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Activists Cite Science Only if It's Convenient

The Atlanta Journal Constitution
June 24, 2001
By Barry A. Palevitz

Remember last fall's taco fiasco? An Iowa laboratory found a genetically modified variety of corn called StarLink in tacos distributed by Kraft Foods. The corn, which the Environmental Protection Agency had approved only for animal use, somehow found its way into the human food stream.

The resulting brouhaha lasted for months as the Food and Drug Administration recalled hundreds of products; the company that developed the corn, Aventis Seeds, added up a $1 billion cleanup bill; and activist groups such as Greenpeace and Environmental Defense went on the warpath.

EPA nixed StarLink because the agency couldn't rule out the possibility that people might be allergic to it. The evidence for allergy wasn't strong --- the offending protein, called Cry9C, isn't quickly digested so the body has more time to react to it --- but there was enough doubt to ban human consumption. Even more worrisome, 51 people reported getting ill after eating corn products. Scientists were skeptical because StarLink levels were minuscule and the corn had been around only a short time.

Still, the FDA asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to test people who claimed the corn made them sick. From the 51 reports, CDC culled 28 people with symptoms fitting a real food allergy, then analyzed blood samples from 17 of them.

The results, reported on June 11, were striking. None of the samples contained antibodies to Cry9C protein. That's important because if the body doesn't make antibodies, it won't start the chain of events leading to allergy. In other words, although some people got sick after eating StarLink corn, it almost certainly wasn't from the biotech protein. An independent laboratory confirmed CDC's results.

Environmental Defense wasn't convinced. Said ED spokesperson Rebecca Goldburg, "The results are far from definitive. . . . CDC and FDA only examined reactions of a small number of people who asked to be assessed." But what better people to test than those reporting allergies? If anybody could provide documentable evidence of harm, they would.

Health arguments just a ruse

Environmental activists like ED have fussed over GM foods for years, claiming the science behind them was faulty and calling for a halt to sales pending more data. After the taco scare, Uncle Sam did the right experiments, and the results agreed with earlier estimates that the danger, if any, was low. Drivers are at far greater risk talking on a cellular phone than snacking on GM corn chips.

ED says it advocates "solutions based on science, even when it leads in unfamiliar directions." Apparently, its credo didn't apply in this case.

According to C.S. Prakash, director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Alabama, ED "readily debunks a study by the most respected public health organization in the world which finally puts the allergy question of StarLink corn to rest."

Why? Apparently the results didn't fit the group's agenda. Adds Prakash in an e-mail interview, "no amount of scientific studies showing the safety of biotech crops would satisfy environmentalists because their opposition on human health and ecological grounds is a facade for anti-development and anti-corporate platforms."

Remember the flap over monarch butterflies two years ago? According to a brief report in the journal Nature, pollen from a GM corn called Bt, which is related to StarLink, kills the "Bambi" of all insects. ED was in a snit over that too, with Goldburg ominously warning "it would be tragic if we fail to learn the lesson of DDT and devastate butterfly populations using genetically engineered crops."

Months later, scientists concluded Bt corn wasn't much of a problem. Says ecologist Orley "Chip" Taylor, head of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, "the incidence of Bt toxin is pretty low to kill monarchs in the field." For some reason, ED forgot evidence in favor of a much bigger threat to monarchs: habitat destruction.

ED isn't alone in the way it uses science. Take Greenpeace. The organization recently castigated President Bush for hiding behind uncertainty in not supporting the Kyoto treaty on global warming. Bush claimed that evidence for warming was incomplete.

All sides embrace uncertainty

I'm not a big fan of current environmental policy, but Greenpeace's stand is puzzling --- when it comes to opposing genetically modified crops, it has no problem with uncertainty, claiming the evidence isn't in yet to justify approval.

Bush's stand is equally hypocritical. Science deals in probabilities based on the best available information. For years, scientific consensus has pointed to the reality of global warming caused by greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. And where are those gases coming from? Human activity is a principal source. A report just issued by the National Academy of Sciences at the White House's behest notes that carbon dioxide and methane are "more abundant now than at any time in the last 400,000 years." The committee called for more study but concluded that global warming due to greenhouse gases "accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community." This is old news to climatologists, so why is the president still skeptical?

Science is the best tool for understanding the natural world. The information it gathers is indispensable for judging important issues such as biotechnology. But those who invoke science should remember that it doesn't necessarily support pet ideas.

Ecologist Taylor thinks important questions remain about some GM crops. Along with more research, he hopes "to bring policy-makers up to speed, so when decisions are made at the political level, we make them on the best information available."

Barry Palevitz is a professor and science writer at the University of Georgia in Athens.