Don't Misrepresent Biotechnology

February 21, 2000
USA Today

The food fight over genetically engineered crops and products is slopping over into corporate boardrooms.

Critics of biotechnology are inundating 18 major corporations with proposals to stop the development, marketing or selling of bioengineered foods. And for those products already on the market, they're pushing for labels until long-term testing is completed.

What's the harm, they argue, with ensuring that such products pose no "detrimental effects to public health or the environment"?

But this unduly cautious reasoning ignores the elaborate safety system that already exists in the USA. And it ignores the health and environmental risks of existing agricultural methods that biotechnology can help solve.

The Department of Agriculture already requires years of field tests for crops into which genes from foreign organisms have been spliced. The Environmental Protection Agency looks at any toxic effects on the environment. And the Food and Drug Administration works with biotech companies to make sure that any product they introduce is safe for human use and consumption.

Not good enough, critics of biotechnology charge. But the proof is in the results: After hundreds of millions of people have used or consumed biotech products, there has been not one allergic reaction or illness tied to them.

That's why opponents in their attacks always say biotech foods "may pose risks." What critics don't concede is that all foods may pose such risks. Earlier this month, the European Molecular Biology Organization, made up of 1,000 top scientists from 24 nations, issued a statement noting that if it's hazardous to eat "foreign" DNA or protein, we've always lived dangerously, since "everything we eat contains foreign DNA and protein."

Wisely, the scientists want genetically modified crops monitored and public fears addressed. But they warn against efforts to stymie biotechnology with unscientific tests and other requirements. And they point out that unnecessary delay of biotechnological development is not without cost. Among the risks:

  • It leaves in place conventional farming methods that now damage the environment, through erosion, waste of water and pesticides.
  • It delays the development of a genetically modified rice that world health experts hope can prevent 500,000 cases of blindness and 2 million children's deaths each year caused by to vitamin A deficiency.
  • It drives away investment in biotech crops and medicines that the world needs to feed 6 billion people and provide affordable medical care for an aging population.

Biotechnology, like any tool, can be abused and misused. That's why regulatory agencies must closely monitor it. But the slop that opponents are tossing into boardrooms both misrepresents the technology's dangers and downplays its benefits.

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