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June 1999
Volume 17, Number 6

In Defense of "Frankenfood"
by Brian Doherty

Nowadays every frontier of human achievement faces a regulatory barrier that must be crossed. Those regulatory barriers are often prompted by interest group fears based more in political theory than reality. In particular, biotechnology is one of the more contested and feared additions to man's arsenal of control over his environment.

Consider the public hysteria over biotech foods, known as "GM" (for genetically modified) foods. Humans have been, clumsily and often ignorantly, "genetically modifying" foods since agriculture began, crossing seed lines and creating hybrids. All contemporary recombinant DNA technology adds to the mix is precision--we can now be more careful and more certain we know what we are doing than ever before when it comes to blending genes in our foodstuffs.

Scientific, as opposed to popular or political, thought on GM foods is nearly unanimous: we have no particular reason to fear GM technologies producing "superweeds," newly pathogenic foods, or any other dreadful crisis. Yet Europeans especially are afire with opposition to GM foods.

While the phrase "Luddite" is thrown about perhaps too loosely in debates over the wisdom and application of new technologies, some Europeans are employing genuinely Luddite techniques of destruction to express their unhappiness with GM foods--burning crop fields, urinating on seeds.

These neo-Luddite lovers of fantasies of an unblemished nature (actual unblemished nature leaves no room for such precious concerns) emphatically do not want to be part of any new phase in the Green Revolution--a market- and technology-fueled leap in the ability to feed more people while using less land for cultivation.

As Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute points out, "The same people saying don't use bioengineered foods are also saying we must save wildlife, and those are mutually incompatible goals." They prefer a return to organic foods, which are both incapable of meeting human food needs for a growing population (or even the current population) and require vast expanses of land to grow on. "Going back to organic foods," Avery points out, "with half the yield, we get both genocide and wildlife destruction."

That appears to be a price nature-besotted enemies of biotech are willing to pay. England was abuzz recently with a quickly-discredited report from one government scientist that an experimental potato which generated its own pesticide was causing liver damage in rats. (The scientist went on TV with his sensational results before they'd been reviewed, and his own institute disowned the report.) This prompted a consortium of 37 busybody groups to call for a 5-year moratorium on even researching GM foods.

In the U.S. last year 60 million acres were seeded with biotech-engineered foods, including soybeans, corn, tomatoes, and potatoes. Since in food processing both GM and non-GM sources are mixed, any processed food with soy or corn products--which are legion--could well have GM content. Since creating entirely new transportation and storage systems for GM crops would be hugely expensive, and since there is no reason to suspect any problem with GM foods, the American farm and food processing industries have successfully resisted so far fear-driven segregation and labeling recommendations.

The Usual Suspects like Greenpeace are suing to rescind EPA approval of some GM plants that produce natural pesticides. Enviros are very much against the indiscriminate dumping of chemical pesticides on food, worrying about phantasmal cancer risks and possible water supply contamination. But they also want to drive out of existence GM foods, which promise the ability to eliminate profligate use of outside chemicals by making the plants internally pest-resistant.

Enviro dreams are revealed nakedly here: they want to halt man's mad desire to enjoy foods that aren't eaten or contaminated by insect pests (pests which can also spread diseases). When technology finds a solution to today's environmental problems--most of which are the result of merely temporary conditions in the state of the technological art--enviros are against the solutions as well. While their ultimate motives must remain unfathomable, it is safe to say human well-being is not among them.

Currently, U.S. regulation of these biotech foods is relatively benign, or at any rate not as bad as it could be. For example, the FDA only requires new-approval processes for biotech foods if they contain substantially new substances within them such that it would qualify as a new food additive. (GM foods that have natural pesticides fall under EPA regulation.) But Clinton's FDA once tried to toughen regulation of biotech products, largely in response to enviro interest group hysteria.

In 1995 it attempted to institute pre-approval clinical trials of all recombinant DNA-products, but backed down when Congress balked. Premarket regulation is the regulator's dream, covering more and more products since the 1950s, with a string of new regulations, mostly under the control of the regulating body and not elected representatives, requiring premarket approval for everything from food additives to new drugs to animal feed additives to any chemical substance to descriptions of nutrient and medical claims for food supplements.

As former FDA attorney Peter Hutt wrote, "Premarket approval severely limits individual freedom of choice. Citizens are simply precluded from obtaining products they wish to purchase, and have no recourse other than to wait for government approval. Personal autonomy is subjugated to government regulatory control.... Premarket approval [makes] the investment required [for] new products...prohibitive... [and] includes no mechanism for public accountability."

So far GM foods have evaded this favorite mechanism of the modern regulator, but a Gore administration would not bode well for continued sanity in this field. The whole notion that government regulation of our foodstuffs provides important and needed help to food consumers is flawed to begin with. Clearly, the desire to keep satisfied and living customers, and a reputation for wholesomeness, is far more important to any seller or processor of food than fear of government's occasional busybody eye. Like much government regulation, food regulations of any sort add costs to producers, consumers, and taxpayers with no commensurate benefits.

American policy is currently reasonably sensible on GM foods. But EU's hysteria could end up creating regulatory troubles for the U.S. as well--thanks to WTO standardization attempts, one or the other of the government parties is going to have to give. The U.S. lacks a popular constituency for GM foods, since the public is mostly unaware of the important role they could play in feeding a growing population.

The big companies like Monsanto that produce them have in the past been willing to countenance regulation knowing that it would hobble small start-ups comparatively more than them, so they are not apt to prove a sturdy defender of their right to produce and sell their GM products unobstructed. (The Biotech Industry Organization, for example, actually advocates case-by-case UN regulation of GM foods! Pro-business lobby and free-market advocacy are rarely a tight fit.)

Government intervention in the markets in new products once again creates a grotesque alliance of regulators and big business in alliance against the interest of both potential customers and potential competitors--stifling innovation in return for business cartelization. With big agribusiness, environmentalists, and government bodies all potentially on the same page, the GM food revolution could be stymied. And any such regulatory barriers are roadblocks to a well-fed planet.

They call GM foods "Frankenfoods," these enviro enemies of a fertile and well-fed globe. The stereotypical enemies of Frankenstein-- the out-of-control mob storming over the land with torches and pitchforks--are not exactly a symbol of reason and logic. In that sense, the enviros' loaded rhetorical attack term is valuable. But it says more about them than it does about the beneficial products of human ingenuity they want to destroy.


Brian Doherty is the Warren T. Brookes Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.


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