- The Washington Times - Monday, April 29, 2002

With China and India embracing biotechnology's hopeful promise of ending hunger and malnutrition among their combined 2.3 billion citizens, America's well-fed activists are showing signs of desperation. How else can you explain why an obscure activist group is threatening to sue the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) if it approves a new genetically engineered canola seed that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) already says is perfectly safe for human consumption?
Joseph Mendelson, the legal director of the Center for Food Safety (CFS), said his "public interest" group believes that the USDA's assessment of the new seed's safety is flawed, and intends to sue the department if it grants approval.
Anti-tech groups like the Center for Food Safety perhaps overcome by their phobia of scientific progress fail to discern that canola itself is a man-made crop created from traditional rapeseed in the 1970s by Canadian plant breeders. The Canadians developed the canola plant to produce an oil high in the mono-unsaturated fatty acids that medical researchers believe decreases the amount of LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream that puts humans at increased risk for heart attack and hardening of the arteries. Canola, which is grown in Canada, Australia and to a lesser extent in the United States, is widely recognized as the healthiest salad and cooking oil available to consumers. It's also a key ingredient in low-fat, low-cholesterol shortenings and margarines, and variations of it are added to make numerous processed foods healthier including potato chips and a wide variety of other snack products.
There was, in fact, nothing controversial about canola until research scientists at Monsanto discovered a way to genetically engineer canola seeds to make them resistant to specific herbicides thus significantly reducing the amount of chemicals farmers use to control weeds. Canola, like many other crops, requires treatment with various herbicides to kill weeds that attempt to crowd it out during the growing cycle reducing yields and often seed quality. The new herbicide-resistant strain of canola means less spraying by farmers and less chemical run-off in adjacent streams, lakes and aquifers particular so, if farmers are engaged in no-till farming.
Other biotech researchers are working on ways to make canola even more nutritious. For instance, nutritionists recently have become concerned about the potential negative health impacts of trans-fatty acids, a group produced when vegetable oils like canola, are hydrogenated or solidified to make commercial frying oils. Biotechnologists have been able to modify the fatty acid profile of canola to contain even higher levels on monounsaturated fatty acids. This improved version of canola oil will be available to consumers within the next few years reducing the levels of harmful saturated fats even lower than canola oil's current 7-percent level.
The FDA says the new canola is nutritionally and environmentally safe. The American Dietetic Association adds that biotechnology enhances the quality, nutritional value and variety of food especially important on a planet where some 2 billion people exist on subsistence diets.
Opposition to genetically engineered crops may be largely based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what they are. "Biotechnology" is a broad term that describes a wide spectrum of scientific methods that evolved over the last three decades. In fact, the term biotechnology often is used interchangeably with the term "genetic engineering," which scientists use to insert "good" genes into seeds improving food production and lowering their need for pesticides and herbicides. Anti-tech activists like the CFS' Mr. Mendelson need to take a refresher course in Science 101. If they successfully completed such a course, they might abandon their Luddite-like resistance to modernity and progress.
Whatever such isolated eco-activists decide to do, the United States cannot afford to wait for them to have a change of heart. China and India likely to be our chief economic rivals in the century ahead are moving full-throttle on biotechnology massively increasing their spending on research and development.
Given this new challenge and the tremendous potential of biotechnology to create a healthier and more environmentally friendly world, the United States must move swiftly just to keep pace.

Eric Peters is an editorial writer for The Washington Times and a syndicated columnist.

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