The National Post
August 2, 2000
By Michael Fumento
A European import we'd do well to reject: Continental-style opposition to
biotech flies in the face of science
Look, I'm all for free trade. But there's one import we can do without:
the European model of activism against biotech food. And it's precisely
that which a coalition of North American groups has just pledged to
North American biotech bashers have been making noise for the past several
years, ranging from somewhat plausible rhetoric to outright screeching.
But this unsavory import goes beyond that.
It means imitating European activists by picketing grocery stores, scaring
consumers and systematically ripping up test plots on a massive scale.
Intimidating producers is a major part of the program. So, to show they
mean business, the coalition kicked off a campaign against the Campbell's
Soup Company. They hoped to make the giant food corporation insert its
tail firmly between its legs and run like mad from biotechnology.
Such efforts have been fairly effective in Europe. But it's a
scientifically bankrupt campaign, and probably a losing one this side of
the Atlantic. Here's why.
For more than two decades, North American companies have been researching
crop biotechnology. For nearly 10 years, Canadian and U.S. regulatory
bodies have reviewed the safety of biotech crops.
These include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug
Administration, and the Department of Agriculture in the States. In
Canada, biotech food is regulated by both Health Canada and the Canadian
Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). There are no less than five acts under
which biotechnology products are regulated by the CFIA. Yet already 42
different biotech plants have made it through the Canadian regulatory
Since the first such crops were approved in both Canada and the U.S. in
1994, farmers have been eagerly adopting the technology because in various
manifestations it allows them to use less chemical pesticide, improve
yields and farm more efficiently.
During that time, the estimated number of North Americans sickened by food
poisoning: almost half a million; the number sickened by biotech food:
None of which matters to professional foes of the future, who see
technology and progress as inherently evil.
They also know future-fighting has proved quite profitable in Europe.
Not long ago, Amsterdam-based Greenpeace International was in danger of
being labelled "Redpeace," because of its hemorrhaging budget. That is,
according to Food Security Newswire, until its anti-biotech campaign came
to the rescue. Suddenly the dollars, pounds, marks, and francs started
American activists would love to cash in, too, but may well find it too
Their European counterparts struck before the scientific community was
sufficiently mobilized to counter their claims. Now, as North Americans
push their jalopy on to the street, the scientific community is nearly
unified in a roadblock.
Just in July, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of
London, the Third World Academy of Sciences and the national academies of
Brazil , China, India and Mexico issued a joint report about agricultural
These scientists, on the most elite science panels around the world,
firmly endorsed the continued development of biotechnology.
More than 2,700 eminent scientists have signed a statement in support of
biotechnology. Signers include three Nobel Prize winners.
Scientists with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and
Development, representing 29 developed nations, concluded biotech food
carries no greater risk than the non-biotech variety.
The National Research Council in the U.S. has determined that federal
regulation of biotechnology is protective of public health, while the
director-general of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization has declared
biotech food to be a "vital tool in the fight against hunger."
The Kellogg's Company has told the activists to scram, yet other major
corporations partly caved in. In light of the above recent developments,
no one can say what the corporate trend is.
But it's telling that Campbell's told the biotech bashers to go out and
play in the traffic.
Biotech food is as "equally nutritious and equally safe" as other food,
said a Campbell's spokesman. He added that less than 0.1% of calls to the
Campbell's consumer hotline concern biotech.
Further crippling the activist efforts is that even some of their members
are crying, "Stop this thing and let me off!"
Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, a Vancouver Island logger's son,
angrily jumped ship some time ago and is now on the lecture circuit.
As companies and governments eventually adopted most of the true
environmentalists' agenda, environmental groups clung to their
confrontational roles, he says. "To stay in an adversarial role, those
people had to adopt ever more extreme positions, because all the
reasonable ones were being accepted."
Indeed, a Greenpeace fund-raiser recently proclaimed: "Our purpose is not
to be scientifically correct," but to "move the needle and effect a
William Plaxton, professor of biology and biochemistry at Queen's
University in Ontario, resigned as an advisor to Greenpeace last year. "I
can no longer back an organization ... that has recently undertaken such a
blanket condemnation, fear-mongering and non-scientific attack against the
production and use of genetically modified plants," he declared.
A group of disenchanted Greenpeace members has set up its own Web site
(www.greenpiece.org) to encourage others to resign.
The recent mustering of overwhelming scientific support may even be
causing an erosion of activist gains in Europe, where no new biotech crop
has been approved in more than two years.
The European Commission said in July that it's time to accept that
genetically engineered food does not pose a threat to the public and that
new types should be approved. "The scientific evidence that is available
to all of us" is that biotech foods pose no danger, said David Byrne, the
commissioner in charge of consumer protection.
Our activists may well find that what they seek to import from Europe, we
don't want. Better to stick with cars, chocolates and wine.
Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington,
D.C., where he specializes in health and safety issues.