TCS Daily

Journalism's Sparse Harvest

By Henry I. Miller - February 14, 2006 12:00 AM

Occasionally, I over-react to the inaccuracies and ideological bias peddled by the New York Times in what are supposedly "news" stories. Sometimes, I mutter an invective and aver that the Times is good for nothing. But that's an over-statement: it's still fine for wrapping fish.

Andrew Pollack's February 14 piece on biotechnology applied to agriculture, "Biotech's Sparse Harvest," was no valentine either to science or to good journalism. His thesis:

"At the dawn of the era of genetically engineered crops, scientists were envisioning all sorts of healthier and tastier foods, including cancer-fighting tomatoes, rot-resistant fruits, potatoes that would produce healthier French fries and even beans that would not cause flatulence. . . Resistance to genetically modified foods, technical difficulties, legal and business obstacles and the ability to develop improved foods without genetic engineering have winnowed the pipeline."

While Pollack misses many of the nuances about biotechnology applied to agriculture and food production, he devotes ample ink to the anti-biotech crowd, including the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology (which Pollack describes as a "non-profit group," although "anti-biotechnology lobbyists" would be more accurate) and the radical Friends of the Earth. All points of view on scientific and technological issues are not created equal. Good journalism is not served by creating a kind of moral equivalence between those who hold ideological, anti-biotech views and those with supportable, legitimate viewpoints -- not unlike equating creation theory with Darwinian theory.

How ironic that the same activists who have opposed agbiotech relentlessly for 20 years now decry the "hype" and "over-selling" of its benefits -- rather like the teenager convicted of murdering his parents who asks for mercy from the courts because he's an orphan.

Reflecting the views of biotech's antagonists, Pollack approaches the subject as though the genetic engineering of plants were fundamentally new. But virtually all of the 200 major crops in North America have been genetically improved, or modified, in some way. Plant breeders, not nature, gave us seedless grapes and watermelons, the tangelo (a tangerine-grapefruit hybrid), the canola variety of rapeseed, and fungus-resistant strawberries. In North American and European diets, only fish and wild game, berries, and mushrooms may be said not to have been genetically engineered in some fashion. North Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of foods that contain gene-spliced ingredients, with not a single untoward reaction. Gene-splicing is essentially an extension, or refinement, over earlier, less precise, less predictable techniques.

In fact, when conventional and gene-spliced seed materials are mixed, arguably the former should be thought of as contaminating the latter.

What makes false alarms about a new technology hard to expose is the virtual impossibility of demonstrating the absolute safety of any activity or product: There is always the possibility that we haven't yet gotten to the nth hypothetical risk or to the nth dose or the nth year of exposure, when the risk will finally be demonstrated. It is logically impossible to prove a negative, and all activities pose some nonzero risk of adverse effects.

The use of gene-splicing to craft small, precise genetic changes that enhance or introduce desirable traits into plants has been a stunning technological success -- but excessive and unscientific regulation and the intractable opposition of activists have slowed the translation into consumer-friendly foods. Contrary to the implication in Mr. Pollack's article, gene-spliced "potatoes that would produce healthier French fries" (that have a higher than usual increased starch content) were, in fact, available - until anti-biotech activists bullied the fast-food chains into rejecting them.

Mr. Pollack's statement, "Developing nonallergenic products and other healthful crops has also proved to be difficult technically," is simply untrue. A vast spectrum of such plants have been crafted by laboratory scientists, but they cannot afford the gratuitously inflated regulatory costs to test them in the field. Excessive and unwise regulation is a major reason that products in the development pipeline "do not include many of the products once envisioned," to quote Mr. Pollack. Unscientific and discriminatory EPA and USDA regulatory policies make field trials with gene-spliced plants ten to twenty times more expensive than a similar plant engineered with less precise, less predictable conventional genetic techniques. Unlike pharmaceutical development, agricultural R&D is a low-budget enterprise, and such counter-intuitive regulation and gratuitous regulatory costs make the development of many promising and even important food products uneconomical.

Finally, Mr. Pollack's disparaging assertion that "industry. . . has been peddling the same two advantages herbicide tolerance and insect resistance for 10 years," is puzzling. These traits have been of monumental importance -- not only to farmers' bottom line, but to occupational health and the natural environment. Enhanced pest resistance in plants has obviated the need for hundreds of millions of pounds of chemical pesticides (and thereby reduced environmental and occupational exposures), and herbicide tolerance has made possible a shift to more benign herbicides and to environment-friendly no-till farming.

As British historian Paul Johnson has written, "Left to themselves, the creative forces in society will always deliver, but keeping them reasonably free to do so is a perpetual, grinding battle. It is one that must never be lost." But once again, the New York Times is fighting on the wrong side.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution, headed the FDA's Office of Biotechnology from 1989 to 1993. Barron's selected his most recent book, "The Frankenfood Myth..." one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.

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