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The Modified Food Myth
By John R. Block
December 22, 1999 | Washington Times

In business and science decisions are rarely — if ever — made based on appealsto sentiment. In fact, unlike in politics and entertainment, persons who repeatedly base arguments on emotional appeals quickly lose their audiences and may even subject themselves to ridicule.

In the recent outcry against genetically modified foods by Greenpeace reactionaries and their cohorts in parts of Europe and now in the United States, sentiment catapulted by mass media outlets is garnering plenty of attention. "Frankenstein Foods," shouts a recent Newsweek headline echoing vandalism directed at McDonalds retail outlets in France and a bed of test corn at the University of Maine.

With all of this emotionally charged publicity goes the perception that the work of U.S. agricultural businesses to produce heartier, healthier and better tasting foods — something most of us say we want and need — is actually part of some sinister plot (apparently in a script written without premises and conclusions).

The reactionaries need to wake up. This isn't a movie! Corporately sponsored scientists aren't working to destroy nature and take us along with it by doctoring foodstock DNA. Genetically modified foods help us to nutritionally feed hundreds of millions of people, and in some cases, reduce the use of pesticides that — even though they are safe — make some people uncomfortable.

Persons who take offense at baby food made from pest-resistant plants are sure to object to the vitamin-enhanced rice engineered at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. But, except for their own selfishness, why would they?

Consider that United Nations estimates have the world's population increasing from about 6 billion today to 12.5 billion by 2050. By some accounts nearly 800 million people worldwide already suffer from malnutrition.

That rice is designed to help eradicate the vitamin A deficiency affecting nearly 400 million rice consumers and resulting in blindness for millions of children. The genetically enhanced rice developed in a large measure with Rockefeller Foundation funding is also designed to fight the iron-deficiency anemia affecting so many of the world's billions of rice consumers. This isn't just an issue for U.S. companies. Participants in the development of the rice included scientists from the Philippines and Germany.

Where malnutrition is reality, resentment toward agricultural Luddites — in some cases themselves purveyors of inferior food products — is likely to find some expression. Thanks to that genetically modified rice, millions of the world's poorest will now be able to afford a more healthful diet.

But our families eat rice, too. Don't we want them to have the best production the market?

Selective breeding is probably as old as farming, but it didn't become a recognized science until Austrian monk and biologist Gregor Mendelbegan experimenting in 1865 with the color of pea blossoms. Since then, and thanks to the work of Mendel and thousands of other scientists worldwide, farmers have gotten much better at developing the crops that every season render projected catastrophic food shortages into alarmist fiction.

As Henry Miller, a senior research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, recently pointed out in The Washington Times, modern gene-splicing techniques allow manufacturers to introduce pieces of DNA that contain one or a few well-characterized genes, while older genetic techniques transferred a variable number of genes haphazardly.

It won't be long before shotgun approaches to developing better foods are nearly extinct. A retreat from genetically modified foods would be little different than a medical retreat from antibiotics. Who wants that to happen any time soon?

Approximately 44 percent of all domestically grown soybeans and 36 percent of the corn was grown from genetically modified seeds in 1998, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. Rice, soybeans and corn are just a part of the picture. According to the Alliance for Better Foods, whose members with Food Distributors International include 25 U.S. food trade associations, researchers are close to developing fruits and vegetables that contain more beta carotene and Vitamins C and E, which may help to reduce incidents of cancer and heart disease. They are also close to developing a banana that can be used to deliver vital oral vaccines for diseases such as hepatitis B.

Fifty varieties of biotechnology-enhanced crops already have been approved in the United States. And we expect that biotechnology will help increase food productivity by up to 25 percent in the developing world. Note also that 75 million acres worldwide were under cultivation with biotechnology crops in 1998. That's up from 7 million in 1996.

Surveys earlier this year and in 1997 by the International Food Information Council found that most Americans embrace the benefits offered by genetically modified foods. When asked if they would buy a variety of produce if it had been modified by biotechnology to taste better or fresher, 62 percent said they would, up from 55 percent in 1997. Finally, if gadfly-activists like Jeremy Rifkin have their way, the GM-foods issue will be subject to even more chaos. A recent report in the London-based Financial Times mentioned pending multi-billion dollar lawsuits to be launched in 30 countries before the end of the year. Twenty U.S. law firms have already lined up to take the cases on a contingency basis against manufacturers and sellers of genetically modified foods, the paper said.

We should recognize such lawsuits for the kind of extortion they really are. I know that self-styled activists hate to acknowledge that the food they eat every day is genetically engineered. Do they really think that grapes and watermelons were always naturally seedless?

John R. Block is president of Food Distributors International and a former U.S. secretary of agriculture under Ronald Reagan.

On My Mind
Edited by Tim W. Ferguson
December 27, 1999
| Forbes Magazine

Food-Label Follies
The Antibiotech Crowd Insists On A
Non-Existent And Useless Right To Know
By Henry I. Miller, M.D.

The business of Forbes Inc. is to sell information, and so it may seem incongruous for me to say this, but some information is so incomplete and distorted as to mislead rather than inform. For this reason, I believe I can make a good case that food labels should not have to disclose the presence of genetically altered crops.

The greens who are proposing these mandatory labels talk nobly about the consumer's right to know. Let consumers know what's in their breakfast cereal and let them make their own choices, goes the argument. The argument sounds good, even libertarian. But the antibiotech crowd is not really interested in freedom of choice. These people want nothing less than to shut down gene-spliced agriculture, and if they get their mandated food labels they just might succeed. The result won't enhance freedom of choice, but diminish it.

Such labels would convey irrelevant information, imply incorrectly that the buyer needs to be warned of unspecified dangers, punish everyone in the distribution chain and actually hurt nature by forcing more pesticide use.

But you wouldn't know this from the uproar over "Frankenfoods" that has carried over from Europe to the U.S. and is now the basis for noisy public hearings, street protests such as those at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, and even potential ballot initiatives.

Britain's new mandatory-labeling law, touted by regulators as fostering consumer choice, has had the opposite effect. It sparked a stampede by food producers, retailers and restaurant chains to rid their products of all gene-spliced ingredients so they wouldn't have to plaster warning labels on their products.

The need to segregate gene-spliced foods, especially the thousands of processed foods that contain small amounts of derivatives of corn or soybeans, would raise production costs in a low-profit-margin sector. A 1994 analysis by the California Department of Consumers Affairs predicted that "while the American food-processing industry is large, it is doubtful that it would be either willing or able to absorb most of the additional costs associated with labeling biotech foods."

A broad scientific consensus holds that modern techniques of genetic engineering are essentially a refinement of the kinds of modifications that have long been used to enhance lants, microorganisms and animals for food. Because of the precision and predictability of the technology, the products of gene-splicing are even more predictable and safe than the genetically improved foods that have long enriched our diets, such as seedless grapes, tangelos (a tangerine-grapefruit hybrid), nectarines (a mutant variety of peach) and high-yield grains. Except for wild berries, virtually all the fruits, vegetables and grains that we eat have been genetically improved by some technique.

The Food & Drug Administration already applies extra scrutiny and requires labeling when safety-related issues are raised: an ingredient that is completely new to the food supply, an allergen presented in an unusual or unexpected way (for example, a peanut protein transferred to a potato), changes in the levels of major dietary nutrients or increased levels of toxins normally found in foods. In other words, risk management is commensurate with the risk of the product.

But what about the people's right to know? A federal appeals court, invalidating a Vermont law that required milk labels to disclose the use of bovine somatotropin, found no such right and made this telling point: "Were consumers interest alone sufficient, there is no end to the information that states could require manufacturers to disclose about their production method." Good call. Some California activists now are demanding food labels to identify machine-harvested (as opposed to hand-picked) tomatoes.

Where will it end?

If large numbers of people really want to avoid gene-spliced foods, niche markets will arise -- assuming that consumers are willing to pay a premium for foods to be certified to be "gene-splicing free," as they do for kosher, halal and organic products. No mandate of government is needed.

--FoodBiotechNet provides weekly updates and science-based perspectives on issues related to food biotechnology. It is a central, credible forum to facilitate information sharing and exchange of scientific perspectives among scientists, opinion leaders and expert communicators on breaking stories, research and other information relating to food biotechnology.

FoodBiotechNet is a partnership of the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (, the Georgetown Center for Food and Nutrition Policy ( and the International Food Information Council (

Henry I. Miller, M.D. is a Hoover Institution Fellow; Director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology, 1989-93.

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