If you listen to environmental activists these days, you might think that snap, crackle, and pop coming from your Rice Krispies is the sound of impending doom. This week they're trying to scare consumers about bioengineered, or genetically modified, rice. But when it comes to scare stories about biotech food, consumers should take these warnings with a grain of salt.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
On Friday, Bayer CropScience and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that traces of an unapproved bioengineered rice variety were found in harvested rice from the nation's southern rice-growing region that includes Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. The biotech variety, known as Liberty Link 601, was developed by a company Bayer acquired in 2001. It has an extra gene that makes the rice crop resistant to the Liberty brand of herbicides also produced by Bayer.
No one knows how the unapproved rice got into the commercial crop - at levels equivalent to about 6 of every 10,000 grains in the tested samples. LL601 was field-tested from 1998 to 2001, but it didn't perform as well as some of Bayer's other varieties, and the company never submitted it to regulators for commercial approval. Figuring out how this variety re-surfaced five years later, and how to keep such leaks from happening in the future is a genuine issue that will keep scientists and agronomist busy for years. That's the bad news.
The good news is that the new gene in LL601 and the protein it helps to make are known to be perfectly safe for consumers and the environment. Two other rice varieties carrying the same herbicide-tolerance gene were approved by the USDA in 1999 and cleared by the Food and Drug Administration in 2000. Other approved crops, such as corn and soybeans, also carry the gene. And numerous varieties with the gene have been approved for food use in other countries, including Canada, the 25-nation European Union, Japan, and Mexico.
But that's not the spin radical environmentalists are putting on this story. They've spent the last 30 years insisting that a biotechnology-induced apocalypse is right around the corner. So, harmless error or not, the activists want Americans to believe this minor slip up is a catastrophe. When Bayer and the USDA announced this news about Liberty Link Rice, one Friends of the Earth campaigner claimed that "lax regulations in the U.S. have allowed consumers worldwide to be put at risk."
The irony is that U.S. biotechnology regulation is anything but lax. Indeed, because U.S. policy holds bioengineered crops to unrealistic and overly-restrictive standards that no conventional crop could ever meet, existing regulations actually make it more likely for this kind of pseudo-crisis to occur. Over the years, dozens of inconsequential transgressions of the overly stringent rules have become public-relations debacles, but not a single one has ever put human health or the environment at risk. From allegedly contaminated taco shells to imperiled Monarch butterflies, every new biotech scare story has turned out to be a false alarm.
Still, the public imagination -- and, in turn, news coverage -- seems to have been captured by the apparent newness and uniqueness of biotechnology. But scores of scientific bodies, including the American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, and the UN's World Health Organization, have investigated the safety of bioengineered crops and found that they pose no risks that plant breeders, farmers, and consumers haven't successfully managed ever since humans first started farming tens of thousands of years ago.
Each year, thousands of packaged food products are recalled from the American market due to the presence of all-natural contaminants like insect parts, toxic molds, bacteria, and viruses. Allergens like peanuts, milk, and wheat are accidentally mixed into products that shouldn't have them. And canola cooking oil often has (harmless) traces of a potentially toxic chemical called erucic acid that is produced by close relatives of canola that get transferred through cross-pollination or accidental commingling with the food crop.
Over one billion meals are eaten in the United States each day, and it would be practically impossible to prevent this kind of "leakage" from occurring. Nevertheless, every link in the food chain - from farmers to shippers, processors, and retailers - work over-time trying to keep America's food supply the safest in the world.
But while the inclusion of wheat gluten or peanut oil in a product that shouldn't have them can spell disaster for those with serious food allergies, the activists spend their time worrying about sophisticated technologies like bioengineering that actually improve food safety. Biotech food has never been implicated in a single sneeze, sniffle, or belly-ache, and it can already improve the nutritional quality of foods and one day will be used to eliminate allergens from foods like peanuts and wheat.
The only winners from the anti-biotechnology scare campaigns are the activists themselves. The losers will be consumers everywhere, who are denied access to safer, more nutritious, and affordable foods.