TCS Daily

Hope and Science, Fear and Superstition

By Duane D. Freese - June 17, 2003 12:00 AM

Two views about biotechnology and its necessity underscore a worldwide conflict not only between importing and exporting nations of genetically modified products but between rich and poor nations.

James Shikwati, director of the Kenyan non-governmental organization Inter-Region Economic Network (IREN), outlined one of those conflicts at a meeting in Brussels last week organized by TCS. He urged 50 European bureaucrats and journalists at the meeting to get behind removal of Europe's moratorium on GM products.

"With insects destroying crops, Africans don't have a choice that their crops live or die, but with GM crops this could change. We want to explore GM technology and believe it could tackle pests and save the starving."

Only the European Union's five-year moratorium and its proposals for strict labeling and transmission rules discourage that investment.

"Biotechnology would give African farmers the freedom to produce their own goods instead of begging donor countries," Shikwati implored. "Africa needs this investment and wants to make use of the technology."

The European response was pretty much delivered the next week by French President Jacques Chirac. "We have to slow down the importation of GMOs without the full knowledge of the importing countries," he told a meeting of young farmers in Paris. "We have to make sure that GMOs answer real needs and that the precautionary principle is respected. To me, these conditions do not seem to be fulfilled today."

So, in contravention of other rules of trade, such as for French wine and cheese or tuna, he argues, "each country should be able to make the choice (of adopting GMOs) as a sovereign nation and in a responsible way."

Translation: We (France and Europe) aren't going to let any of your GM crops or food in no matter how many in Africa are starving. We've got ours, to heck with you and yours.

Does that sound like a harsh translation? It really is quite mild, if you consider what Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute told an audience at a biotechnology forum at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. on June 12.

Playing up the benefits of biotechnology in Africa, she said, is acting like parents who used to try to get their kids to eat the vegetables by telling them of starving children in Africa. "It didn't work for parents, it isn't going to work for biotechnology," Foreman said. People, for the most part, don't care about others. Consumers only care about the benefits and safety of biotechnology for themselves.

And right now, she argued, they see "no consumer benefits" for themselves in biotech, only unknown risks.

The frustrating thing about what Foreman says is that she may be right. Consumers don't see biotech's benefits, really, just the scare stories about mostly phony risks.

And the reason for that is that the biotechnology industry has played responsibly, dealing with its risks first. It was the industry that went to government, after all, and asked it to review the products that came from genetically manipulating gene characteristics at specific levels - rather than the more global level of crossbreeding.

And that opened the technology to the scaremongers - such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth - to attack its differences. Regulation for the safety of this particular agricultural breeding technology became the tool by which those with political and economic agendas against either the technology or the international business concerns involved in it could lambaste biotech as dangerous. Better toxic herbicides and pesticides, or fecal contamination in organic agriculture than scary genetic manipulation.

Only, as Lester Crawford of the Food and Drug Administration told the AEI audience, the National Science Academy back in 1993 told the FDA that there was every prospect that GM food would be safer than existing food, and it was right. "There has not been a single adverse reaction from GM foods," he said. At the same time, "there have been tens of thousands of adverse reactions from traditional foods."

Indeed, the European food scare that gave rise to the backlash against GM food - the much over-hyped mad cow disease epidemic in first Britain and later in France and Germany - had its origins not in GM but in traditional agriculture, feeding of sheep protein to cows. If the cows had been fed GM enhanced soy protein, instead, there would have been no outbreak. But it's the soy that's in trouble, oddly, not "traditional agriculture."

The question to ask is why?

There are plenty of answers that have been developed, such as culture. Ah, yes. France has its food culture, including wine, which gives many people a hangover from neurotoxic amines and sulfur dioxide, but forget about GM yeasts replacing natural ones to eliminate those toxic effects. Natural toxicity is good, oui?

And consumer fear of the unknown leads to consumer rejection. That's true. In Europe, polls show most Europeans don't want anything genetically modified on their plate.

But why is that so? Why do consumers in Europe see only the risks of GM?

One reason is that they are well off. In short, they can afford to eat what they want even if organic food carries a premium price tag of 25 percent. So, why save more, if there is any risk whatsoever?

That's where Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth come in, with their holy brethren in the organic food industry. As Jay Byrne of v-Fluence told AEI, those nongovernmental organizations spent some $500 million since 1998 at the height of the scare over mad cow disease to spread fear about GM. And they did it mostly with money from organic corporations, Ben and Jerry's, Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Body Shop and Patagonia - the upper-middle class boutique of companies that play upon the notion that natural is très bon, très chic.

And the media, in Europe particularly, have played up their scare stories. Sylvie Bonny of the National Institute of Agricultural Research in France said European media "have played a significant part in making GMOs widely known and in highlighting their potential dangers, especially at the end of the nineties when many journalists become increasingly opposed to GMOs, and at the beginning of the 2000s with their growing rejection."

But they did so, for the most part, ignoring the science. "Scientists were publicly little heard on GMOs," Bonny noted. NGOs, meanwhile, fed a journalistic imperative: "Shocking headlines revealing hidden dangers and dramatic presentation of issues guarantee wider audiences and have more impact than more moderate, qualified articles."

Little wonder, then, that while the French Academy of Medicine and its Academy of Sciences last December called for an end to the EU moratorium on GMOs, as "no particular health problem has been detected" in years of their use abroad, Chirac stands at the doors of French culture to oppose them.

And that this stance, as Andrew Natsios of USAID told AEI members, only promotes famine in the developing world, well that just doesn't matter.

The risks of GM outweigh its benefits, say its critics, with not a bit of evidence to that effect. The Greens have created that perception, and Foreman is right, perception is more important than reality.

Bonny puts it precisely, "GMOs ... seem to have become a symbol of many negative aspects of global economic development." Those developments include everything from big multinational firms to economic disparity in income to American predominance in technology fields, for which they in fact bear almost no responsibility. Nonetheless, as Bonny writes, "In this context of high opposition, a change in attitude towards GMOs seems difficult to achieve in the EU, particularly in France. It would require them to be considered no longer as the symbol of various unpopular trends but rather for themselves."

There are many who support GMOs who argue that in this atmosphere, the Bush administration should tread lightly. Don't raise their profile, especially in connection with the administration, which itself has become suspect in Europe due to differences over the war in Iraq. They would urge the administration to withdraw its complaint to the World Trade Organization against the moratorium in April.

To do that, though, would be a big mistake. The only way to make clear the advantages and safety of GM foods is to not merely quietly slip them in, but to confront the fear mongering about them. The most vociferous voices against GM, claiming the administration is trying to cram it down the throats of Europeans, are the ones who lack the science to justify their arguments.

There are two views about GM products - one based on hope and science, the other on fear and superstition. Let's see where Europe and the world really stand. Let's see whether the poor really don't matter. Let's put morality along with the technology to the test.

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