Biotech Crops: Rely on the Science
The Washington Post
Copyright 2000, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved
Opponents of biotech foods harbor visions of genetically modified crops
escaping into the environment, creating "superweeds" that could have an
advantage over other vegetation. This will not happen for a logical reason.
plants that researchers want to improve through biotechnology are crops that
are well understood--corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, canola, etc. Plant breeders
have been working with these crops for centuries, looking for other plants
might contribute desirable traits to the crops' genetic makeup and using
techniques such as mutagenesis and wide-crosses to introduce these traits.
Breeders have found that, with rare exceptions, the crops do not successfully
cross-breed with other plants in the environment, especially plants in
crop-growing regions. There is no reason to believe that an agricultural plant
with one new gene will suddenly be able to breed with plants in the wild. The
U.S. Department of Agriculture is charged with ensuring that no plant pest is
introduced into the environment, and it has authority to stop sale at any time
if a plant is determined to have become a pest.
Opponents of biotech also imagine changes that could cause a safe food to
suddenly be unsafe--for example a nonallergenic food becoming allergenic.
Extensive studies give assurance that this will not happen. First, the genetic
material to be introduced is fed to rodents at an extremely high dose. The
material is also examined to see whether it has anything in common with known
Once the material has been introduced into a plant, the plant is studied to
if inserting the gene created a new allergen. Several generations of the plant
are analyzed for any unexpected changes.
Extensive studies compare the improved plant with a conventionally bred
counterpart. Levels of protein, fat, fiber, starch, amino acids, fatty acids,
ash and sugar are all compared with levels in the conventional plant.
anti-nutrients, natural toxicants or known allergens likewise are compared.
Field studies compare many biological factors, including height, color, leaf
orientation, roots, flowering, shape, strength and grain size. If inserting a
new gene causes no change in all of the factors examined, the Food and Drug
Administration can conclude with great assurance that the improved crop is
substantially equivalent to and as safe as the conventional crop.
What about wildlife? If the improved plant performs a function formerly
performed by a chemical pesticide, such as protecting corn or cotton from
insects, the Environmental Protection Agency requires extensive studies to
assess the safety to humans as well as non-target insects and other wildlife.
The inserted genetic material is tested on a range of non-target insect
such as honeybees, green lacewings, ladybird beetles and earthworms. It is
fed to birds, fish and mammals. In addition, theAgriculture Department
all biotech crops in several years' worth of field trials to see whether
plantings have any adverse effect on wildlife.
Activists have alleged that regulators were surprised that insect-protected
corn pollen had an adverse effect on Monarch butterflies. In truth, the EPA
considered the fact that the corn, which is harmless to other wildlife, is
intended to kill the larvae of lepidopteran insects (moths and butterflies).
Before granting approval for the corn, the EPA evaluated whether or not the
larvae of desirable species, which do not feed on corn, would be exposed. The
agency evaluated the potential risk and concludedthat the benefit of removing
chemical insecticide from the environment outweighed the possibility that some
butterflies might be exposed.
After all the uproar--caused by a laboratory study in which Monarch larvae
forced to eat the pollen--it is now clear that butterfly larvae have very
little exposure in the field. Actual field studies have borne out what the EPA
projected more than four years ago.
In a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences on the safety and
testing of foods derived from biotechnology, the consensus among the
was that no evidence exists that biotech foods are unsafe. The rigor of
regulatory oversight and the potential of the technology was articulated in a
House Science Committee report on agricultural biotechnology, which concluded
not only that there is no significant difference between plant varieties
created using agricultural biotechnology and similar plants created using
traditional crossbreeding but also that biotechnology holds tremendous
potential to provide safe and nutritious foods, to protect the environment and
lower costs to consumers.
I agree with the NAS report that more awareness of the regulatory process is
needed. Because without any doubt the biggest problem with our robust,
science-based regulatory system is that not enough people understand how it
works. The real issue is ensuring that individuals have factual, science-based
information so that they can make informed decisions.
The writer is director of the University of California at Davis's