Biotech Critics Find A Little Goes A Long Way

In the fictional world of James Bond, the criminal group SPECTRE made a big business out of misusing technology to disrupt commerce, make money, and turn nations against one another. Maybe we should be skeptical of cute-sounding acronyms, because in the real world of agriculture and food, mischievous groups can misuse a technology called ELISA to wreak similar havoc — halting commerce, closing ports and stirring up international disputes that often pit country against country. ELISA (which stands for enzyme-linked immunoabsorbent assay) is a diagnostic test that can detect very low levels of certain proteins in very large batches of food or commodity grains. Environmental extremist groups like it because ELISA can detect biotech material in conventional grain shipments. Greenpeace and others have made big business out of testing boatloads of grain headed for European ports. The problem is that Green Party allies of the extremist groups have ensured that the biotech products approved in the U.S. don't get approved in Europe. So, when trace amounts of nonapproved biotech proteins are detected, the boats are often sent back home and an international incident can result. In a related example, two ecologists claimed to have found traces of biotech DNA in Mexican corn. Their tests were later found to be wrong, but the media coverage and activist exploitation of that alleged detection nearly caused Mexico to ban corn exports from the United States. And this one event — now shown to be false — could continue to have very serious ramifications for U.S. farmers, seed breeders and retailers far into the future. Naturally, shippers try to keep biotech grains segregated from conventional. But achieving zero presence in grain is virtually impossible given the millions of tons grown in the U.S. every year (2 billion bushels of corn alone). It's easy to see how small bits of biotech grain can occasionally get mixed with conventional, anywhere from the seed breeder or cross-pollination between farm fields, all the way to grain elevators or in the massive ocean-going container ships. It's also important to note, however, that none of this “adventitious” mixing, as it's called, poses any risk to human health or the environment. Practically everything we eat contains DNA and proteins. And the DNA and proteins introduced into crop plants through biotechnology are thoroughly tested for safety to the satisfaction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, and often the Environmental Protection Agency. Scientific organizations around the world, including the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the World Health Organization, have concluded that biotech crops are at least as safe as conventional crops. So there is no scientifically justifiable reason to have a zero tolerance. In fact, the primary thing that makes biotech grains different from conventional ones is that some people refuse to tolerate any amount of unintentional or adventitious mixing. That's unusual, because most countries have laws specifically permitting the adventitious presence of all kinds of substances in foods. For example, trace levels of fat are allowed in “fat free” foods, and trace amounts of synthetic pesticides are legal in organic foods, which are marketed as pesticide free. Only biotech DNA and proteins have the dubious honor of having no established limit for adventitious presence, a fact that has the farm community more than a little nervous. Farmers who pass up the more productive biotech varieties in favor of growing for special markets are concerned about losing sales. Organic farmers are similarly concerned that they won't be able to sell their crops as “organic” if trace levels of biotech traits are found. And growers who do choose biotech crops are put on the defensive to prevent cross-pollination. Lately, though, groups like the American Seed Trade Association and the International Seed Trade Federation have taken up the cause, urging reasonable limits for adventitious presence of biotech proteins. Reasonable limits would allow all types of agriculture — biotech, conventional and organic — to proceed in harmony. The current lack of an adventitious presence standard is only advantageous to groups who are more opposed to global commerce than they are concerned about the environment. They like zero tolerance, because they can exploit it in their efforts to destroy a safe and beneficial technology. For them, a little goes a long way. It's time to quiet them by establishing legal limits for low levels of biotech traits. Biotechnology offers many economic and environmental benefits. It should not be sidetracked because of meaningless detections.