Home Page Link AgBioWorld Home Page
About AgBioWorld Donations Ag-Biotech News Declaration Supporting Agricultural Biotechnology Ag-biotech Info Experts on Agricultural Biotechnology Contact Links Subscribe to AgBioView Home Page

AgBioView Archives

A daily collection of news and commentaries on

Subscribe AgBioView Subscribe

Search AgBioWorld Search

AgBioView Archives





June 2, 2003





by Gregory Conko and C.S. Prakash

'Chapter 7 in 'Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths', Ronald Bailey ed.,
Prima Publishing-Random House, 2002; ISBN 0-7615-3660-4; 448 pages;
Hardcover; Amazon.com price $17.47'

(Note: The following authors' text may have been changed slightly prior to
publication. For quotation, readers are urged to consult the published
work. Readers will also find complete tables and endnotes in the bound


... A century's worth of genetic improvements in plants and animals
have made food more abundant and less expensive today than at any
other time in history. Continuing improvements in productivity will
be necessary to feed the world in the 21st Century without having to
bring millions of acres of undeveloped wilderness into agricultural
... Despite opposition from ideological environmentalists,
biotechnology - the next step in the continuum of genetic improvement
- has been endorsed by countless scientific and health organizations,
including the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy
of Sciences, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organization. ... Around the world, more than 70 bioengineered plant
varieties are grown commercially on approximately 109 million acres,
in countries ranging from the United States, Argentina, Australia,
Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Mexico, and South Africa.
... Bioengineered varieties of corn, cotton, potato, soybean, and
others, are raising yields, reducing pesticide use, conserving
topsoil, and making other contributions to environmental protection.
... Biotechnology is helping scientists breed plants that mature
faster, tolerate drought or extremes of heat and cold, and have
improved nutrition. It is also being used to develop healthier
cooking oils that are low in saturated fats, vegetables with higher
levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants, and foods with better taste
and longer shelf life. It is even possible to use bioengineered
plants to create biodegradable plastics, better medicines, and to
help clean up hazardous wastes.
... Due to activist pressures, governments around the world have
created harmful regulations that make it harder for researchers to
use biotechnology to improve crop plants and livestock.

1. The Attack On Plant Biotechnology

On a blustery November day in 1999, U.S. Food and Drug Administration
scientists kicked off the first of three nation-wide public meetings
on biotechnology and bioengineered foods at the Plaza Club in
Chicago. In the wake of substantial and growing concern about the
technology in some European countries, FDA officials wanted to gauge
the public mood in the U.S. and head off any growing domestic crisis
of confidence. What they found was not surprising - no scientific
evidence supporting claims that biotechnology was particularly
dangerous either for consumers or the environment, but a small and
growing segment of the public that believe bioengineered crop plants
to be truly hazardous. Outside, members of Greenpeace and several
other activist environmental groups protested with signs declaring,
"Genetically engineered food is poison."

Many Americans have never even heard of bioengineered crops, and most
who have hold a neutral or positive opinion about them. But beneath
this otherwise calm surface, there is a growing campaign led by
ideological environmentalists against plant biotechnology. The U.S.
Public Interest Research Groups argue that bioengineered foods "pose
unacceptable risks to human health," risk "spawning new superweeds,"
or pose hazards to beneficial insects and soil organisms. The
activist group Friends of the Earth warns that biotech crops could
"seriously threaten biodiversity in agricultural areas" and that they
"may also be toxic to humans." And when the United States Agency for
International Development sent a shipment of corn and soy-meal that
happened to contain some bioengineered varieties in the mix to aid
the victims of a cyclone in the Indian province of Orissa, Vandana
Shiva, director of the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for
Science, Technology and Ecology, argued that, "The U.S. has been
using the Orissa victims as guinea pigs for [bioengineered] products."

Other critics are even more shrill. Jeremy Rifkin, a notorious and
longtime opponent of all forms of genetic research, calls the
introduction of bioengineered plants "the most radical, uncontrolled
experiment we've ever seen." Mae-Wan Ho, a biologist at London's Open
University argues that biotech crop plants are "worse than nuclear
weapons or radioactive wastes." What is it about agricultural
biotechnology that inspires such attacks?

Ever since the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring,
ideological environmentalists have warned that mankind's use of
modern farming technologies would lead to widespread ecological and
human health catastrophes. Then, the villain was synthetic chemicals
- particularly the use of insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides on
farms to protect growing crop plants. Thirty years later scientific
evidence clearly shows that those concerns were wildly exaggerated.
Nevertheless, the use of agricultural chemicals can have some
negative environmental effects. Ultimately, humanity must choose
between using chemicals that can cause some minor harm on the one
hand, or sacrificing tremendous gains in food productivity on the

For many, the choice is simple. At its heart, all of agriculture
requires a never-ending struggle against the destructive forces of
nature: pests, diseases, weather, and many others. Despite the
steadily growing use of insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides on
farms around the world, as much as 40 percent of crop productivity in
Africa and Asia, and about 20 percent in the industrialized countries
of North America and Europe, is lost to insect pests, weeds, and
plant diseases. Without any means for controlling those pests, crop
losses would climb to as much as 70 percent. Thus, something clearly
must be done to prevent crop losses, or agricultural production would
fall dramatically, possibly even subjecting humanity to the
widespread famines predicted by Thomas Malthus more than two hundred
years ago.

Today, a new crop protection revolution is underway that will help
farmers combat pests and pathogens more effectively while also
reducing humanity's dependence upon agricultural chemicals.
Agricultural biotechnology* (alternatively known as bioengineering,
genetic engineering, and genetic modification (GM)) uses 21st Century
advances in genetics and cell biology, to move useful traits from one
organism to another, allowing plants to better protect themselves
from insects, weeds, diseases, and even from such environmental
stresses as poor soils and drought. Biotechnology can also improve
the nutritional quality of staple foods like corn and rice by adding
healthful vitamins and minerals. The technique is so beneficial that
it has been endorsed by dozens of scientific and health associations,
including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the United Kingdom's
Royal Society, the United Nations Development Program, and many

By the year 2000, just five years after their introduction on the
market, farmers around the world planted more than 109 million acres
(44.2 million hectares) with biotech crops. It's easy to see why. In
the United States alone, bioengineered varieties of corn that are
resistant to some insect pests were about five percent more
productive on average than conventional varieties during the period
from 1996 to 1999. Biotech cotton varieties generated more than 10
percent higher yields and simultaneously reduced chemical insecticide
use by an average of about 14 percent during that time. Not
surprisingly, farmers have a very favorable view of the development
of biotech seeds. By 2001, 26 percent of all corn, 68 percent of all
soybeans, and 69 percent of all upland cotton grown in the United
States were bioengineered varieties.

Although improved agricultural productivity might seem like a luxury
that industrialized countries can do without, it is an absolute
necessity for less developed nations. In a report published in July
2000, the UK's Royal Society, the National Academies of Science from
Brazil, China, India, Mexico and the US, and the Third World Academy
of Science, embraced agricultural biotechnology, arguing that it can
be used to advance food security while promoting sustainable
agriculture. "It is critical," declared the science academies, "that
the potential benefits of [genetic] technology become available to
developing countries."

Importantly, the increased productivity made possible by these
advances will allow farmers to grow substantially more food and fiber
on less land. Such productivity gains will be essential if we are to
outpace the projected increase in global population over the coming
decades while sparing more land for nature. During the second half of
the 20th Century, in which the population increased from 3 billion to
6 billion, advances in conventional plant and animal breeding, and
improved use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides
allowed food production to grow much faster than population growth.
But the average annual per acre increase in cereal yields has been
slowing, from 2.2 percent per year in the late 1960s and 1970s, but
only 1.5 percent per year in the 1980s and early 1990s, to as low as
just 1.0 percent in the second half of the 1990s. More importantly,
there has been little or no increase in the theoretical maximum
possible yields of rice and corn in a decade.

Worldwide, farmers already use approximately one-third of the Earth's
land surface area (excluding Antarctica) for agriculture, of which
about one-third, or 5.8 million square miles, is dedicated to growing
crops. If the average annual increase in productivity per acre for
the cereal grains that make up the bulk of food and animal feed
remains at its current rate of around one percent, the world will
have to bring more than 700 million acres of new land into
agricultural use by the year 2050 to meet projected demand. Nobel
Peace Prize winning plant scientist Norman Borlaug argues that,
"Extremists in the environmental movement, largely from rich nations
and/or the privileged strata of society in poor nations, seem to be
doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks."

The rate of increase in grain yields is slightly higher on average in
less developed countries than industrialized ones, but population
growth is higher there as well. And even this average obscures the
fact that Africa was almost totally excluded from the productivity
gains generated during the Green Revolution. Crop productivity there
has much room for growth, but for a variety of reasons, Africa has
not been able to take advantage of such production increasing inputs
as fertilizers, irrigation, and pesticides. Yields of sorghum and
millet in sub-Saharan Africa have not increased since the 1960s.
Thus, the productivity gains expected to be generated by
biotechnology-enhanced crop plants can not only help to reduce the
use of agricultural chemicals, they could save millions of acres of
sensitive wildlife habitat from being converted into farmland.
Explaining his strong support for biotechnology to a Reuters
interviewer, Borlaug said, "You have two choices. You need
[biotechnology] to further improve yields so that you can continue to
produce the food that's needed on the soil that's well-adapted to
agricultural production. Or, you'll be pushed into cutting down more
of our forests."

One might expect environmental activists to be pleased with the
development of a technology that can make man's footprint on the
environment lighter. But ideological environmentalists have launched
a global campaign to suppress this vital technology on the specious
grounds that it is unsafe for humans and the environment.
Bioengineered products are denounced as "Frankenfoods," and claims
that the new technology could result in "Andromeda strain"-like
plagues abound. Lord Peter Melchett, head of Greenpeace's United
Kingdom chapter declared that his organization's opposition to
biotechnology is "a permanent and definite and complete opposition
based on a view that there will always be major uncertainties."

Never mind that the weight of scientific evidence does not support
such outlandish claims, or the belief of most crop scientists that
biotechnology will have substantial benefits for environmental
stewardship, as well as for farmers and consumers in poorer regions
of the world. Kenyan crop scientist Florence Wambugu believes that
biotechnology "can help us increase the production of food and other
commodities, lowering their prices to consumers while raising the
incomes of poor farmers." That may not be enough to satisfy most
ideological environmentalists, though. At an Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development Conference in March 2000,
Greenpeace anti-biotech campaigner Benedikt Haerlin, "dismissed the
importance of saving African and Asian lives at the risk of spreading
a new science that he considered untested."

2. What Is Plant Biotechnology?

Ever since the dawn of agriculture, which began thousands of years
ago with domestication of wild plants and animals from their natural
habitats, humans have continuously transformed the crops and animals
that we have come to depend upon for food and animal feed. Over many
millennia, the crop varieties that were chosen for domestication have
been gradually modified by selecting individual plants that grew the
best and produced the best grains, vegetables, and fruits. Over time,
this process of artificial selection resulted in profound changes in
the stature, productivity, and taste of crop varieties. Modern corn
is derived from a wild Central American grass plant called teosinte.
Through successive generations of selection, breeders developed an
entirely new species of plant - corn - that shares very few of its
characteristics with the wild teosinte.

Entirely new plant varieties were also developed by crossbreeding
plants from different, but related species with one another. The
progeny of such hybridizations expressed new traits resulting from
the random mixing of literally tens of thousands of genes from the
two parent plants. With these "natural" breeding techniques, entirely
new proteins and other plant chemicals were routinely introduced into
food crops, often from wild species never before part of the food
supply. Bread wheat, for example, resulted several hundreds of years
ago from the crossing of at least three different species of wild
grasses from two different genera. And in the 20th Century, wheat and
rye, plants from two different genera, were crossed to produce a new
variety called triticale, which is used as food and animal feed.
Hundreds of useful crop plants were developed with selection and
hybridization techniques. But the flexibility of these techniques is
limited by the need for the parent plants to be from species that can
breed sexually.

The discovery of genes, chromosomes, and other mechanisms of plant
genetics during the 20th century opened up new avenues for modifying
plants. Scientists developed many novel tools that expanded the range
of modifications that could be used to improve crop varieties. For
example, in the late 1940s, agronomists began using x-rays, gamma
rays, and caustic chemicals on seeds and young plants to induce
random genetic mutations. Such mutations generally kill the plants
(or seeds) or cause detrimental changes in the DNA. But on rare
occasions, the result is a desirable mutation - for example, one
producing a useful trait, such as altered height, more seeds, or
larger fruit. In these cases, breeders have no real knowledge of the
exact nature of the genetic mutation(s) that produced the useful
trait, or of what other mutations might have occurred in the plant.
But more than 2,250 mutation-bred varieties of corn, wheat, rice, and
dozens of other varieties have been commercialized over the last half
century, and they are grown in more than 50 countries around the

More sophisticated breeding techniques also permit agronomists to
overcome natural barriers to ordinary sexual reproduction. They
include methods such as protoplast fusion and embryo rescue, which
join cells from sexually incompatible plants in a laboratory and
over-come their natural inability to produce offspring. These
techniques for genetic modification permit the artificial
hybridization of plants of the same species, different species, and
even different genera. "Wide crosses" of plants from different
species or genera allow scientists to add into an existing crop
species traits for disease and pest resistance, increased yield, or
different nutritional qualities. They can even be used to create
entirely new plant species. Examples of such artificial wide crosses
include a wheat-barley hybrid, a tomato-potato hybrid, and a
radish-rapeseed hybrid. Yet, none of these techniques are considered
to be bioengineering, so they escape the wrath of ideological

These techniques underpinned the last century's spectacular increases
in food productivity in all major crops around the world, including
the Green Revolution in developing countries. This dramatic increase
in food production has been critical in ensuring an affordable supply
of food. For example, U.S. corn growers averaged 134 bushels per acre
in 1998 compared to only 26 bushels of corn per acre in 1928. It will
be possible to achieve additional productivity improvements through
conventional breeding. But these techniques are crude and slow, and
the traits that descendant plants eventually carry are not easily
predictable. Typically, one or more unwanted traits are transferred
to the offspring plants with any of these more conventional breeding
techniques, so the breeder's job is not yet done. After the initial
modification, agronomists must cross-breed the offspring again and
again with the original plant for several generations to eliminate
any undesirable traits. And many agronomists believe that we are
already nearing the maximum possible gains in yield that can be
achieved with conventional breeding. Fortunately, with the advent of
modern biotechnology an alternative for boosting crop productivity is
now available.

In the 1980s, scientists in the United States and Europe independently
developed new and more precise methods for moving single genes
directly into plants. This overcame the limits imposed by sexual
incompatibility among species and opened up immense possibilities for
developing novel crop varieties with improved traits. A
naturally-occurring soil bacterium, Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which
transfers its own DNA into plants, was modified to deliver desirable
genes into plant cells instead of its own infective genes.
Subsequently, a few other methods of gene transfer to plants were
developed, including a "Gene Gun" that literally shoots gene
fragments into the plant chromosomes. Since then, scientists have
identified thousands of genes of potential value for agriculture from
a wide variety of organisms, and have developed methods to reliably
insert genes into every major crop plant. Genes are recipes for
producing proteins and those proteins can improve a crop's
nutritional value or protect it against pests. These are the various
techniques that are now known as genetic engineering, bioengineering,
genetic modification, or biotechnology.

In modern biotechnology, the genes coding for specific traits are
inserted into plant cells, which are then cultured for development
into full plants. The bioengineered plants will then express the new
trait - such as resistance to an insect pest. Added genes are taken
up into the plant's DNA in random positions, opening biotechnology to
questions about unintended and unexpected effects. But such
"pleiotropic" effects, brought about by the re-arrangement of DNA,
occur even in the conventional breeding of plants from the same
species. Compared with the mass genetic alterations that result from
using wide-cross hybridization or mutagenic irradiation, the direct
introduction of one or a few genes into crop plants results in much
more subtle and far less disruptive changes that are relatively
specific and predictable.

The process differs from more conventional breeding methods of
hybridization, induced mutation, and others, in that only one or two
specifically identified additional genes are typically introduced
into an existing background of tens of thousands of genes. But,
because DNA is identical from organism to organism, bioengineering
techniques can transfer genes, not just between plants, but from any
living organism to any other - such as between plants and animals, or
bacteria and plants. This new flexibility aside, scientists see
biotech gene transfer techniques as a logical extension of the
continuum of methods used to improve crop plants. A report published
by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1989 concluded that:

"[Bioengineering] methodology makes it possible to introduce pieces
of DNA, consisting of either single or multiple genes, that can be
defined in function and even in nucleotide sequence. With classical
techniques of gene transfer, a variable number of genes can be
transferred, the number depending on the mechanism of transfer; but
predicting the precise number or the traits that have been
transferred is difficult, and we cannot always predict the
[characteristics] that will result. With organisms modified by
molecular methods, we are in a better, if not perfect, position to
predict the [characteristics]."

Thus, with biotechnology, plant breeders are actually less likely to
produce unanticipated effects in crops. As biotechnology researcher
Nina Federoff of the Pennsylvania State University notes, "This is
like the difference between having to depend on a lightening strike
for the fire to cook your evening meal and learning how to make
matches to be able to make a fire when and where you want it."

To date, more than 70 biotech plant varieties have been
commercialized in the United States expressing a range of improved
traits, such as heightened resistance to certain insects and
diseases, tolerance to herbicides, and longer shelf life. Globally,
bioengineered varieties are grown commercially on approximately 109
million acres, in countries ranging from the United States,
Argentina, Australia, Brazil,* Canada, Chile, China, Mexico, and
South Africa. Some critics have suggested that biotech crops are
primarily an industrialized country interest. But the proportion of
bioengineered crops grown in less developed nations has grown
consistently since their introduction, from 14 percent in 1997, to 24
percent in 2000.

Some of the most successful crop varieties have been modified by
adding a bacterial gene that produces a protein toxic to predatory
insects, but not to people or other mammals. By reducing the need for
spraying chemical pesticides on crops, such crops are environmentally
friendly. Another popular trait is tolerance to a particular
herbicide. Herbicide tolerance can be developed in some crop
varieties through selection and breeding methods, but biotechnology
can achieve the same goal much more quickly and effectively. Today,
varieties of canola, corn, cotton, rice, soybean, and sugar beet,
have all been bioengineered to tolerate one or another broad spectrum
herbicide. Herbicide tolerant varieties allow farmers to control
weeds by spraying fields without damaging growing crops. This, in
turn, eliminates the need to plow under weeds, which loosens topsoil
and contributes to erosion. And because the spraying of herbicides is
more efficient, herbicide tolerant crops have even led to a modest
reduction in herbicide use.

The purpose of the current generation of bioengineered crops is
primarily to improve pest resistance and weed control. In turn, this
should reduce the use of crop protection products and/or increase

Table 7.3 Traits Included in Currently Cultivated Bioengineered Crops

Herbicide tolerance
The insertion of a herbicide tolerant gene into a plant enables
farmers to spray wide spectrum herbicides on their fields killing all
plants but the crop.

Insect resistance
By inserting genetic material from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)
into seeds, scientists have modified crops, allowing them to produce
their own insecticides. For example, Bt cotton combats bollworms and
budworms, and Bt corn protects against the European corn borer.

Virus resistance
To date, a virus resistant gene has been introduced into squash,
tobacco, potatoes, and papaya. The insertion of a potato leaf roll
virus resistance gene protects the potatoes from the corresponding
virus, which is usually transmitted through aphids. For that reason,
it is expected that there will be a significant decrease in the
amount of insecticide used. The introduction of virus resistance
genes into other plants may offer similar benefits. Virus resistant
papaya varieties have single-handedly revived the Hawaiian papaya
industry, nearly totally destroyed by the rampant papaya ring-spot

Quality traits
Today, quality trait-improved crops are only sown marginally and
represent less than 125,000 acres in Canada and the United States.
They are high-oleic soybeans, high-oleic canola, and high-laurate
rapeseed (see Table 7.4).

3. The Regulation of Biotech Crops

Soon after the creation of the first bioengineered organisms,
scientists and policymakers began to ask themselves what type of
regulatory oversight would be appropriate. During the last 30 years,
dozens of scientific bodies, including the U.S. National Academy of
Sciences (NAS), the American Medical Association, the Institute of
Food Technologists, and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture
Organization and World Health Organization have studied the
scientific literature and made recommendations about the oversight
that is appropriate for bioengineered organisms, arriving at
remarkably similar conclusions. The level of risk an individual plant
might pose to human health or the ecology has nothing to do with how
it was developed; it has solely to do with the characteristics of the
plant that is being modified, the specific gene or genes that are
added, and the local environment into which it is being introduced.

When introduced into new ecosystems, all types of plants, whether
they are wild types or are developed with biotechnology or more
conventional breeding methods, pose a danger of becoming invasive
weeds and harming local biodiversity. Similarly, both conventional
and modern plant breeding involve introducing new genes into
established crop plants. Thus, they both pose a risk of introducing
potentially harmful proteins and other substances into the food
supply, some of which could be allergens or toxins. However, the mere
fact that new genes are being added to plants, even from wholly
unrelated organisms, does not make them less safe either to the
environment or to people.

An analysis published by the Institute of Food Technologists, a
professional society of food scientists, concluded that the
evaluation of biotech food "does not require a fundamental change in
established principles of food safety; nor does it require a
different standard of safety" than those that apply to conventional
foods. Under U.S. federal law, developers and marketers of all new
foods have a responsibility to ensure that the products they sell are
safe and in compliance with all legal requirements. Yet, that's where
the similarity in regulation of conventional and bioengineered foods
ends. Biotech plants are regulated much more stringently, even though
scientists agree that the same practices used to regulate new crop
varieties produced by means of conventional techniques are sufficient
to ensure the safety of plants developed with biotechnology.

For plants developed with more conventional techniques, regulators
rely on plant breeders to conduct appropriate safety testing and to
eliminate plants that exhibit unexpected adverse traits before they
are commercialized. No specific testing is required, nor is
pre-market approval necessary, even though new varieties produced
with these more conventional methods often contain hundreds of unique
proteins and other chemicals that may never have been in the food
supply before. Most of those newly introduced substances will be
totally unidentified (and unidentifiable) by the plant breeders. But
this rarely poses any real danger. Decades of accumulated scientific
evidence confirm that even the use of relatively crude and
unpredictable genetic techniques for the improvement of crops plants
poses minimal risk to human health and the environment.

But bioengineered plants, in which breeders actually know which new
genes and proteins are being introduced into the plant, are subjected
to heightened scrutiny in every country in the world where they are
grown. In the United States, they are regulated by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The USDA is charged with making sure that biotechnology-enhanced
plants do not become environmental nuisances or problematic weeds,
directly addressing the activists' concerns about "superweeds." The
EPA has jurisdiction over bioengineered plants that have a built-in
resistance to insects, plant diseases, or other substances -
including those that are resistant to herbicides. They are regulated
as strictly as synthetic chemical pesticides, and the agency is
responsible for ensuring that "pest-protected" biotech plants are
safe both for the environment and for human health. And the FDA is
responsible for ensuring that foods made from biotech plants are safe
for people and livestock to eat.

The differences in the way conventionally-bred and bioengineered
plants are regulated are clearly substantial. For example, some
varieties of canola, and soybean have been selectively bred with
conventional methods to be herbicide tolerant, but only bioengineered
herbicide tolerant plants are subject to special field-testing
requirements by the USDA. Other plants, such as kidney beans,
peaches, and potatoes, are known to contain naturally-occurring pest
resistant chemicals that are toxic in very high doses and pose a
small risk to human health, but only bioengineered pest resistant
plants require pre-market approval as pesticides by the EPA before
they can be commercialized. Both soybeans and potatoes are known to
occasionally contain proteins that are allergenic, but only biotech
plants face strict testing requirements for toxicity and

In short, dozens of new plant varieties produced through less precise
techniques like selection, hybridization, induced mutation, embryo
rescue, and other, non-biotech methods enter the market every year
without any special pre-market testing requirements. But every single
bioengineered plant on the market has been tested and re-tested,
going through several hundred - and in some cases, several thousand -
different tests to ensure environmental and human health protection.
Contrary to the assertions of ideological environmentalists, the
regulation of biotechnology is actually far more stringent than
necessary to ensure that bioengineered crop varieties are at least as
safe as conventional ones.

4. Are Biotech Crops Safe?

Opponents of biotechnology have long claimed that bioengineered
plants are unnatural and dangerous. Complaints range from general
charges of random, unintended effects that could make the plants
unsafe, to more specific criticisms alleging the possible
introduction of new toxins or allergens in the food supply.
Ideological environmentalists also claim that bioengineered plants
are more likely to have negative environmental impacts, including the
destruction of wild biodiversity. But, as mentioned above, all
bioengineered crop varieties are subjected to much greater regulatory
scrutiny than conventional crops, and the regulatory mechanism has
been designed specifically to prevent such potentially harmful side

Because different plant varieties will have different
characteristics, and thus, different risks, the regulatory approach
for biotech plants focuses on identifying the source of potential
hazards to the environment and human health that specific plants
might pose. Regulators draw upon the existing risk assessment process
for chemicals and novel foods, and factor in additional analyses
specific to biotechnology. For example, all methods of crop breeding
run the risk of unintended and unexpected disruptions in the normal
functioning of specific genes - called pleiotropic effects. So, crop
breeders always conduct a number of evaluations to eliminate
potentially harmful side effects before commercialization.

But for biotech plants, regulators require tests to compare the
biological, chemical, and agronomic equivalence of the modified
varieties with their closest related conventional varieties. This is
done to ensure that no pleiotropic effects have changed the new
bioengineered plant in a way that would make it unsafe - such as
changing the normally existing levels of plant nutrients or other
phytochemicals. Modest changes in the level of phytochemicals can
occur with any type of breeding, but no bioengineered plants that
have shown a significant change in important nutrients or toxins have
ever been put on the market. Although several new plant varieties
with intentionally altered phytochemicals are now being developed,
such as tomatoes, peppers, and rice with added or higher levels of
beta carotene, and soybeans with higher levels of vitamin E.

Regulatory evaluations also pay special attention to the genes that
are added to bioengineered plants, the source of those genes, the
traits that the genes produce, and whether or not they have a history
of safe use in the food supply. Scientists generally know a great
deal about the safety of genes that come from other plants or
micro-organisms that are already part of the food supply. For those
that are not, additional tests to ensure the safety of the genes and
their traits are required. The action of most genes is to help create
proteins, which could be toxins or allergens. So, several additional
studies are then required to ensure that the proteins are not toxic
and to measure the similarity of the proteins with known allergens to
ensure that no new allergenic substances are introduced into the food
supply. And numerous feed evaluations have shown no adverse effects
on livestock, or their meat or milk.

The potential for added genes to make bioengineered plants allergenic
is among the most widely cited concerns about biotechnology. Although
all forms of plant breeding pose some risk of introducing new
allergens into the food supply, biotechnology has been singled out by
activists for special attention. Professional scaremonger Jeremy
Rifkin argues that, "In the coming years, agrichemical and biotech
companies plan on introducing hundreds, even thousands of genes into
conventional food crops raising the very real possibility of
triggering new kinds of allergenic responses about which little is
known and for which there exist no known treatments." But Professor
Steve Taylor, a noted allergen researcher at the University of
Nebraska, thinks the risk is very small because, "there are good ways
of predicting the potential allergenicity of a genetically modified
food." In fact, one of the most important potential advantages of
biotechnology is actually to eliminate existing allergens from foods
like peanuts, wheat, and milk, by "silencing," or turning off," the
genes that generate allergenic proteins. Taylor says, "[I]n the long
term, we will have foods that are less hazardous because of
biotechnology will have eliminated or diminished their allergenicity."

Just as with human safety, the ecological impact of any new crop
depends on the type of introduced trait and the nature of the altered
crop. Specific traits are focused on for assessing potential toxicity
to beneficial insects, wild birds, and other animals. And the impacts
of the whole plants are studied by assessing their similarity to
traditional counterparts. New biotech plants are also assessed for
their potential to cross-pollinate with wild or weedy plants, which
could move the bioengineered traits into wild species with
potentially negative consequences. Ecological aspects, such as
potential to become problematic weeds and a range of other potential
environmental effects, are studied prior to commercialization in
small field trials. These effects are also monitored carefully after
commercialization. Although some complaints have been lodged by
farmers regarding the agronomic performance of certain bioengineered
crop plants, no genuine environmental problems have yet been

There is a risk that genes from biotech varieties could be
transferred to wild plants through cross-pollination, but only in
regions where there are closely enough related wild species for
ordinary sexual reproduction. Moreover, this "out-crossing" is really
only problematic when the genes in question could enhance the
reproductive fitness of the recipient weeds: that is, enable weeds to
produce and scatter seeds that survive better in the wild. Gene flow
between crops and wild plants has been going on for a long time and
is by no means unique to biotechnology. It has not been a problem
though, because most genes that are introduced into crop plants,
conventional or biotech, have little value in the wild. In fact,
while some traits added with either bioengineering or conventional
breeding methods could provide an ecological advantage, most crop
traits tend to make plants less likely to survive the rigors of the

For example, herbicide-tolerant rapeseed plants have been produced
with conventional breeding for 20 years, and no unmanageable weed
problems have been reported as a result of their use. So, while the
transfer of a gene for herbicide tolerance into a wild relative could
create a nuisance for farmers, it is unlikely to have any impact on
wild biodiversity because the herbicide tolerance trait wouldn't give
the wild plant any selective advantage relative to other weeds. Even
in the extremely unlikely event that herbicide tolerance genes were
transferred to a weed species, it wouldn't run amok in farmers'
fields. Farmers could still control it by using other herbicides to
which it was not tolerant.

Still ideological environmentalists insist that any out-crossing of
genes from bioengineered plants into conventional or wild plants will
be negative. In one recent case, ecologists from the University of
California at Berkeley reported evidence that genes from
bioengineered corn varieties had been transferred into local
varieties of corn in Oaxaca state in southern Mexico where no
bioengineered varieties have yet been approved for commercial
cultivation. Although this report was later shown to be false,
concerns arose among some ideological environmentalists that the
presence of certain genes could only be explained by cross
pollination from bioengineered varieties and that their presence
posed a threat to the genetic diversity of the many landrace or
heirloom varieties in what is considered to be the birthplace of
corn. One Greenpeace activist from Mexico argued that, "It's a worse
attack on our culture than if [biotech companies] had torn down the
Cathedral of Oaxaca and built a McDonald's over it."

However, Mexican farmers reproduce their varieties by carefully
selecting the seed they save from year to year. Thus, if a gene
producing an undesirable trait is transferred into certain plants,
seed from those crops will not be planted the following year and will
be eliminated from the gene pool. This practice has worked very well
for millennia and explains why Mexican farmers can plant many
different varieties next to one another, without worrying about
cross-pollination. Luis Herrera-Estrella, a plant scientist and
director of the Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Irapuato,
Mexico has noted that "gene flow between commercial and native
varieties is a natural process that has been occurring for many
decades," so "there is no scientific basis for believing that
out-crossing from biotech crops could endanger [corn] biodiversity."
Indeed, the presence of certain genes from biotech varieties could
actually enhance genetic diversity by improving the ability of
landrace varieties to resist pests, making them more productive.

Given concerns about the spread of bioengineered genes, you might
think biotech opponents would welcome innovations designed to keep
them confined. But when scientists at the U.S. Department of
Agriculture and the Delta Pine Land Company did just that,
environmentalists were infuriated. The process, called the Technology
Protection System (TPS), was designed to make plant seeds sterile by
interfering with the development of plant embryos. Hope Shand,
research director for the Rural Advancement Foundation International,
dubbed it "Terminator Technology." Jeremy Rifkin calls it
"pathological," and has spread fears that escape of the TPS genes
into weed populations through cross-pollination could destroy great
swaths of plant life. But in the remote possibility of
cross-pollination with weedy relatives, genes for traits such as
herbicide tolerance or pest resistance wouldn't create "superweeds,"
because the TPS trait would prevent the wild plants from reproducing.
Biotechnology companies like TPS because preventing farmers from
replanting saved seeds from the prior year's harvest would protect
the breeder's considerable investment in the development of new
varieties. But critics see TPS as one more facet of global corporate
hegemony. Mark Ritchie, president of the Institute for Agriculture
and Trade Policy, argues that "It is a threat globally to food
security, which is a basic human right."

Like many other concerns about biotechnology, this issue too has a
non-biotech analogue. High-yielding hybrid varieties of plants like
corn don't breed true, so most crop growers in the U.S. and Western
Europe have been buying seed annually for decades. Thus, Technology
Protected seeds wouldn't represent a big change in the way many
American and European farmers farm. Many farmers in less developed
countries have resisted hybrid technology because they prefer to have
the option to plant saved seed. Similarly, if farmers didn't want the
advantages offered in the enhanced crops protected by TPS, they would
be free to buy seeds without the technology protection, just as
farmers are free to buy non-hybrid seeds. Nevertheless, some of the
biggest biotechnology companies have succumbed to pressures from
environmental activists and aid organizations, and have promised not
to commercialize the TPS technology. In any case, gene flow from
bioengineered crops creating "superweeds" is not very likely.

Also consider that the biotech plants themselves are not likely to
"escape" from farm fields and become weeds themselves, because crop
plants of all varieties are generally not suited for existence in the
wild-they need to be pampered. One noteworthy result of the extensive
transformation of wild plants into crop varieties was the loss of
many traits required for wild existence and the creation of a true
dependency of modern crop plants upon human care for their survival.
A ten-year study by British scientists found that neither biotech nor
conventional crop plants survive well in the wild, and biotech
varieties are no more likely than their conventional counterparts to
invade wild ecosystems. Researchers have identified at least 12
genetic traits that are necessary for plants to be successful weeds.
And crop plants typically have only six of them. For example, one of
the most important traits shared by all weeds is their ability to
disperse seeds beyond the immediate area. But crop varieties are bred
specifically for their ability to hold seeds, and thus have lost
their dispersal ability. The fact is that modern cultivated plants,
such as corn or soybeans, are incapable of invading and taking over
forests and meadows.

Naturally, farmers and scientists are nevertheless vigilant against
the unlikely chance that plants could out-cross with weeds or that
the crop plants themselves could become weedy as a result of adding
new traits. But this is the case whether or not a particular plant
was modified with conventional or biotech methods. The risk of gene
transfer to weeds is similar with both conventional and biotech
varieties, and has no relation to the methods used in altering the
plants. And because farmers are the first people affected by new
weeds, they have a direct and strong incentive to prevent their
development. The testing and monitoring of biotech crops, combined
with hundreds of years of experience with conventional varieties,
provides more than sufficient safeguard that such risks will be
minimal and manageable.

The effect of biotechnology on crop biodiversity is another
often-cited concern. The popularity of high-yielding varieties has
narrowed the genetic variation found in major crops, because more and
more farmers are planting the same or similar varieties. But
biotechnology, if employed strategically, can reverse this trend by
permitting the recovery of older varieties that were discarded for
lack of certain features (such as resistance to new disease strains).
With modern bioengineering techniques, older heirloom and landrace
varieties can be modified to add such traits without destroying
genetic diversity. Biotechnology researchers are also developing
better methods for the preservation of germplasm in laboratories,
such as cryopreservation, where plant cells with valuable genes are
being stored and thus saved from extinction.

Despite the record of safety in biotech and the existence of a strict
regulatory system, ideological environmentalists remain obdurate in
their opposition to the technology. They seize on even the most
tenuous evidence to justify their continued attacks. In 1998, for
example, a Scottish scientist named Arpad Pusztai claimed that his
research showed a variety of bioengineered potatoes had negative
health effects in lab rats. Pusztai fed rats with conventional
potatoes and an experimental biotech potato variety that was never
put on the market. He claimed to have found that the bioengineered
variety damaged the immune systems and stimulated abnormal cell
division in the digestive tracts of the lab rats. But many scientists
have shown that Pusztai's research methodology was critically flawed,
and that no conclusions about the safety of biotech foods can be
drawn from his data.

Pusztai fed the rats only potatoes, making no attempt to provide
nutritionally-balanced diets. So, all the rats in the study
experienced adverse health effects. In addition, because Pusztai used
an experimental variety and not one that was likely to be
commercialized, the bioengineered potatoes were nutritionally
impaired, lacking several key vitamins. Any effects that Pusztai
might have observed were almost certainly due to these two factors.
After an extensive review, the British Royal Society issued a
statement explaining why the experiment was fatally flawed, and noted
that, "On the basis of this paper, it is wrong to conclude that there
are human health concerns with the process of genetic modification
itself, or even with the particular genes inserted into these
[biotech] potatoes."

To date, no scientist has replicated Pusztai's study with
bioengineered potatoes to confirm his results. But a team of Chinese
scientists conducted their own studies of bioengineered sweet peppers
and tomatoes, and found no such biological changes. A Japanese study
likewise found no negative effects on the immune systems of rats fed
with biotech soybeans. And nearly two-dozen publications evaluating
the effect of various biotech feeds on livestock have found no
evidence of harm. Nevertheless, Arpad Pusztai's flawed research has
become a touchstone for anti-biotechnology activists, who persist in
claiming that it highlights the "dangers" of bioengineered food.

Although the Pusztai story made headlines in Europe, it was largely
ignored by the mainstream press in the United States. But U.S.
activists were provided with their own anti-biotech scare story in
1999, when the results of a laboratory test were published finding
that pollen from a type of bioengineered corn could kill Monarch
butterfly caterpillars. This was hardly news to plant scientists,
though, because the corn had been engineered to kill the caterpillars
that are the major insect pests of corn. Nevertheless, the paper's
publication triggered an immediate frenzy of anti-biotech stories in
the media coverage.

A USA Today headline declared "Engineered corn kills butterflies."
The Associated Press led with "Lab-Designed Corn May Harm Insects," a
report the Boston Globe published with the headline, "Butterfly
deaths linked to altered corn." A review of the news coverage by one
journalism researcher found that, between 1997 and 2000, the New York
Times and the London Times used fewer and fewer university-based
scientists as sources, and they were more than twice as likely to
quote representatives from such activist groups as Greenpeace, the
Environmental Defense Fund, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Such adverse coverage primed readers to be skeptical of
biotechnology. So, when a second Monarch study, which attempted to
simulate field conditions of corn pollen dispersal, found that pollen
distribution onto milkweed plants in and around corn fields could be
high enough to kill the Monarch caterpillars, plant biotechnology's
future looked gloomy.

Many scientists, however, pointed out that neither study accurately
simulated real world conditions. Corn pollination happens at a
different time of year than Monarch larval development, and the
amount of pollen that is spread falls dramatically beyond about 20 to
30 feet from the edge of corn fields. Moreover, all types of insects
- Monarchs included - would be killed if farmers sprayed synthetic
chemical insecticides instead of using the biotech crop varieties.
So, most scientists concluded that a tiny effect on Monarchs should
not condemn biotech corn. Ultimately, the gloomy scenario predicted
by the initial research seemed to be contradicted by several factors,
including the fact that Monarch butterfly populations had actually
increased since the introduction of biotech corn in the United States.

Nevertheless, even the speculation that pollen could contribute to
the spread of potentially risky genes moved some scientists to
accelerate research into ways of avoiding such a problem in the
future. One idea, already under investigation, is to insert
transferred genes into a specific part of the plant DNA that controls
cellular organelles called chloroplasts, which contain the machinery
for photosynthesis. There is no chloroplast DNA in the pollen of most
crop plants, so isolating bioengineered genes there would normally be
expected to contain the genes and the proteins made by them inside
the plant. This chloroplast engineering technique is also being
investigated as a potential way to prevent, or reduce, the
possibility of bioengineered genes being transferred to weedy
relatives through cross-pollination.

Fortunately, at least in the case of Bt corn and Monarch butterflies,
chloroplast-engineering doesn't appear to be necessary, because
doubts about the dire implications of the Monarch butterfly research
have been confirmed. Six peer-reviewed papers published in the highly
respected Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in October
2001, should eliminate concerns about the effects of biotech corn
pollen on Monarch caterpillars. The papers describe two full years
worth of intensive field research by 29 scientists - including three
of five authors of the two critical reports - who found little or no
effect of Bt pollen on Monarchs. Other research shows little or no
impact on other beneficial insects and soil organisms. Nevertheless,
these robust scientific results have not stopped activists from using
Monarch costumes in their street-theaters and protests against
biotechnology. The Union of Concerned Scientists (a leading
ideological environmentalist organization) continues to use images of
Monarch butterflies on its web site and fund-raising envelopes as a
way of perpetuating the politically useful myth that crop
biotechnology is causing environmental damage.

What is all too often overlooked by anti-biotech activists, however,
is the fact that bioengineered crop varieties have substantial
positive impacts on the environment. In addition to the significant
reduction in chemical insecticide applications mentioned above, the
introduction of biotech crops has made agriculture more efficient,
promoting the conservation of important resources. Scientists from
Louisiana State University and Auburn University found that when
farmers plant bioengineered pest resistant crop varieties, fewer
natural resources are consumed to manufacture and transport
pesticides. Their study, which examined only pest resistant cotton,
estimated that in 2000, 3.4 million pounds of raw materials and 1.4
million pounds of fuel oil were saved in the manufacture and
distribution of synthetic insecticides. Additionally, 2.16 million
pounds of industrial waste were eliminated. On the user end, farmers
used 2.4 million gallons less fuel, 93 million gallons less water,
and were spared some 41,000 10-hour days needed for applying
pesticide sprays.

Perhaps most important is the fact that the increased productivity
generated by bioengineered crop varieties will make it easier to
conserve valuable wildlife habitat around the world. The loss and
fragmentation of native habitats caused by agricultural development
in the poorer regions of the world experiencing the greatest rates of
population growth is widely recognized as among the most serious
threats to the conservation of biodiversity. Thus, increasing
agricultural productivity is an essential environmental goal, and one
that would be much easier in a world where agricultural biotechnology
is in widespread use.

Consider just one example. Rice is the major staple food for about
2.5 billion people, almost all of whom live in the less developed
regions of the world where the bulk of 21st century population growth
is expected to take place. The International Rice Research Institute
estimates that reducing yield losses of rice by just 5 percent
worldwide could feed an additional 140 million people. Highly
promising field tests in 1999 and 2000 showed a bioengineered rice
variety to produce 28.9 percent higher yields than conventional
hybrid rice varieties. The environmental benefit of just this one
biotech variety could be tremendous, if only wrongheaded
international regulations inspired by ideological environmentalism do
not doom its future.

6. International Rules

While U.S. regulation of biotechnology is overly strict, it pales in
comparison with that in many other countries - particularly those
countries that comprise the European Union (EU). Environmental
activists in the EU, and in the United Kingdom in particular, have
been aided and abetted by a sympathetic media willing to report
uncritically activists' scaremongering as a way to sell more
newspapers and magazines. Great Britain's Express ran such headlines
as "Mutant crops could kill you," and "Is baby food safe?" The Daily
Mail chimed in with "Mutant Crops' Threat To Wildlife," and the
Guardian added "Gene crops could spell extinction for birds." Thus,
the general public in most EU nations has become far more skeptical
of biotechnology than the public in the United States. Theories
abound regarding why this suspicion arose. But one thing is certain:
The greater public sensitivity to the issue of biotechnology has had
a direct and deleterious impact on the development of European
regulatory policy.

Beginning in 1990, the European Commission implemented a set of
biotechnology regulations for all EU member countries. The rules are
far more onerous than those in the United States, and the regulatory
process is complex and difficult to navigate. For example, 18
varieties of biotech crop plants - including varieties of corn,
canola, cotton, potato, tomato, and soybean - have been approved for
commercial cultivation. But only two varieties - one corn and one
soybean - have been approved for use in food. None of this matters
much, however, because EU rules also require bioengineered foods to
be labeled. And, due to the strong negative opinion of biotech foods
held by a sizeable portion of the public, few grocery stores will
stock products labeled as being bioengineered.

Further problems stem from the fact that new bioengineered plant
varieties must be approved by all 15 member nations in the European
Union before they can be grown by farmers or sold as food. The
objection of any one government can prevent the new variety from
being granted EU approval. Since 1998, Austria, Denmark, France,
Greece, Italy, and Luxembourg have blocked the EU's approval of all
new bioengineered varieties. In 1998, the highest French court
suspended commercialization of three biotech corn varieties, even
though the French government had supported their approval at the EU
level just two years earlier. And in November 1999, the UK government
announced a moratorium on commercial planting of bioengineered crops,
pending a three-year program of farm-scale evaluations to assess
environmental impacts. But test crops are routinely destroyed by
anti-biotech activists, delaying completion of the research. And
under persistent threat of attack, many farmers are dropping out of
the program.

To make matter worse, an even stronger set of biotech regulations
were being finalized by the European Commission in 2001. The rules,
which EU politicians boast to be "the toughest [biotechnology]
legislation in the world," are touted as just the trick to restore
public confidence in the technology. But because they are so much
more strict, more complex, and more costly, they are likely to make
it more difficult to grow and sell biotech crops, not less so. Any
positive impact on public opinion is likely to be swamped by the
negative impact of trussing biotech researchers and farmers in
ribbons of red tape.

Although dangerously wrongheaded, the European hysteria over biotech
foods initially was seen as a regional problem. Increasingly,
however, poor countries in East Asia are taking a far more cautious
approach to biotechnology regulation. Japan, which has been a
longtime leader in biotechnology research, has recently tightened
restrictions on biotech food imports. And the European Union is
pushing its overly-strict rules into international treaties affecting
countries around the world. The EU was the primary advocate of the
Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, for example, which regulates the
planting of bioengineered crops and the international trade in
harvested biotech grains, vegetables, and fruits.

Finalized in January 2000, the Biosafety Protocol is intended to
ensure that the introduction of bioengineered organisms into the
environment is "undertaken in a manner that prevents or reduces the
risks to biological diversity." But it also encourages countries to
create unnecessarily severe biotechnology regulations based upon the
Precautionary Principle that overemphasize biotechnology's very
modest risks and ignore its vast potential benefits. (See the chapter
on the Precautionary Principle in this volume.) Thus, laws enacted
under the auspices of the Biosafety Protocol are likely to slow the
research and development of new biotech products needlessly.
Moreover, by making it easier for countries to create scientifically
unjustifiable restrictions, the Protocol will undoubtedly be abused
by politicians seeking trade protection for their domestic
agriculture and food processing industries.

Importantly, countries whose exporters are adversely affected by
biotechnology rules based on the precautionary principle might be
able to challenge them through the World Trade Organization's (WTO)
dispute settlement processes. The WTO trade rules generally prohibit
countries from restricting trade with environmental or public health
laws that are not based upon a scientifically demonstrated risk. For
a variety of reasons, however, it is not altogether clear that WTO
rules would take precedence over the Biosafety Protocol, nor even
that the WTO would be inclined to rule against biotechnology
restrictions enacted to meet the Protocol's requirements.

Another important feature of the Biosafety Protocol is its
requirement that bulk shipments of harvested agricultural products be
labeled if they contain any biotech grains, fruits, or vegetables. To
comply, farmers, shippers, and other food handlers would have to
create hugely expensive segregation and record-keeping mechanisms,
and test the foods at each step of the production process, to isolate
conventional varieties from bioengineered ones. The EU's Directorate
General for Agriculture estimates that the "identity preservation"
costs alone for such a labeling requirement would range from 6
percent to 17 percent for commodity grains. The newly proposed
European biotechnology law is set to go even further, by requiring
not just mandatory labeling, but also "traceability" of biotech foods
- an array of technical, labeling, and record-keeping mechanisms that
require food processors to keep track of grains, fruits, vegetables,
and other ingredients from the plant breeder, to the farm, to the
grain handler, and beyond - from dirt to dinner plate.

Ultimately, labeling requirements like those enforced in the European
Union represent serious obstacles that could all but destroy the
affordability of biotechnology products and impede their adoption in
the poorer regions of the world that need it most. The 2001 Human
Development Report issued by the United Nations' Development Program
laments that "The opposition to yield-enhancing [bioengineered] crops
in industrial countries with food surpluses could block the
development and transfer of those crops to food-deficit countries."

7. What About Labeling?

Regulatory agencies around the world could learn a thing or two from
the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's treatment of calls for
biotech food labeling. Just as in Europe, some activists in the U.S.
have called upon the government to mandate the labeling of all
bioengineered foods. They assert that consumers have a "right to
know" how their foods have been altered, and that a mandatory label
would best allow consumers to choose between bioengineered and
conventional foods. Biotechnology proponents and free speech
advocates, on the other hand, have argued against mandatory labeling
because such a requirement would unnecessarily raise food costs,
mislead consumers into believing that the labeled products pose a
heightened safety risk, and violate constitutional free speech rights.

Despite harsh attacks and considerable political pressure fro