Protests Against Biotechnology in Foods Are Off Target

By Michael Fumento

Colorado Springs Gazette, August 8, 2000
Copyright 2000 The Colorado Springs Gazette

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Look, I’m all for free trade. But there’s one import we can really do without: the European model of activism against biotech food. And it’s precisely that which a coalition of American groups has just pledged to implement.

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 its between 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 in the States. Here’s why.

For over two decades, American companies have been researching crop biotechnology. For nearly 10 years, U.S. regulatory bodies have reviewed the safety of biotech crops. These include the EPA, FDA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA.)

Since the first such crops were approved in 1994, farmers have eagerly been adopting the technology because in various manifestations they allow them to use less chemical pesticide, improve yields, and farm more efficiently.

During that time, the estimated number of Americans sickened by food poisoning: over 450 million; the number sickened by biotech food: zero.

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 found itself in danger of being labeled "Redpeace," because of its hemorrhaging budget. That is, according to Food Security Newswire, until its antibiotech campaign came to the rescue.

Suddenly the dollars, pounds, marks, and francs started pouring in.

American activists would love to cash in too, but may well find it too late.

Their European counterparts struck before the scientific community was sufficiently mobilized to counter their claims. Now, as the Americans push their jalopy onto 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 biotechnology.

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 Cooperation and Development, representing 29 developed nations, concluded biotech food carries no greater risk than non-biotech.

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 U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization has declared biotech food to be a "vital tool in the fight against hunger."

A congressional science subcommittee also concluded that biotech foods are thoroughly and adequately tested to ensure protection of both health and the environment.

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.

Campbell’s told Greenpeace to ship out.

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 Campbell’s spokesman. He added that less than a tenth of one percent of calls to the Campbell’s consumer hotline concern biotech.

Furthering 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 fundraiser recently proclaimed: "Our purpose is not to be scientifically correct," but to "move the needle and affect a radical change."

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 also set up its own website (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 told London’s Guardian newspaper.

Our activists may well find that what they seek to import from Europe, Americans don’t want. Better to stick with cars, chocolates, and wine.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on biotechnology, on environmentalists, and on pesticides.