TCS Daily

Is AgBiotech Innovative Enough? If Not, Why Not?

By Dr. Henry I. Miller & Gregory Conko - March 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Washington DC has a new baseball team, but the city's favorite pastime will surely remain "gotcha," a game in which it is possible to criticize someone for making the wrong decision, no matter what. (If the outcome is bad, he made the wrong choice; if the outcome is good, he was just lucky, or the price was too high.) Many politicians and columnists deserve membership in the Gotcha Hall of Fame.

We propose a new nominee: the Washington-based, ironically misnamed Center for Science in the Public Interest, for a hypocritical and disingenuous new report about the current state of agricultural biotechnology. CSPI's "analysis" concludes that the agbiotech industry "is not innovating, it is stagnating," leaving unfulfilled its promise "that genetic engineering would spawn a cornucopia of heartier crops, more-healthful oils, delayed-ripening fruits, and many more nutritious and better-tasting foods." Also, they allege, "the biotech cupboard remains pretty bare, except for the few crops that have benefitted grain, oilseed, and cotton farmers," and supposedly there now exists "a voluntary, antiquated, and inefficient hodgepodge of a regulatory system" that must be replaced "with a mandatory system that takes risk into account."

These assertions are part of activists' Big Lie about the application of the new biotechnology, or gene-splicing, to agriculture and food production -- namely, that the technology is unproven, untested and unregulated.

In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Gene-splicing is an extension, or refinement, of less precise and predictable technologies long used with great success; the new techniques offer plant breeders the tools to make old crop plants do impressive new things. In the United States, Canada and at least sixteen other countries, farmers are using gene-spliced crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced impact on the environment. American farmers' adoption of gene-spliced crops has promoted the use of no-till cultivation, which lessens soil erosion; and has obviated the need for millions of pounds of chemical pesticides, reducing runoff into waterways and occupational exposures.

More than 200 million acres of gene-spliced crops were cultivated worldwide last year, about 80 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves now contain gene-spliced ingredients (mostly byproducts of soy and corn), and Americans have collectively consumed more than a trillion servings of these foods. With all this experience, not a single person has been harmed or an ecosystem disrupted -- a record that is superior to that of conventionally-produced products.

But the greatest boon of all from agbiotech in the long term may be the enhancement of the ability of new crop varieties to tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses. Irrigation for agriculture accounts for roughly 70 percent of the world's fresh water consumption, so 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 yields and lengthen the time that farmland is productive.

The biotech fix? Plant biologists already have identified and transferred into important crop plants the genes that regulate water utilization in wild and cultivated plants. These new 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.

There are thorns on the rose, however: unscientific, gratuitous and overly burdensome regulation in the United States and elsewhere that has been championed by CSPI and other activist groups. Part of the activists' strategy to make agbiotech less accessible, this discriminatory regulation, focused specifically on the most precise and predictable techniques of biotechnology, 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 is public policy at it most anti-social.

In fact, the very regulatory policies promoted by radical activists are the reason we don't have gene-spliced versions of more nutritious and flavorful fruits and vegetables, new varieties of grapes resistant to Pierce's disease, and improved subsistence crops for farmers in the developing world. It is revealing that CSPI's biotech spokesman, Gregory Jaffe, was a primary drafter of scientifically flawed legislation introduced in Congress by Senator Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) that would have established even more excessive and debilitating regulatory requirements specific for gene-spliced foods -- requirements that no conventionally produced food (made with less precise and predictable technology) could meet.

CSPI's crocodile tears for agbiotech remind us of the child who murders his parents and then asks for mercy from the court because he's an orphan.

Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, was the founding director of the FDA Office of Biotechnology from 1989 to 1993. Gregory Conko is the director of food safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Their book, "The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution," was selected by Barron's as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.

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