Biotech Food Fights May Be Over Soon As Facts Frustrate Fearmongers' Case
Fearing an ambush from scare-mongering environmentalists, Frito-Lay has told its contract farmers not to plant any biotech corn. Apparently the company would rather have corn treated with chemical insecticides than corn with built-in protection against worms.
Naturally, Frito-Lay got kudos from flaky activists, and maybe even from some crop-eating insects. But a couple of days later, Frito's former spokesman Jay Leno, never one to let hypocrisy go unchallenged, mocked the company. He wondered if the company would next be removing the "bright orange dye" from its fabled Cheetos.
The truth, which uncowed scientists and businessmen can see easily, is that biotechnology offers great benefits to farmers today through higher yields and less pesticide use. In the near future, it will yield tremendous food and nutritional benefits with such products as snack chips that absorb less fat when cooked. Also, the fat used will be better for cholesterol and other health concerns.
Biotech foods are carefully reviewed by three federal agencies - the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency - so there is no scientifically justifiable reason to oppose them.
The Frito incident, which may affect public perception of biotech foods, is unfortunate for farmers and consumers. But it may be only a rut in the road.
Two other recent events may help smooth the way for continued growth of biotechnology.
Consider the unanimous approval of an international Biosafety Protocol in Montreal on Jan. 29. The protocol, approved by delegates from 133 nations, marks the first global affirmation of the potential and value of biotechnology. It provides a framework for international trading of biotech crops and a clearinghouse for hard scientific information so countries can make decisions based on facts, not groundless fears.
With such ready access to sound information, countries are likelier to adopt the benefits of the technology for their farmers, consumers and the environment. American farmers benefit from this information in particular, as it increases their confidence in not losing markets because of scattershots fired off by black-hatted fearslingers.
The pro-biotech reversal by Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., one of the nation's largest purchasers and exporters of grain, is also a significant development. ADM, which upset many farmers last fall by instructing them to segregate conventional and biotech grain, has dropped that requirement.
ADM Chairman G. Allen Andreas told The Chicago Tribune that "the pendulum is beginning to turn back" on the controversy, adding that less than 5% of ADM's sales were to customers who objected to genetically modified foods.
Most normal customers want grain that is produced in the most efficient - that is, cheapest - way. Needless segregation is neither efficient nor cheap. ADM and other grain handlers are wisely recognizing that there is no future in creating superfluous costs to quell the yelps of the environmentalist banditos.
Even the Los Angeles Times, no biotech industry sycophant, noted in an editorial that products from biotechnology have been in foods for nearly a decade with no adverse effect on public health. "The Food and Drug Administration already requires the labeling of genetically modified (biotech) food that may differ in some way from its conventional counterpart. But regulators consider the vast majority of GM food no different from conventional food," it said.
Thus "the labeling proposals would only confuse a simple process," said the Times, adverting to anti-biotech proposals in California.
A few companies have made headlines by asking for nonbiotech grain. So have some store chains catering to yuppies with overstuffed wallets and a burning desire to join the chic anti-biotech cause.
But a recent Roper Starch Worldwide poll says the industry is probably overestimating public concerns. The poll found that 73% of adult consumers surveyed would accept biotechnology as a trade-off for not using chemicals, suggesting that the Frito Bandito will soon be shooting blanks.
Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.
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