- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2000

The growing challenges to biotechnology, or gene-splicing, applied to food production increased last week with the release of public policy recommendations at a summit meeting in Washington between President Clinton and leaders of the European Union. An EU-U.S. committee report recommended the extension of policies that have already tarnished the promise of biotechnology to consumers, farmers and the food industry worldwide. The report was immediately denounced by a prominent member of the committee, Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, who is credited with being the "Father of the Green Revolution."

Using language more appropriate to a Soviet-era political manifesto than a 21st century scientific document, the report makes recommendations that would remove the incentives for innovation and commerce in biotech plants and foods. While endorsing "public responsibility for global governance of biotechnology," it condemns broad intellectual property protection, calls for the "traceability" of biotech crop material throughout the food production pipeline, and demands the participation of non-experts in the formulation of public policy. Inevitably, it recommends tighter regulation, including mandatory labeling of products that contain ingredients from gene-spliced plants, even though the FDA has insisted and science supports that labeling should convey to consumers only "material," or consequential, information about foods, such as significant changes in nutrition, safety or usage.

Nowhere in the document is there any recognition that scientists worldwide are virtually unanimous that newer techniques are simply an extension, or refinement, of earlier, cruder ones, and that adding genes to plants does not make them less safe either to the environment or to eat. The policy implications of this consensus were addressed in an analysis released in October by the Institute of Food Technologists that concluded that the evaluation of gene-spliced food "does not require a fundamental change in established principles of food safety; nor does it require a different standard of safety, even though, in fact, more information and a higher standard of safety are being required."

There is more than the prognostications of experts to support this view of biotech's safety. Thousands of food products from gene-spliced organisms have been widely marketed and consumed routinely and safely during the past 15 years. More than 60 percent of processed foods in American supermarkets now contain gene-spliced ingredients, and for each of the past two years, gene-spliced crops have been grown worldwide on approximately 100 million acres with no untoward effects related to safety.

The EU-U.S. report and its history illustrate how the greening of U.S. foreign policy in the Clinton administration has affected technological innovation and free trade. Last June the State Department announced the EU-U.S. "biotechnology consultative forum," composed of a "carefully selected" group of participants, to discuss issues related to biotechnology.

The U.S. members were carefully selected, all right in a way that ensured that the forum's findings would ultimately reflect "green" antagonism toward science and technology. It included Gordon Conway, the green president of the Rockefeller Foundation; Rebecca Goldburg, a doctrinaire, die-hard opponent of biotech for many years; Terry Medley, a Dupont executive who had crafted stultifying and unscientific regulations while an official at USDA; and Carol Tucker Foreman, activist and longtime proponent of unnecessary, anti-innovative food regulation.

Significantly, the most eminent member of the U.S. side, Norman Borlaug, a plant breeder who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his contributions to the "Green Revolution," did not participate in the completion of the report but complained that "the process was politicized from the beginning by the State Department's involvement," and that some of the anti-biotech members of the U.S. team were "worse than any of the Europeans."

Why would the State Department empower such a group to negotiate with representatives of European countries, where there is entrenched public and political opposition to importing grain grown from gene-spliced seeds, and complete gridlock on regulatory approvals?

It was just one more step in Vice President Gore's attempt to expand international governance on terms dictated by radical environmentalists. Other international activities that reflect the same political agenda include two ventures earlier this year into unscientific biotechnology regulation by the United Nations: the "Cartagena Biosafety Protocol," which, under the auspices of the United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity, subjects gene-spliced organisms to scientifically insupportable and excessive regulation; and the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the United Nations agency concerned with international food standards, which is working toward holding gene-spliced food and food ingredients to standards that are unscientific, far beyond those that any other products can or should meet, and that will prevent all but a handful from having a fair chance to reach consumers.

All of these approaches to regulation violate a cardinal principal of regulation namely, that the degree of scrutiny should be commensurate with risk. They treat older genetic techniques and modern molecular methods very differently, imposing new regulations and establishing gratuitous new bureaucracies only for products made with the newest, most precise and predictable techniques.

The United States government has been willing, literally, to give away the farm. What is needed is the political will to insist upon policies that make scientific and common sense and that are genuinely in the public interest. Let us hope that the Bush administration's new crop of officials can separate the wheat from the chaff.

Henry I. Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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