Taking the Scare Out of Biotech Crops

In the late 1990s, political scientist Gregory Conko had been studying food and pharmaceutical regulation as a fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and noticed the rising concerns in the European Union over genetically modification of crop plants. “I saw this was an issue that was getting much bigger and that it would likely also become a bigger issue in the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />United States,” he says. So he began shifting his focus almost exclusively to examining issues of the regulation of genetically engineered foods. Last month, Conko and Henry I. Miller, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, published The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution (Praeger Publishers), a book that examines some of what they say are the major misunderstandings about agricultural biotechnology.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


TR: What is the central argument of your new book on these genetically engineered “frankenfoods”? CONKO: It’s not a point-by-point refutation of all the misconceptions that are being spread about agricultural biotechnology. The primary mess that we tackle has to do with an attitude that is being spread by both opponents of biotechnology and by a lot of its supporters that it is somehow uniquely risky and therefore should be subject to special caution and special regulatory oversight.


TR: Aren’t there unique risks to creating new plants using genetic engineering, to introducing traits these plants might not otherwise gain? CONKO: After recombinant DNA techniques were first demonstrated in the early 1970s, the scientific community started to take a very close look at the technology.  They determined that while it certainly increases the flexibility of the kinds of genetic modifications that one can make in microorganisms, plants, or animals, the techniques don’t inherently increase the risks of engineered organisms.


TR: So the techniques may not be dangerous, but the plants could be. CONKO: With both old and new technologies, you could create a crop plant that might have significantly heightened environmental risks. If you’re making an herbicide-tolerant plant, for example, you can do this with either conventional breeding techniques or with recombinant DNA technology. There is no risk difference between the two end products. The scientific consensus essentially holds that you don’t want to look at the process used to create a particular new organism; you want to evaluate its characteristics to ensure that the plants themselves don’t become invasive or spread harmful genes either to related crop plants or related wild plants.


Similarly on the food safety side, you want to ensure that the genes you’re transferring into crop plants or into the food supply are safe, and you want to do that whether you’re using recombinant DNA technology or not. Potatoes and tomatoes are both part of the nightshade family, and both produce toxins that, if they were present in high levels, could be very harmful to human consumers. So when you’re creating or breeding new potato and tomato varieties, you want to be in tune to whether you may be accidentally increasing the level of toxins—and that's true regardless of whether you’re using recombinant DNA or more conventional technology.


TR: It sounds as if you’re pretty closely in tune with the recommendations of the National Research Council report on the safety of genetically modified foods that was issued earlier this summer.

CONKO: Yes. I think for a very long time, the National Academy of Sciences and specifically the National Research Council panel have gotten the question of scientific risk right. Through the last decade and a half, there have been reports essentially coming to the same conclusion: that there’s no reason to believe that organisms created using recombinant DNA will be inherently risky, either for the environment or for human consumers.

In some cases, though, the reports out of the National Academy have made what are essentially political arguments. There was a report in 2000, looking at the way the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates recombinant DNA-engineered plants, and another in 2002 looking at the way the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates such plants. In both cases the panel concluded that there’s no scientific reason to believe that there’s special risk from genetic engineering. And yet in both cases, the panel concluded that, the science notwithstanding, it was OK to impose special regulations on genetically engineered plants because the public expected it, and having a special regulatory apparatus was likely to promote public acceptance of the technology.


TR: That seems logical. Such oversight would assure people that the technology and the resulting plants are safe, right? CONKO: I don't think so. Regulatory agencies, parts of the scientific community, and in particular, the biotechnology industry have advocated for more regulation, not because it was scientifically justified, but because in their opinion the public would accept the technology more readily if there was heightened regulation. But it’s very difficult to document positive impact on public acceptance coming from the extra regulation. In fact, the public often views that regulation as indicating a special risk. And the downside of the extra regulation is that the technology becomes so expensive to use and even to field test that only the biggest biotech firms are able to put recombinant products on the market. In a lot of cases, smaller firms have either gone out of business or had to merge with the big companies. And even in many sector research centers, scientists are creating all of these wonderful new things in the laboratory and then stopping after they’re grown out in greenhouses. It’s prohibitively expensive to put them out in the field and test them, so that they have practically no chance of ever making it to market and actually helping. Much of this research is intended to help low-income consumers in the United States or poor farmers in less developed countries. These projects are essentially dead at the point when greenhouse experiments are done because public sector researchers just can’t afford to put them into the field.


TR: But without such regulation, what can we do to ensure that these crops are safe to eat and safe for the environment? CONKO: There are a couple of models in the scientific literature for how you might go about regulating risky products very carefully, regulating moderate-risk products somewhat less stringently, and regulating very low-risk products much the same as you would a classically bred plant. We also argue that in some cases, it probably makes sense to introduce conventionally bred plants into the regulatory system—plants that have not previously been regulated at all.


TR: How do you assess the risks to determine how each proposed plant should be regulated? CONKO: In most cases we can predict with a high level of certainty whether a new gene introduced into a particular crop species and then grown in a particular environment is likely to have the kinds of risks that we are aware of. We know that crop plants can spread genes to related plants through cross-pollination. So if you were looking at a crop plant that had wild relatives in close proximity, you would look and say, “What would happen if the new gene or the new characteristic got into the wild population?” In some cases, it would be completely benign. In some cases, it might have a modest impact. And in some cases, it might have a very serious impact. But you would usually be able to predict that with high degree of confidence even before the plant was introduced into the field.


TR: Can you give an example of how that might work? CONKO: Say you had a product like canola, which, if grown in North America, has a lot of close relatives that are wild or weedy and that grow in close proximity to cultivated plants. You might want to treat a new canola variety that has a particular type of characteristic that you don’t want to get into the weedy population much more stringently that you would, say, genetically engineered soybeans grown in North America, which has no local relatives at all.

Similarly where you’re looking at food safety, if you’re introducing a gene that produces a protein that is already a known part of the food supply and known to be safe, introducing it into wheat or corn or rice is not likely to make the wheat or the corn or the rice dangerous. On the other hand, if it’s a novel gene about which very little is known, then that might require considerably more regulatory scrutiny. You want to set up an apparatus that is going to catch the potentially dangerous plants but that will also free up the system so that the low-risk plants can get through quickly.


TR: How can you guarantee consumer acceptance of genetically engineered foods with a system like that? There’s a fair bit of resistance to such foods right now. CONKO: One thing that is going to be important in promoting consumer acceptance is showing consumers that these products can be useful to them. There are already some wonderful products on the market that are made with high-tech marker-assisted genetic breeding techniques, things that you couldn’t have done 25 years ago, that are not considered recombinant. They’re going to have added nutrient levels, or in the case of oilseeds, produce cooking oils that have a healthier mix of fatty acids. When things like that can be put on the market made with recombinant DNA technology, and especially in circumstances where a particular attribute cannot be introduced into a crop plant with conventional technology, consumers are going to start to say, “Hey, this really is a beneficial technology.”

Another thing we recommend is for university scientists who have no direct financial interest in the introduction of genetically engineered food technology—as opposed to scientists who work for Monsanto or DuPont or wherever—to start talking to reporters, to the public, and to policymakers about the technology. These researchers could provide important context for how recombinant DNA fits into the overall scheme of crop improvement over the millennia.


TR: Why not use food labels to show consumers what benefits they’re getting from a recombinant crop? CONKO: That is already possible. If you alter a crop plant such that the food that’s derived from it is materially different, then current Food and Drug Administration guidelines require that this information be put on the label. So if the engineered crop has either better or worse nutrition, or you are potentially introducing a new allergen—say introducing a nut allergen into wheat or soybeans—all these things have to be labeled now. We wholeheartedly support that. On the other hand, we don’t believe there ought to be a legal requirement to say this product was changed using a particular technology if the change in the plant has no material impact on the consumer.


TR: Why not label genetically engineered foods as such? It seems like useful information for a consumer to have. CONKO: As long as you have a vocal opposition to recombinant DNA technology, you’re going to have people out there saying, “This is bad; look for this label and avoid it.” And it sends the signal to the consumer that maybe there is something different about this product that we ought to be concerned about. In the United States, we have mandatory labeling for one purpose only: to alert consumers to important health or nutrition or safety information about a food product. So if you mandate labeling of biotech food products, the consumer has every reason to believe that there is some specific reason why that label is mandatory. As long as you have a system where only material differences must be labeled, but other kinds of attributes—such as “This food is not genetically engineered”—may be labeled voluntarily, then  producers of nonbiotech products will be able to target the market of people who want to avoid biotech products.


It’s not as though we just want to open up the floodgates for every new plant variety. What we want to do is create a system that regulates real risks and doesn’t regulate nonexistent ones. I think that wil lead to a much better atmosphere for research and the introduction of beneficial products.