Scientific Evidence Puts the Lie to Concerns Over Genetically Modified Food

Published October 1, 2004

(Author’s note: This commentary relies heavily on the scholarship of Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko in their newly published book, The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution, from Praeger Publishers of Westport, Connecticut.)

To the untrained eye, a recent essay by Steven Druker, executive director of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity, “Why Concerns about Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Food Are Scientifically Justified,” may appear to be a studious, even erudite argument against the rapid adaptation of agricultural biotechnology. To the experienced genetic scientist, however, his argument ignores widely accepted facts. Druker, who is executive director of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity, replaces those facts with well-articulated falsehoods and unscientific quotes from anti-biotech activists favoring collectivist approaches to human population control.

I will condense Druker’s essay into the following nine recurring themes, and then generally and specifically refute them by describing the facts and phenomenally successful record already achieved in the development of safe and healthy food products created through biotechnology.

Druker’s Anti-Biotech Themes

Druker argues the following points:

1. Genetic engineering is inherently riskier than traditional breeding.

2. Transplanted genes act independently of the host organism’s intricate control system.

3. Foreign genes enter the host DNA haphazardly and disrupt the region into which they enter.

4. There is mounting evidence of genetically engineered (GE) plants with substantial and unexpected alterations in chemical composition.

5. There have been suspicious changes in laboratory animals that consume GE foods.

6. GE foods contain unique hazards.

7. The government has allowed GE foods to be marketed without testing.

8. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) falsely claims expert consensus regarding the safety of GE foods.

9. A large portion of human foodborne illness develops over a long time through repeated doses of harmful substances.

Biotech Increases Control over Breeding

The seminal recombinant DNA (recombinant DNA is the formation in offspring of genetic combinations not present in parents) experiment was described in a 1973 paper, “Construction of Biologically Functional Bacterial Plasticize in Vitro,” by Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer, which was delivered at a bacterial science conference in Hawaii.

Cohen and Boyer first isolated a ringlet of DNA called a “plasmid from the cytoplasm of bacteria.” They then used certain natural enzymes to splice a gene from another bacterium into the plasmid, and then introduced the resultant recombinant or chimeric, plasmid DNA back into the original species of bacterium. When these modified bacteria were cultivated, the plasmids containing the segment of “foreign” DNA had become stably incorporated into the bacteria cytoplasm, the new gene functioned in its new environment, and “recombinant DNA technology” and the new biotechnology were born.

Breeders had first achieved interspecies hybridization in the early twentieth century, transferring “alien” genes between different but related species. Next came ways to perform even wider crosses, between members of different genera (organizational groupings within families of organisms, comprising many species). These wide crosses, which by definition break the species barrier much revered by biotechnology’s opponents, routinely introduce thousands or tens of thousands of entirely new genes into the crop plants.

For example, many if not most of the bread wheat and durum pasta wheat varieties grown by farmers in the United States are the products of wide-cross breeding programs in which different species of plants (some even from an entirely different genus), such as ryegrass, or weed species such as goat grass, were artificially crossed with wheat.

By enabling plant breeders and biologists to identify and transfer single genes encoding specific traits of interest, recombinant DNA techniques have greatly refined the less precise brute-force methods of “conventional” genetic modification. Indeed, if a new plant variety differs from its antecedent by only the introduction of a single gene, it is far easier to assess its agronomic traits, and to perform pharmacological, toxicological, and ecological testing, than if thousands of new genes are introduced or modified, as in conventional plant breeding.

Government Excessively Risk-Averse

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) established the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) in the mid-1970s and implemented the first version of the Guidelines for Research with Recombinant DNA Modified Organisms. This move sent a powerful message that the scientific community and the federal government were taking the speculative risk scenarios seriously, a message that has affected and afflicted biotechnology regulation worldwide ever since.

In order to reassure the public that sufficient oversight was in place, the guidelines ended up being overly risk-averse. They used what has proved to be a peculiar and largely invalid set of assumptions that exaggerated the potential risks associated with the process of gene transfer and with recombinant DNA-modified organisms.

Regulators’ endorsement of the myth that using recombinant DNA technology for gene transfer conveys new or unique risks and therefore requires more burdensome oversight has helped erect a variety of obstacles to genetic research and development. These include vastly excessive data requirements and complex, arbitrary, and often flawed algorithms to measure such characteristics as transmission of pollen and potential allergenicity, even though recombinant DNA technology significantly decreases the likelihood of interspecies hybridization causing these conditions.

Amazing Track Record of Safety for Biotech

For more than a quarter-century, scientific research on gene-spliced microorganisms has been conducted in tens of thousands of minimal-containment laboratories in the United States and Europe alone. In spite of “incidental releases” measuring on the order of one hundred million recombinant microorganisms per worker per day from standard, minimal-containment laboratories, not a single adverse reaction has been observed in humans, animals, or the environment.

Before deciding to commercialize a food plant containing a gene that codes for a potent toxin such as a preservative or a pesticide harmful to humans, one had better be very sure that the toxin will not be expressed in the edible parts of the plant, or ensure that potential risk is managed in some other way. But there is no evidence that modification of an organism by way of recombinant DNA techniques in itself confers inherent or new risk, compared to the introduction of similar traits by using conventional techniques.

That is not the same as saying there is no risk, or even that the risk is invariably negligible, but it does mean the risks are the same types as those which plant breeders and farmers have been successfully managing for decades, and in some case for centuries.

Nonetheless, Druker and other opponents of genetically modified plants warn that because the unknowns far outweigh the knowns, the use of gene-spliced organisms will eventually run amok and lead to catastrophic Andromeda Strains and Jurassic Parks.

Biotech Routinely Subjected to Rigid Testing

Millions of new genetic variations of plants produced through hybridization, mutation breeding, and other traditional methods of genetic improvement are field-tested each year, and dozens enter the marketplace without any government review. Many such products are from wider crosses–hybridizations in which genes have been moved from one species or one genus to another–to create a plant variety that would not exist but for man’s intervention.

Domesticated organisms have been systematically and gradually modified to enhance commercially important traits that are commonly of little advantage in the native environment and often place the organism at a competitive disadvantage.

The National Research Council (NRC), in a paper titled “Field Testing Genetically Modified Organisms: Framework for Decisions,” concluded, “no conceptual distinction exists between generic modification of plants and microorganisms by classical methods or by molecular techniques that modify DNA and transfer genes.”

While Druker quotes numerous skeptics in his commentary, various national and international groups–including the American Medical Association, the United Kingdom’s Royal Society, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Health Organization–have repeatedly echoed or extended the NRC’s conclusion.

Transparent Anti-Biotech Agenda

Druker portrays his skepticism as that of an idealistic David fighting mighty, exploitative, corporate Goliaths, but the magnitude of financial resources available to anti-biotech activists is staggering. Greenpeace alone, a leading anti-biotech group, is a $100-million-a-year operation. Environmental zealots have battled biotechnology for more than two decades, although not one of their organizations has demonstrated any evidence to support their claims.

North Carolina State University survey researcher Thomas J. Hoban, who has long studied public attitudes about biotechnology, has said the protest groups really only promote self-serving myths about what consumers know and think about biotechnology. These groups try to shape public opinion for their own benefit, rather than reflecting true consumer interests.

Not all anti-biotechnology activism comes from bomb-throwers like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Other groups, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, claim not to oppose biotech but only to want it properly regulated. They are more subtle, and therefore arguably more insidious, than anti-biotech players who show their colors unambiguously, given that biotech is already heavily regulated.

Anti-biotechnology activists have attempted to deconstruct science in order to discredit it. As Ellen Haas, a biotech critic who became undersecretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration, said in the 1993 book, The Emerging Global Food System, “You can have ‘your science’ or ‘my’ science or somebody else’s science. By nature there is going to be a difference.” The absurdity of that statement indicates Haas has no idea what science really is.

The agenda of the anti-biotech activists is to control what research is performed, what tools are used, and what products are brought to market–and they are not persuaded by scientifically reasonable arguments or empirical evidence. Although anti-biotech groups are entitled to their own views of science and technology, it is foolish to cede them the responsibility for defining the public interest or to equate their deconstructionist, antiestablishment views with traditional science.

Tilting the Playing Field

Druker’s claims of inadequate safety testing are in fact bizarre. An October 1997 article in Trends in Biotechnology by Hutner and Miller calculated the cost of field-testing gene-spliced plants to be as much as 20 times higher than for virtually identical plants crafted through older, less-precise genetic techniques.

An example of why this is true is the 2001 EPA rule requiring repeated, case-by-case reviews of proposed field trials of gene-spliced plants that contain a plant-incorporated protectorant (a defense against pests) before the initial trial. The EPA rule requires the reviews be repeated when trials are scaled up to larger size or to additional sites, and again at commercial scale. Conventional cross-breeding is not subject to such rules.

Not a single conventional crop could meet the requirements being imposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on gene-spliced plants–nor should those crops have to meet such requirements. Conventional plant breeding would grind to a halt if it were subjected to the regulatory regimes that the USDA and EPA apply to gene-spliced products.

Manipulating the Market, Public Opinion

Certain agricultural producers, seeking to use regulation as a market-entry barrier to limit competition, ally themselves with extremists who vilify the new biotechnology and demand excessive government regulation. Regulators who benefit from unnecessary mandates play along; the result is a venal coalition that conspires against the public interest while pretending to be public-spirited.

As Henry L. Miller and Gregory Conko note in The Frankenfood Myth, “No one should make the mistake of assuming that the protection of society from technological risk is part of the anti-technology activists’ agenda. Most proponents of the precautionary principle are more anti-business, anti-technology, and anti-establishment than they are pro-safety. They are consummate opportunists. In their zeal to oppose business interests and disparage technologies they don’t like, or that they have decided we don’t need, they seize on whatever opportunities appear. They are never silent, never still, and never satisfied.”

Ignoring the Evidence

In 2001, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research released a report that described some 81 different research projects on the safety of gene-spliced organisms, all funded by the European Union. This 15-year, $64 million investigation concluded not only that gene-spliced crops posed no new risks to human health or the environment, but also that the more precise technology and the intensified regulatory scrutiny focused on them probably make them safer than conventional plant breeding.

During the past quarter-century, tens of thousands of field trials of recombinant-modified plants have been performed worldwide, and more than a hundred million acres are planted with commercial recombinant DNA-modified crops annually. Not once has a gene-spliced crop plant caused any demonstrable harm to human health or the natural environment, and the results of risk-assessment experiments have been uniformly reassuring.

To the contrary, public health benefits have been fully documented. For example, gene-spliced corn was crafted by splicing into commercial corn varieties a gene from the bacterium bacillus thuringiensis, which codes for a protein that is toxic to corn-borer pests. As it fends off the insect pests, the gene-spliced corn also reduces the levels of fusarium, a toxic fungus often carried into the plants by the insects. Lowering the amounts of fusarium in turn reduces the levels of fumonisin, a potent fungal toxin that can lead to fatal diseases in horses and swine that ingest infected corn, and can cause esophageal cancer and other maladies in humans.

Using the gene-spliced corn for food processing lowers the levels of fumonisim and also the concentration of insect parts likely to be found in the final product.

But merely because anti-biotechnology extremists have demanded it, companies such as Heinz and Gerber have chosen to forgo such genetically improved sources of foods, which could yield healthier and safer products. Worse still, Gerber has announced it will shift to organic corn, which is especially prone to insect, fungal, and bacterial infestations and–because raising corn without insecticides and other chemicals is labor-intensive and lowers per-acre yields–will be far more costly. The organic corn will also be likely to have greater amounts of fumonisim, insect parts, and bacterial contamination.

Miller and Conko poignantly explain in their book, “For many reasons, including those pertaining to economic equity and justice–the poor suffer most from unnecessarily high consumer prices–it is tragic when biotech products’ acceptance and potential growth are even minimally limited or delayed. For the inhabitants of less-developed countries, justice delayed is justice denied.”

Need to Understand Actual Risks

It is important to recognize that life is filled with risks, and the production, distribution, and sale of food are not exceptions. There is also a risk in rejecting new technologies and products, and in establishing a public policy principle against innovation. When public policy discriminates against the use of a product or technology with benefit and risk characteristics that are overwhelmingly positive, which is the case with the new biotech today, all of society loses.

Dozens of scientific organizations have examined the risk inherent in the modification of organisms with gene-splicing techniques, and none has produced evidence that they pose any new or unique risks. To the contrary, there is overwhelming evidence that because of the greater precision and power of these molecular techniques, gene-spliced organisms and products made from them are actually safer and more predictable.

Anti-Biotech Activist Wrong on All Counts

Druker is wrong on all nine counts. The facts are actually as follows:

1. Genetic engineering is not riskier than conventional breeding.

2. Transplanted genes do not act independently of their hosts.

3. Foreign genes do not enter their host haphazardly.

4. Genetic engineering does not cause plants to develop substantial and unexpected alterations in chemical composition.

5. No animals eating GE plants have been adversely affected.

6. GE foods contain no unique hazards.

7. GE foods have been and still are tested extensively.

8. There is an expert consensus in support of GE food.

9. There is no evidence of any foodborne illness having ever occurred in humans as a result of long-term, low-level exposure to any particular food.

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

For more information …

Steven Druker’s essay, “Why Concerns about Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Food Are Scientifically Justified” is available online at

Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko’s book, The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution, was released by Praeger Publishers in August 2004 and is available through for $39.95.