Agriculture Secretaries Support Genetic Improvement

Published April 12, 2012

A panel of seven former U.S. Department of Agriculture secretaries representing Republican and Democratic presidents alike spoke in favor of genetic engineering and large, corporate farms at a Feb. 23 agriculture conference in Virginia.

The former secretaries said environmental activist groups that oppose corporate farming and the genetic improvement of crops are telling falsehoods and seeking to motivate through fear rather than science.

Science vs. Fear-Mongering

John Block, who served as agriculture secretary under Ronald Reagan, said the federal government constantly monitors genetic crop improvement and ensures its safety.

“When the Food and Drug Administration says something’s all right and safe, it’s safe,” said Block.
Regarding environmental activist groups who claim otherwise,  Block said, “They don’t even know what they’re talking about. They don’t rely on science. They just try to scare people.”

The panel similarly defended large, corporate farms against environmental activist groups claiming such farms unacceptably harm the environment and human health.

“You’ve got a lot of NGOs these days who are on your back,… and when they say the wrong things, as they often do, we’ve got to call them on it,” said Clayton Yeutter, who served as agriculture secretary under George H. W. Bush.

Dan Glickman, who served as agriculture secretary under Bill Clinton, said farmers should increase transparency and make a greater effort to discuss differences of opinion with environmental activist groups.

“The only way you can deal with that is the truth, the fact, and not be opaque,” said Glickman.

No Documented Harms

Scientists and chemical experts agree with the former agriculture secretaries.

Henry I. Miller, the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at the Hoover Institution, says people everywhere are increasingly being exposed to what chemistry Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir dubbed “pathological science”—the “science of things that aren’t so,” as Miller puts it—often to justify government regulation or other policies. 

Such misrepresentation is the specialty of self-styled public interest groups, whose agenda often is not protection of public health or the environment but tenacious, vocal opposition to whatever research, product, or technology they happen to dislike. Activists have repeatedly attacked genetically improved plants, claiming they’re unsafe, unneeded, unwanted, unregulated, and untested. The facts demonstrate otherwise, said Miller.

“There is a broad and longstanding consensus among scientists that recombinant DNA techniques are essentially an extension or refinement of earlier methods for genetic modification and that gene transfer or modification by molecular techniques does not, per se, confer risk,” said Miller. 

“After the cultivation of more than a billion hectares of GM [genetically modified] crops worldwide and the consumption in North America alone of more than two trillion servings of foods that contain ingredients from them, there is not a single documented case of injury to a person or disruption of an ecosystem,” Miller noted. 

Politics Motivate Opposition

Dr. Gilbert Ross, executive director and medical director for the American Council on Science and Health, says fears of genetically improved crops have been whipped up by anti-progress, anti-business groups epitomized by Greenpeace and other ideological activists acting in the guise of public health or environmental “experts.” 

“GM agriculture has been increasing in acreage and yield since its inception in 1996, and the Ag secretaries should be commended for trying to stem the tide of hypocrisy and self-indulgence promulgated by activist groups and the organic [foods] lobby based on ideology and self-interest rather than public health,” said Ross.

Gregory Conko, a senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, agrees with the former Agriculture secretaries but maintains wealthy city dwellers can also share in the blame for unjustified fears about modern agricultural technologies. 

“When you look at new technologies like GM crops, there’s a huge body of science that says they’re safe for consumption by humans and animals. They’re also not only safe for the environment, they’re less harmful than the old ways of doing things because they use less farmland and require less fertilizer and pesticides,” Conco said.

“Raising agriculture and farm animals is hard work, and anyone engaged in these activities is eager to use technology that makes things easier. Part of the problem with people that live in the city and who have never worked on a farm is they fall prey to unrealistic arguments like, ‘Oh, isn’t it awful that all those cattle are concentrated on a factory farm instead of being allowed to roam free,'” Conko explained.

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.