All the news that fits

Newspapers are often criticized for bias in their “news” articles. A prime example was Andrew Pollack's Feb. 14 New York Times piece on biotechnology applied to agriculture: <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

“At the dawn of the era of genetically engineered crops, scientists were envisioning all sorts of healthier and tastier foods, including cancer-fighting tomatoes, rot-resistant fruits, potatoes that would produce healthier French fries and even beans that would not cause flatulence. … Resistance to genetically modified foods, technical difficulties, legal and business obstacles and the ability to develop improved foods without genetic engineering have winnowed the pipeline.”

While Mr. Pollack misses many of the nuances about biotechnology applied to agriculture and food production, he devotes ample ink to the anti-biotech crowd, including the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology (which he describes as a “nonprofit group,” though “anti-biotechnology lobbyists” would be more accurate) and the radical Friends of the Earth.

Memo to Mr. Pollack: All points of view on scientific and technological issues are not created equal. Good journalism is not served by creating a kind of moral equivalence between those who hold ideological, anti-biotech views and those with supportable, legitimate viewpoints —not unlike equating creation theory with Darwinian theory.

How ironic the same activists who opposed agbiotech relentlessly for 20 years now decry the “hype” and “overselling” of its benefits—rather like the teenager convicted of murdering his parents who pleads for mercy from the courts because he's an orphan.

Reflecting the views of biotech's antagonists, Mr. Pollack approaches the subject as though genetic engineering of plants were fundamentally new. But virtually all the 200 major crops in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />North America have been genetically improved, or modified, in some way. Plant breeders, not nature, gave us seedless grapes and watermelons, the tangelo (a tangerine-grapefruit hybrid), the canola variety of rapeseed and fungus-resistant strawberries. In North American and European diets, only fish and wild game, berries and mushrooms may be said not to have been genetically engineered in some fashion.

North Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of foods containing gene-spliced ingredients, without a single untoward reaction. Gene-splicing is essentially an extension, or refinement, of earlier, less precise, less predictable techniques.

In fact, when conventional and gene-spliced seed materials are mixed, arguably the former should be thought of as contaminating the latter.

What makes false alarms about a new technology hard to expose is the virtual impossibility of demonstrating the absolute safety of any activity or product: It's always possible we haven't yet gotten to the nth hypothetical risk or to the nth dose or the nth year of exposure, when the risk will finally be demonstrated. It is logically impossible to prove a negative, and all activities pose some nonzero risk of adverse effects.

The use of gene-splicing to craft small, precise genetic changes that enhance or introduce desirable traits into plants has been a stunning technological success. But excessive and unscientific regulation and the intractable opposition of activists have slowed its translation into consumer-friendly foods.

Contrary to Mr. Pollack's implication, gene-spliced “potatoes that would produce healthier french fries” (with higher-than-usual starch content) were available—until anti-biotech activists bullied fast-food chains into rejecting them.

Mr. Pollack's statement, “Developing nonallergenic products and other healthful crops has also proved to be difficult technically” is simply untrue. A vast spectrum of such plants has been crafted by laboratory scientists, but they cannot afford the gratuitously inflated regulatory costs to test the plants in the field. Excessive and unwise regulation is a major reason products in the development pipeline “do not include many of the products once envisioned,” to quote Mr. Pollack.

Unscientific and discriminatory Environmental Protection Agency and Agriculture Department regulatory policies make field trials with gene-spliced plants 10 to 20 times more expensive than a similar plant engineered with less precise, less predictable conventional genetic techniques.

Unlike pharmaceutical development, agricultural R&D is a low-budget enterprise. Such counterintuitive regulation and gratuitous costs make it uneconomical to develop many promising and even important food products.

Then there is Mr. Pollack's puzzling disparaging claim “industry … has been peddling the same two advantages—herbicide tolerance and insect resistance—for 10 years.” These traits have been of monumental importance, not only to farmers' bottom line but to occupational health and the natural environment. Enhanced pest resistance in plants has obviated the need for hundreds of millions of pounds of chemical pesticides (and thereby reduced environmental and occupational exposures). Herbicide tolerance has made possible a shift to more benign herbicides and environment-friendly no-till farming.

As British historian Paul Johnson has written, “Left to themselves, the creative forces in society will always deliver, but keeping them reasonably free to do so is a perpetual, grinding battle. It is one that must never be lost.”

Once again, the New York Times is fighting on the wrong side.