Biotech Beyond the Screen

By Michael Fumento

The Washington Times, April 2, 2001
Copyright 2001 The Washington Times

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Granted, 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II have done far worse hatchet jobs than its "What You Don’t Know about Biotech Food," which aired on the latter show.

The problem is, it didn’t give us what we should know.

Instead, it took a wonderful opportunity to explore the biotech bounty that awaits us, then threw it away by highlighting a few doomsayers who did their best to shiver our timbers — even if it meant fabricating crucial facts.

Case in point: Andrew Kimbrell, head of the ambiguously-named International Center for Technology Assessment, in Washington, D.C. "It is ever more urgent that we become heretics to the religion of science and that we reinvent and devolve our technology," Kimbrell wrote in The Ecologist a few years ago.

Ignoring these decidedly extreme views, CBS repeated Kimbrell’s claim that of the laws used to regulate biotech crops, "none were passed with biotechnology in mind." It added, "These laws are 30, 40 and even 50 years old when biotechnology wasn’t invented yet."

Flat wrong.

Makers of biotech food products are regulated by the FDA, the EPA, and the USDA. Conversely, introduce a new non-biotech food in the U.S. (either from cross-breeding or from another country) and nobody bats a regulatory eyelash.

The part about the regulations being pre-biotech is also utterly false. The original laws giving the FDA, EPA, and USDA jurisdiction to regulate biotech foods came in 1992, 1994, and 1984, respectively.

In Canada, the first regulations regarding biotech food were published in 1994, while the European Union also specifically regulates biotech food, as does Japan and many other individual countries.

"Genetic engineering is a powerful technology, that’s why it goes through such extensive regulatory review, and much more so than conventional crops," observes Professor Douglas Powell, Director of the Agri-Food Risk Management and Communication Project of the University of Guelph in Ontario.

Does Kimbrell not know this? Does CBS not employ fact checkers?

CBS also relied on Arpad Pustzai, a scientist formerly employed in a Scottish lab who hit the lecture circuit after publicizing a highly controversial test in which he fed a small number of rats potatoes containing a gene spliced into them from a poisonous flower.

"Pustzai says the rats that ate the genetically engineered potatoes suffered unusual thickening of the lining of the stomach and intestine and a weakening of the immune system," said the CBS narrator. "Part of his work was published by [highly-respected medical journal] The Lancet."

Indeed, it was — over the vociferous objections of two of The Lancet’s reviewers.

The Lancet also published a critique declaring Pustzai’s study was "incomplete," that the results are difficult to interpret and do not allow the conclusion that the genetic modification of potatoes accounts for adverse effects in animals."

Even Pustzai hasn’t been consistent on interpreting his data.

On a British TV program in 1998 he claimed that "the effect [of feeding the transgenic potatoes to rats] was slight growth retardation and an effect on the immune system." Yet he told a committee of Britain’s Parliament that "no differences between parent and GM potatoes could be found."

Will the real Arpad Pustzai study please stand up?

To its credit, 60 Minutes I did say that Pustzai’s work had been heavily criticized by scientists and that other researchers "have done experiments indicating biotech food is safe."

But in a 17-minute segment, what useful purpose did Pustzai serve?

Here’s what CBS could have said in less time:
  • Virtually everything we eat has been genetically altered through cross-breeding and making use of natural and artificial mutations. This process began about 10,000 years ago.
  • Even nature crosses species lines. The human genome shows evidence of more than 200 bacteria that have now become part of us.
  • Biotech engineering is much more specific and hence potentially safer, since it involves transferring at most a few genes rather than mixing entire sets of genes.
  • Foodborne illness is estimated to cause 76 million illnesses, over 300,000 hospitalizations, and 5,200 deaths in the United States each year, according to the CDC. Nobody has ever suffered so much as a tummy ache from biotech food.
  • Biotech food is already reducing pesticide needs and giving cropland back to nature. It’s giving plants genes to resist heat, cold, drought, and flooding, to grow faster, and to produce more nutrients and higher yields. Soon countless millions of people will be removed from the list of those endangered by famine even as the world population grows.

Let’s be fair; it is hard to describe the current and future wonders of biotech food in less than 20 minutes. Too bad 60 Minutes II didn’t even try.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on biotechnology and on media.