November 19, 2002
Break out the clue bat

They've let another loonie out of his ivory tower.

Writing in today's Seattle Times, Philip L. Bereano writes a screed against the biotech industry that is full of half-truths, distortions and innuendo. I've not dissected anyone recently, but this one got me all fired up. Here we go, with a paragraph-by-paragraph rebuttal of each of his claims.

A number of recent editorials and opinion pieces in the media regarding famine in southern Africa claim that genetically engineered (GE) food is necessary to "feed the world."

I'd have to disagree with that assessment; most of the editorials I've seen fall somewhere between "Genetically engineered foods need to be studied further before we allow them to be consumed" and "The biotech industry is trying to kill us all".

These may actually be attempts to bolster the sagging fortunes of the biotech industry rather than efforts to end hunger. Arguing that spoiled yuppies of the European Union and U.S. are blocking attempts to end famine in Africa by attacking genetically engineered foods, these articles generally distort the existing knowledge relevant to GE issues.

And they may be attempts to convince people that they really want purple skin and orange-striped teeth. The professor uses weasel words such as "may", "might", and "perhaps" all through this article, as a way of making outrageous statements that don't need to be backed up with anything as inconvenient as facts. And it's funny hearing him talk about the biotech industry's supporters distorting the facts; pot, meet kettle.

The principal claim they make is that there is no evidence that genetically engineered food poses a health risk. "No evidence of risk" is not the same as "evidence of no risk." Since neither the U.S. government nor industry appears to be funding any research into the health effects of GE food, the situation is really "don't look/don't find."

Ah, yes, the demand to prove a negative. That's akin to demanding that an atheist prove that there is no God. (BTW, try that sometime; it's lots of fun.) Using logic like that, one can argue against *any* technical innovation of any sort; one can also use it to point out the demonstrable consequences of not allowing change.

Thus, no one knows whether continued eating of genetically engineered food is safe. Perhaps chronic exposure to GE food might be associated with the 70 million incidents each year of "food poisoning" reported by the government, or with the apparent rises in autism or attention deficit disorder in kids. Or, perhaps not.

Perhaps it is an evil alien plot that has caused the APPARENT (my emphasis) rise in autism or attention deficit disorder in kids. However, it is more likely that the educational establishment, with a vested interest in keeping their charges sedated or in high-dollar special education classes, has prodded unwary or disinterested parents into believing their children fall into such a category.

Whatever industry research there may actually be on GE food, it is not reported in the open, peer-reviewed literature where it would be subjected to the rigors of scientific scrutiny. It is secreted away as "confidential business information." Nonetheless, the U.S. government calls this approach to not regulating GE food "sound science." Claims that the United Nations has certified that such food is safe to eat are based on such irregular studies, not independent testing.

I wonder how we managed to eat before regulation; after all, there was no nanny state to tell us what was safe to eat in the prehistoric ages. In any case, the biotech industry is not trying to kill us; that would be bad for profits. And considering the cost of biotech research, you better believe that the results of said research are kept secret; what's the point of spending years and millions of dollars on something if your competitors have access to all of your data? (You can rest assured that there are companies who would file a FOIA request in a heartbeat if the government were to have access to the research data.)

Indeed, the U.N. is in the process of establishing a biosafety protocol to regulate the international movement of transgenic organisms, including food. It should be operational by next spring, and will explicitly recognize the legitimacy of the actions taken by the southern African countries in rejecting the importation of GE foods. In the meantime, many countries currently have put up barriers to GE food, which is severely impacting U.S. agricultural exports.

One of the reasons that many countries have put up barriers to GE food is because the eco-luddites have managed to convince consumers that GM food is dangerous. Who needs real science to back their claims when a group can trumpet apocalyptic pseudo-science that is guaranteed coverage by all the major TV networks and newspapers?

The protocol has, as a key component, the "precautionary principle," a doctrine of risk regulation stating the old adages "look before you leap" and "better safe than sorry." Similar to dozens of U.S. regulatory statutes, the principle says that when there is scientific uncertainty about a potentially important risk, a government is justified in prohibiting action until more scientific research is done to better establish the exact risk parameters. And then, when there is information, a society may make an informed choice as to what level of risk it chooses to run.

I have no grievance with this part of the treaty; in fact, it's not the treaty that I am upset about.

However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made a political decision in 1992, without any scientific inquiry and over the objections of some of its senior scientists, that genetically engineered foods were "substantially equivalent" to conventional varieties.
In other words, if they share a few characteristics in common, they are probably the same in other characteristics. So ... Since GE tomatoes are round, red and hang from their vines they must be as healthy as conventional tomatoes.

There is absolutely no evidence at all that GM food has hurt anyone; NONE. The FDA made a decision based on available data; if they had not approved GM foods, some of their senior scientists would have objected to that course of action. It appears that the writer is upset that companies are allowed to call a GM tomato a tomato. Oh, the shame!

The biotech industry, however, has no shame in going across the street to another federal agency, the Patent Office, and arguing that GE foods are substantially different from conventional ones, and so should be awarded patents.

Again, we are talking about the ability to recoup costs. If I were to write an article that was very similar to the piece that Dr. Bereano wrote, would I be able to argue that his copyright was not valid? That is the argument he appears to be making.

Hunger is a political/economic phenomenon, not essentially a technical one. That is why countries like the U.S. have so many hungry residents despite our huge food surpluses, and why Ethiopia (the former poster child of malnutrition) has been able to be food-self-sufficient for the past seven years, using traditional technologies within an overall system of careful conservation practices and planning.

His first sentence is correct—there are no cases of mass starvation in the 20th century that can be attributed to anything other than political malfeasance; in the few occurrences of famine, relief aid has poured in, although the governments responsible often managed to bungle the equitable distribution of the aid.

The US does not suffer from widespread hunger, despite what the homeless advocacy industry would have us believe. Some of the studies have asked questions such as "Have you ever gone to bed hungry?" and counting all yes answers, even if it was a one-time occurrence. I am dieting (because I need to lose a good deal of weight): I often go to bed hungry because I have to reduce the number of calories I consume. That does not mark me as a victim of malnutrition.

All the technical "revolutions" we have proclaimed hybrids, pesticides and other agrichemicals, the Green Revolution, etc. have not ended world hunger, and it sounds like a shell game to proclaim that just one more (technical) fix is going to do the trick.

No, but they have certainly improved the lives of billions. India, which was expected to suffer mass starvation as its population ballooned, is an EXPORTER of food, which was unthinkable before the green revolution. If we were to go back to organic farming, which has markedly lower food output per acre, we'd need to increase our farmland by more than the entire surface of the Earth just to maintain production at current levels.

In fact, there are signs that the biotech industry may be in dire straits. A study by the British Soil Association (an organics group) titled "Seeds of Doubt" recently estimated that North America lost over $12 billion in the period 1994 to 2000. It notes:
The profitability of growing GE herbicide-tolerant soya and insect-resistant maize is less than non-genetically modified crops;

Much of the profitability issues are due to the tactics of anti-GM groups, which have destroyed GM crops and driven the costs up for both the manufacturer and the producer. Nonetheless, growers saved over $1.5 billion last year, due in large part to the massive reduction in pesticide use allowed by GM crops.

The claims of increased yields have not been realized overall except for a small increase in some maize yields.

Bt Corn (one genetically modified corn variety) realized a 66 million bushel increase in 1999 alone, due to its resistance to the European corn borer. Last year, eight biotech crops produced an additional 4 billion bushels of food. That is hardly a small increase.

GE herbicide-tolerant crops have made farmers more reliant on herbicides and new weed problems have emerged;

The eight biotech crops I referenced in the above point have reduced pesticide application by 46 million pounds. Analysis of 32 more varieties under development show that they would reduce pesticide use by an additional 117 million pounds per year.

Herbicide use is more widespread than before, but that is because the crops are designed to withstand applications of herbicides that would have previously killed them. The reduction of pesticide use more than offsets the increase in herbicides.

All farmers are suffering a severe reduction in choice about how they farm as a result of the introduction of genetically modified crops by some;

You mean that companies might stop producing varieties that produce lower yields, require more pesticide use, and offer less appealing crops?

Non-GE seeds have become almost completely contaminated by genetically engineered components.

And the biotech varieties undoubtedly suffered some contamination from the old varieties. Cross-pollination is unavoidable.

The industry, its government allies and their spokespeople don't seem particularly concerned with their need to dump unwanted food upon unwilling, but starving, people. Indeed, there is evidence that they welcome this chaos as leading to a situation in which opposition to GE foods will be rendered futile. As Emmy Simmons, assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said to me after the cameras stopped rolling on a vigorous debate we had on South Africa TV, "In four years, enough GE crops will have been planted in South Africa that the pollen will have contaminated the entire continent."

He is distorting the argument here. The real issue is that Zambia begged for assistance in dealing with the famine, and then refused GM food when US companies offered it. The Zambian president actually said that he would rather see people starve to death than consume GM food. It is backward thinking such as this that has consigned Africa to a dark future.

Let organic farmers, the producers of heirloom varieties, and even those who plant conventional but unique hybrids be damned. Under the specious claims of "free choice" for farmers, the industry will deny consumers all choice about whether to eat engineered genomes.

The unique hybrids and heirloom varieties already have to compete against the conventional variations of whatever crop they are growing. They seem to be succeeding relatively well. And this crusade to prevent GM crops from being grown is denying MY choice to consume such food. I have no fear of eating GM food, or food that is irradiated to reduce the chance of spoilage or poisoning.

The repeated insistence that the countries of Africa are being manipulated by white northern activists reflects a colonialist mentality that cannot imagine Third World nations being able to decide what is actually in their best interests. At a meeting of the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization in June 1998, all the delegates from the continent (except South Africa) published a statement that "strongly object(ed) that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us."

Backward thinking leaders that rule most of Africa are the primary reason for that continent's persistent, grinding poverty. In this one instance, they are aided and abetted by the anti-biotech movement, which consists primarily of wealthy whites who have no real knowledge of what they are protesting.

More Americans should be asking why propaganda is keeping us from being educated about subjects that Africans seem to know so well.

Oy.


Philip L. Bereano is a University of Washington professor in the field of technology and public policy. He has participated in the negotiations of the biosafety protocol and attended the Earth Summits in Rio and Johannesburg on behalf of national and Washington state citizens' organizations.

His qualifications pretty much telegraph his agenda. Show me a "citizen's organization" that attended the Earth Summit that is *not* an extreme left, reactionary communist front. A quick Google search on Dr. Bereano's name revealed that he is very active in the anti-biotech movement, not only for food, but for virtually any other reason at all.

For more information on this issue, read Ronald Bailey's excellent article in the December 2000 issue of Reason magazine. Also read this editorial from the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation, which presents a positive view of the promise of biotech, as opposed to the wailing and screeching emanating from Greenpeace, et al.

posted on November 19, 2002 07:53 PM



Comments:

GE makes food? Is there anything they don't make?

posted by Anna on November 20, 2002 04:27 AM





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