TCS Daily

Fear for Profit

By Sandy Szwarc - December 28, 2004 12:00 AM

"Government regulation is so pervasive, so intrusive upon our freedoms, that it should be carefully measured and based on rational considerations."

-- John H. Moore, former deputy director, National Science Foundation

Virtually every aspect of our lives today is restricted in some way by the government and it's hard to imagine that such intrusions are based on anything but good science and good sense. But that's not the reality at all.

The more affluent we become, the less faith we place on scientific, reasoned approaches to our decisions. Those struggling every day to feed their children and stay alive, for example, must, of necessity, make decisions about what to eat based on evaluations balancing the benefits and risks. Only the well-to-do can afford the luxury of fretting over intangible concerns or moralizing about romantic ideals. Hence, Western developed nations are increasingly abandoning science-based assessments of risks. In their place is a growing "absolute safety at all costs" perspective that's been skillfully fueled by scares and misinformation from special interests. As a result, foods and technological developments that can and are bettering our lives and can save lives, are being maligned, feared and resisted far out of proportion to their potential risks.

The result of overly-cautious, inaccurate tenets is regulatory policies rife with blunders and inconsistencies that hurt consumers, most of all the poor and disadvantaged. We not only deny ourselves better choices, as well as perfectly safe foods, we deny them to others who may more desperately need them.

Virtually every food and health fear today fits this description: the "obesity crisis," pesticides in fruits and vegetables, mercury in fish, mad cow from beef, hormones in milk, "bad" fats in snacks, refined sugars in treats, arsenic in water, and the countless other unfounded scares bombarding us. But understanding how fears take hold, what's behind them, and what they're doing to us, is the first step towards helping ourselves.

Henry I. Miller and Greg Conko give us some of those insights in a chilling cautionary exposé that bravely counters today's emotionally-charged insanity over what we eat. In The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution (Praeger Publishers 2004), they reveal the story of genetically-engineered foods which have been targeted so vehemently, activists have ominously named them "Frankenfoods." While the authors touch on the misconceptions being spread about biotechnology, that's not their primary focus or this book's greatest value. It's a powerful wake-up call for scientists, policy makers and consumers on how all of today's food myths are invented and used, and the importance of returning to rational, science-based discussions and decisions.

Fears Versus Reality

The scientific community views the risks of genetically-modified crops to be no different, and even less, than those from conventional plant breeding. Their calm approach to the safety of biotechnology is due in part from the comfort that comes from understanding the research and scientific nuances of biotechnology; along with an excitement of its current and future possibilities to improve our foods and medicines and alleviate human suffering, enable farmers to grow more foods on less land using fewer chemicals and hence strengthen environmental stewardship, minimize food spoilage losses, and help -- especially subsistence farmers in developing countries -- produce food on inhospitable soils that are salty, acidic or drought-ridden, in harsh climates or in locales ravaged by pests and diseases which claim up to 40 percent of crops each year.

But the reality of food and health risks has nothing to do with how safe the public feels or how risks are regulated. The disparity between risk assessments by scientists and those by regulators and consumers is a source for considerable rancor and accusations of irrationality and ulterior motives. But while it may be easy for the scientific community to conclude that consumers who believe food scares or who view biotech as dangerous are being stupid, I think the public is actually responding in a very predictable way to the information they hear in the media and to their government's special attention in regulating apparent health concerns.

Consumers are being expertly played by those who usually do know exactly where the weight of scientific evidence lies concerning risks, and know exactly how to exploit people and the system for political, economic and social advantage, reveal Miller and Conko. They largely ascribe the unsound regulations surrounding biotechnology to those who are using fear to take advantage of the public -- namely special interest groups, regulators themselves, and the media.

Oh No! What If? How Can We Be Sure?

A key part of fear-based marketing is the promotion of the Precautionary Principle -- that's the belief that if something might go wrong, then we must do whatever possible to ensure that it doesn't. Of course, since everything in life entails risks, this makes it possible for fear mongers to object to and impose regulations on anything, especially new advancements in science, health and technology. Supporters of the Precautionary Principle believe that people are too dumb or ill-equipped to manage risky things safely and it's best to control access to them. This concurrently means rejecting the benefits such things might offer. Yet we safely use and benefit from potentially dangerous things every day, from chain saws, cars, hot water to aspirin.

Just like anything being sold to us, what's at the root of scares isn't altruism. While portraying themselves as moral defenders of the little people, say Miller and Conko, the environmental groups and nongovernment organizations behind today's food and health fears are actually a collection of well-financed professionals set out to shape public opinion and deceive people for their own benefit. "No one should mistake the anti-biotech [groups'] misdemeanors for naive exuberance or excessive zeal in a good cause," said Miller and Conko. "Their motives are self-serving and their tactics vicious." They not only don't hesitate to terrify consumers by twisting the truth and exaggerating risks, they intimidate policy makers with the threat of lawsuits, and threaten shakedowns on the food and biotech industries in what Dr. Alan McHughen calls "economic terrorism." Businesses acquiesce and buy their products, while policy makers grant them the regulations that shield them from national and global competitors, especially those in developing countries.

"The major beneficiaries from these unscientific policies are activist groups that have raked in hundreds of millions of dollars from gullible donors; the natural and organic food industry, which has exploited the surfeit of misinformation; and the regulators themselves," write Miller and Conko. Policy makers "use the blandishments and demands of activists as cover for their own overregulatory tendencies," according to the authors. Regulators' own desires are for more responsibilities, larger budgets, and grander bureaucratic empires. Claiming an obligation to regulate anything the public believes is a concern, regulators use fears to spawn the growth of government agencies, leaving the public to foot the bill. Worse, say the authors, government involvement endorses the activists' claims and raises consumers' fears because people view things that are regulated as being the most dangerous. "Pandering to near-superstitious hysteria only serves to enhance anti-biotech mythology," said Miller and Conko.

These groups aren't fueled by genuine health or environmental dangers, say the authors. They're actually anti-business, anti-technology and anti-establishment, merely trying to preserve their own commercial interests and sustain their ideological vision of a perfect world.

Desperate hunger is an alien affliction in the United States, so it's easy to romanticize about the backbreaking existence of hundreds of millions of people barely staying alive trying to live off the land. And it's impossible to overlook that the primary beneficiaries of biotechnology are brown- and yellow-skinned people from Third World countries. Technological progress and having enough to eat improves health, and has allowed industrialized nations to increase productivity and grow prosperous, write Miller and Conko. Yet while industrialized nations have enjoyed the benefits of science and development, denying them to developing countries is hardly an act of philanthropy.

Agriculture scientist Norman Borlaug, credited with saving the lives of one billion people and who wrote the Forward to this book, agrees. He told the Dallas Observer that opposition to biotechnology isn't a concern for human health, the millions of hungry people in the world threatened with starvation (852 million according to the latest UN Food and Agriculture Organization report), or the environment. This was demonstrated in what can only be called a crime against humanity when, during the worst food crisis in a decade, anti-biotech activists persuaded Zambian leaders to let over two million people starve rather than receive American food aid that contained genetically modified corn, they'd been told was "poisonous."

Regulations Impede Innovation

"What's happened more and more, from my point of view... is that the gene for common sense and judgment has been eroded all to hell and it doesn't function anymore."

-- Norman Borlaug

The regulatory mess surrounding biotechnology began with the myth that it's somehow uniquely risky and therefore should be subject to special caution and regulatory oversight, say Conko and Miller. Genetic modification is nothing new, however, and virtually everything in our food supply has been changed by one method or another. But traditional plant breeding is slow, crude and imprecise as thousands of unwanted genes are introduced along with those offering the desired traits. Today's conventional breeding methods even employ violent blasts of radiation or chemicals to mutate genes, but these resultant food crops still aren't any more dangerous than those that mutated over hundreds of years.

Modern biotechnology simply offers a more precise, controlled means of improving plant characteristics that's less likely to cause unintentional, unwanted changes. Scientists can predict with a high degree of certainty whether a gene is likely to impose risks and take precautions depending on how much is known about the gene.

Currently, although two foods might be indistinguishable and virtually identical genes were modified, they're regulated differently according to the process in which they were created. The regulations are so onerous, "not a single conventional crop could meet the requirements being imposed by USDA on gene-spliced plants," say the authors. The result has been to add tens of millions of dollars to the testing and development costs of each new biotech crop variety, making them up to twenty times more expensive to develop. The added regulatory costs profoundly discourage innovation, hinder research and development, create market distortions as only a few of the largest companies can afford to comply and stay in business while smaller companies go out of business, raise prices for consumers, and mean that only a few of the most commercially profitable varieties that are able to be grown on vast scales reach the market.

What's the answer? Miller and Conko end Frankenfood Myth with carefully thought-out strategies for reforming today's run-amok regulatory system. All that's left for us to do is read their book.


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