Biotechnology in the Development of Food Crops

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Biotechnology in the Development of Food Crops
Why the controversy about safety?

by Norman J. Smallwood
The Core Team ®

About five years ago, controversy over the safety of food crops developed by biotechnology suddenly occurred throughout much of the world. The most intense opposition to the biotech-food crops was centered in Western Europe . The purpose of this paper is to explore the pertinent questions relating to this biotech controversy and provide some fact-based answers. The specific questions addressed are:

1. Are biotech food crops really new?

2. What effect do biotech foods have on the human body compared to traditional foods or organic foods?

3. Who is behind the controversy over biotech food safety? And, what are their motives?

4. Why have biotech pharmaceuticals not become part of the controversy?

5. Are biotech food crops consumed in the U.S. or mostly exported?

6. Why is it important to stay on course with the development and use of biotech crops?

Are biotech food crops really new?
Nature is not static. Through the processes of cross-pollination, accidental genetic material transfer, and radiation-driven gene modification, life forms are continually changing. Through the process of natural selection, the most capable of the new forms survive. The fossil remains, covering millions of years, irrefutably document this random evolutionary process.

With the capability of human intelligence, a new element has emerged in the life-form change process. Human involvement is profound in that directed change has been introduced. In absence of understanding the scientific principles, the ancient Egyptians engaged in genetic modification of some plants.

Overlooked by most people is the fact that practically every food eaten in the world today is the consequence of genetic modification. The pioneers in this work were Gregor Mendel (1823-1886) and Luther Burbank (1854-1926). By experimentation with varieties of the garden pea in his monastery's garden, Mendel collected data and drew conclusions that led to his formation of the basic principles of heredity.

At his research facility in Santa Rose , California , Burbank developed over 800 new and useful strains and varieties of fruit, flowers, vegetables, grains, and grasses. Many of Burbank 's plant improvements are still commercially significant.

Mendel's basic principles and Burbank 's methodology established the plant development model for most of the 20 th century. As a consequence, every commercial food crop has been improved by genetic modification over the last 100 years. In practice, researchers exchanged genetic material between plant varieties and species in order to determine what combinations yielded improved attributes. A card game is a good analogy to the improvement process. Cards are shuffled and dealt to each player. Then the game is played to discover the best (winning) hand. Being empirical, this kind of development process is slow. Typically six to seven years are required to develop a plant with superior attributes.

The breakthrough in biotechnology occurred in 1953 when James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the basis for the genetic code in the double helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Subsequent work focused on understanding both the structure and function of DNA and the gnome has led to more intelligent (less empirical) biogenetic development. And, the time frame to produce plants with superior attributes is much shorter (about half the time required for the empirical approach). Again using the playing card analogy, the new science enables turning the cards face up to selectively deal winning hands.

In conclusion, the idea that biotech foods are radically new and untried is not true.

We now have about 100 years of experience with the fundamental science and practice that has altered every food crop grown today. As with all new technological developments, we are becoming more competent in the understanding and application of biotechnology.

What effect do biotech foods have on the human body compared to traditional foods or organic foods?
Over the last twenty-five years, some special interest groups have promoted natural (organic) foods as being nutritionally superior to and safer than foods produced by modern agricultural methods. In reality, every species has defense mechanisms (a certain level of toxicity) for protection. Thus, the perception that organic (natural) foods are pure and wholesome is a myth. In his book titled After Death , Darryl Reanney, an Australian molecular biologist, convincingly refutes the concept of the existence of "100% pure and natural foods." Within the last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released the results of a study that reflects no differentiation between regular and organic foods.

Food taken into the digestive system is broken down by biochemical processes into the nutrient compounds that the body can use in the manufacture of all of the compounds needed to sustain life. The portion of the digested food intake that does meet the body's precise specifications for use is discarded as waste. Regardless of the origin (organic, chemically nurtured, biotech, or unaltered by human intervention), the body's digestive and assimilative processes achieve consistent results. A distinguished doctor of veterinary medicine, Simon Shane, made the case for the body's digestive and assimilative capability in a recent international conference. He stated, “believing that biotech foods are harmful is like believing that we will grow feathers from eating chickens.”

Allergies are a common human frailty. A small portion of the population is allergic to some foods. For example, some nuts contain a protein that can induce an allergic reaction to a small percentage of the population. In a few cases, the reaction can be quite severe. In the life experience, each person discovers their unique food allergies and then avoids that particular food.

In biotech food development, care is taken to avoid the use of allergenistic plant tissue in new pant design. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is especially watchful for the presence of allergens in the approval process for new biotech foods. For example, a few years ago, a new biotech food plant with many superior attributes was rejected by FDA on the basis that some cell tissue from Brazil nuts had been used. Brazil nuts contain an allergen.

Last year (2000), there was a controversy about StarLink corn that was introduced into the U.S. by a European-based biotechnology enterprise. StarLink corn contains an insecticidal protein derived from common soil bacteria. On the basis that the corn was approved for use in animal feed, it escaped FDA scrutiny for human consumption. StarLink corn logistics were mismanaged, and it subsequently entered the food supply. The consequence was product recall by some food companies and some level of consumption. While the risk was considered negligible, the Center for Disease Control of the U.S. Public Health Service gave priority attention to determine the health risk. Fortunately, no health risk was found.

The StarLink experience reflected the need for the three U.S. governmental agencies involved in regulating biotech crop development and application to collaborate across responsibility boundaries to avoid future problems of this kind. The U.S. governmental agencies involved in regulating biotechnology are the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Who is behind the controversy over biotech food safety? And, what are their motives?
The driving force behind the effort to discredit biotech foods is primarily a coalition of two radical groups who take extreme positions on animal rights and environmental matters. With the belief that animals should have the same rights as humans, the radical animal rights advocates take the extreme position that animals cannot be grown and consumed as food. Using the logic that human population growth threatens animals, the radical animal rights group is opposed to any measure that supports human population growth and the production of animals for food.

With the view that both human and domestic animal population growth are the major threats to the environment, the extreme environmentalists have a common bond with the radical animal rights group. To achieve their world view of animals liberated from human interference and an environment not burdened by human excesses, the following goals have been established:

1. The human population must be reduced.

2. Legislation must be enacted to fully establish and enforce animal rights.

3. A low-consumption and low-technology society must be established and sustained

Biotech food crop development is viewed by this radical coalition as a major threat to their goal. The coalition planed and initiated a campaign to discredit biotech food crops beginning about five years ago. Their efforts have been relentlessly pursued. Scientific validity is of no concern to the coalition members. Any means is justified to achieve their end. Worldwide, the news media has been manipulated and used to propagate their misinformation.

Opportunistic politicians and individuals have frequently exploited the controversy by taking the “public savior” role to gain some personal advantage. Some religious leaders have contributed to the controversy by making the allegation that biotech research and development was akin to “playing God.” No credible scientist has found any evidence that biotech food crops are unsafe. The reputable scientific community has been fully supportive of the safety and many advantages of biotech foods.

Rice is the primary food for the majority of people who are the most economically deprived in the world. Children with a diet primarily of rice have a high risk of becoming blind at an early age. Traditional rice contains no beta-carotene that is essential for eye development and health. The life expectancy of blind children is very short in the economically depressed regions of the world.

The July 11, 2000 issue of Time featured the work of the Swiss Professor, Ingo Potrykus, who has led the development of beta-carotene-enriched rice. If Professor Potrykus's rice was grown in the economically depressed areas, the child blindness problem could be essentially eliminated and over one million children could be saved from an early death each year. Because of the fear of biotechnology, the new rice strain has been banned in many of the countries with the problem. The character and mentality of the anti-biotech coalition members were revealed in a letter to the editor of Time following the publication of the article about the beta-carotene-enriched rice.

In essence, the heartless message in the letter was that the important issue is overpopulation, not children going blind and dying at an early age. Over the last two years, radical groups have gathered to protest at world trade conferences and similar meetings. Destructive tactics bordering on terrorism have been employed by many of the radicals to disrupt the meetings. While opposition to economic globalization has been the unifying cause of these groups, the coalition of extreme animal rights and environmentalist advocates opposed to consumerism and technological development have been at the heart of these protests.

In examining the activities of these radical groups, it is apparent that substantial funding is required. The question is “Where do they get the money?” To answer this question, it is first appropriate to focus on who are the members. The members are for the most part young, well educated, from families with financial means, searching for a purpose in life, and not encumbered with practical issues like earning a living. In addition, many of these groups have been clever in obtaining funding from well-known philanthropic foundations.

Why have biotech pharmaceuticals not become part of the controversy?
While much has been achieved in applying modern biotechnology to food crop development, it pails in comparison to the progress and achievements in pharmacology.

As reported by D. Rynecki in a year 2000 Fortune Magazine article titled “Ten Stocks to Last the Decade,” 126 new drugs are in widespread use and 280 drugs are in late stage development that are the product of cutting-edge biotechnology. Genetic engineering is enabling humankind to address health problems that have been scourges throughout history.

It is interesting to note that there has not been a whimper of protest against these new “miracle” drugs. The reason is obvious. The protesters against biotech food crops would undoubtedly be the first in line to receive “miracle” drugs if their lives were threatened. The differentiation in reaction between “miracle food crops and “miracle” drugs exposes the level of arrogance and selfishness of the radical activists.

Are biotech food crops consumed in the U.S. or mostly exported?

Occupying a leadership role in the development and application of biotechnology, biotech food crops are in the mainstream of the U.S. food supply. New biotech developed food crops undergo rigorous testing and review by the proper regulatory agencies before approval for use.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are involved in assuring the safety of food consumed in the United States . The USDA is primarily involved with meat and fresh fruit and vegetables. The FDA is responsible for all other food products. Because of the excellent food safety performance record of the regulatory agencies for many years, the U.S. population has a high degree of confidence in the food supply. It is generally recognized throughout the world that the U.S. has the most competent and thorough food safety regulatory system in existence.

Lack of a uniform and competent food regulatory system in the European Union (EU) is probably the primary reason that groups opposed to biotech food crops have been able to get significant attention. Until recently, food safety regulation administration was the responsibility of each country in the EU. For many of the EU countries, the food regulatory agencies have been inadequately funded and staffed. And, in many cases, decisions have been made more on the basis of politics than science. From this situation of regulatory deficiency and a series of unfortunate food safety problems, Europeans' confidence in the food supply was seriously undermined. This created a climate of concern that was exploited by the misguided advocacy groups opposed to biotechnology.

The legal system in the United States is such that if anyone is harmed by the action of another entity, litigation is commonly undertaken to receive compensation for the damage. The U.S. population has been the first to consume the newest foods developed by biotechnology. These high tech foods have now been part of the main stream food supply for several years. To date, not one litigation case has occurred as the consequence of someone being harmed from eating these foods.

Why is it important to stay on course with the development and application of biotech crops?
The benefits of biotech food crops are compelling. Some of the more significant advantages are listed as follows:

1. Higher yields

2. Improved nutritional value

3. Significantly reduced herbicide and pesticide use (more environmentally friendly)

4. Draught resistance

5. Reduced growing time

With the present world population of 6.2 billion, about 70% of the people suffer from some degree of malnutrition. The clearly viable solution to this problem is the further development and application of biotech food crops. For example, Russia has enormous areas of land that are agriculturally unproductive because of a very short growing period. Through biotech food crop development, it is only a matter of time until these regions can become significant contributors to the food supply.

The radical activists that oppose biotechnology advocate population control by limiting the food supply and allowing people to starve. This is an incredibly cruel and negative outlook. It is unthinkable to allow this perspective to dictate the future. The positive solution to world population control is education. Educated societies do not over populate.

For the scientific community involved with biotechnology and the informed members of society, the controversy and fear generated by the intentional use of misinformation is especially frustrating. It is important to keep in mind that opposition to technological change is not a new phenomenon. We only have to look back in time to such discoveries as the telescope and, more recent, electrical power transmission.

The "forces of darkness" tried to stop these innovations without success. History is on the side of innovative change. And, the development and application of biotechnology for food crops will prevail.

The biotech controversy was put in proper perspective by a statement made by Professor Konstantin G. Skryabin at a June 20, 2001 seminar in Moscow . Professor Skryabin said, "My Grandchildren are the most important aspect of my life at this point in time. I would not advocate anything that would bring harm to them. I know that my Grandchildren can eat biotech foods without any risk to their well being." Skryabin is the Director of the Bioengineering Center , Russian Academy of Sciences; Chairman of Council on Biotechnology, Russian Academy of Sciences ; and Vice-Chairman of the Russian Federation Government Committee on Regulation in Biotechnology. Professor Skryabin's statement resonated with the author. The author has made the identical statement on many occasions.

© 2001 The Core Team ® Food Crops Developed by Biotechnology

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