and novel foods, and factor in additional analyses specific to biotechnology. For example, all methods of crop breeding run the risk of unintended and unexpected disruptions in the normal functioning of specific genes - called pleiotropic effects. So, crop breeders always conduct a number of evaluations to eliminate potentially harmful side effects before commercialization.
But for biotech plants, regulators require tests to compare the biological, chemical, and agronomic equivalence of the modified varieties with their closest related conventional varieties. This is done to ensure that no pleiotropic effects have changed the new bioengineered plant in a way that would make it unsafe - such as changing the normally existing levels of plant nutrients or other phytochemicals. Modest changes in the level of phytochemicals can occur with any type of breeding, but no bioengineered plants that have shown a significant change in important nutrients or toxins have ever been put on the market. Although several new plant varieties with intentionally altered phytochemicals are now being developed, such as tomatoes, peppers, and rice with added or higher levels of beta carotene, and soybeans with higher levels of vitamin E.
Regulatory evaluations also pay special attention to the genes that are added to bioengineered plants, the source of those genes, the traits that the genes produce, and whether or not they have a history of safe use in the food supply. Scientists generally know a great deal about the safety of genes that come from other plants or micro-organisms that are already part of the food supply. For those that are not, additional tests to ensure the safety of the genes and their traits are required. The action of most genes is to help create proteins, which could be toxins or allergens. So, several additional studies are then required to ensure that the proteins are not toxic and to measure the similarity of the proteins with known allergens to ensure that no new allergenic substances are introduced into the food supply. And numerous feed evaluations have shown no adverse effects on livestock, or their meat or milk.
The potential for added genes to make bioengineered plants allergenic is among the most widely cited concerns about biotechnology. Although all forms of plant breeding pose some risk of introducing new allergens into the food supply, biotechnology has been singled out by activists for special attention. Professional scaremonger Jeremy Rifkin argues that, "In the coming years, agrichemical and biotech companies plan on introducing hundreds, even thousands of genes into conventional food crops © raising the very real possibility of triggering new kinds of allergenic responses about which little is known and for which there exist no known treatments." But Professor Steve Taylor, a noted allergen researcher at the University of Nebraska, thinks the risk is very small because, "there are good ways of predicting the potential allergenicity of a genetically modified food." In fact, one of the most important potential advantages of biotechnology is actually to eliminate existing allergens from foods like peanuts, wheat, and milk, by "silencing," or turning off," the genes that generate allergenic proteins. Taylor says, "[I]n the long term, we will have foods that are less hazardous because of biotechnology will have eliminated or diminished their allergenicity."
Just as with human safety, the ecological impact of any new crop depends on the type of introduced trait and the nature of the altered crop. Specific traits are focused on for assessing potential toxicity to beneficial insects, wild birds, and other animals. And the impacts of the whole plants are studied by assessing their similarity to traditional counterparts. New biotech plants are also assessed for their potential to cross-pollinate with wild or weedy plants, which could move the bioengineered traits into wild species with potentially negative consequences. Ecological aspects, such as potential to become problematic weeds and a range of other potential environmental effects, are studied prior to commercialization in small field trials. These effects are also monitored carefully after commercialization. Although some complaints have been lodged by farmers regarding the agronomic performance of certain bioengineered crop plants, no genuine environmental problems have yet been identified.
There is a risk that genes from biotech varieties could be transferred to wild plants through cross-pollination, but only in regions where there are closely enough related wild species for ordinary sexual reproduction. Moreover, this "out-crossing" is really only problematic when the genes in question could enhance the reproductive fitness of the recipient weeds: that is, enable weeds to produce and scatter seeds that survive better in the wild. Gene flow between crops and wild plants has been going on for a long time and is by no means unique to biotechnology. It has not been a problem though, because most genes that are introduced into crop plants, conventional or biotech, have little value in the wild. In fact, while some traits added with either bioengineering or conventional breeding methods could provide an ecological advantage, most crop traits tend to make plants less likely to survive the rigors of the wild.
For example, herbicide-tolerant rapeseed plants have been produced with conventional breeding for 20 years, and no unmanageable weed problems have been reported as a result of their use. So, while the transfer of a gene for herbicide tolerance into a wild relative could create a nuisance for farmers, it is unlikely to have any impact on wild biodiversity because the herbicide tolerance trait wouldn't give the wild plant any selective advantage relative to other weeds. Even in the extremely unlikely event that herbicide tolerance genes were transferred to a weed species, it wouldn't run amok in farmers' fields. Farmers could still control it by using other herbicides to which it was not tolerant.
Still ideological environmentalists insist that any out-crossing of genes from bioengineered plants into conventional or wild plants will be negative. In one recent case, ecologists from the University of California at Berkeley reported evidence that genes from bioengineered corn varieties had been transferred into local varieties of corn in Oaxaca state in southern Mexico where no bioengineered varieties have yet been approved for commercial cultivation. Although this report was later shown to be false, concerns arose among some ideological environmentalists that the presence of certain genes could only be explained by cross pollination from bioengineered varieties and that their presence posed a threat to the genetic diversity of the many landrace or heirloom varieties in what is considered to be the birthplace of corn. One Greenpeace activist from Mexico argued that, "It's a worse attack on our culture than if [biotech companies] had torn down the Cathedral of Oaxaca and built a McDonald's over it."
However, Mexican farmers reproduce their varieties by carefully selecting the seed they save from year to year. Thus, if a gene producing an undesirable trait is transferred into certain plants, seed from those crops will not be planted the following year and will be eliminated from the gene pool. This practice has worked very well for millennia and explains why Mexican farmers can plant many different varieties next to one another, without worrying about cross-pollination. Luis Herrera-Estrella, a plant scientist and director of the Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Irapuato, Mexico has noted that "gene flow between commercial and native varieties is a natural process that has been occurring for many decades," so "there is no scientific basis for believing that out-crossing from biotech crops could endanger [corn] biodiversity." Indeed, the presence of certain genes from biotech varieties could actually enhance genetic diversity by improving the ability of landrace varieties to resist pests, making them more productive.
Given concerns about the spread of bioengineered genes, you might think biotech opponents would welcome innovations designed to keep them confined. But when scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Delta Pine Land Company did just that, environmentalists were infuriated. The process, called the Technology Protection System (TPS), was designed to make plant seeds sterile by interfering with the development of plant embryos. Hope Shand, research director for the Rural Advancement Foundation International, dubbed it "Terminator Technology." Jeremy Rifkin calls it "pathological," and has spread fears that escape of the TPS genes into weed populations through cross-pollination could destroy great swaths of plant life. But in the remote possibility of cross-pollination with weedy relatives, genes for traits such as herbicide tolerance or pest resistance wouldn't create "superweeds," because the TPS trait would prevent the wild plants from reproducing. Biotechnology companies like TPS because preventing farmers from replanting saved seeds from the prior year's harvest would protect the breeder's considerable investment in the development of new varieties. But critics see TPS as one more facet of global corporate hegemony. Mark Ritchie, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, argues that "It is a threat globally to food security, which is a basic human right."
Like many other concerns about biotechnology, this issue too has a non-biotech analogue. High-yielding hybrid varieties of plants like corn don't breed true, so most crop growers in the U.S. and Western Europe have been buying seed annually for decades. Thus, Technology Protected seeds wouldn't represent a big change in the way many American and European farmers farm. Many farmers in less developed countries have resisted hybrid technology because they prefer to have the option to plant saved seed. Similarly, if farmers didn't want the advantages offered in the enhanced crops protected by TPS, they would be free to buy seeds without the technology protection, just as farmers are free to buy non-hybrid seeds. Nevertheless, some of the biggest biotechnology companies have succumbed to pressures from environmental activists and aid organizations, and have promised not to commercialize the TPS technology. In any case, gene flow from bioengineered crops creating "superweeds" is not very likely.
Also consider that the biotech plants themselves are not likely to "escape" from farm fields and become weeds themselves, because crop plants of all varieties are generally not suited for existence in the wild-they need to be pampered. One noteworthy result of the extensive transformation of wild plants into crop varieties was the loss of many traits required for wild existence and the creation of a true dependency of modern crop plants upon human care for their survival. A ten-year study by British scientists found that neither biotech nor conventional crop plants survive well in the wild, and biotech varieties are no more likely than their conventional counterparts to invade wild ecosystems. Researchers have identified at least 12 genetic traits that are necessary for plants to be successful weeds. And crop plants typically have only six of them. For example, one of the most important traits shared by all weeds is their ability to disperse seeds beyond the immediate area. But crop varieties are bred specifically for their ability to hold seeds, and thus have lost their dispersal ability. The fact is that modern cultivated plants, such as corn or soybeans, are incapable of invading and taking over forests and meadows.
Naturally, farmers and scientists are nevertheless vigilant against the unlikely chance that plants could out-cross with weeds or that the crop plants themselves could become weedy as a result of adding new traits. But this is the case whether or not a particular plant was modified with conventional or biotech methods. The risk of gene transfer to weeds is similar with both conventional and biotech varieties, and has no relation to the methods used in altering the plants. And because farmers are the first people affected by new weeds, they have a direct and strong incentive to prevent their development. The testing and monitoring of biotech crops, combined with hundreds of years of experience with conventional varieties, provides more than sufficient safeguard that such risks will be minimal and manageable.
The effect of biotechnology on crop biodiversity is another often-cited concern. The popularity of high-yielding varieties has narrowed the genetic variation found in major crops, because more and more farmers are planting the same or similar varieties. But biotechnology, if employed strategically, can reverse this trend by permitting the recovery of older varieties that were discarded for lack of certain features (such as resistance to new disease strains). With modern bioengineering techniques, older heirloom and landrace varieties can be modified to add such traits without destroying genetic diversity. Biotechnology researchers are also developing better methods for the preservation of germplasm in laboratories, such as cryopreservation, where plant cells with valuable genes are being stored and thus saved from extinction.
Despite the record of safety in biotech and the existence of a strict regulatory system, ideological environmentalists remain obdurate in their opposition to the technology. They seize on even the most tenuous evidence to justify their continued attacks. In 1998, for example, a Scottish scientist named Arpad Pusztai claimed that his research showed a variety of bioengineered potatoes had negative health effects in lab rats. Pusztai fed rats with conventional potatoes and an experimental biotech potato variety that was never put on the market. He claimed to have found that the bioengineered variety damaged the immune systems and stimulated abnormal cell division in the digestive tracts of the lab rats. But many scientists have shown that Pusztai's research methodology was critically flawed, and that no conclusions about the safety of biotech foods can be drawn from his data.
Pusztai fed the rats only potatoes, making no attempt to provide nutritionally-balanced diets. So, all the rats in the study experienced adverse health effects. In addition, because Pusztai used an experimental variety and not one that was likely to be commercialized, the bioengineered potatoes were nutritionally impaired, lacking several key vitamins. Any effects that Pusztai might have observed were almost certainly due to these two factors. After an extensive review, the British Royal Society issued a statement explaining why the experiment was fatally flawed, and noted that, "On the basis of this paper, it is wrong to conclude that there are human health concerns with the process of genetic modification itself, or even with the particular genes inserted into these [biotech] potatoes."
To date, no scientist has replicated Pusztai's study with bioengineered potatoes to confirm his results. But a team of Chinese scientists conducted their own studies of bioengineered sweet peppers and tomatoes, and found no such biological changes. A Japanese study likewise found no negative effects on the immune systems of rats fed with biotech soybeans. And nearly two-dozen publications evaluating the effect of various biotech feeds on livestock have found no evidence of harm. Nevertheless, Arpad Pusztai's flawed research has become a touchstone for anti-biotechnology activists, who persist in claiming that it highlights the "dangers" of bioengineered food.
Although the Pusztai story made headlines in Europe, it was largely ignored by the mainstream press in the United States. But U.S. activists were provided with their own anti-biotech scare story in 1999, when the results of a laboratory test were published finding that pollen from a type of bioengineered corn could kill Monarch butterfly caterpillars. This was hardly news to plant scientists, though, because the corn had been engineered to kill the caterpillars that are the major insect pests of corn. Nevertheless, the paper's publication triggered an immediate frenzy of anti-biotech stories in the media coverage.
A USA Today headline declared "Engineered corn kills butterflies." The Associated Press led with "Lab-Designed Corn May Harm Insects," a report the Boston Globe published with the headline, "Butterfly deaths linked to altered corn." A review of the news coverage by one journalism researcher found that, between 1997 and 2000, the New York Times and the London Times used fewer and fewer university-based scientists as sources, and they were more than twice as likely to quote representatives from such activist groups as Greenpeace, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Such adverse coverage primed readers to be skeptical of biotechnology. So, when a second Monarch study, which attempted to simulate field conditions of corn pollen dispersal, found that pollen distribution onto milkweed plants in and around corn fields could be high enough to kill the Monarch caterpillars, plant biotechnology's future looked gloomy.
Many scientists, however, pointed out that neither study accurately simulated real world conditions. Corn pollination happens at a different time of year than Monarch larval development, and the amount of pollen that is spread falls dramatically beyond about 20 to 30 feet from the edge of corn fields. Moreover, all types of insects - Monarchs included - would be killed if farmers sprayed synthetic chemical insecticides instead of using the biotech crop varieties. So, most scientists concluded that a tiny effect on Monarchs should not condemn biotech corn. Ultimately, the gloomy scenario predicted by the initial research seemed to be contradicted by several factors, including the fact that Monarch butterfly populations had actually increased since the introduction of biotech corn in the United States.
Nevertheless, even the speculation that pollen could contribute to the spread of potentially risky genes moved some scientists to accelerate research into ways of avoiding such a problem in the future. One idea, already under investigation, is to insert transferred genes into a specific part of the plant DNA that controls cellular organelles called chloroplasts, which contain the machinery for photosynthesis. There is no chloroplast DNA in the pollen of most crop plants, so isolating bioengineered genes there would normally be expected to contain the genes and the proteins made by them inside the plant. This chloroplast engineering technique is also being investigated as a potential way to prevent, or reduce, the possibility of bioengineered genes being transferred to weedy relatives through cross-pollination.
Fortunately, at least in the case of Bt corn and Monarch butterflies, chloroplast-engineering doesn't appear to be necessary, because doubts about the dire implications of the Monarch butterfly research have been confirmed. Six peer-reviewed papers published in the highly respected Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in October 2001, should eliminate concerns about the effects of biotech corn pollen on Monarch caterpillars. The papers describe two full years worth of intensive field research by 29 scientists - including three of five authors of the two critical reports - who found little or no effect of Bt pollen on Monarchs. Other research shows little or no impact on other beneficial insects and soil organisms. Nevertheless, these robust scientific results have not stopped activists from using Monarch costumes in their street-theaters and protests against biotechnology. The Union of Concerned Scientists (a leading ideological environmentalist organization) continues to use images of Monarch butterflies on its web site and fund-raising envelopes as a way of perpetuating the politically useful myth that crop biotechnology is causing environmental damage.
What is all too often overlooked by anti-biotech activists, however, is the fact that bioengineered crop varieties have substantial positive impacts on the environment. In addition to the significant reduction in chemical insecticide applications mentioned above, the introduction of biotech crops has made agriculture more efficient, promoting the conservation of important resources. Scientists from Louisiana State University and Auburn University found that when farmers plant bioengineered pest resistant crop varieties, fewer natural resources are consumed to manufacture and transport pesticides. Their study, which examined only pest resistant cotton, estimated that in 2000, 3.4 million pounds of raw materials and 1.4 million pounds of fuel oil were saved in the manufacture and distribution of synthetic insecticides. Additionally, 2.16 million pounds of industrial waste were eliminated. On the user end, farmers used 2.4 million gallons less fuel, 93 million gallons less water, and were spared some 41,000 10-hour days needed for applying pesticide sprays.
Perhaps most important is the fact that the increased productivity generated by bioengineered crop varieties will make it easier to conserve valuable wildlife habitat around the world. The loss and fragmentation of native habitats caused by agricultural development in the poorer regions of the world experiencing the greatest rates of population growth is widely recognized as among the most serious threats to the conservation of biodiversity. Thus, increasing agricultural productivity is an essential environmental goal, and one that would be much easier in a world where agricultural biotechnology is in widespread use.
Consider just one example. Rice is the major staple food for about 2.5 billion people, almost all of whom live in the less developed regions of the world where the bulk of 21st century population growth is expected to take place. The International Rice Research Institute estimates that reducing yield losses of rice by just 5 percent worldwide could feed an additional 140 million people. Highly promising field tests in 1999 and 2000 showed a bioengineered rice variety to produce 28.9 percent higher yields than conventional hybrid rice varieties. The environmental benefit of just this one biotech variety could be tremendous, if only wrongheaded international regulations inspired by ideological environmentalism do not doom its future.
6. International Rules
While U.S. regulation of biotechnology is overly strict, it pales in comparison with that in many other countries - particularly those countries that comprise the European Union (EU). Environmental activists in the EU, and in the United Kingdom in particular, have been aided and abetted by a sympathetic media willing to report uncritically activists' scaremongering as a way to sell more newspapers and magazines. Great Britain's Express ran such headlines as "Mutant crops could kill you," and "Is baby food safe?" The Daily Mail chimed in with "Mutant Crops' Threat To Wildlife," and the Guardian added "Gene crops could spell extinction for birds." Thus, the general public in most EU nations has become far more skeptical of biotechnology than the public in the United States. Theories abound regarding why this suspicion arose. But one thing is certain: The greater public sensitivity to the issue of biotechnology has had a direct and deleterious impact on the development of European regulatory policy.
Beginning in 1990, the European Commission implemented a set of biotechnology regulations for all EU member countries. The rules are far more onerous than those in the United States, and the regulatory process is complex and difficult to navigate. For example, 18 varieties of biotech crop plants - including varieties of corn, canola, cotton, potato, tomato, and soybean - have been approved for commercial cultivation. But only two varieties - one corn and one soybean - have been approved for use in food. None of this matters much, however, because EU rules also require bioengineered foods to be labeled. And, due to the strong negative opinion of biotech foods held by a sizeable portion of the public, few grocery stores will stock products labeled as being bioengineered.
Further problems stem from the fact that new bioengineered plant varieties must be approved by all 15 member nations in the European Union before they can be grown by farmers or sold as food. The objection of any one government can prevent the new variety from being granted EU approval. Since 1998, Austria, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, and Luxembourg have blocked the EU's approval of all new bioengineered varieties. In 1998, the highest French court suspended commercialization of three biotech corn varieties, even though the French government had supported their approval at the EU level just two years earlier. And in November 1999, the UK government announced a moratorium on commercial planting of bioengineered crops, pending a three-year program of farm-scale evaluations to assess environmental impacts. But test crops are routinely destroyed by anti-biotech activists, delaying completion of the research. And under persistent threat of attack, many farmers are dropping out of the program.
To make matter worse, an even stronger set of biotech regulations were being finalized by the European Commission in 2001. The rules, which EU politicians boast to be "the toughest [biotechnology] legislation in the world," are touted as just the trick to restore public confidence in the technology. But because they are so much more strict, more complex, and more costly, they are likely to make it more difficult to grow and sell biotech crops, not less so. Any positive impact on public opinion is likely to be swamped by the negative impact of trussing biotech researchers and farmers in ribbons of red tape.
Although dangerously wrongheaded, the European hysteria over biotech foods initially was seen as a regional problem. Increasingly, however, poor countries in East Asia are taking a far more cautious approach to biotechnology regulation. Japan, which has been a longtime leader in biotechnology research, has recently tightened restrictions on biotech food imports. And the European Union is pushing its overly-strict rules into international treaties affecting countries around the world. The EU was the primary advocate of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, for example, which regulates the planting of bioengineered crops and the international trade in harvested biotech grains, vegetables, and fruits.
Finalized in January 2000, the Biosafety Protocol is intended to ensure that the introduction of bioengineered organisms into the environment is "undertaken in a manner that prevents or reduces the risks to biological diversity." But it also encourages countries to create unnecessarily severe biotechnology regulations based upon the Precautionary Principle that overemphasize biotechnology's very modest risks and ignore its vast potential benefits. (See the chapter on the Precautionary Principle in this volume.) Thus, laws enacted under the auspices of the Biosafety Protocol are likely to slow the research and development of new biotech products needlessly. Moreover, by making it easier for countries to create scientifically unjustifiable restrictions, the Protocol will undoubtedly be abused by politicians seeking trade protection for their domestic agriculture and food processing industries.
Importantly, countries whose exporters are adversely affected by biotechnology rules based on the precautionary principle might be able to challenge them through the World Trade Organization's (WTO) dispute settlement processes. The WTO trade rules generally prohibit countries from restricting trade with environmental or public health laws that are not based upon a scientifically demonstrated risk. For a variety of reasons, however, it is not altogether clear that WTO rules would take precedence over the Biosafety Protocol, nor even that the WTO would be inclined to rule against biotechnology restrictions enacted to meet the Protocol's requirements.
Another important feature of the Biosafety Protocol is its requirement that bulk shipments of harvested agricultural products be labeled if they contain any biotech grains, fruits, or vegetables. To comply, farmers, shippers, and other food handlers would have to create hugely expensive segregation and record-keeping mechanisms, and test the foods at each step of the production process, to isolate conventional varieties from bioengineered ones. The EU's Directorate General for Agriculture estimates that the "identity preservation" costs alone for such a labeling requirement would range from 6 percent to 17 percent for commodity grains. The newly proposed European biotechnology law is set to go even further, by requiring not just mandatory labeling, but also "traceability" of biotech foods - an array of technical, labeling, and record-keeping mechanisms that require food processors to keep track of grains, fruits, vegetables, and other ingredients from the plant breeder, to the farm, to the grain handler, and beyond - from dirt to dinner plate.
Ultimately, labeling requirements like those enforced in the European Union represent serious obstacles that could all but destroy the affordability of biotechnology products and impede their adoption in the poorer regions of the world that need it most. The 2001 Human Development Report issued by the United Nations' Development Program laments that "The opposition to yield-enhancing [bioengineered] crops in industrial countries with food surpluses could block the development and transfer of those crops to food-deficit countries."
7. What About Labeling?
Regulatory agencies around the world could learn a thing or two from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's treatment of calls for biotech food labeling. Just as in Europe, some activists in the U.S. have called upon the government to mandate the labeling of all bioengineered foods. They assert that consumers have a "right to know" how their foods have been altered, and that a mandatory label would best allow consumers to choose between bioengineered and conventional foods. Biotechnology proponents and free speech advocates, on the other hand, have argued against mandatory labeling because such a requirement would unnecessarily raise food costs, mislead consumers into believing that the labeled products pose a heightened safety risk, and violate constitutional free speech rights.
Despite harsh attacks and considerable political pressure from environmentalist and consumerist organizations, the FDA has held firm in its respect for the judgment of the scientific opinion about the value of such labeling. In its 1992 statement of policy, the FDA concluded that there was no reason to believe "that bioengineered foods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way." But sensing some activist support for labeling, the FDA decided to reevaluate that decision in 1999. It held three public meetings and received more than 50,000 written comments on it policy, most of which favored mandatory labeling. Nevertheless, when all was said and done, the agency reaffirmed its decision to not require special labeling of all bioengineered foods.
The American Medical Association, the Institute of Food Technologists, and others have consistently argued that there is no scientific justification for special labeling of biotechnology-derived foods per se. Thus, the FDA only requires labeling of biotech foods if the genetic modifications change the food in a way that has a real impact on consumer health. Examples would include alterations in the plants that could increase the level of naturally-occurring but potentially-harmful chemicals; introduce new substances, such as potential allergens, into foods that did not previously have them; or change the nutritional composition or a food's storage or preparation requirements. To date, no bioengineered food products put on the market in the United States have required such labeling. Though, the very first bioengineered fruit, the Calgene corporation's FlavrSavr slow-ripening tomato, carried a voluntary notice that it had been engineered, and it was initially well received by consumers who were willing to pay a premium for the improved flavor promised on the labels.
Similarly, the FDA believes that requiring food labels to indicate the presence of bioengineered ingredients could mislead consumers into believing that the foods differ in safety or nutrition, when they do not. Labels are a valuable source of information for consumers, so U.S. federal law prohibits label statements that are likely to be misunderstood by consumers, even if not technically false. For example, labeling the vegetable broccoli as being "cholesterol-free" could run afoul of the FDA's rules because no broccoli contains cholesterol, and such a statement could suggest to consumers that while the particular broccoli is "cholesterol-free," other broccoli is not. Thus, rather than serving an educational or "right to know" purpose, mandatory labels on biotech foods could be misunderstood by consumers as a warning about some important difference.
A government mandated label on all bioengineered foods would also raise important First Amendment free speech issues. In 1996, a U.S. Court of Appeals, in the case of International Dairy Foods Association, et al. v. Amestoy, ruled unconstitutional a Vermont statute requiring the labeling of dairy products derived from cows treated with a bioengineered growth hormone, noting that food labeling cannot be mandated simply because some people would like to have the information. "Absent . . . some indication that this information bears on a reasonable concern for human health or safety or some other sufficiently substantial governmental concern, the manufacturers cannot be compelled to disclose it." In other words, to be constitutional, labeling mandates must be based in science and confined to requiring disclosure of information that is relevant to health or nutrition.
Ultimately, though, consumers do not need to rely on mandatory labeling of biotechnology-enhanced foods to truly have a choice. Real world examples show that market forces are fully capable of supplying information about the methods in which foods and other products are produced if consumers truly demand it. Kosher and organic production certification are prime examples. Neither kosher nor organic labels convey relevant information about the safety or nutritional value of those products, but both meet a demand by consumers for information about the way the foods were produced.
The same can be said about biotechnology. Some producers of non-bioengineered products are already making label statements to convey that information to consumers. And the FDA recently published proposed guidelines to assist producers in voluntarily labeling both biotech and non-biotech foods in a way that is not misleading. In addition, under U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements, food products labeled as "organic" can not contain bioengineered ingredients. Consequently, consumers wishing to purchase non-biotech foods need only look for certified organic products.
8. The Road Ahead
Since the introduction of the very first bioengineered crop plant on the market in 1994, farmers, consumers, and food processors have experienced considerable benefits - from lower production costs to reduced pesticide use. But these benefits are dwarfed by the vast potential of agricultural biotechnology to aid in combating the even more serious problem of global food security.
During the next 50 years, global population may rise by 50 percent to nine billion people, with nearly all of that growth coming in the poorest regions of the world. Fortunately, mankind will face the extraordinary challenge of hunger and poverty with the very powerful tool of crop biotechnology. As many have noted, the problem of hunger and malnutrition is not now primarily caused by a global shortage of food. At current levels, world food production could provide more than 2,600 calories every day for all six billion people on earth. The primary causes of hunger during this century have been political unrest and corrupt governments, poor transportation and infrastructure, and, of course, poverty. All of these problems and more will need to be addressed if we are to truly conquer worldwide hunger. But ensuring true food security in a world of eight or nine billion will require greater productivity.
As population increases, farmers must be able to grow more and more nutritious food on less land. Biotechnology can provide one very powerful way to do just that. Without such gains in productivity and nutrition, the growing need for food will require plowing under millions of hectares of wilderness - an environmental tragedy surely worse than any imagined by biotechnology's opponents. Furthermore, 650 million of the world's poorest people live in rural areas where agriculture is the primary economic activity. They are highly dependent upon the income that comes from growing and selling crops, so boosting the productivity of their crops would make a tremendous contribution to the battle against hunger and poverty.
Fortunately, the next generation of bioengineered products, now in research labs around the world, is poised to bring improved nutrition, longer shelf life, and greater productivity in the poor soils and harsh climates that tend to be characteristic of impoverished regions. And many of these products are being developed primarily or exclusively for poor subsistence farmers and consumers in less developed countries. Some improved plants include the same or similar traits for resistance to insects and plant diseases that are now used in industrialized countries, but in crops that are grown more typically in less developed nations, including rice, corn, cassava, sweet potato, and tropical fruits, such as bananas and papayas. Other bioengineered traits include faster maturation, drought tolerance, the ability to be irrigated with salty water or to grow in soil contaminated with excess salt, tolerance to extremes of heat and cold, and tolerance to soils with high acidity that are common in the tropics. These traits for greater tolerance to environmental conditions would be tremendously advantageous to poor farmers in less developed countries, and no one more so than in Africa.
Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa never saw the same productivity gains that countries in Asia and South America enjoyed from the Green Revolution. The primary focus of Green Revolution plant breeders was on improving such crops as rice, wheat, and corn, which are not widely grown in Africa. Plus, much of the African dry lands have little rainfall and no potential for irrigation, which play an essential role in productivity success stories of crops such as Asian rice. And the remoteness of many African villages and poor transportation infrastructure in landlocked African countries make it difficult for African farmers to obtain agricultural chemical inputs such as fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides, even if they had the money to purchase them. Thus, by packaging technological inputs within seeds, biotechnology can provide the same, or better, productivity advantage as chemical or mechanical inputs, but in much more user-friendly manner. Farmers could be able to control insect pests, viral or bacterial pathogens, extremes of heat or drought, and poor soil quality, just by planting their crops.
Still, anti-biotech activists like Vandana Shiva and Miguel Altieri argue that poor farmers in less developed nations will never benefit from biotechnology, because it is controlled by multinational corporations. Altieri says that "Most innovations in agricultural biotechnology have been profit-driven rather than need-driven. The real thrust of the genetic engineering industry is not to make third world agriculture more productive, but rather to generate profits." But that sentiment is not shared by the thousands of academic and public sector researchers actually working on biotech applications in those countries. Cyrus Ndiritu, former director of the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute, argues that, "It is not the multinationals that have a stranglehold on Africa. It is hunger, poverty and deprivation. And if Africa is going to get out of that, it has got to embrace [biotechnology]."
Researchers are also improving the nutritional quality of plants, by boosting their ability to produce important vitamins, minerals, and proteins. The diet of more than three billion people worldwide includes inadequate levels of many important micronutrients such as iron and vitamin A. Deficiency in just these two micronutrients can result in severe anemia, impaired intellectual development, blindness, and even death. Fortunately, a substantial amount of research into improving the nutritional value of staple crops is well underway. Perhaps the most promising recent advance in this area is the development of a rice variety that has been genetically enhanced to add beta carotene, which is converted in the human body to vitamin A. By boosting the availability of vitamin A in developing world diets, this Golden Rice could help prevent as many as a million deaths per year and eliminate numerous other health problems.
But for critics of biotechnology like India's Vandana Shiva, and New York food journalist Michael Pollan, Golden Rice is just a "Great Yellow Hype" - another ploy by multinational biotechnology corporations to get the world hooked on bioengineering. Never mind that the research, which added genes taken from daffodils and a bacterium to rice, was funded primarily by the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation, which has promised to make the rice available to developing-world farmers at little or no cost. Ismail Serageldin, director of the UN-sponsored Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, asks opponents, "Do you want 2 to 3 million children a year to go blind and 1 million to die of vitamin A deficiency, just because you object to the way golden rice was created?" Apparently, the critics find it important to oppose biotechnology in any form.
But the benefits of agricultural biotechnology will by no means go exclusively to less developed countries. In industrialized nations such as the United States, consumers and farmers will continue to share in the benefits of improved productivity and reduced agricultural chemicals use. Agricultural biotechnology can also be used to develop healthier cooking oils that are low in saturated fats, vegetables with higher levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants, and foods with better taste and longer shelf life. It is also possible to use bioengineered plants to create biodegradable plastics, better medicines, and to help clean up hazardous wastes.
Although the complexity of biological systems means that some of these promised benefits of biotechnology are many years away, the biggest threats that consumers awaiting the bioengineering revolution currently face are restrictive policies stemming from unwarranted fears that the technology poses unique and dangerous threats to human health or the environment. No one thinks that biotech innovators should not be cautious, as all new technologies have both risks and benefits. But appropriate regulatory approaches involve weighing the risks and benefits of moving into the future against the risks and benefits of forgoing the new technology - not pointing to hypothetical risks and saying no. The bottom line is that scaremongering and over-regulation are slowing progress in agricultural biotechnology and inflating the costs of research and development. Ultimately, this hurts both poor farmers struggling to feed their families and the natural environment upon which we all depend.
Gregory Conko is director of food safety policy with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. C.S. Prakash is professor of plant molecular genetics and director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Alabama. The authors are also co-founders of the AgBioWorld Foundation.