Biotech: Enormous Potential Compromised by Self-Interest, Bad Science, and Excessive Government Regulation

Published October 1, 2004

The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution

by Henry I Miller and Gregory Conko
($39.95 cloth, 296 pages, Praeger Publishers, 2004; ISBN: 0275978796)

In The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution, food safety experts Henry Miller and Gregory Conko have written a brilliant account of how self-interest, bad science, and excessive government regulation have profoundly compromised the potential of the new biotechnology. This book is a call to action for policymakers to resist a destructive political process that is currently denying enormous potential benefits to consumers throughout the world.

Many Benefits Outweigh Small Risks

The authors make a persuasive case not only that the benefits of food biotechnology far exceed the risks, but also that there has been an abject failure in the formulation of public policy. The result has been, they argue, gross over-regulation of the technology and its products, disincentives to research and development, and fewer choices and inflated prices for consumers.

Norman Borlaug, 1971 Nobel Prize winner for agriculture, writes in the foreword of this excellent book, “As a plant pathologist and breeder, I have seen how the skeptics and critics of the new biotechnology wish to postpone the release of improved crop varieties in the hope that another year’s, or decade’s, worth of testing will offer more data, more familiarity, more comfort. But more than a half-century in the agricultural sciences has convinced me that we should use the best that is at hand, while recognizing its imperfections and limitations. Far more often than not, this philosophy has worked, in spite of constant pessimism and scare-mongering by critics.”

Important Weapon

Feeding the anticipated global population of more than eight billion people in the coming four decades poses a major challenge. The new biotechnology can help us do things we could not do before, and to do it in a more precise, predictable, and efficient way. The crucial question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use that technology.

For a decade, the authors tell us, the United States has produced ever-larger quantities of gene-spliced, insect-resistant corn that yields as much as, or more than, the best traditional hybrids, with far less need for chemical pesticides. No negative health or environmental effects have been observed. Yet there is an immensely strong anti-biotech lobby, especially in Europe, where activists have persuaded many governments to thwart new approvals. They also have successfully opposed the use of gene-spliced corn and soybeans as food aid in famine-stricken parts of Africa and Asia.

In the book’s prologue, John H. Moore, former deputy director of the National Science Foundation, notes, “With the exception of nuclear power, there is perhaps no better example of the power of the irrational fear of new technology overcoming the potential benefits than foods produced with the new biotechnology, or gene-spicing techniques.”

An Ages-Old Tradition

The history of agriculture is a story of genetic modification. For thousands of years, farmers and agriculturists have selected and crossbred plants with desirable characteristics in order to increase yields, improve resistance to pests and disease, and add or enhance other useful traits. Traditional techniques involved cross-pollination of plants, which results in the more-or-less random mixing of vast numbers of genes, sometimes entire genomes.

Along with the desired traits, however, may come undesirable ones, such as weediness or susceptibility to disease. Even so, the overall result of thousands of years of use of such gradual, incremental improvement has been an enormous improvement in agriculture, which has led to cheaper, more nutritious, and more varied food.

Thirty years ago came the advent of modern biotechnology, with its promise of more precise means of improving plant characteristics. These modifications are less likely to cause unintentional, unwanted changes.

Irrational Fear Breeds Tangible Harm

Miller and Conko address the problems of the new biotechnology that have arisen not from limits of technology itself or from the science underlying it, but from the politics, biases, and hidden agendas of activist groups in opposing it. The authors note that widespread adoption of the Precautionary Principle and similar policy approaches would surely diminish greatly the rate of adoption and diffusion of new technologies like biotechnology and all the promise they represent.

The resulting economic misfortune is by no means democratic: Although the wealthy nations will pay a price, the poor peoples of the world will be most harmed.

Miller and Conko document that the same biotechnology that has allowed American farmers to dramatically increase crop yields has also made it possible for America to assist starving people in other nations during times of crop failure or domestic strife. Nevertheless, anti-biotech activists have successfully pressured the governments of Zambia and Zimbabwe to reject American food assistance, even during times of mass starvation, because of speculative, unsupported claims of biotech risks.

As the authors explain, “These developments in Africa illustrate one of the absurd problems created by groundless fears about technological change and the potentially dangerous over-regulation to which they give rise. Consumers demand assurances of perfect safety from industries and governments, but such assurances can never be made. When we demand something approaching zero risk, the resulting attempts at caution are often done with a tunnel vision that blinds us to the potentially vast human costs of such an effort. Tragically, many precautionary cures are far worse than the maladies they are meant to prevent.”

Similarly, the authors note, “Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer cites the examples of an EPA ban of asbestos pipe, shingles, coating, and paper, which the most optimistic estimates suggest would prevent seven or eight premature deaths over thirteen years at a cost of approximately a quarter of a billion dollars. Breyer notes that such a vast expenditure can be expected to cause more deaths simply by reducing the resources available for other public amenities than it would prevent from the asbestos exposure.”

Henry Miller, M.D., is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Gregory Conko is director of food safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. They have created in this book a resource that should convince any open-minded opponent of biotechnology that their arguments simply do not hold water.

Dr. Jay Lehr ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.