Politics & Policy

Loving Kids to Death

NGO overprotection.

Americans take nothing as seriously as the need to protect the health and safety of children. Public concern about environmental harms has intensified in recent years, and politicians and public-health officials have taken notice. Hence, “Children’s Health Day,” observed on the first Monday of October.

Seizing an opportunity to further their own agendas, many radical nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) exploit the event by attacks on various products and technologies that they claim are harmful.

As is the case for many other public-health false alarms, NGOs’ condemnation of the new biotechnology–also known as gene splicing, genetic engineering, or genetic modification (GM)–is less about real concern for children’s health than about environmental activists’ willingness to exploit children’s issues for their own benefit. Biotechnology has been the target of scare campaigns since the technique was first demonstrated in 1973. Activists like Jeremy Rifkin of the Foundation on Economic Trends have been warning against the supposed dangers of biotechnology for three decades, calling it “the most radical, uncontrolled experiment we’ve ever seen,” and even likening it to “Nazi eugenics.”

With varying degrees of subtlety, others such as Greenpeace and the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, have questioned the safety of the new biotechnology. In spite of the overwhelming scientific consensus that the new molecular methods of the “new biotechnology” pose no inherent risks, critics still argue that splicing genes into plants can cause all sorts of human health risks, including the addition of new plant toxins or allergens into the food supply.

The allergy issue is of special concern when children are involved, because children tend to be more sensitive to allergens than adults. Approximately 5 to 8 percent of children have a true allergy to certain types of foods, but only one to two percent of adults do. Therefore, if gene-splicing really did increase the risk of introducing new allergens into the food supply, this might pose a genuine children’s health issue. How real is this possibility?

Food allergies are a reaction of the body’s immune system to a substance or an ingredient in a food, usually a protein. And, because the function of most genes is to provide the cellular blueprint for making proteins, it has been easy for activists to convince the uninformed that a real children’s health scare is imminent. But the issue is not so simple.

Both conventional and biotech plant breeding involve the introduction of new genes into established crop plants. Thus, they both pose a theoretical risk of introducing potentially harmful proteins and other substances into the food supply, some of which could be allergens or toxins. However, the risk for both types of breeding is generally quite small, and the level of risk an individual plant will pose–either to human health or the environment–has nothing to do with how it was developed. It depends on the characteristics of the plant that is being modified and the specific gene or genes that are added.

In short, the fact that gene-splicing is used to introduce a new gene into a crop plant has little bearing on whether or not new allergy issues could arise–except that with gene-splicing techniques, plant breeders are actually less likely to introduce new allergens into the food supply.

Conventional plant breeding involves an essentially random mix of literally tens of thousands of genes from two or more parent plants–any one of which may never before have been part of the human food supply. Thus, plant breeders generally have little knowledge about which genes combine to create new crop varieties, which gene products are expressed (and at what levels), or which traits may be generated or altered. Dozens of new plant varieties produced through imprecise hybridization and other traditional methods of genetic improvement enter the marketplace each year without any governmental review or special labeling. Many such products are from “wide crosses,” hybridizations in which large, sometimes huge, numbers of genes are moved from one species or one genus to another–across “natural breeding barriers”–to create a plant variety that does not and cannot exist in nature.

For example, Triticum agropyrotriticum is a relatively new man-made “species,” which resulted from combining genes from bread wheat and a grass sometimes called quackgrass or couchgrass. Possessing all the chromosomes of wheat and one extra whole genome from the quackgrass, T. agropyrotriticum has been independently produced in Europe, Canada, the United States, and China, and has been grown for both animal feed and human food.

Various problems could arise from such a genetic construction that introduces tens of thousands of foreign genes into an established plant variety. For example, the new genes could increase the weediness of the plant in fields, or proteins derived from the quackgrass genes could be toxic or allergenic to consumers. However, neither regulators nor activists have evinced any concern about these possibilities. Instead of focusing regulatory attention on such risk-related issues, they have concentrated solely on gene-spliced plants, about which plant biologists and breeders invariably know considerably more–for example, exactly which new genes are being added into an existing plant line, and what proteins will be synthesized by those genes.

Paradoxically, only the more precisely crafted, gene-spliced crops are exhaustively, repeatedly (and expensively) reviewed before they can enter the field or food supply. If those supposedly concerned about risk were crafting regulatory approaches logically, the balance of scientific certainty and uncertainty would dictate that greater precaution apply not to gene splicing but to the cruder, less precise, less predictable “conventional” forms of genetic modification. Returning to the T. agropyrotriticum example, this chaotic mixture of genes is unregulated, but if a single gene were transferred from quackgrass to wheat with highly precise, gene-splicing techniques, the product would elicit an extensive and hugely expensive regulatory regime. This is a discrepancy that cannot be reconciled. Policymakers have ignored a fundamental rule of regulation: that the degree of scrutiny of a product or activity should be commensurate with the risk.

Ironically, one of the most noteworthy potential advantages of biotechnology is actually to eliminate existing allergens from foods like peanuts, wheat, and milk, by “silencing,” or turning off, the genes that generate allergenic proteins.

The new biotech’s greatest contribution to children, however, will likely be via the nutritional benefits of gene-spliced plants. For example, the diet of more than two hundred million children worldwide includes inadequate levels of many important micronutrients such as vitamin A, whose deficiency results in impaired intellectual development, blindness, and even death; each year, approximately two million children die from a severe lack of vitamin A. A new, gene-spliced rice variety boasts enhanced levels of beta carotene, which is then converted in the human body to vitamin A. This “Golden Rice” could prevent as many as a million deaths per year.

In spite of significant and real benefits of gene-spliced foods, the anti-biotechnology “kid campaign” has borne fruit for environmentalists in a way that other forms of activism could not. The public is confused, and most regulatory agencies treat gene-spliced foods and crop plants in a discriminatory, unnecessarily burdensome way. They have imposed costly and time-consuming requirements that could not possibly be met for conventionally bred plants. The use of the new biotechnology, which holds so much promise for improving the health of children, is being held hostage by a perverse campaign that exploits them for political gain.

Henry I. Miller, a physician, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Gregory Conko is director of food-safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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