- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 7, 2001

In the comparatively halcyon days before September 11, the media and many policy makers worried less about anthrax in the mail than they did about genetically modified foods on the store shelves. Needless to say, everyone's priorities have been readjusted in light of recent events. However, it would be unfortunate if we failed to take note of two developments concerning what its opponents call "Frankenfood."

The first concerns the well-known "monarch butterfly" story. In 1999, a letter in the scientific journal Nature reported a high death rate among monarch caterpillars that were fed milkweed leaves dusted with high doses of pollen from genetically modified Bt corn.

Anti-biotech crusaders quickly seized upon the preliminary findings to cast a cloud of doubt over the safety of genetically modified crops. Never mind the substantial flaws in the study design. (For one thing, the chances of a caterpillar in the wild encountering the amount of pollen used in the laboratory tests are virtually zero.)

So it was heartening to hear the Environmental Protection Agency's recent announcement that, after nearly two years of extensive scientific testing, it has reaffirmed that genetically modified Bt corn poses no risk to human health or the environment, including the monarch butterfly.

The agency even said genetically modified corn actually protects the environment, by reducing the amount of conventional pesticides used to protect against the European corn borer. Based on this strong scientific assessment, the EPA has renewed registrations for Bt corn for another seven years.

The second development is a recent report by the European Union's executive commission on the safety of genetically modified crops. European policymakers have been extremely zealous in seeking to restrict trade in food products containing genetically modified ingredients, going so far as to impose a moratorium on approval of new genetically modified organisms in 1998.

The E.U. report summarized the results of 81 separate scientific studies, conducted over a 15-year period, aimed at determining whether genetically modified products are unsafe or not sufficiently tested or regulated, as alleged by many consumer and environmental groups.

The answer is no: Not one of the projects demonstrated harm to humans or the environment. And like the EPA, the E.U. conceded that not only do genetically modified crops pose no more risk to human health or the environment than conventional crop breeding methods, but the greater precision of the technology and the extent to which it is tested and regulated probably makes them even safer than conventional crops.

The significance of these two developments cannot be overstated as we approach the possible launch of new global trade talks at the World Trade Organization meeting in Qatar. For a long time, the more vocal environmental and consumer groups have sought to undermine the role of scientific scrutiny and valid risk assessments in existing WTO rules on international trade and public health.

These groups continue to demand the right to use unsubstantiated claims of risk to impose unjustifiable trade barriers the so-called "precautionary principle" even in the face of scientific evidence that the products in question are safe. With its moratorium, the E.U. has lent credence to this irrational approach.

It is crucial that U.S. negotiators in Qatar safeguard this vital technology and insist that hard science, rather than politics or protectionism, be the primary basis for determining whether genetically modified products are allowed to move freely in international trade. As we're seeing right now, there are clearly less illusory threats to public health that demand our immediate attention.

Thomas Niles is president of the United States Council for International Business, a New York-based industry group. He was U.S. ambassador to the European Union from 1989 to 1991.


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