Published December 31, 2000
Published in the National Post (Canada)
January 06, 2001
Headline: The Monumental Hoax Behind the StarLink Scare
What do consumers need to know about biotechnology? The bottom line is that the controversies currently raging over gene-splicing, or genetic modification (GM), are a complete hoax. GM is merely an extension, or refinement, of less precise and predictable techniques for genetically improved products with which consumers and government regulators have long been both familiar and comfortable. GM-derived food and other products are safer than those made with less precise techniques.
Consider the widespread hysteria over ‘contamination’ of chips, tortillas, taco shells, and even chicken feed with tiny amounts of a GM variety of corn called StarLink. Not a single person is at all likely to be harmed by any of these products. Having said that, there is a problem: the wrong-headed regulatory policies toward GM plants of the United States and other governments.
StarLink corn differs from other commercial varieties by containing a protein called Cry9C. This bacterial protein, introduced into corn with GM techniques, has been approved in the United States for animal feed but not for humans because, although it resembles no known allergens, it did not immediately degrade in digestion tests. (Because most food allergens are not readily digested, the US Environmental Protection Agency wanted more data before concluding consumers could not be allergic to Cry9C.)
The food products in question are actually far less likely than thousands of other products on the market to cause allergic or other health problems. Fava beans, a fixture of upscale restaurant cuisine in North America and Europe, can be life-threatening to persons with a hereditary enzyme deficiency, for example, and occasionally there is contamination with peanuts -- a known, potent allergen -- of products like candy bars that are supposed to be peanut-free. Unlike those situations, however, even after exhaustive testing no allergic reactions, toxicity or any other problem has been demonstrated with Cry9C or any substance similar to it.
The ripple effect of this non-problem concerning StarLink is monumental, and growing. Mission Foods, the United States’ largest manufacturer of tortilla products, recalled all its yellow corn products -- a move that may cost the company as much as US$10-million. Major US grocery chains removed certain corn products from their shelves. Tyson’s, the world’s largest producer of chickens, won’t even feed StarLink to its birds. Finally, StarLink ‘contamination’ has been found in corn exported to Japan -- an important development because Japan annually imports about 16 million tons of US feed corn (worth around $2-billion) and has a policy of zero tolerance for the banned variety. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has accepted a baroque US plan for testing corn exports to ensure that they are free from StarLink. Under the agreement, the US Department of Agriculture will assume responsibility for sampling and certifying all export corn at certain export locations.
Predictably, US officials have blamed the manufacturer of the corn, Aventis SA, accusing the company of failing in its responsibility to segregate StarLink from other varieties of corn that are normally eaten by humans.
But the real blame lies in the United States’ regulatory policy toward GM plants and foods. The EPA holds GM foods to a higher standard than similar foods, requiring GM crop and garden plants that have been genetically improved for enhanced pest or disease resistance to undergo hugely expensive testing, as though they were chemical pesticides. The policy fails to recognize important differences between genetic approaches to enhancing plants’ natural resistance and spraying plants with synthetic, toxic chemicals.
The EPA’s policy is so potentially damaging and outside scientific norms that it has galvanized the scientific community. A consortium of dozens of scientific societies representing more than 180,000 biologists and food professionals published a report warning that the policy will discourage the development of new pest-resistant crops and prolong and increase the use of synthetic chemical pesticides, increase the regulatory burden for developers of pest-resistant crops, limit the use of biotechnology to larger developers who can pay the inflated regulatory costs and handicap US companies competing in international markets.
Scientists worldwide agree that adding genes to plants does not make them less safe, either to the environment or for humans to eat. Dozens of new plant varieties produced through hybridization and other traditional methods of genetic improvement enter the marketplace each year without scientific review or special labeling. Many such products are from ‘wide crosses,’ hybridizations in which genes are moved from one species or one genus to another to create a plant variety that does not and cannot exist in nature. For example, Triticum agropyrotriticum is a new man-made ‘species’ which resulted from combining genes from bread wheat and a grass sometimes called quackgrass or couchgrass. Possessing all the chromosomes of wheat and one extra whole genome from the quackgrass, T. agropyrotriticum has been independently produced in Canada, the United States, the former Soviet Union, France, Germany and China, and is grown for both forage and grain.
Gene-splicing is more precise, circumscribed and predictable than other techniques, and can better exploit the subtleties of plant pathology. For example, the corn in the recalled products was made by splicing in a bacterial gene that produces a protein toxic to corn borer insects but not to people or other mammals. The GM corn not only repels pests but also is less likely to contain Fusarium, a toxic fungus often carried into the plants by the insects. That significantly reduces the levels of the fungal toxin fumonisin, which is known to cause fatal diseases in horses and swine that eat infected corn, and esophageal cancer in humans. Thus, GM corn is not only cheaper to produce but is a potential boon to public health. Moreover, by reducing the need for spraying chemical pesticides on crops, it is environmentally friendly.
Yet, regulatory agencies have regulated GM foods in a discriminatory, unnecessarily burdensome way. They have imposed requirements that could not possibly be met for conventionally bred crop plants. Paradoxically, only the more precisely crafted GM crops are exhaustively, repeatedly (and expensively) reviewed before they can enter the field or food supply. Policy makers have ignored a fundamental rule of regulation: The degree of scrutiny of a product or activity should be commensurate with the risk.
Rather than punishing those who develop and market insect-resistant, chemical pesticide-replacing, low-fungal-toxin, potentially more healthful corn, we need to regulate as science and common sense dictate. Regulation would then cost less, offer greater benefits to the consumer and the environment, and stimulate innovation.
Henry I. Miller, a physician, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 1979-94 he was an official at the US Food and Drug Administration.
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