TCS Daily

The Supermarket's Unnatural Selections

By Henry I. Miller - December 6, 2004 12:00 AM

Agricultural practices have been "unnatural" for 10,000 years. With the exception of wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the grains, fruits and vegetables in our diets have been genetically modified by one technique or another. Many of our foods (including potatoes, tomatoes, oats, rice and corn) come from plants created by "wide cross" hybridizations that transcend "natural breeding boundaries." More than 80 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves -- soft drinks, preserves, mayonnaise, salad dressings -- contain ingredients from gene-spliced plants, and Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of these foods.

These are only a few of the surprises in store for readers of "Mendel in the Kitchen" (Joseph Henry Press, $27.95), by plant biologist Nina V. Fedoroff and writer Nancy Marie Brown, who have meticulously and exhaustively depicted the past, present and future of genetics applied to agriculture. Mixing some didactic science (including diagrams reminiscent of your high-school biology textbook) with accounts of what farmers, naturalists, plant breeders and biologists have wrought over many centuries, they offer essential context on the controversies that beleaguer the newest manifestation of genetic modification -- gene-splicing -- applied to agriculture. The authors' approach is to stimulate the intellect by tickling with a feather, rather than bashing with a sledgehammer.

By emphasizing repeatedly the centuries-old seamless continuum that exists between "conventional" and "new" genetic modification -- and the superiority of the latter -- Fedoroff and Brown effectively refute activists' skepticism and antagonism toward gene-splicing. They remind us that plant breeders and farmers -- not "nature" -- gave us Luther Burbank's "Iceberg" white blackberry, the "canola" variety of rapeseed, and seedless grapes and watermelons. "Farming and science have been intertwined for 200 years, and . . . well before then, more than 10,000 years ago, the way humans procured their food became distinctly unnatural. . . [P]eople have been genetically modifying plants for many thousands of years."

The book uses quotations liberally to make key points. Klaus Ammann, curator of the botanical garden at the University of Bern in Switzerland, places old and new biotechnology in perspective: "When we eat wheat, we consume varieties mutated by nuclear radiation. It is not known what happened with the genomes, but we have been eating this wheat for decades, without any type of problem. Today, with more extensive knowledge and new applications of the technologies resulting from [gene-splicing], we are faced with a new system where control is greater, more precise, and less risky than that of the old systems." Professor Ammann might have added that gene-splicing makes it possible actually to remove dangerous allergens from wheat (and also from peanuts, milk and other commonly allergenic foods), which would benefit millions of consumers.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Even if plants and foods made with gene-splicing techniques were in some way fundamentally different from those made with less precise genetic technologies, the empirical evidence of their safety and acceptance would be persuasive. Gene-spliced plants, now grown in at least eighteen countries, have for almost a decade been cultivated worldwide on more than 100 million acres annually. They are ubiquitous in North American diets. From the dirt to the dinner plate, not a single ecosystem has been disrupted, or a person injured, by any gene-spliced product -- a record that is superior to that of conventional foods.

But as the world's population grows and water shortages become increasingly vexing, gene-splicing's greatest boon to both food security and the environment may prove to be the enhancement of new crop varieties' ability to tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses. These varieties are able to grow with smaller amounts or lower quality water, such as water that has been recycled or that contains large amounts of natural mineral salts.

Irrigation for agriculture accounts for roughly 70 percent of the world's fresh water consumption; especially during drought conditions, even a small percentage reduction in the use of water for irrigation could result in huge benefits, both economic and humanitarian. Where water is unavailable for irrigation, the development of crop varieties able to grow under conditions of low moisture or temporary drought could both boost crop yields and lengthen the time that farmland is productive.

There are thorns on the rose, however. Unscientific, overly burdensome regulation in most countries and by agencies of the United Nations has raised the cost of research and development to levels that "exclude the public sector, the academic community, from using their skills to improve crops," according to Dr. Roger Beachy, the director of the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis.

This systematically flawed public policy adds millions of dollars to the development costs of each new gene-spliced crop variety. And as Fedoroff and Brown observe, "regulators and regulations [must] become more responsive to evolving knowledge than to public perceptions and anxieties. Only then will public sector scientists be able to invest their time and knowledge in raising yields in an ecologically sound way."

Ironically, this public policy morass could easily have been avoided. Instead of creating new, draconian regulation specific to gene-splicing, governments should have approached the products of gene-splicing in the same way that they regulate similar ones -- new plant varieties, food, pesticides and so on --made with older, less precise and predictable techniques. Regulators could easily have applied preexisting regulatory policies, which generally are risk-based and emphasize surveillance and policing, rather than endless, redundant case-by-case reviews of proposals to test or market products of negligible risk. However, regulators' self-interest is served not by more efficiently doing less, but by expanding their responsibilities, budgets and bureaucratic empires.

Excessive regulation and activists' endless repetition of The Big Lie -- that the new biotechnology is unproven, untested and unregulated -- collectively constitute one of the most costly and tragic hoaxes of the last century. "Mendel in the Kitchen" goes a long way toward oppugning it.

Henry I. Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of "The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution," from Praeger Publishers.


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