- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 1999

In business and science decisions are rarely if ever made based on appeals to sentiment. In fact, unlike in politics and entertainment, persons who repeatedly base arguments on emotional appeals quickly lose their audiences and may even subject themselves to ridicule.

In the recent outcry against genetically modified foods by Greenpeace reactionaries and their cohorts in parts of Europe and now in the United States, sentiment catapulted by mass media outlets is garnering plenty of attention. “Frankenstein Foods,” shouts a recent Newsweek headline echoing vandalism directed at McDonalds retail outlets in France and a bed of test corn at the University of Maine.

With all of this emotionally charged publicity goes the perception that the work of U.S. agricultural businesses to produce heartier, healthier and better tasting foods something most of us say we want and need is actually part of some sinister plot (apparently in a script written without premises and conclusions).

The reactionaries need to wake up. This isn’t a movie! Corporately sponsored scientists aren’t working to destroy nature and take us along with it by doctoring foodstock DNA. Genetically modified foods help us to nutritionally feed hundreds of millions of people, and in some cases, reduce the use of pesticides that even though they are safe make some people uncomfortable.

Persons who take offense at baby food made from pest-resistant plants are sure to object to the vitamin-enhanced rice engineered at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. But, except for their own selfishness, why would they?

Consider that United Nations estimates have the world’s population increasing from about 6 billion today to 12.5 billion by 2050. By some accounts nearly 800 million people worldwide already suffer from malnutrition.

That rice is designed to help eradicate the vitamin A deficiency affecting nearly 400 million rice consumers and resulting in blindness for millions of children. The genetically enhanced rice developed in a large measure with Rockefeller Foundation funding is also designed to fight the iron-deficiency anemia affecting so many of the world’s billions of rice consumers. This isn’t just an issue for U.S. companies. Participants in the development of the rice included scientists from the Philippines and Germany.

Where malnutrition is reality, resentment toward agricultural Luddites in some cases themselves purveyors of inferior food products is likely to find some expression. Thanks to that genetically modified rice, millions of the world’s poorest will now be able to afford a more healthful diet.

But our families eat rice, too. Don’t we want them to have the best production the market?

Selective breeding is probably as old as farming, but it didn’t become a recognized science until Austrian monk and biologist Gregor Mendelbegan experimenting in 1865 with the color of pea blossoms. Since then, and thanks to the work of Mendel and thousands of other scientists worldwide, farmers have gotten much better at developing the crops that every season render projected catastrophic food shortages into alarmist fiction.

As Henry Miller, a senior research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, recently pointed out in The Washington Times, modern gene-splicing techniques allow manufacturers to introduce pieces of DNA that contain one or a few well-characterized genes, while older genetic techniques transferred a variable number of genes haphazardly.

It won’t be long before shotgun approaches to developing better foods are nearly extinct. A retreat from genetically modified foods would be little different than a medical retreat from antibiotics. Who wants that to happen any time soon?

Approximately 44 percent of all domestically grown soybeans and 36 percent of the corn was grown from genetically modified seeds in 1998, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. Rice, soybeans and corn are just a part of the picture. According to the Alliance for Better Foods, whose members with Food Distributors International include 25 U.S. food trade associations, researchers are close to developing fruits and vegetables that contain more beta carotene and Vitamins C and E, which may help to reduce incidents of cancer and heart disease. They are also close to developing a banana that can be used to deliver vital oral vaccines for diseases such as hepatitis B.

Fifty varieties of biotechnology-enhanced crops already have been approved in the United States. And we expect that biotechnology will help increase food productivity by up to 25 percent in the developing world. Note also that 75 million acres worldwide were under cultivation with biotechnology crops in 1998. That’s up from 7 million in 1996.

Surveys earlier this year and in 1997 by the International Food Information Council found that most Americans embrace the benefits offered by genetically modified foods. When asked if they would buy a variety of produce if it had been modified by biotechnology to taste better or fresher, 62 percent said they would, up from 55 percent in 1997. Finally, if gadfly-activists like Jeremy Rifkin have their way, the GM-foods issue will be subject to even more chaos. A recent report in the London-based Financial Times mentioned pending multi-billion dollar lawsuits to be launched in 30 countries before the end of the year. Twenty U.S. law firms have already lined up to take the cases on a contingency basis against manufacturers and sellers of genetically modified foods, the paper said.

We should recognize such lawsuits for the kind of extortion they really are. I know that self-styled activists hate to acknowledge that the food they eat every day is genetically engineered. Do they really think that grapes and watermelons were always naturally seedless?

John R. Block is president of Food Distributors International and a former U.S. secretary of agriculture under Ronald Reagan.

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