- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003

FOOD, INC.: MENDEL TO MONSANTO — THE PROMISES AND PERILS OF THE BIOTECH HARVEST

By Peter Pringle

Simon & Schuster, $25, 356 pages

REVIEWED BY RUTH KAVA

Over the last 10 years or so there has been a maelstrom of claims and counter-claims about the use of bioengineered, or gene-spliced crops. Producers and promoters of crops such as Bt corn, herbicide-resistant soybeans, and “golden rice” have promised an array of benefits for farmers, third-world children and the environment. Detractors have railed that “Frankenfood” will cause lethal allergies, decimate beneficial fauna, pollute the genomes of traditional crops, create “superweeds,” and not profit anyone but the industry giants that produce them.

Consumers unfamiliar with the science and legalities involved may be justifiably confused and anxious about whom to believe and what is and isn’t safe to eat. In “Food, Inc.,” journalist Peter Pringle attempts to sort through the maze of information and disinformation surrounding the most widely known examples of gene-spliced crops.

Mr. Pringle doesn’t obviously align himself with either side of the scientific biotech debate. He notes that although industrial sources extol the potential for improving health and nutrition through gene-spliced products, most of the bioengineered traits produced by them thus far deal more with crops profitable in first world countries than those that could benefit humanity. On the other hand, he observes that anti-biotech activists haven’t been agitating for “Miracle Seeds for the Poor,” but rather have been busy vowing that biotech crops are of no use, and could possibly be unsafe. The political disagreement has often been cloaked in unscientific hyperbole by both sides.

A prime example of this clash is the production of golden rice, which has been altered using genes from daffodils and a bacterium so that it produced beta-carotene. This scientific first was really a tour de force, as no one had previously bioengineered such a complex system. When absorbed by humans, beta-carotene can be converted to vitamin A, essential for healthy eyes and immune systems. Indeed, lack of dietary vitamin A causes blindness in over a quarter of a million children in third world countries every year.

Biotech researchers and industry made golden rice their poster child, implying, if not actually stating, that it, alone, could prevent millions of cases of childhood blindness each year. Antibiotech activists proclaimed it a hoax, stating that one would have to eat an unrealistically large amount to get enough beta-carotene to stave off blindness. Both claims were exaggerated.

The truth is that rice containing beta carotene could make a real contribution to third world nutritional status, if the usual obstacles (which also face other health promoting modalities like vaccines) such as neophobia were overcome. But Mr. Pringle doesn’t seem interested in determining the scientific veracity of the claims of either side; he is more concerned with the social and political issues.

For example, although the Rockefeller Foundation initially funded the scientists who developed golden rice, Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, they still had to get permission of several companies to use patented gene-splicing materials and techniques. In the end, according to Mr. Pringle, they had to agree to let one company, Astra-Zeneca, market golden rice in developed countries in order to be allowed to give the seed to poor farmers in the third world.

Another high-profile biotech case was that of “lethal corn” — lethal to corn borers and Monarch butterflies, that is. The corn had been bioengineered with a gene from a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, to make a protein (Bt) that was lethal to corn borers and like pests. The problem was a study by Cornell University professor John Losey. Mr. Losey had found that Monarch butterfly caterpillars, which eat milkweed leaves, were injured or killed when they ate pollen from Bt corn thickly spread on milkweed leaves in his lab.

When Mr. Losey published these results (against the advice of some of his peers), anti-biotech activists pounced. Bt corn would decimate the world Monarch butterfly population, they cried, and the media picked it up. All right-thinking Monarch lovers were aghast. But the truth was that laboratory conditions don’t really model real-life field situations very well. Further research carried out under more realistic conditions indicated that the Bt corn would not drive the Monarch to extinction.

Mr. Pringle castigates both sides in this scenario. He indicates that the biotech industry should have performed the appropriate experiments before the Bt corn was widely used (but given the wide variety of insect life in and around corn fields, it would be impossible to show that Bt corn wouldn’t harm anything besides corn borers). To be sure, he also indicts the activists for exaggerating preliminary data to suit their own ends, but seems more concerned about the deficits of the industry’s performance.

Another case involving Bt corn that got much media coverage was the Starlink fiasco. In this case, corn engineered to contain a different Bt protein was approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for use in animal feed, but not for human food. But the U.S. system for handling corn was not set up to keep these streams of grain separate. The inevitable happened and minute traces of the protein turned up in corn used for taco shells and other human foods.

Again, activists had a field day — predicting dire consequences if allergic humans consumed the tiniest iota of this protein. Here, though, Mr. Pringle blames the EPA for an unrealistic appraisal of the possibility of keeping corn meant for animals completely separate from that destined for people.

Another issue Mr. Pringle addresses is one that he calls “biopiracy” — the patenting of plant varieties used by indigenous peoples for many generations by first world merchants and scientists. Examples include the patenting of medicines based on the Indian spice turmeric and those based on the bark of the neem tree, the basis of many Indian native medicinals (both these patents were later revoked after being challenged). Such incidents concern those who are perturbed about the possibility of one or a few companies having control, by means of patents, over much of the world’s food supply.

Mr. Pringle uses these and other similar scenarios to illustrate the shortcomings of industry, regulatory, and antibiotech sides of the debate. Issues such as patenting of native plants and of genes and bioengineering techniques are not often brought to the public’s attention — it’s easier to get readers excited about unknown allergens lurking in food or extinction of a beautiful butterfly. Mr. Pringle clearly places the scientific questions in the social and political milieus that affect our perception of them.

As a scientist, I found that occasionally the narrow focus on particular scenarios gave the scientific aspects too light a treatment. For example, when making the point that use of Bt-containing corn would not likely decrease farmers’ use of pesticides, Mr. Pringle might have also pointed out that similarly bioengineered cotton (OK, not a food crop, but still bioengineered) already has substantially reduced pesticide use in that crop, a likely environmental plus.

In sum, Mr. Pringle gives the green light to bioengineered foods, stating that “These GM groceries are not Frankenfoods any more than a person with a transplanted heart is today’s Frankenstein. They are scientific creations full of both promise and potential hazard.” He warns that more attention must be paid to the ways in which our legal and political systems deal with both promises and potential hazards, so that the benefits are not buried under misguided fears and misapprehensions. “Food, Inc.” provides some interesting food for thought.

Ruth Kava is Director of Nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health.


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