Sound Science and Foods from Biotechnology
By C.S. Prakash and Christine Bruhn
Sound science. It has been the safety determinant and underlying consumer protection for our country's food supply for more than a century. In fact, it's a legacy that dates back to 1861, when President Abraham Lincoln initially understood its importance by establishing the first science-based labeling initiative to protect our nation's consumers from misleading marketing campaigns, food safety scares and snake oil salesmen who preyed on the unwitting.
The sound-science legacy is alive and well. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recent announcement reaffirming the safety of foods derived from biotechnology, while adding requirements for mandatory notification of new products and allowing for voluntary labeling of these products, is one to be applauded. Rather than bowing to the pressure tactics of the anti-biotech crowd, the FDA has reaffirmed the current science-based approval process. This decision continues a long tradition of ensuring that Americans have the safest food supply in the world and provides consumers with the means to make informed choices in food purchases.
The scientific community overwhelmingly agrees that the FDA's actions are the kind of responsible oversight consumers should expect. The biotechnology products approved through the current process have a record of safe consumption, and this enhanced, more effective process will only strengthen the benefits America's consumers enjoy and deserve.
Through biotechnology, farmers and consumers benefit from crops with traits that nature has developed in other organisms -- disease resistance, for example, or improved nutritional performance or even better flavor. Biotechnology-improved crops are a simple, but more precise, extension of traditional breeding and other improvements farmers have been making to crops for centuries.
Years of independently reviewed research and testing have shown that commercially available foods developed through biotechnology are substantially equivalent to foods developed through traditional plant breeding and are safe. The term "substantially equivalent" is used by scientists and regulatory agencies to indicate that the composition of these foods is basically the same as conventional foods and that the nutritional content is the same. Should a product be developed that is not equivalent, labels and further testing are required under the FDA's rule to protect consumers.
Foods produced using biotechnology have been available since 1990. To name just a few, consumers have been able to benefit from tomatoes with delayed ripening traits that remain fresh longer and withstand transport better than traditional tomatoes. Also, soybeans, canola, corn, cotton and potatoes have been enhanced to be resistant to insects, herbicides or both. Squash has been improved to be resistant to a virus that destroys the vegetable, and papaya resistant to ring spot virus that otherwise would destroy the papaya industry in Hawaii and prevent consumers from enjoying this delicious, nutritious fruit.
As we consider the many advantages of agricultural biotechnology, we must understand that this approach improves life for all living things. Higher crop yields due to the planting of improved seed have contributed appreciably to saving more than 15 million square miles of wildlife habitat from being plowed for low-yield traditional farming. That's equal to the total land area of the United States, Europe and South America.
And the development of crops that naturally resist insects allows less pesticide use, while maintaining high quality and production efficiency. During the first three years of its use, growers planting biotech cotton reduced their use of chemical insecticides by more than 1 million gallons in the United States alone.
Consider also that every night, 800 million people in the developing world go to bed hungry. Almost 200 million pre-school children are undernourished. An estimated 5 million children die annually from nutrition-related illnesses. Biotechnology crops offer an important tool to help alleviate these problems and help end world hunger. According to the 1997 World Bank and Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, biotechnology can help increase food production in the developing world by 25 percent.
The advantages of agricultural biotechnology are many, and the FDA's recent decision on mandatory notification and voluntary labeling allows consumers to safely enjoy the advances brought by this process and have the facts necessary to make informed choices. President Lincoln understood the importance of protecting consumers through education and sound regulatory science. The scientific community does as well. That's why we believe strongly that FDA's actions are in the best interests of everyone.
Prakash is director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at
Tuskegee University. Bruhn is a consumer marketing specialist at the Center
for Consumer Research at UC Davis.