Pew’s Parallel Universe

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The “new biotechnology,” or gene-splicing, applied to agriculture and food production is here to stay. More than 80 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves—soft drinks, preserves, mayonnaise, salad dressings—include ingredients from gene-spliced plants, and Americans have safely consumed more than a trillion servings of these foods.

But opposition continues to genetically improving plants by use of these precise and predictable techniques, largely due to a drumbeat of misrepresentations by antibiotechnology activists.

Some of these radicals, like Greenpeace, make no secret they intend to stop at nothing to eliminate gene-splicing from agriculture, while other groups claim not to oppose gene-splicing but only to want it “properly” regulated. They are subtler, and therefore more insidious.

Reports by the lavishly funded Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, for example, receive extensive media and government attention, largely because Pew touts itself as the thoughtful, disinterested middle ground in the biotechnology debates. But Pew's PR machine saying that doesn't make it so.

Contrary to their claims to be neutral, honest brokers on biotechnology, Pew's workshops, conferences and publications consistently show a pervasive pro-regulation bias and try to create a presumption of genuine controversy where none exists. (Activists understand overregulation is a subtly effective tool to inhibit innovation and slow diffusion of even a superior technology they dislike.) Pew's most recent surveys offer excellent examples.     

Pew's 2003 report, “Public Sentiment About Genetically Modified Food,” was a typically disingenuous pastiche of truisms, half-truths and sleight-of-hand. The survey found “Americans' knowledge about [gene-spliced] foods remains low,” with 54 percent saying they had heard nothing or not much about them. Then, without enlightening the subjects or offering them any sort of context, the survey went on to pose leading questions about safety and regulation. Not surprisingly, 89 percent agreed that “Companies should be required to submit safety data to the FDA for review, and no genetically modified food product should be allowed on the market until the FDA determines that it is safe.” Nine in 10 consumers say they want safe food: What a surprise.

The 2004 report is no better. Only 32 percent of those surveyed said they had heard “a great deal or some” about gene-spliced foods (a 12-point decline since 2001, despite biotech's expanding applications and successes), suggesting fully two-thirds offered wholly uninformed opinions.

Unsurprisingly, the 2004 survey also reveals consumers want safe food: Eighty-five percent want regulators to ensure “[gene-spliced] foods are safe before they come to market,” and more than 90 percent favor the labeling of gene-spliced foods and food ingredients.

 The public's muddled view of biotechnology is reflected in the results of a survey of 1,200 Americans, released in October 2003 by the Food Policy Institute at <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Rutgers University. In an 11-item true/false quiz in the survey, more than half of the subjects received a failing grade (defined as less than 70 percent correct). Only 57 percent recognized the falseness of the statement “ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do.” Perhaps most shocking, only two-thirds knew eating genetically modified fruit would not alter their own genes. Do the one-third who got this question wrong think that if they eat rabbit stew, they will begin to hop?

The Pew surveys take advantage of the ignorance about key facts by those questioned: (1) with the exception of wild berries and mushrooms, game, and fish and shellfish, virtually all the organisms—plants, animals, microorganisms—in our food supply have been modified by one genetic technique or another; (2) because the new biotech is more precise and predictable than predecessors, biotech foods are likely to be even more safe than other foods; (3) food producers are already legally responsible for assuring the safety of their products, and the FDA does not normally perform safety determinations but primarily does surveillance of marketed foods, and takes action upon if it finds any adulterated or mislabeled; and (4) unwarranted, excessive regulation, including unnecessary labeling requirements, discourages innovation, imposes costs that are passed on to consumers and disproportionately burdens the poor.

Pew exploits consumers' (understandable) unfamiliarity with the nuances of both the new biotech and how food now is regulated. Asking if the FDA should assure the safety of gene-spliced foods before they're marketed is like asking if repeat child molesters should be banned from teaching grade school.

Pew and other anti-biotechnology lobbyists perpetuate various manifestations of the Big Lie that gene-splicing in agriculture and food production is untested, unproven and unregulated. To these morally putrescent activists, we direct the question a lawyer at Senate hearings put to demagogic, commie-hunting Joe McCarthy, “Have you left no sense of decency?”