Dr. Strangelunch -- Or: Why We Should Learn to
Stop Worrying and Love Genetically Modified Food
By Ronald Bailey
January 2, 2001
Ten thousand people were killed and 10 to 15 million left homeless when
a cyclone slammed into India’s eastern coastal state of Orissa in October
1999. In the aftermath, CARE and the Catholic Relief Society distributed
a high-nutrition mixture of corn and soy meal provided by the U.S. Agency
for International Development to thousands of hungry storm victims. Oddly,
this humanitarian act elicited cries of outrage.
"We call on the government of India and the state government of Orissa
to immediately withdraw the corn-soya blend from distribution," said Vandana
Shiva, director of the New Delhi–based Research Foundation for Science,
Technology, and Ecology. "The US has been using the Orissa victims as
guinea pigs for GM [genetically modified] products which have been rejected
by consumers in the North, especially Europe." Shiva’s organization had
sent a sample of the food to a lab in the US for testing to see if it
contained any of the genetically improved corn and soy bean varieties
grown by tens of thousands of farmers in the United States. Not surprisingly,
"Vandana Shiva would rather have her people in India starve than eat
bioengineered food," says C.S. Prakash, a professor of plant molecular
genetics at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director
general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, observes:
"To accuse the US of sending genetically modified food to Orissa in order
to use the people there as guinea pigs is not only wrong; it is stupid.
Worse than rhetoric, it’s false. After all, the US doesn’t need to use
Indians as guinea pigs, since millions of Americans have been eating genetically
modified food for years now with no ill effects."
Shiva not only opposes the food aid but is also against "golden rice,"
a crop that could prevent blindness in half a million to 3 million poor
children a year and alleviate vitamin A deficiency in some 250 million
people in the developing world. By inserting three genes, two from daffodils
and one from a bacterium, scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of
Technology created a variety of rice that produces the nutrient beta-carotene,
the precursor to vitamin A. Agronomists at the International Rice Research
Institute in the Philippines plan to crossbreed the variety, called "golden
rice" because of the color produced by the beta-carotene, with well-adapted
local varieties and distribute the resulting plants to farmers all over
the developing world.
Last June, at a Capitol Hill seminar on biotechnology sponsored by the
Congressional Hunger Center, Shiva airily dismissed golden rice by claiming
that "just in the state of Bengal 150 greens which are rich in vitamin
A are eaten and grown by the women." A visibly angry Martina McGloughlin,
director of the biotechnology program at the University of California
at Davis, said "Dr. Shiva’s response reminds me of… Marie Antoinette,
[who] suggested the peasants eat cake if they didn’t have access to bread."
Alexander Avery of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues
noted that nutritionists at UNICEF doubted it was physically possible
to get enough vitamin A from the greens Shiva was recommending. Furthermore,
it seems unlikely that poor women living in shanties in the heart of Calcutta
could grow greens to feed their children.
The apparent willingness of biotechnology’s opponents to sacrifice people
for their cause disturbs scientists who are trying to help the world’s
poor. At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement
of Science last February, Ismail Serageldin, the director of the Consultative
Group on International Agricultural Research, posed a challenge: "I ask
opponents of biotechnology, 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?"
Vandana Shiva is not alone in her disdain for biotechnology’s potential
to help the poor. Mae-Wan Ho, a reader in biology at London’s Open University
who advises another activist group, the Third World Network, also opposes
golden rice. And according to a New York Times report on a biotechnology
meeting held last March by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development, Benedikt Haerlin, head of Greenpeace’s European anti-biotech
campaign, "dismissed the importance of saving African and Asian lives
at the risk of spreading a new science that he considered untested."
Shiva, Ho, and Haerlin are leaders in a growing global war against crop
biotechnology, sometimes called "green biotech" (to distinguish it from
medical biotechnology, known as "red biotech"). Gangs of anti-biotech
vandals with cute monikers such as Cropatistas and Seeds of Resistance
have ripped up scores of research plots in Europe and the US The so-called
Earth Liberation Front burned down a crop biotech lab at Michigan State
University on New Year’s Eve in 1999, destroying years of work and causing
$400,000 in property damage. (See "Crop
Busters," January.) Anti-biotech lobbying groups have proliferated
faster than bacteria in an agar-filled petri dish: In addition to Shiva’s
organization, the Third World Network, and Greenpeace, they include the
Union of Concerned Scientists, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade
Policy, the Institute of Science in Society, the Rural Advancement Foundation
International, the Ralph Nader–founded Public Citizen, the Council for
Responsible Genetics, the Institute for Food and Development Policy, and
that venerable fount of biotech misinformation, Jeremy Rifkin’s Foundation
on Economic Trends. The left hasn’t been this energized since the Vietnam
War. But if the anti-biotech movement is successful, its victims will
include the downtrodden people on whose behalf it claims to speak.
"We’re in a war," said an activist at a protesters’ gathering during
the November 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. "We’re
going to bury this first wave of biotech." He summed up the basic strategy
pretty clearly: "The first battle is labeling. The second battle is banning
Later that week, during a standing-room-only "biosafety seminar" in the
basement of a Seattle Methodist church, the ubiquitous Mae-Wan Ho declared,
"This warfare against nature must end once and for all." Michael Fox,
a vegetarian "bioethicist" from the Humane Society of the United States,
sneered: "We are very clever little simians, aren’t we? Manipulating the
bases of life and thinking we’re little gods." He added, "The only acceptable
application of genetic engineering is to develop a genetically engineered
form of birth control for our own species." This creepy declaration garnered
rapturous applause from the assembled activists.
Despite its unattractive side, the global campaign against green biotech
has had notable successes in recent years. Several leading food companies,
including Gerber and Frito-Lay, have been cowed into declaring that they
will not use genetically improved crops to make their products. Since
1997, the European Union has all but outlawed the growing and importing
of biotech crops and food. Last May some 60 countries signed the Biosafety
Protocol, which mandates special labels for biotech foods and requires
strict notification, documentation, and risk assessment procedures for
biotech crops. Activists have launched a "Five-Year Freeze" campaign that
calls for a worldwide moratorium on planting genetically enhanced crops.
For a while, it looked like the United States might resist the growing
hysteria, but in December 1999 the Environmental Protection Agency announced
that it was reviewing its approvals of biotech corn crops, implying that
it might ban the crops in the future. Last May the Food and Drug
Administration, which until now has evaluated biotech foods solely on
their objective characteristics, not on the basis of how they were produced,
said it would formulate special rules for reviewing and approving products
with genetically modified ingredients. US Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio)
has introduced a bill that would require warning labels on all biotech
In October, news that a genetically modified corn variety called StarLink
that was approved only for animal feed had been inadvertently used in
two brands of taco shells prompted recalls, front-page headlines, and
anxious recriminations. Lost in the furor was the fact that there was
little reason to believe the corn was unsafe for human consumption—only
an implausible, unsubstantiated fear that it might cause allergic reactions.
Even Aventis, the company which produced StarLink, agreed that it was
a serious mistake to have accepted the EPA’s approval for animal use only.
Most proponents favor approving biotech crops only if they are determined
to be safe for human consumption.
To decide whether the uproar over green biotech is justified, you need
to know a bit about how it works. Biologists and crop breeders can now
select a specific useful gene from one species and splice it into an unrelated
species. Previously plant breeders were limited to introducing new genes
through the time-consuming and inexact art of crossbreeding species that
were fairly close relatives. For each cross, thousands of unwanted genes
would be introduced into a crop species. Years of "backcrossing"—breeding
each new generation of hybrids with the original commercial variety over
several generations—were needed to eliminate these unwanted genes so that
only the useful genes and characteristics remained. The new methods are
far more precise and efficient. The plants they produce are variously
described as "transgenic," "genetically modified," or "genetically engineered."
Plant breeders using biotechnology have accomplished a great deal in
only a few years. For example, they have created a class of highly successful
insect-resistant crops by incorporating toxin genes from the soil bacterium
Bacillus thuringiensis. Farmers have sprayed B.t. spores
on crops as an effective insecticide for decades. Now, thanks to some
clever biotechnology, breeders have produced varieties of corn, cotton,
and potatoes that make their own insecticide. B.t. is toxic largely
to destructive caterpillars such as the European corn borer and the cotton
bollworm; it is not harmful to birds, fish, mammals, or people.
Another popular class of biotech crops incorporates an herbicide resistance
gene, a technology that has been especially useful in soybeans. Farmers
can spray herbicide on their fields to kill weeds without harming the
crop plants. The most widely used herbicide is Monsanto’s Roundup (glyphosate),
which toxicologists regard as an environmentally benign chemical that
degrades rapidly, days after being applied. Farmers who use "Roundup Ready"
crops don’t have to plow for weed control, which means there is far less
Biotech is the most rapidly adopted new farming technology in history.
The first generation of biotech crops was approved by the EPA, the FDA,
and the US Department of Agriculture in 1995, and by 1999 transgenic varieties
accounted for 33 percent of corn acreage, 50 percent of soybean acreage,
and 55 percent of cotton acreage in the US Worldwide, nearly 90 million
acres of biotech crops were planted in 1999. With biotech corn, US farmers
have saved an estimated $200 million by avoiding extra cultivation and
reducing insecticide spraying. US cotton farmers have saved a similar
amount and avoided spraying 2 million pounds of insecticides by switching
to biotech varieties. Potato farmers, by one estimate, could avoid spraying
nearly 3 million pounds of insecticides by adopting B.t. potatoes.
Researchers estimate that B.t. corn has spared 33 million to 300
million bushels from voracious insects.
One scientific panel after another has concluded that biotech foods are
safe to eat, and so has the FDA. Since 1995, tens of millions of Americans
have been eating biotech crops. Today it is estimated that 60 percent
of the foods on US grocery shelves are produced using ingredients from
transgenic crops. In April a National Research Council panel issued a
report that emphasized it could not find "any evidence suggesting that
foods on the market today are unsafe to eat as a result of genetic modification."
Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture, a report issued in July
that was prepared under the auspices of seven scientific academies in
the US and other countries, strongly endorsed crop biotechnology, especially
for poor farmers in the developing world. "To date," the report concluded,
"over 30 million hectares of transgenic crops have been grown and no human
health problems associated specifically with the ingestion of transgenic
crops or their products have been identified." Both reports concurred
that genetic engineering poses no more risks to human health or to the
natural environment than does conventional plant breeding.
As U.C.-Davis biologist Martina McGloughlin remarked at last June’s Congressional
Hunger Center seminar, the biotech foods "on our plates have been put
through more thorough testing than conventional food ever has been subjected
to." According to a report issued in April by the House Subcommittee on
Basic Research, "No product of conventional plant breeding…could meet
the data requirements imposed on biotechnology products by US regulatory
agencies.…Yet, these foods are widely and properly regarded as safe and
beneficial by plant developers, regulators, and consumers." The report
concluded that biotech crops are "at least as safe [as] and probably safer"
than conventionally bred crops.
In opposition to these scientific conclusions, Mae-Wan Ho points to a
study by Arpad Pusztai, a researcher at Scotland’s Rowett Research Institute,
that was published in the British medical journal The Lancet in
October 1999. Pusztai found that rats fed one type of genetically
modified potatoes (not a variety created for commercial use) developed
immune system disorders and organ damage. The Lancet’s editors,
who published the study even though two of six reviewers rejected it,
apparently were anxious to avoid the charge that they were muzzling a
prominent biotech critic. But The Lancet also published a thorough
critique, which concluded that Pusztai’s experiments "were incomplete,
included too few animals per diet group, and lacked controls such as a
standard rodent diet. …Therefore the results are difficult to interpret
and do not allow the conclusion that the genetic modification of potatoes
accounts for adverse effects in animals." The Rowett Institute, which
does mainly nutritional research, fired Pusztai on the grounds that he
had publicized his results before they had been peer reviewed.
Activists are also fond of noting that the seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred
produced a soybean variety that incorporated a gene—for a protein from
Brazil nuts—that causes reactions in people who are allergic to nuts.
The activists fail to mention that the soybean never got close to commercial
release because Pioneer Hi-Bred checked it for allergenicity as part of
its regular safety testing and immediately dropped the variety. The other
side of the allergy coin is that biotech can remove allergens that naturally
occur in foods such as nuts, potatoes, and tomatoes, making these foods
Even if no hazards from genetically improved crops have been demonstrated,
don’t consumers have a right to know what they’re eating? This seductive
appeal to consumer rights has been a very effective public relations gambit
for anti-biotech activists. If there’s nothing wrong with biotech products,
they ask, why don’t seed companies, farmers, and food manufacturers agree
to label them?
The activists are being more than a bit disingenuous here. Their scare
tactics, including the use of ominous words such as frankenfoods,
have created a climate in which many consumers would interpret
labels on biotech products to mean that they were somehow more dangerous
or less healthy than old-style foods. Biotech opponents hope labels would
drive frightened consumers away from genetically modified foods and thus
doom them. Then the activists could sit back and smugly declare that biotech
products had failed the market test.
The biotech labeling campaign is a red herring anyway, because the US
Department of Agriculture plans to issue some 500 pages of regulations
outlining what qualifies as "organic" foods by January, 2001. Among other
things, the definition will require that organic foods not be produced
using genetically modified crops. Thus consumers who want to avoid biotech
products need only look for the "organic" label. Furthermore, there is
no reason why conventional growers who believe they can sell more by avoiding
genetically enhanced crops should not label their products accordingly,
so long as they do not imply any health claims. The FDA has begun to solicit
public comments on ways to label foods that are not genetically enhanced
without implying that they are superior to biotech foods.
It is interesting to note that several crop varieties popular with organic
growers were created through mutations deliberately induced by breeders
using radiation or chemicals. This method of modifying plant genomes is
obviously a far cruder and more imprecise way of creating new varieties.
Radiation and chemical mutagenesis is like using a sledgehammer instead
of the scalpel of biotechnology. Incidentally, the FDA doesn’t review
these crop varieties produced by radiation or chemicals for safety, yet
no one has dropped dead from eating them.
Labeling nonbiotech foods as such will not satisfy the activists whose
goal is to force farmers, grain companies, and food manufacturers to segregate
biotech crops from conventional crops. Such segregation would require
a great deal of duplication in infrastructure, including separate grain
silos, rail cars, ships, and production lines at factories and mills.
The StarLink corn problem is just a small taste of how costly and troublesome
segregating conventional from biotech crops would be. Some analysts estimate
that segregation would add 10 percent to 30 percent to the prices of food
without any increase in safety. Activists are fervently hoping that mandatory
crop segregation will also lead to novel legal nightmares: If a soybean
shipment is inadvertently "contaminated" with biotech soybeans, who is
liable? If biotech corn pollen falls on an organic cornfield, can the
organic farmer sue the biotech farmer? Trial lawyers must be salivating
over the possibilities.
The activists’ "pro-consumer" arguments can be turned back on them. Why
should the majority of consumers pay for expensive crop segregation that
they don’t want? It seems reasonable that if some consumers want to avoid
biotech crops, they should pay a premium, including the costs of segregation.
As the labeling fight continues in the United States, anti-biotech groups
have achieved major successes elsewhere. The Biosafety Protocol negotiated
last February in Montreal requires that all shipments of biotech crops,
including grains and fresh foods, carry a label saying they "may contain
living modified organisms." This international labeling requirement is
clearly intended to force the segregation of conventional and biotech
crops. The protocol was hailed by Greenpeace’s Benedikt Haerlin as "a
historic step towards protecting the environment and consumers from the
dangers of genetic engineering."
Activists are demanding that the labeling provisions of the Biosafety
Protocol be enforced immediately, even though the agreement says they
don’t apply until two years after the protocol takes effect. Vandana Shiva
claims the food aid sent to Orissa after the October 1999 cyclone violated
the Biosafety Protocol because it was unlabeled. Greenpeace cited the
unratified Biosafety Protocol as a justification for stopping imports
of American agricultural products into Brazil and Britain. "The recent
agreement on the Biosafety Protocol in Montreal…means that governments
can now refuse to accept imports of GM crops on the basis of the ‘precautionary
principle,’" said a February 2000 press release announcing that
Greenpeace activists had boarded an American grain carrier delivering
soybeans to Britain.
Under the "precautionary principle," regulators do not need to show scientifically
that a biotech crop is unsafe before banning it; they need only assert
that it has not been proved harmless. Enshrining the precautionary principle
into international law is a major victory for biotech opponents. "They
want to err on the side of caution not only when the evidence is not conclusive
but when no evidence exists that would indicate harm is possible," observes
Frances Smith, executive director of Consumer Alert.
Model biosafety legislation proposed by the Third World Network goes
even further than the Biosafety Protocol, covering all biotech organisms
and requiring authorization "for all activities and for all GMOs [genetically
modified organisms] and derived products." Under the model legislation,
"the absence of scientific evidence or certainty does not preclude the
decision makers from denying approval of the introduction of the GMO or
derived products." Worse, under the model regulations "any adverse socio-economic
effects must also be considered." If this provision is adopted, it would
give traditional producers a veto over innovative competitors, the moral
equivalent of letting candlemakers prevent the introduction of electric
Concerns about competition are one reason European governments have been
so quick to oppose crop biotechnology. "EU countries, with their heavily
subsidized farming, view foreign agribusinesses as a competitive threat,"
Frances Smith writes. "With heavy subsidies and price supports, EU farmers
see no need to improve productivity." In fact, biotech-boosted European
agricultural productivity would be a fiscal disaster for the E.U., since
it would increase already astronomical subsidy payments to European farmers.
The global campaign against green biotech received a public relations
windfall on May 20, 1999, when Nature published a study by Cornell
University researcher John Losey that found that Monarch butterfly caterpillars
died when force-fed milkweed dusted with pollen from B.t. Corn
Since then, at every anti-biotech demonstration, the public has been treated
to flocks of activist women dressed fetchingly as Monarch butterflies.
But when more-realistic field studies were conducted, researchers found
that the alleged danger to Monarch caterpillars had been greatly exaggerated.
Corn pollen is heavy and doesn’t spread very far, and milkweed grows in
many places aside from the margins of cornfields. In the wild, Monarch
caterpillars apparently know better than to eat corn pollen on milkweed
Furthermore, B.t. crops mean that farmers don’t have to indiscriminately
spray their fields with insecticides, which kill beneficial as well as
harmful insects. In fact, studies show that B.t. cornfields harbor
higher numbers of beneficial insects such as lacewings and ladybugs than
do conventional cornfields. James Cook, a biologist at Washington State
University, points out that the population of Monarch butterflies has
been increasing in recent years, precisely the time period in which B.t.
Corn has been widely planted. The fact is that pest-resistant crops are
harmful mainly to target species—that is, exactly those insects that insist
on eating them.
Never mind; we will see Monarchs on parade for a long time to come. Meanwhile,
a spooked EPA has changed its rules governing the planting of B.t.
Corn, requiring farmers to plant non-B.t. Corn near the borders
of their fields so that B.t. pollen doesn’t fall on any milkweed
growing there. But even the EPA firmly rejects activist claims about the
alleged harms caused by B.t. Crops "Prior to registration of the
first B.t. plant pesticides in 1995," it said in response to a
Greenpeace lawsuit, "EPA evaluated studies of potential effects on a wide
variety of non-target organisms that might be exposed to the B.t.
toxin, e.g., birds, fish, honeybees, ladybugs, lacewings, and earthworms.
EPA concluded that these species were not harmed."
Another danger highlighted by anti-biotech activists is the possibility
that transgenic crops will crossbreed with other plants. At the
Congressional Hunger Center seminar, Mae-Wan Ho claimed that "GM-constructs
are designed to invade genomes and to overcome natural species barriers."
And that’s not all. "Because of their highly mixed origins," she added,
"GM-constructs tend to be unstable as well as invasive, and may be more
likely to spread by horizontal gene transfer."
"Nonsense," says Tuskegee University biologist CS Prakash. "There is
no scientific evidence at all for Ho’s claims." Prakash points out that
plant breeders specifically choose transgenic varieties that are highly
stable since they want the genes that they’ve gone to the trouble and
expense of introducing into a crop to stay there and do their work.
Ho also suggests that "GM genetic material" when eaten is far more likely
to be taken up by human cells and bacteria than is "natural genetic material."
Again, there is no scientific evidence for this claim. All genes from
whatever source are made up of the same four DNA bases, and all undergo
digestive degradation when eaten.
Biotech opponents also sketch scenarios in which transgenic crops foster
superpests: weeds bolstered by transgenes for herbicide resistance or
pesticide-proof bugs that proliferate in response to crops with enhanced
chemical defenses. As McGloughlin notes, "The risk of gene flow is not
specific to biotechnology. It applies equally well to herbicide resistant
plants that have been developed through traditional breeding techniques."
Even if an herbicide resistance gene did get into a weed species, most
researchers agree that it would be unlikely to persist unless the weed
were subjected to significant and continuing selection pressure—that is,
sprayed regularly with a specific herbicide. And if a weed becomes resistant
to one herbicide, it can be killed by another.
As for encouraging the evolution of pesticide-resistant insects, that
already occurs with conventional spray pesticides. There is no scientific
reason for singling out biotech plants. Cook, the Washington State University
biologist, points out that crop scientists could handle growing pesticide
resistance the same way they deal with resistance to infectious rusts
in grains: Using conventional breeding techniques, they stack genes for
resistance to a wide variety of evolving rusts. Similarly, he says, "it
will be possible to deploy different B.t. genes or stack genes
and thereby stay ahead of the ever-evolving pest populations."
The environmentalist case against biotech crops includes a lot of innuendo.
"After GM sugar beet was harvested," Ho claimed at the Congressional Hunger
Center seminar, "the GM genetic material persisted in the soil for at
least two years and was taken up by soil bacteria." Recall that the Bacillus
thuringiensis is a soil bacterium—its habitat is the soil.
Organic farmers broadcast B.t. Spores freely over their fields,
hitting both target and nontarget species. If organic farms were tested,
it’s likely that B.t. residues would be found there as well; they
apparently have not had any ill effects. Even the EPA has conceded, in
its response to Greenpeace’s lawsuit, that "there are no reports of any
detrimental effects on the soil ecosystems from the use of B.t.
Given their concerns about the spread of transgenes, you might think
biotech opponents would welcome innovations designed to keep them confined.
Yet they became apoplectic when Delta Pine Land Co. and the US Department
of Agriculture announced the development of the Technology Protection
System, a complex of three genes that makes seeds sterile by interfering
with the development of plant embryos. TPS also gives biotech developers
a way to protect their intellectual property: Since farmers couldn’t save
seeds for replanting, they would have to buy new seeds each year.
Because high-yielding hybrid seeds don’t breed true, corn growers in
the US and Western Europe have been buying seed annually for decades.
Thus TPS seeds wouldn’t represent a big change in the way many American
and European farmers do business. If farmers didn’t want the advantages
offered in the enhanced crops protected by TPS, they would be free to
buy seeds without TPS. Similarly, seed companies could offer crops with
transgenic traits that would be expressed only in the presence of chemical
activators that farmers could choose to buy if they thought they were
worth the extra money. Ultimately, the market would decide whether these
innovations were valuable.
If anti-biotech activists really are concerned about gene flow, they
should welcome such technologies. The pollen from crop plants incorporating
TPS would create sterile seeds in any weed that it happened to crossbreed
with, so that genes for traits such as herbicide resistance or drought
tolerance couldn’t be passed on.
This point escapes some biotech opponents. "The possibility that [TPS]
may spread to surrounding food crops or to the natural environment is
a serious one," writes Vandana Shiva in her recent book Stolen
Harvest. "The gradual spread of sterility in seeding plants would
result in a global catastrophe that could eventually wipe out higher life
forms, including humans, from the planet." This dire scenario is not just
implausible but biologically impossible: TPS is a gene technology that
causes sterility; that means, by definition, that it can’t spread.
Despite the clear advantages that TPS offers in preventing the gene flow
that activists claim to be worried about, the Rural Advancement Foundation
International quickly demonized TPS by dubbing it "Terminator Technology."
RAFI warned that "if the Terminator Technology is widely utilized, it
will give the multinational seed and agrochemical industry an unprecedented
and extremely dangerous capacity to control the world’s food supply."
In 1998 farmers in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, urged on by
Shiva and company, ripped up experimental plots of biotech crops owned
by Monsanto in the mistaken belief that they were TPS plants. The protests
prompted the Indian government to declare that it would not allow TPS
crops to enter the country. That same year, 20 African countries declared
their opposition to TPS at a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization meeting.
In the face of these protests, Monsanto, which had acquired the technology
when it bought Delta Pine Land Co., declared that it would not develop
Even so, researchers have developed another clever technique to prevent
transgenes from getting into weeds through crossbreeding. Chloroplasts
(the little factories in plant cells that use sunlight to produce energy)
have their own small sets of genes. Researchers can introduce the desired
genes into chloroplasts instead of into cell nuclei where the majority
of a plant’s genes reside. The trick is that the pollen in most crop plants
don’t have chloroplasts, therefore it is impossible for a transgene confined
to chloroplasts to be transferred through crossbreeding.
As one tracks the war against green biotech, it becomes ever clearer
that its leaders are not primarily concerned about safety. What they really
hate is capitalism and globalization. "It is not inevitable that corporations
will control our lives and rule the world," writes Shiva in Stolen
Harvest. In Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare? (1999),
Ho warns, "Genetic engineering biotechnology is an unprecedented intimate
alliance between bad science and big business which will spell the end
of humanity as we know it, and the world at large." The first nefarious
step, according to Ho, will occur when the "food giants of the North"
gain "control of the food supply of the South through exclusive rights
to genetically engineered seeds."
Accordingly, anti-biotech activists oppose genetic patents. Greenpeace
is running a "No Patents on Life" campaign that appeals to inchoate notions
about the sacredness of life. Knowing that no patents means no investment,
biotech opponents declare that corporations should not be able to "own"
genes, since they are created by nature.
The exact rules for patenting biotechnology are still being worked out
by international negotiators and the US Patent and Trademark Office. But
without getting into the arcane details, the fact is that discoverers
and inventors don’t "own" genes. A patent is a license granted for a limited
time to encourage inventors and discoverers to disclose publicly their
methods and findings. In exchange for disclosure, they get the right to
exploit their discoveries for 20 years, after which anyone may use the
knowledge and techniques they have produced. Patents aim to encourage
an open system of technical knowledge.
"Biopiracy" is another charge that activists level at biotech seed companies.
After prospecting for useful genes in indigenous crop varieties from developing
countries, says Shiva, companies want to sell seeds incorporating those
genes back to poor farmers. Never mind that the useful genes are stuck
in inferior crop varieties, which means that poor farmers have no way
of optimizing their benefits. Seed companies liberate the useful genes
and put them into high-yielding varieties that can boost poor farmers’
Amusingly, the same woman who inveighs against "biopiracy" proudly claimed
at the Congressional Hunger Center seminar that 160 varieties of kidney
beans are grown in India. Shiva is obviously unaware that farmers in India
are themselves "biopirates." Kidney beans were domesticated by the Aztecs
and Incas in the Americas and brought to the Old World via the Spanish
explorers. In response to Shiva, CS Prakash pointed out that very few
of the crops grown in India today are indigenous. "Wheat, peanuts, and
apples and everything else—the chiles that the Indians are so proud of,"
he noted, "came from outside. I say, thank God for the biopirates." Prakash
condemned Shiva’s efforts to create "a xenophobic type of mentality within
our culture" based on the fear that "everybody is stealing all of our
If the activists are successful in their war against green biotech, it’s
the world’s poor who will suffer most. The International Food Policy Research
Institute estimates that global food production must increase by 40 percent
in the next 20 years to meet the goal of a better and more varied diet
for a world population of some 8 billion people. As biologist Richard
Flavell concluded in a 1999 report to the IFPRI, "It would be unethical
to condemn future generations to hunger by refusing to develop and apply
a technology that can build on what our forefathers provided and can help
produce adequate food for a world with almost 2 billion more people by
One way biotech crops can help poor farmers grow more food is by controlling
parasitic weeds, an enormous problem in tropical countries. Cultivation
cannot get rid of them, and farmers must abandon fields infested with
them after a few growing seasons. Herbicide-resistant crops, which would
make it possible to kill the weeds without damaging the cultivated plants,
would be a great boon to such farmers.
By incorporating genes for proteins from viruses and bacteria, crops
can be immunized against infectious diseases. The papaya mosaic virus
had wiped out papaya farmers in Hawaii, but a new biotech variety of papaya
incorporating a protein from the virus is immune to the disease. As a
result, Hawaiian papaya orchards are producing again, and the virus-resistant
variety is being made available to developing countries. Similarly, scientists
at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis are at work on
a cassava variety that is immune to cassava mosaic virus, which killed
half of Africa’s cassava crop two years ago.
Another recent advance with enormous potential is the development of
biotech crops that can thrive in acidic soils, a large proportion of which
are located in the tropics. Aluminum toxicity in acidic soils reduces
crop productivity by as much as 80 percent. Progress is even being made
toward the Holy Grail of plant breeding, transferring the ability to fix
nitrogen from legumes to grains. That achievement would greatly reduce
the need for fertilizer. Biotech crops with genes for drought and salinity
tolerance are also being developed. Further down the road, biologist Martina
McGloughlin predicts, "we will be able to enhance other characteristics,
such as growing seasons, stress tolerance, yields, geographic distribution,
disease resistance, [and] shelf life."
Biotech crops can provide medicine as well as food. Biologists at the
Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University recently
reported success in preliminary tests with biotech potatoes that would
immunize people against diseases. One protects against Norwalk virus,
which causes diarrhea, and another might protect against the hepatitis
B virus which afflicts 2 billion people. Plant-based vaccines would be
especially useful for poor countries, which could manufacture and distribute
medicines simply by having local farmers grow them.
Shiva and Ho rightly point to the inequities found in developing countries.
They make the valid point that there is enough food today to provide an
adequate diet for everyone if it were more equally distributed. They advocate
land reform and microcredit to help poor farmers, improved infrastructure
so farmers can get their crops to market, and an end to agricultural subsidies
in rich countries that undercut the prices that poor farmers can demand.
Addressing these issues is important, but they are not arguments against
green biotech. McGloughlin agrees that "the real issue is inequity in
food distribution. Politics, culture, regional conflicts all contribute
to the problem. Biotechnology isn’t going to be a panacea for all the
world’s ills, but it can go a long way toward addressing the issues of
inadequate nutrition and crop losses." Kenyan biologist Florence Wambugu
argues that crop biotechnology has great potential to increase agricultural
productivity in Africa without demanding big changes in local practices:
A drought-tolerant seed will benefit farmers whether they live in Kansas
Yet opponents of crop biotechnology can’t stand the fact that it will
help developed countries first. New technologies, whether reaping machines
in the 19th century or computers today, are always adopted by the rich
before they become available to the poor. The fastest way to get a new
technology to poor people is to speed up the product cycle so the technology
can spread quickly. Slowing it down only means the poor will have to wait
longer. If biotech crops catch on in the developed countries, the techniques
to make them will become available throughout the world, and more researchers
and companies will offer crops that appeal to farmers in developing countries.
Activists like Shiva subscribe to the candlemaker fallacy: If people
begin to use electric lights, the candlemakers will go out of business,
and they and their families will starve. This is a supremely condescending
view of poor people. In order not to exacerbate inequality, Shiva and
her allies want to stop technological progress. They romanticize the backbreaking
lives that hundreds of millions of people are forced to live as they eke
out a meager living off the land.
Per Pinstrup-Andersen of the International Food Policy Research Institute
asked participants in the Congressional Hunger Center seminar to think
about biotechnology from the perspective of people in developing countries:
"We need to talk about the low-income farmer in West Africa who, on half
an acre, maybe an acre of land, is trying to feed her five children in
the face of recurrent droughts, recurrent insect attacks, recurrent plant
diseases. For her, losing a crop may mean losing a child. Now, how can
we sit here debating whether she should have access to a drought-tolerant
crop variety? None of us at this table or in this room [has] the ethical
right to force a particular technology upon anybody, but neither do we
have the ethical right to block access to it. The poor farmer in West
Africa doesn’t have any time for philosophical arguments as to whether
it should be organic farming or fertilizers or GM food. She is trying
to feed her children. Let’s help her by giving her access to all of the
options. Let’s make the choices available to the people who have to take
Ronald Bailey (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is REASON’s science correspondent.
Copyright Reason Foundation, 2000.