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Dr. Strangelunch -- Or: Why We Should Learn to
Stop Worrying and Love Genetically Modified Food

By Ronald Bailey
Reason Magazine
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, it did.

"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 it."

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 foods.

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 soil erosion.

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 safer.

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 lighting.

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 leaves.

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. Crops"

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 TPS.

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’ productivity.

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 genetic material."

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 2020."

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 or Kenya.

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 the consequences."

Ronald Bailey (rbailey@reason.com) is REASON’s science correspondent.

Copyright Reason Foundation, 2000.