Anti-biotech activists sow fear

Published February 1, 2000

Modern biotechnology has sparked both optimism and controversy.

Debate about the impact of the research tools and products of biotechnology encompasses human health, farm economics, global biodiversity, and environmental quality. A basic understanding of the techniques and goals of biotechnology research is important for deciding the merits of concerns and proposed solutions.

Biotechnology is the use of living organisms or parts of organisms, such as enzymes, to make or modify products. It is as ancient and familiar as using yeast to leaven bread and as modern as genetic engineering. Today, biotechnology is most commonly characterized as the latter—genetic engineering techniques that selectively modify individual genes or transfer genes from one organism to another.

Since 1982, when the first human insulin was produced by recombinant DNA technology, we have benefitted from myriad lifesaving and life-enhancing pharmaceuticals. Modern biotechnology has given us drugs like clot-dissolving TPA (tissue plasminogen activator, a treatment for heart attacks), human growth hormone, clotting factors to alleviate the inborn deficiencies of people with hemophilia, hormones to stimulate the production of red blood cells in people suffering from the anemia of renal failure, as well as powerful and precise genetic diagnostic tools for muscular dystrophy and AIDS.

Now we are beginning to see some of the applications of biotechnology in agriculture. Biotechnology provides new tools for scientists working on long-standing agricultural problems in pest and disease management, animal and crop yield, and food quality.

Some of these agricultural advances have been put into practice. We now can grow soybeans that are resistant to a herbicide, meaning that farmers can use the herbicide to kill weeds, but not kill the crop. Corn and cotton have been genetically engineered to produce the so-called Bt protein. This protein, usually produced by a bacterium, is toxic to the corn borer, an especially devastating pest. Use of Bt-producing corn allows farmers to reduce the amount of pesticides they must apply to their crops. Genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, or rBST, causes cows to produce milk more efficiently.

Recently, Swiss researchers, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, genetically engineered a strain of rice that produces beta-carotene (which can be converted to vitamin A by the body) and iron. Since vitamin A deficiency and iron deficiency anemia are common problems in the developing world, such rice could have a great impact on public health . . . if it ever reached those who need it. The problem, curiously enough, is not wars or political strife.

For various reasons, anti-biotech activists in Europe and the United States are increasingly leveling charges that genetically modified (GM) foods are unsafe for human consumption and environmentally unsound. At best, their charges are unsubstantiated; at worst, they are untrue.

Anti-GM activists speak as though modification of a plant’s or animal’s genetic makeup is a new and hideously unnatural way to produce food. Activists ignore the truth that man has been genetically modifying crops—albeit in relatively crude ways—for thousands of years. Plant breeders are always trying new combinations to increase pest resistance and crop yield.

Some of these combinations result in valuable new strains, but most do not. In fact, sometimes the new strains have traits that render them particularly undesirable. Thus the strain of potato that produced high levels of toxic solanine (found at low levels in all potatoes) and the strain of celery that produced high levels of psoralens (which make people photo-sensitive) had to be discarded because they presented a human danger.

The only genetically engineered crop that has been found to present such a problem was soybeans engineered to produce a protein from Brazil nuts (the soybeans were destined for animal feed). But since the breeders knew there was a potential problem from including this protein, they tested the soybeans to see if they might cause a reaction in people allergic to peanuts. Unfortunately, these people did react to the soybeans. Thus the new strain was never brought to market.

These examples bring up an important point: Traditional crop modification techniques are rather hit-or-miss. The breeder doesn’t really know which genes are being exchanged between plants. By contrast, with genetic engineering, breeders know exactly which gene or genes are being transferred, making the process infinitely more precise and predictable.

Similarly, the anti-GM activists protest biotechnology because they say it will cause untold environmental and biological damage. They point to a laboratory study from Cornell University which showed that pollen from Bt corn could kill the larva of the Monarch butterfly when it was spread on milkweed leaves (the larva’s only food). But we don’t know if this risk would be so great in the wild—would there be enough Bt pollen on all milkweed to present a real danger? And what about the smaller amount of pesticides a farmer growing Bt corn or other crops would have to apply? Would that not be a boon to some forms of insect life? These issues are too complex for a knee-jerk reaction of banning GM crops.

There is no evidence that genetically modified crops are hazardous—and even the activists cannot point to any real risks to people. But lack of evidence is no constraint on the anti-biotech propaganda.

American consumers should be appalled at the thought of anti-biotech activists declaring war on so-called genetically modified organisms. These activists assume they know what is best for all of us. They aim to limit our choices, as well as those of plant breeders and farmers world-wide, with no rational, scientific basis for their actions.


Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and health, a nonprofit consumer education organization dedicated to providing the public with mainstream scientific information on issues related to food, nutrition, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, lifestyle, the environment, and health. She can be reached by e-mail at  [email protected].