Anti-Biotech Group Scares WSJ
May 9, 2002
by Dennis T. Avery
The normally careful Wall Street Journal recently reported that the Monsanto corporation had discovered “genetic pollution” in its herbicide-tolerant canola seeds. Journal reporter Scott Kilman hinted darkly at massive recalls of vegetable oils and food products, as happened with StarLink taco shells two years ago.
The Kilman story was sourced to an organization called the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. However, it seems the Center for Food Safety is not really all that concerned with food safety. It was founded by a “public interest” lawyer named Andrew Kimbrell, who believes that “the cold, impersonal evil of technology” is “threatening the biosphere, destroying society, and emptying our children of all meaning.” This, of course, is a radical change from the old days, when the lack of cold, impersonal technology emptied most children of life itself.
Kimbrell says humans should accept limitations—such as premature death. He says recognizing “limitations” allows humans to reach higher spiritual capacities and thus create a bond with all living things. Apparently his definition of limitations includes even preventable, needless ones.
Accordingly, the Center for Food Safety opposes irradiation, which would kill dangerous bacteria and rot-encouraging organisms in your food. The Center is in favor of organic food, even though it is grown in pathogen-laden manure. What better way to create a bond with more living things?
It is curious that the Wall Street Journal didn’t mention these facts about Mr. Kimbrell, given that they are all on his website.
Getting back to the Monsanto canola seeds, however. When Monsanto was developing herbicide-tolerant canola—so there’d be fewer weeds and thus higher yields in the crop fields—the company had at its disposal two transformed genes, both of which protected the plants from the herbicide: RT73 and GT200. The two highly similar genes were inserted at different points in the plant’s genome, but produced almost identical results. Monsanto decided to market the seeds with the RT73 gene.
Last year, Monsanto found traces of the discarded GT200 in some of its Canadian canola seeds. It immediately replaced the seed. But Monsanto also applied to U.S. regulators for an exemption from the tolerance issued on food containing GT200, in case any were ever found in this country.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had already cleared GT200 before the Journal article, based on its “reasonable certainty of no harm.” The Canadian canola had only tiny traces of the GT200 gene, which made any harm unlikely to begin with. Nor was there danger of polluting wild plants, because canola is a man-made crop. Finally, the GT200 gene has virtually the identical impact of the RT73 gene that had long since been approved by all the federal regulators, and both genes were already legal in Canada and Japan.
The day after Kilman’s GT200 article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it had nearly finished its review of the GT200 gene, which it said did not appear to pose health risks. “It doesn’t look like there’s anything that would need pre-market approval,” said Dr. Laura Tarantino, deputy director or the FDA’s Office of Food-Additive Safety.
The Center for Food Safety calls the FDA review “wholly inadequate,” but doesn’t tell us whether that’s inadequate for consumer safety or for Mr. Kimbrell’s ideal of dying in harmony with Nature.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture had already issued a preliminary planting approval for GT200, and the public comment period had ended April 1. Only one comment had been received. You guessed it, a negative comment had come from Mr. Kimbrell’s Center for Food Safety.
Was Kimbrell trying to create another StarLink scare? StarLink itself was a consumer hoax. The recall was mandatory, not because the FDA had found StarLink was dangerous, but because the EPA had never issued a tolerance for it. EPA said a somewhat slower digestion time might make the StarLink’s unique Cry9c protein more allergenic. But there was so little of the Cry9c that the corn products were guaranteed to be at least 500 times safer than peanut butter. After the FDA invited consumers to come forward with evidence of Cry9c allergy attacks, FDA tested the blood of seventeen “victims.” None had antibodies to Cry9c protein. Whatever attacked them, it wasn’t StarLink corn.
If Kimbrell and his fellow activists scare us away from biotech crops, how will we triple global farm output by 2050, to provide high-quality diets for a peak population of nine billion people, not to mention their pets? We can’t just dump three times as much fertilizer on the fields. The good irrigation sites are already being used. High-yield conventional seeds are already being planted on most of the planet’s good soils—and we’re already farming about 37 percent of the earth’s land area. Without new high-yield technologies, we’d have to sacrifice either our kids or the wildlife.
Of course, Mr. Kimbrell may regard that as a wonderful outcome. (How do you evaluate a “public interest” lawyer with a mass death wish?)
For those who don’t agree that dying is a constructive learning experience for your kids, the FDA—and even Monsanto—are doing their best to offer kinder and gentler alternatives.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.