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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Title: The Frankenfood Myth. How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution

item Carter, Thomas

Submitted to: Crop Science
Publication Type: Other
Publication Acceptance Date: August 6, 2005
Publication Date: October 27, 2005
Citation: Carter Jr, T.E. 2005. The Frankenfood Myth. How protest and politics threaten the biotech revolution. Crop Science, doi:10.2135/cropsci2005.0011br.

Technical Abstract: The authors are sounding the alarm. Gene splicing in agriculture is under full-scale global attack and the outcome of the battle is in doubt. Anti-biotechnology activists and government regulators, with tacit approval of moderate agribusiness leaders, have formed a battle line to push back gene-spliced agricultural crops from the market place. At present, momentum is on the side of the attackers. This is the central message of The Frankenfood Myth. Fear of gene-spliced crops, embodied in the derogatory pseudonym Frankenfood, has led to over-regulation of gene-spliced crops and slowed their release to a trickle. According to the authors, the real Frankenstein’s monster wreaking havoc in the countryside is the regulatory one, not gene-spliced crops. They argue that the growth of regulation has been driven by politics and self interest more than science. Agribusiness has supported regulation in the hope of allaying the public’s fears over safety of gene-spliced products. Anti-biotechnology activists have pushed for regulation because of their social values. Bureaucrats have welcomed regulation because of the prestige that goes with increased staff and program size. The authors claim that with no effective counterbalance to these forces, regulation has escalated needlessly. The result is a cost of tens of millions of dollars to approve each gene-spliced crop. Such costs now effectively block all but the very largest of agribusinesses from bringing a gene-spliced crop to market. The authors feel, and rightly so, that biotechnology has more to offer agriculture than is being utilized. To explain how the U.S. regulatory system for gene-spliced crops evolved, Miller (M.D. and research fellow at Stanford University) and Conko (Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C.) analyze, in detail, relevant events, commission reports, and public policies over the past three decades (the first five chapters). At the heart of this analysis is the question: “Are the molecular techniques of recombinant DNA a straightforward extension of older genetic methods, or are they sufficiently different that they are likely to create novel and unfamiliar risks?” The answer has profound implications. The FDA, USDA, and EPA, regulators of gene-splicing technology, all say yes, gene splicing does bring with it novel risks, and have devised separate regulatory rules for gene-spliced vs. conventionally-derived crops. Miller and Conko take the opposite view and state unequivocally that gene splicing does not bring novel risks to agriculture. They argue that gene-spliced and conventionally-derived crops should be regulated by the same rules, and that regulations should focus on specific traits in the crop rather than on the technique by which the crop was developed. It should be the product, not the process,that is the driver. The authors devote considerable effort in their book to debunking specific claims of harm from gene-spliced crops, including the well publicized ‘Monarch butterfly’ and Starlink controversies. The authors state that “no responsible person would contend that gene-spliced organisms pose no risk”, but they argue that these risks are the same kind as conventional plant breeders have managed for decades. The authors cite examples of conventionally derived varieties posing analogous risks to gene-spliced products. Keeping safe Canola separate from toxic rapeseed in Canadian markets is one such example. The authors also cover in great detail the use of the ‘precautionary principle’ in regulation of gene-spliced crops. The precautionary principle is defined by the authors as ‘the idea that regulatory measures should be taken to prevent … actions that raise even conjectural risks, even though scientific evidence … is incomplete or inconclusive.” The authors argue that because we have no examples of harm from gene-spliced crops (now grown on more than 100 million hectares in the form of corn, cotton, and soybean), we should go to a risk-based regulation and abandon a uniform precautionary principle that treats all gene-splicing events equally. For example, higher-risk genes for insect resistance and pharmaceutical traits would receive greater regulatory scrutiny, regardless of breeding technique. Lower risk genes for a ‘heart-smart’ (low saturated fat) seed oil would receive less scrutiny, regardless of breeding technique. The authors feel that this risk-based approach would lessen regulation overall, lower regulatory costs, and allow more gene-spliced crops to reach the market place. The authors conclude by devoting chapters to other issues that greatly affect deployment of gene-spliced crops, including legal liability issues in the USA, the global market impact of Europe and Japan’s aversion to gene-spliced crops, and a history of European resistance to gene-spliced crops. The strength of this book is that the authors of The Frankenfood Myth are clearly very knowledgeable in the area of policy and regulation as it relates to gene-spliced crops. Their extensive historical treatment of regulation and risk assessment in the USA is especially good reading. As a plant breeder with no direct involvement in regulatory policy, but with more than a passing interest in the future of biotechnology, I was able to extract quite a few thought provoking ideas from the book. The authors’ best suggestion for improving the fate of biotechnology is that knowledgeable scientists should join in the public policy debate. A major weakness of this book is that it is written in an overtly propagandistic literary style. Many professionals in agribusiness and academia who came of age in the 1960’s will recognize the authors’ anachronistic rhetoric. Those who oppose the authors’ view are labeled as paranoid and anti-capitalist; consumers who fear biotechnology should be ignored because they are uninformed. This divisive tone undercuts the authors’ message on biotechnology. The authors are clearly writing to those whom they feel are already sympathetic to the message. The target group thus appears to be readers who intensely dislike regulation and big government. The problem with rallying anti-regulation troops to the Cause via angry and repetitive rhetoric is that the authors may alienate those who read the book with an open mind. Thus, I cannot recommend the book for the classroom and would caution graduate students to look for other data sources. A second weakness is an almost complete lack of analysis of opposition to biotechnology. For example, the authors show good evidence that biotech foes have impacted acceptance and regulation of gene splicing. However, the authors make no attempt to explain the social values of the opposition. Why do these opponents want to do this and why have they been so successful? Given the title of the book, one is left wondering how biotech opponents could bring forth a Frankenfood Myth. The bigger picture that the authors fail to address is that faith in- or fear of- biotechnology is rooted in the larger context of technology and society. Although the authors appear to have complete faith in technology, critics of gene splicing have clearly lost theirs. Over-use of pesticides, the scare of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, taking 30 years to establish that tobacco causes cancer, threat of nuclear war, thinning of the ozone layer as a result of leaked air conditioning coolants, and 9/11 have all taken their toll on public confidence in technology and its regulation. Achieving a proper regulatory balance for gene-spliced crops, like it or not, must involve dealing with this unfortunate legacy and admitting that even scientists don’t have all the answers.

Last Modified: 4/18/2014
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