Merchants of fear;
Seattle protestors attack biotechnology

By Kenneth Smith
Copyright 1999 Washington Times
December 2, 1999

Somewhere out in the world there are 250 million children at risk of going blind because of a vitamin deficiency, a seemingly mundane threat that doesn't get much attention amid more exotic horrors. But it got the attention of scientists at Monsanto. They came up with what they believe is a technological fix for the problem and donated it to areas of the globe where the problem seems most acute. First lady Hillary Clinton, who started the Global Vitamin A partnership to focus the public on the problem, and others are looking forward to a happy ending to the story.

But not everyone is so appreciative. If some of the protestors attending the Seattle riots this week had their way, there would have been no technology and no fix. They consider the work of Monsanto and other biotech companies a menace that conferees at the World Trade Organization meeting must not allow to slip past lowered trade barriers. No subject, this newspaper's Natalia Feduschak reported, will be as contentious or as closely watched at the WTO conference as the one over genetically modified (GM) or, as opponents refer to it, "Frankenstein food."

Such language conveys images of a high school lab experiment run amok, and it's intentional. As one activist told the Wall Street Journal, he was concerned about GM products because it "was a completely new and artificial way to alter and create creatures. And that it was actually being done without a lot of people really knowing or caring about it."

Europe has already gotten a taste of the controversy. Activists have torn up crops there, and shoppers have pressed supermarkets for information about GM ingredients. Following reports that his late wife's line of vegetarian meals had traces of genetically modified soybeans, Paul McCartney announced he was spending $5 million to remove them. Britain's Prince Charles, an organic farmer, denounced GM products in a newspaper article, writing, "I happen to believe that this kind of genetic engineering takes mankind into realms that belong to God and God alone."

Much of the opposition to biotechnology has this kind of a religious fervor to it because there is precious little scientific basis for it. Mankind has been modifying genetics for centuries, breeding, for example, one species of plant with another to improve agricultural yield or increase resistance to disease. But where traditional breeding blended vast numbers of genes and allowed them to sort themselves out in a new, improved plant, today's technology allows researchers to single out the gene or genes with the specific traits they are trying to cultivate.

In the case of Monsanto, scientists took a gene from a naturally occurring bacterium in the soil and used it to fortify beta-carotene levels in crops such as rape seed or canola used in subsistence farming. Beta carotene is a precursor to vitamin A. Through genetic modification, researchers turned the seeds and oil of these crops into high sources of vital nutrients. In places like the United States and Europe, which can take fresh fruit and vegetables for granted, vitamin A deficiency isn't an issue. But some parts of the world don't have that luxury, and for them genetically modified foods are a sight saver.

Researchers see other advantages to their work. Using biotechnology, farmers have been able to produce more disease- and insect-resistant plants, reducing the need for pesticides and other chemicals. They can improve the shelf life of their products, making them more available to consumers. Some foresee the day when biotechnology could provide edible vaccines and reduce sensitivity to allergies that can be life-threatening to some.

Against these benefits, critics offer only fear of the unknown. Biotechnology may harm the environment or man himself in some way researchers cannot predict, the argument goes. Many cite a letter from a Cornell University professor in the journal Nature, which said that Monarch Butterfly larvae died after eating leaves exposed to pollen from genetically modified corn. Hence some of the protestors in Seattle have been running around in butterfly outfits like so many refugees from a Halloween party. But the professor himself has played down concerns about the study results, saying it is inappropriate to draw conclusions about the dangers of biotechnology to monarch butterflies on the basis of his initial findings.

In effect, protestors are asking researchers to prove the negative, that is, that something bad won't happen someday because of their work. It's an impossible standard for scientists or anyone else for that matter.

But there's another risk here. Consider the bad things that could happen without biotechnology. Think of the people who would have to go without life-saving medicine. Think of those who would have to go without healthful fresh fruits and vegetables.

Or think of those who would lose their sight, but for the work of the Monsanto scientists. If protestors want to take that risk, that's up to them. But they shouldn't force anyone else to take it.


Kenneth Smith is deputy editor of The Washington Times editorial page.

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