Misnamed Activists Are Thorns In Rose Of Agbiotech Foods

In a spin-dominated world where activists claim—often on the flimsiest of data—that this, that or the other thing causes cancer or threatens the environment, yet another<?xml:namespace prefix = u1 /> carping communiqué from a radical group is hardly news.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


But a recent report about the current state of agricultural biotechnology from the ironically misnamed Center for Science in the Public Interest is so hypocritical and disingenuous—and so typical of radical groups’ antitechnology screeds in general—that it deserves attention.


CSPI’s “analysis” finds that the agbiotech industry “is not innovating, it is stagnating,” leaving unfulfilled its promise “that genetic engineering would spawn a cornucopia of heartier crops, more-healthful oils, delayed ripening fruits, and many more nutritious and better-tasting foods.”


Also, according to the group, “the biotech cupboard remains pretty bare, except for the few crops that have benefited grain, oilseed and cotton farmers,” and supposedly we have “a voluntary, antiquated and inefficient hodgepodge of a regulatory system” that must be replaced “with a mandatory system that takes risk into account.”


These assertions are part of the activists’ big lie about the application of the new biotechnology, or gene-splicing, to agriculture and food production—namely, that the technology is unproven, untested and unregulated.


In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.


Although a wide scientific consensus holds that gene-splicing is an extension, or refinement, of less precise and predictable technologies long used with great success, the new techniques offer plant breeders the tools to make old crop plants do impressive new things.


No One Hurt

In the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />U.S., Canada and at least 16 other countries, farmers are using gene-spliced crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced impact on the environment.


Adoption of gene-spliced crops by American farmers has promoted the use of no-till cultivation, which lessens soil erosion, and has obviated the need for millions of pounds of chemical pesticides, reducing runoff into waterways and occupational exposures.


More than 200 million acres of gene-spliced crops were cultivated worldwide last year, about 80 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves now contain gene-spliced ingredients (mostly byproducts of soy and corn),and Americans have collectively consumed more than 1 trillion servings of these foods.


With all this experience, not a single person has been harmed or an ecosystem disrupted—a record that is superior to that of conventionally produced products.


The greatest boon of all from agbiotech in the long term may be the enhancement of the ability of new crop varieties to tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses.


Irrigation for agriculture accounts for roughly 70 percent of the world’s freshwater consumption, so especially during drought conditions even a small percentage reduction in the use of water for irrigation could result in huge benefits, both economic and humanitarian.


Where water is unavailable for irrigation, the development of crop varieties able to grow under conditions of low moisture or temporary drought could boost yields and lengthen the time that farmland is productive.


The biotech fix? Plant biologists already have identified and transferred into important crop plants the genes that regulate water utilization in wild and cultivated plants. These new varieties are able to grow with smaller amounts or lower quality water, such as water that has been recycled or that contains large amounts of natural mineral salts.


Standing In The Way

There are thorns on the rose: unscientific, gratuitous and overly burdensome regulation in the U.S. and elsewhere that has been championed by CSPI and other activist groups.


Part of the activists’ strategy to make agbiotech less accessible.  Discriminatory regulation—focused specifically on the most precise and predictable techniques of biotechnology—has raised the cost of research and development to levels that “exclude the public sector, the academic community, from using their skills to improve crops,” according to Roger Beachy, the director of the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis.


This is public policy at its most antisocial.


The very regulatory policies promoted by radical activists are the primary reason we don’t have gene-spliced versions of more nutritious and flavorful fruits and vegetables, new varieties of grapes resistant to Pierce’s disease, and improved subsistence crops for farmers in the developing world.


It is revealing that CSPI’s biotech spokesman Gregory Jaffe was a primary drafter of legislation introduced in Congress by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.  That legislation would have established even more excessive and hugely debilitating regulatory requirements specific for gene-spliced foods—requirements that no conventionally produced food (made with less precise and predictable technology) could meet.


CSPI’s crocodile tears for agbiotech remind us of the child who murders his parents and then asks for mercy from the court because he’s an orphan.