TCS Daily

Trader Woes

By Dean Kleckner - January 15, 2002 12:00 AM

Few people know it, but the great outdoors photographer Ansel Adams was also an accomplished pianist. During one private concert, however, he had trouble keeping his left hand in time with his right one. "I went through the entire nocturne with the hands separated by a half step," he recalled. The next day, someone in the audience rated his performance: "You never missed a wrong note!"

The enemies of biotechnology seem to have the same problem -- they never miss a wrong note, either. At least Adams was afflicted for only a single evening. Biotechnology's foes seem to suffer from a chronic condition.

The latest example of their foolishness comes from Trader Joe's, a grocery-store chain that now owns the dubious distinction of being the first and only major retailer to announce that it won't stock food containing modified genes. The ban affects nearly 200 stores in 15 states.

This decision is a cowardly surrender to the fear tactics of radical activists. The Trader Joe's plan has absolutely nothing to do with science, and that's because it can't have anything to do with science. There isn't a single shred of scientific evidence suggesting that genetically modified food poses a health risk to anybody.

Instead, there is a mountain of proof showing that it's perfectly safe to eat. We do it everyday without even noticing. If you ate corn flakes for breakfast this morning, you probably did it, too.

The shift in policy at Trader Joe's isn't based on science or health -- it's based entirely on politics. Greenpeace has organized protestors outside individual Trader Joe's stores and spread lies about the latest innovations in agriculture. Trader Joe's should have responded in positive ways, such as distributing facts about genetically modified food to confused consumers or at least demanding that the picketers clear the parking lot of shopping carts. Instead, it caved in to the "guerilla-theater antics" of a few radical activists.

Say this much for Greenpeace, they chose their target well. Trader Joe's has become a case study in appeasement, which is exactly what the protestors wanted.

Private businesses are free to do as they please, of course, even if it means depriving customers of safe food sold at fair prices. But it would be an enormous mistake for any other grocery store to follow in Trader Joe's footsteps by giving in to extremists who apply political pressure and peddle junk science.

Yet Trader Joe's is not the only enterprise that insists on missing the wrong notes. Another one is the clothing manufacturer Patagonia, which has announced that it won't purchase a pioneering product that promises a cleaner environment -- all because of unfounded fears about genetically modified crops.

The product in dispute is called PLA, and it's a plastic that relies on corn rather than petroleum. That may sound like a 21st-century version of the alchemist's dream of turning lead into gold, but it's really happening in Blair, Nebraska. A plant that opened there in November will manufacture 300 million pounds of PLA over the next year, which will wind up in everything from clothing to carpets to candy wrap.

This is a wonderful alternative to petroleum-based plastic -- and something that all of us who are concerned about the environment should celebrate. As an article in Forbes magazine recently noted, the Nebraska plant turns out "a plastic made from renewable resources, requires 20 percent to 50 percent less energy to produce, and composts into harmless carbon dioxide and dirt."

Yet Patagonia insists - incomprehensibly -- that PLA is bad for the environment because some of the corn it uses is genetically modified. This is nonsense. Genetically modified crops already increase the productivity of farmland, which is something true environmentalists appreciate. The idea that they may also lead to a cleaner source of plastic is an added benefit -- and one that those of us who want both a healthy economy and a healthy environment ought to embrace.

At least Ansel Adams stuck with what he did best -- taking unforgettable black-and-white photos of nature's beauty. Trader Joe's and Patagonia should stick with what they know best, too, which is selling food and clothes rather than playing politics. They should leave the science to the scientists, who are telling us unanimously that genetically modified crops are a welcome innovation.

Dean Kleckner is Chairman of Truth About Trade and Technology, a national grassroots organization based in Des Moines, IA formed by farmers to promote expanded free trade and advancements in agricultural biotechnology.

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