TCS Daily

"I Love Humanity; It's People I Can't Stand"

By Dr. Henry I. Miller & Gregory Conko - May 5, 2004 12:00 AM

Part 1 of this series discussed the misconceptions and misrepresentations that are promulgated by anti-biotechnology NGOs. Their significant distortions and omissions of facts are not limited to statements about the nature or risk of the technology itself. The activists also attempt in invidious ways to create a presumption of genuine controversy (where none exists) over the safety and usefulness of gene-splicing techniques.

For example, the Pew Initiative's 2003 report, "Public Sentiment About Genetically Modified Food," is a typically disingenuous pastiche of truisms, half-truths and sleight-of-hand. Their survey finds that "Americans' knowledge about [biotech] foods remains low," with 54 per cent saying they have heard nothing or not much about them. Then, without enlightening the subjects or offering them any sort of proper context, the survey goes on to pose leading questions about safety and regulation. Not surprisingly, 89 percent agreed with the statement, "Companies should be required to submit safety data to the FDA for review, and no genetically modified food product should be allowed on the market until the FDA determines that it is safe."

This polling technique is rather like the example of Idaho junior high school student Nathan Zohner, who found that 86 percent of survey respondents thought the substance dihydrogen monoxide should be banned when told that prolonged exposure to its solid form causes severe tissue damage, exposure to its gaseous form causes severe burns, and it has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients. Only one in 50 of young Nathan's survey respondents correctly identified dihydrogen monoxide as water, or H2O. As any pollster (as well as common sense) will tell you, it's not hard to design survey questions to elicit a desired response, and Pew has incorporated that trick into their repertoire.

What the almost nine-in-ten respondents in Pew's survey undoubtedly do not recognize is that: 1) with the exception of wild berries, mushrooms and game, and fish and shellfish, virtually all the organisms -- plants, animals, microorganisms -- in our food supply have been modified by one genetic technique or another; 2) because the techniques of the new biotech are more precise and predictable than their predecessors, biotech foods are likely to be even more safe than other foods; 3) food producers are already legally responsible for assuring the safety of their products, and the FDA does not normally perform safety determinations, but primarily conducts surveillance of marketed foods and takes action if any are found to be adulterated or mislabeled, and; (4) unwarranted, excessive regulation, including unnecessary labeling requirements, discourages innovation, imposes costs that are passed along to the consumer and are a disproportionate burden on the poor. The Pew survey purposefully exploits consumers' (understandable) lack of familiarity with the nuances of both the new biotech and the way that food is currently regulated.

With critics raising at every opportunity the possibility of one hypothetical risk or another of gene-splicing -- and a compliant, sensation-seeking media printing every word -- it's no wonder that many of those who have heard about biotechnology find it confusing and a little scary. But more generally, hoodwinking the public on scientific and technological subjects is not difficult. A study by the National Science Foundation found that fewer than one in four know what a "molecule" is, and only about half understand that the earth circles the sun once a year.

Another example of the public's muddled view of biotechnology is reflected in the results of a survey of 1200 Americans, released in October by the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University. It found that, in an eleven-item true/false quiz that was part of the survey, more than half of the subjects received a failing grade (defined as less than 70 percent correct answers). Only 57 percent recognized the falsity of the statement "ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do." Perhaps most shocking of all, only two thirds knew that eating genetically modified fruit would not alter their own genes! One wonders whether the one-third who got this question wrong think that if they eat rabbit stew, they'll begin to hop . . .

Such results are not surprising. A reckoning of the costs and benefits that could accrue to an individual confronted by such complex issues explains why few citizens undertake to understand the subtleties of most government policies, let alone those that involve scientific phenomena. There is vastly more to public policy issues -- tax policy, foreign affairs, farm subsidies, health care delivery and so on -- than any one person can grasp. For most citizens the benefit of learning about issues and policies that do not directly affect them is small and the cost is large, so they establish priorities and pursue knowledge that is of the greatest immediate advantage, and they end up not knowing much about public policy. Economists have dubbed these poorly informed citizens "rationally ignorant"; incapable of coming to grips with the nuances of complex policy issues, they simply choose to focus their limited time and resources on other pursuits. NGOs have learned to exploit the public's rational ignorance.

Many NGOs have a dual raison d'ĂȘtre: to pitch fears, not facts, to an unsuspecting public, and to convince regulators to impose unnecessary, discriminatory regulation on the new biotechnology. They have enjoyed modest success. Over-regulation has inflated the costs of research and development, made commercialization -- and even the ability to perform field testing -- uncertain, and put biotech off-limits to some philanthropists.

Consider the example of Harvest Plus, an alliance of organizations devoted to producing and disseminating staple foods rich in micronutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin A. According to its director, the group has decided that, although they will "investigate . . . the potential for biotechnology to raise the level of nutrients in target crops above what can be accomplished with conventional breeding . . . there is no plan for Harvest Plus to disseminate [gene-spliced] crops, because of the high and difficult-to-predict costs of meeting regulatory requirements in countries where laws are already in place, and because many countries as yet do not have regulatory structures."

Although efforts should be made to reassure the public about the safety of gene-spliced crops and foods, excessive regulation is not the way. The imposition of unwarranted regulation in order to quell public apprehension is not a wise use of government power, nor is it likely to succeed. As the president of Consumer Alert, a national consumer organization, testified to a panel convened by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), "For obvious reasons, the consumer views the technologies that are most regulated to be the least safe ones. Heavy involvement by government, no matter how well intended, inevitably sends the wrong signals. Rather than ensuring confidence, it raises suspicion and doubt" (emphasis in original).

It is apparent that biotech's opponents will never be satisfied. At every opportunity, they will raise spurious questions and make disingenuous assertions, attempting both to prolong "controversy" and to maintain existing unscientific regulatory regimes.

Biologist Donald Kennedy, editor of Science and former FDA Commissioner and Stanford University president, has analyzed various aspects of governmental oversight of America's scientific enterprise. Bringing to it the experience of a scientist and regulator, Kennedy observes that bad public policy usually results when we respond politically to some popular movement, such as radical environmentalism, only to discover that we have mistaken its real motivation. "'We did what they wanted, but after we did it they turned out to want something else' is among the oldest of political complaints. It has all kinds of bad consequences. Not only is the wrong policy put in place, but those who have tried to be responsive experience alienation and disillusionment when they discover that they have not provided any satisfaction."

Kennedy chides policy makers: "Frequently decision-makers give up the difficult task of finding out where the weight of scientific opinion lies, and instead attach equal value to each side in an effort to approximate fairness. In this way extraordinary opinions . . . are promoted to a form of respectability that approaches equal status." Kennedy is too kind. Often the policy makers do know where the weight of scientific opinion lies but use the blandishments and demands of activists as cover for their own over-regulatory tendencies.

Reluctant to let the world know their real agendas, biotech's antagonists seldom tip their hand, but once in a while we get a revealing glimpse. The Pew Charitable Trusts, the parent of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, has announced that it is changing its legal and tax status from the more restrictive "foundation" to a "public charity," in order to be able to undertake more overt and aggressive lobbying and advocacy -- that is to say, what it was doing previously in a more understated way.

There are more substantive, less legalistic examples. In 2000, a university research team based in Switzerland and Germany announced an extraordinary scientific tour de force that resulted in a marked enhancement of beta-carotene, or provitamin A, in rice grains. The creation of this "golden rice" (so called because of its yellow color) was widely hailed as an example of how gene-splicing can benefit society, especially the inhabitants of less developed countries. Vitamin A supplementation of the diet prevents blindness and can be life saving to the millions of children who are deficient in the vitamin.

Astonishingly, activists lost no time in attacking even this beneficent innovation. Golden rice's developers were criticized for working with companies to distribute seed to the indigent. Then, torturing the data as they are wont to do, Greenpeace declared that golden rice was a fraud because an adult "would have to eat around 9kg [19.8 pounds] of cooked rice daily to satisfy his/her daily need of vitamin A." Greenpeace's Benedikt Haerlin threatened direct action against test plants in the field. Greenpeace's radical media allies, including the Guardian, rushed to support them, and Michael Pollan of the New York Times dubbed golden rice "the great yellow hype."

All of this is the most vile sort of distortion and misrepresentation. Even small amounts of vitamin supplementation can have huge effects. Golden rice and other products like it can be a life-enhancing, life-saving adjunct to those with vitamin A deficiency -- but only if its producers can ever overcome NGO opposition and regulatory hurdles, and get it to the farmers who need it.

Still, such blatant and rabid militancy might make those who "merely" demand stifling regulation appear temperate by comparison. But correspondence published in the journal Science in 2003 opened a window into the motivations of the so-called "moderate" wing of the anti-biotech lobby. Steven H. Strauss, a Professor of Forest Science at Oregon State University, proposed in an article in that journal a very modest streamlining of the regulation of negligible-risk genetic constructions of gene-spliced plants. The reform that he suggested would remedy, in a small way, the irreconcilable paradox in the current federal oversight of plant biotechnology: that the use of the most precise and predictable techniques is far more stringently regulated than techniques that are less precise and predictable. In other words, Strauss was lobbying for regulatory proportionality, a recognition of the basic principle that the degree of oversight should be commensurate with the degree of risk.

Jerry Cayford, of Resources for the Future, responded with a letter published in Science: "Steven H. Strauss makes a plea for less onerous field trial regulations for less radical genetic modifications . . . thereby helping smaller companies and public-sector investigators to be able to afford to try out crop variants. Unfortunately, his pleas ignore the politics of the genetically modified (GM) food debate . . . Strauss' proposal, reasonable as it may be, asks critics to surrender a major bargaining chip -- strict regulation of field trials -- but offers them nothing in return."

In other words, although it would favor consumers, researchers, and the public interest, sensible regulatory policy is not a goal in itself but is merely a bargaining chip to be held or given up in a negotiation among radical groups, business interests, academic researchers and government regulators!

Strauss' response to Cayford deplored this "hostage-taking" attitude, because "the costs to people and environment of effectively losing genetic engineering from most agricultural sectors as a result of excess regulation are too great for so simple-minded a political approach." He added that there are few practices more "'democratizing' than protecting and promoting the ideas and work of society's innovators when applied to improve food quality, dependability, and affordability."

The coup de grace in Strauss' response serves as a worthy epilogue to the unworthy efforts and venal motivation of biotech's antagonists, whether they are blatantly belligerent or subtly shifty: "[W]ith the high level of regulation and stigma successfully implanted in places such as Europe, policies and attitudes may take a generation or more to change course. The opportunity costs in dollars, and costs to human health and environment, will be incalculable."

No one should mistake the anti-biotech NGOs' misdemeanors for naive exuberance or excessive zeal in a good cause. Their motives are self-serving and their tactics vicious, an ongoing example of the sentiments expressed by Linus van Pelt, a character in the Peanuts comic strip, "I love humanity; it's people I can't stand." People should fight back. And those who understand these issues need to do a better job of educating the large segment of the public that is uninformed -- not only about the science, but also about the chicanery and mendacity of biotech's foes.

Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, headed the FDA's Office of Biotechnology from 1989-1993. Gregory Conko is Director of Food Safety Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Their book, "The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution" will be published later this year.


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