TCS Daily

Mad Cow Reality Confronts Phony Biotech Scare

By Duane D. Freese - December 18, 2000 12:00 AM

Have Greenpeace protesters finally thrown up one barricade too many against biotechnology and the benefits it offers?

In what at first looks like nothing unusual from an organization noted for its catchy name-calling and confrontational theatrics, Italian Greenpeace activists last week held up a ship carrying genetically modified (GM) soybeans headed for Venice to feed Europe`s livestock. The same day in Montpelier, France, outside an international conference, drawing up rules for biotechnology trade, another set of protestors dumped tons of GM soy meal onto a U.S. flag.

The purpose of these escapades supposedly was to awaken European officials to the dangers, as seen by Greenpeace, of feeding even livestock genetically modified food. "Farmers don't know what they are feeding their animals," explained Lorenz Petersen, head of Greenpeace's global anti-GM campaign.

Instead of GM`s dangers, though, these activities offer a wake-up call about Greenpeace as a threat to health. For the day after Greenpeace spread its phony fears about imports of GM soybeans, the British science weekly Nature warned of something truly frightening. The report, by epidemiologist Christi Donnelly of London`s Imperial College School of Medicine, found that as many as 9,800 French cattle had become infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad-cow disease. Worse, still, some of their meat has entered the human food chain.

In the 1990s, Britain suffered an epidemic of mad-cow disease, which led to at least 77 people who ate the meat dying of a human variant, the brain-eating Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Last month, the shockwave hit the continent when France reported two of its citizens had died from that affliction, while Germany found cattle there infected with mad-cow disease, as well. How many people now are infected is unknown, as the disease is impossible to diagnose until symptoms of dementia emerge, and that can take up to 25 years. The numbers could climb into the hundreds, possibly even thousands.

Little wonder then that people in Europe are panicked, afraid to eat their own beef. Meat sales have fallen by half in the last month. And governments for nations where herds have yet to be found infected have thrown up barriers to meat and livestock imports from their neighbors.

Smart Europeans now may start asking why they have a problem with their beef while the United States does not. The reason is simple. European farmers followed a "natural" way of adding protein to the diets of their cows, feeding them bone meal and meat byproducts. And that's how the disease appears to have spread. Britain's cattle, scientists there believe, picked up mad-cow disease from the bone meal and meat from slaughtered sheep infected with a related disease, scrapie.

American cattle, meanwhile, feed on grain supplemented by protein from soy meal. That's no surprise, as the United States is the source of nearly half the soybean production in the world. And since the1996 introduction of Monsanto's Roundup Ready soy beans - genetically modified to make it tolerant to a more environmentally friendly herbicide - crossbreeding and additional genetic modification has led to more than half the soy crop having some genetic modification.

Those GM crops are demonstrably as safe or even safer than conventional crops. As the U.S. House subcommittee on Basic Research noted in a report last April: "No product of conventional plant breeding ... could meet the data requirements imposed on biotechnology products by U.S. regulatory agencies."

Until now, that fact has been lost on Europeans, who've instead bought Greenpeace's scientifically unsubstantiated line that so-called natural breeding and feeding is best for the environment and health.

Greenpeace was helped in spreading that propaganda by both Europe's politically powerful, heavily subsidized farmers and politicians, who wanted to shift the cost of those subsidies off government budgets onto European consumers. Last year, the European Parliament ordered food producers to label GM products as if they posed some added risk to consumers, which they don't. European food processors succumbed, vowing not to use any GM ingredients on products for human consumption, with American competitors following suit. The French government went so far as to ban planting GM soybeans there altogether.

This GM backlash by supposedly advanced nations has undercut investment in biotechnology, to the particular detriment of people in poorer countries. Developing lands stand to benefit most from crops genetically modified to resist drought or increase protein and vitamin potency. One GM crop alone, vitamin-A enhanced golden rice holds the promise of preventing blindness for up to 3 million malnourished poor children.

Now, it`s Europe`s health and economic well-being that is threatened by Greenpeace`s anti-technology agenda. France`s $20 billion beef industry faces a mad-cow meltdown. European farmers need 3 million tons of high-protein soy meal to replace that provided by potentially deadly meat by-products -- but most of the soybean supply is likely to have been genetically modified. And both Europeans and people elsewhere in the world need tools that only biotechnology can provide to screen meat and blood for safety.

Indeed, Americans face a threat to their blood supply if Europe fails to get a handle on its mad-cow epidemic. People needing transfusions might pick up Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease from tainted blood donated by travelers infected on trips to Europe. The Food and Drug Administration is weighing a blood ban for donations from people who have spent more than six months in Britain, a costly measure with blood in short supply.

Fortunately, biotechnology may provide an answer here, as well. Last month, the biotech firm Prion Developmental Laboratories, Inc., of Maryland began development of an effective and inexpensive screening test to detect mad-cow disease and its human variant. Heading the research is Dr. Robert Gallo, professor of virology at the University of Maryland and director of the Institute of Human Virology. Working with him in this substantially privately funded effort are noted scientific researchers at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio, and from the Institute for Basic Research and Developmental Disabilities in Staten Island, N.Y.

It's time Europeans wake up to the benefits that biotechnology has to offer. Following Greenpeace's lead of dumping on the American flag and biotechnology will only lead them down the same path as the 4.5 million cattle that the mad-cow epidemic has thus far forced them to slaughter.

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