TCS Daily

The Toxic Politics of Biotech

By Dr. Henry I. Miller & Gregory Conko - October 6, 2004 12:00 AM

How far does grass pollen travel? Ask someone who has hay fever, and the response is likely to be "much too far." But unsatisfied with that answer, the folks at our Environmental Protection Agency decided they needed an elaborate experiment -- which they performed with a gene-spliced, herbicide-resistant grass. They found that the pollen spread more than a dozen miles downwind, farther than previously had been measured. Predictably, the results have been blown out of all proportion by hot air from anti-biotechnology activists.

Hard-core opponents of biotechnology are practically giddy with delight. "This does confirm what a lot of people feared -- expected, really," said Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Well, she's right about one thing: There is nothing about this study's results that were unexpected. In fact, finding that pollen is blown downwind is a revelation on a par with the discovery that you get wet if you venture outside in a thunderstorm.

As to the results eliciting fear, the report serves as yet another reminder (not that one was needed) that discussions of biotechnology's risks and benefits must be placed within the context of agriculture in general, including older, "conventional" techniques of genetic modification. What "location, location, location" is to real estate, "context, context, context" is to biotechnology. All pollen travels; not just that from gene-spliced plants. The spread of pollen is not itself a problem - except maybe for allergy sufferers, but that has nothing to do with genetic engineering.

The alarmist reports from activists -- including activists employed by government agencies -- invariably emphasize the things that might go wrong with biotechnology, while studiously omitting the essential context. In fact, every hypothetical risk of gene-spliced organisms also exists -- and is often greater -- with conventional breeding methods.

For example, although standard assessment methods for new plant varieties are usually able to identify potentially harmful products, occasionally the imprecise, trial-and-error techniques of conventional breeding methods lead to problems. Two conventionally bred varieties each of squash and potato and one of celery were found to contain dangerous levels of endogenous toxins and were, therefore, banned from commerce.

There have been no such problems with gene-spliced foods, which is not surprising given that the more precise and predictable gene-splicing techniques allow plant breeders move single genes that have been carefully studied and tested. Not a single health or environmental mishap has been observed despite the widespread use of gene-spliced crops and foods for more than a decade.

Nevertheless, anti-biotechnology NGOs fret continually over the alleged "uncertainty" about the safety of the new biotechnology. Never is there any hint that similar -- and often greater -- uncertainties characterize the more conventional breeding techniques. Consider, for example, the wheat variety Triticum agropyrotriticum, created by hybridizing bread wheat with a wild grass called quackgrass or couchgrass, which contains all the genes from both species.

Do the grass genes make the new variety of wheat more allergenic? Toxic? Invasive? No one -- least of all government regulators or activists -- seems to care.

Why is there no discussion of these issues? Because the activists aren't interested in minimizing risk -- that's already been done. Their goal is to frighten the public and intimidate regulators into further tightening the already stultifying regulation of biotechnology.

Reminiscent of the recent rhubarb over pollen, the Union of Concerned Scientists earlier this year claimed to have found gene-spliced material in "conventional" seed preparations, and was quick to condemn this "contamination." The Center for Science in the Public Interest has raised various similar concerns about gene-spliced plants, including the "transfer of the engineered gene to other species, the emergence of pesticide-resistant pests, and the adverse effects on small farmers or developing nations."

When considered in a vacuum -- as though farmers, plant breeders and others had never before sought and wrought genetic improvement of food plants -- these seem like legitimate concerns. However, since the 1930's plant breeders have performed "wide cross" hybridizations in which large numbers of "alien" genes are moved from one species or one genus to another to create plant varieties that cannot and do not exist in nature. Common commercial varieties derived from wide crosses include tomato, potato, oat, rice, wheat and corn, among others. Triticum agropyrotriticum is one of these.

When plant breeders and food producers use pre-gene-splicing technology such as wide-cross hybridization and mutation-induced breeding, they lack knowledge of the exact genetic changes that produced the useful traits. More important, they have no idea what other changes have occurred concomitantly in the plant.

Only the use of gene-splicing techniques allows breeders to identify and describe fully the changes that have been made in the progeny. This increased precision and predictability make foods from gene-spliced organisms safer than conventional ones -- but paradoxically they are far more intensively regulated. Neither government regulators nor the minions at the radical NGOs have shown the slightest concern about the real risks of plant breeding. Instead, they bleat endlessly about the hypothetical risks of gene-splicing -- which never materialize.

The NGOs' selective memory, in effect, repudiates biology and the history of agriculture. Gene flow is ubiquitous. All crop plants have relatives somewhere on the planet, and some gene flow commonly occurs if the two populations are grown close together. Growing hundreds of crops, virtually all of which (save only wild berries and wild mushrooms) have been genetically improved, the practitioners of "conventional" agriculture in North America have meticulously developed strategies for preventing pollen cross-contamination in the field -- when and if it is necessary for commercial reasons.

A perfect example is canola -- the general term for the genetically improved rapeseed developed by Canadian plant breeders a half-century ago. The original rapeseed oil, used as both an industrial lubricant and an edible oil, can be harmful when eaten because of high levels of a chemical called erucic acid. Conventional plant breeding led to the development of genetic varieties of rapeseed with low concentrations of erucic acid, and this "canola" oil has now become enormously popular. High-erucic acid rapeseed oil is still used as a lubricant and plasticizer, however, so the high- and low-erucic acid varieties of rapeseed plants must be carefully segregated in the field and thereafter during processing. Farmers and processors accomplish this routinely and without difficulty.

Bothered by pollen? You can take an antihistamine. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any antidote to the toxic politics of biotechnology.

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" was published this month by Praeger Publishers.


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