Politics & Policy

Let Them Eat Precaution

Beyond the WTO Decision on GMOs.

The rebuke of the Europe-wide ban on bioengineered crops and food by the World Trade Organization has sent anti-biotech advocacy groups scrambling. The United States, Argentina, and Canada had argued that the moratorium had more to do with protectionism than precaution, and the WTO agreed.

Well-funded activists are now flooding the Internet with hysteria-grams trying to recast this stunning victory for common sense and careful science into a morality play: nefarious corporations aligned with bully nations (Canada?) force feeding “Frankenfoods” to helpless consumers.

Even before the lengthy and complex decision was handed down, Greenpeace blasted the WTO as “unqualified to deal with complex scientific and environmental issues.” Friends of the Earth Europe scowled that “European safeguards” were being “sacrificed to benefit biotech corporations.” The U.S.-based Consumers Union lambasted what it called a “preemptive effort to chill the development of new policies for regulating GM crops.”

Let’s separate the chaff from the wheat. If this decision is upheld by WTO members, Europe will not be forced to alter its regulations or labeling requirements or “force” consumers to “buy and eat food that they do not want,” as Europe’s leading consumer organization, BEUC, claims. It will demand the EU observe its own regulatory process–using sound science to evaluate new products. That’s not been happening. Although the EU officially lifted its legal ban on GM crops and foods in 2004, squabbling among member states have left the moratorium in place, with 16 products bottled up in committees.

Some European countries have been exploiting the controversy to protect their farmers and keep prices high, international agreements and public policy be damned. Even with this ruling, political realities suggest this subterfuge may not end soon. Just last Monday, the Greek agricultural minister announced Greece would defy EU regulations and broaden its unauthorized ban on GM-modified maize seeds.

Greenpeace and Co. has been on the attack since the first generation of biotech crops–soybeans, wheat, cotton, and canola that generate natural insecticides, making them more resistant to pests and drought–were introduced more than a decade ago. Why? Because they were brought to market by corporations and aimed mostly at commodity crop farmers. Biotech farming has generated enormous economic and environmental benefits, dramatically reducing reliance on environmentally harmful pesticides by supercharging the natural defenses of a crop using genetic material already in place or by introducing genes from other plants or animals.

We’re now entering the second phase of the biotech revolution–addressing malnutrition and aiding smaller farmers. Scientists are developing nutrition-enhanced crops and foods such as “golden rice” that could help tens of millions of malnourished children who go blind or die each year from Vitamin A deficiency. On the horizon are futuristic “farmaceuticals”–medicines made by melding basic methods of agriculture with advanced biotechnology, such as potatoes transformed into edible vaccines against diarrhea, a leading cause of death in the developing world.

Yet, in a dark, parallel universe of the privileged, anti-biotechnology groups contend we should abandon even these revolutionary life-saving uses of crop biotechnology. Egged on by socially responsible investors and funded by the organic and natural product industries, which thrive on GM food scares, professional protestors are quick to cite the lowest common denominator in fabricated scientific disputes: the so-called “precautionary principle”–the controversial notion, rejected by mainstream science, that innovation should be shelved unless all risks can be avoided. They assert that “Trojan Horse” genes not subject to built-in checks and balances in nature could unleash a “genetic Godzilla,” causing environmental havoc.

Slogans like “better safe than sorry” may have a nice ring of moderation, but they are scientifically simplistic. There have been no documented health problems linked to GM crops and absolutely no evidence that genetic modification poses greater risks than crossbreeding and gene-splicing, which have given us such products as the tangelo and seedless grapes. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization has endorsed the safety and health benefits of biotech crops, urging their extension to the developing world.

The hypothetical risk of biotechnology has to be balanced against the lives being lost as new products remain trapped in a regulatory maze. In 2002, Zambia and Zimbabwe, wary of offending their major trading partners in the EU, cited the “precautionary principle” in rejecting donations of bioengineered grain that could have helped feed ten million undernourished people, thousands of whom ultimately died.

Today in the Philippines, where 42 percent of the diet comes from white rice, a recent study by U.N. food experts estimates that Golden Rice could avert 879 deaths, 1,925 corneal ulcers, and 15,398 cases of night blindness each year. A Philippines-based based anti-biotechnology group with ties to Greenpeace has aggressively lobbied against Golden Rice on the grounds that the benefits from beta-carotene are minimal–claims rejected by scientists.

We should also be skeptical of opinion polls cited by biotech opponents suggesting that consumers, particularly in Europe, are dead set against these new products. “If you really want to understand whether European shoppers will buy genetically modified foods given the opportunity, ignore the agents provocateurs, the media, and the panicked reactions of the big supermarket chains, and look instead at the behavior of ordinary consumers,” notes David Bowe, a member of the European parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy. “When Safeway and Sainsbury’s put GM tomato puree side by side with their non-GM counterpart in 1999 the proof was definitely in the puree. The GM product was seen to offer real added value. It was less expensive and in numerous blind tastings consumers seemed to prefer the flavor. It sold as well as the non-GM product.”

While not a silver bullet, GM technology offers unique tools to address international food needs. Biotech crops are grown mostly in major farming nations like the U.S., Argentina, and Canada, but farmers in developing countries such as Brazil, China, India, and in Eastern Europe, with hungry stomachs to feed, are vigorously embracing the technology. Last year, 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries grew biotech crops on 222 million acres, an 11-percent year-to-year increase.

There are valid concerns about biotechnology, including the degree to which corporations should be allowed to patent beneficial seeds, keeping in mind that Monsanto, Bayer, Novartis, and other firms need to recoup their development costs, which have multiplied exponentially because of the country-by-country Rube Goldberg-like approval process.

But years of demagoguery and misinformation have taken an enormous toll–polluting public opinion, profoundly altering the trajectory of biotechnology applications, and damaging the financial wherewithal of corporations and university research projects. The biggest losers are the children, frozen out of the benefits of the green revolution that many of us take for granted.

Jon Entine, adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is author of Let Them Eat Precaution: How Politics is Undermining the Genetic Revolution in Agriculture.

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