Health Panel Affirms Benefits of Biotech

Published December 1, 2000

Physicians and scientists affiliated with the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) contend that modern biotechnology, as applied to a variety of crops and foods, presents no inherent risks to consumers or the environment.

Indeed, ACSH reports, these methods will provide many benefits to consumers, farmers, and food processors.

In the second edition of ACSH’s popular publication, Biotechnology and Food, scientist Dr. Alan McHughen discusses and reviews the basics of modern biotechnology—also called “gene splicing,” “genetic modification,” “recombinant DNA technology,” “bioengineering,” and “genetic engineering.”

Dr. McHughen, an agricultural molecular biologist at the University of Saskatchewan, explains that modern biotechnology elegantly simplifies the traditional types of genetic changes that humans have been introducing into foods for many generations.

“The main difference,” noted Dr. Ruth Kava, ACSH director of nutrition, “is that the modern processes are much more specific. Instead of transferring hundreds or even thousands of genes with traditional breeding, modern methods allow biologists to move only the gene or genes that are known to have the desired effects.”

With the advent of modern biotechnology, farmers can grow crops with “built-in” pesticides, reducing the need for widespread spraying. Bioengineered crops can provide consumers with cooking oils with more healthful types of fatty acids. Staple foods like rice can be enhanced with extra nutrients, such as beta-carotene. In the future, farmers may be able to grow crops on lands that were too dry or salty for traditional varieties.

According to the ACSH report, such advances are likely just a few years away from widespread availability. They could go far to reduce the toll of childhood blindness, malnutrition, and anemia in some parts of the world.

Dr. McHughen addresses in the report many of the public’s concerns about modern biotechnology, and shows those concerns are largely unwarranted. For example, he calls “baseless” the fear that such foods are unregulated.

In the United States, any new food—produced by traditional or new methods—must be rigorously scrutinized before it can be marketed to consumers. It must be shown, for example, whether the nutrient content or the content of naturally occurring toxic substances has been changed by bioengineering techniques.

Biogeneered crops have been part of the North American food supply since 1996, explains Dr. McHughen, and no adverse effects have been noted in humans, wildlife, or the environment.

Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, ACSH president, noted that “government regulation, consumer acceptance, and private-sector investment are all important factors in the future status of foods produced by modern biotechnology. It would be tragic,” she added, “if fear and superstition were allowed to impede the development of this incredibly valuable technology.”

The American Council on Science and Health is a consortium of more than 350 scientists and physicians dedicated to consumer education on public health issues, such as the environment, nutrition, and pharmaceuticals. ACSH attempts to illuminate the difference between real health risks and hypothetical or trivial health scares.

For more information

The second edition of Biotechnology and Food is available on the ACSH Web site at Printed copies are available for $5.00 each from ACSH, 1995 Broadway, Second Floor, New York, NY 10023.