Unnecessary setback for biotech corn
November 28, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
CHICAGO TRIBUNE, November 26, 2000
Why did the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offer any approval at all for StarLink corn if it thought the genetically engineered corn might trigger allergies? The potential for the corn to leak into human consumption was too great. It was a regulatory bungle.
Aventis CorpScience should never have accepted feed-only approval for StarLink, given the highly charged atmosphere surrounding biotech crops.
But the regulatory responsibility rests with EPA. Now, the public is reading headlines about the nation's food supply being "contaminated." Taco Bell recalled its taco shells, and dozens of other corn products may contain traces of the unapproved DNA.
Biotech's opponents gleefully claim this as conclusive proof that genetically modified foods should never be let out of the laboratory.
I can't say the feed-only approval was a deliberate trap for the biotech companies, but neither do I believe the EPA is truly objective on biotechnology in agriculture.
Too much of EPA's leadership has an "organic mindset." They are too tightly focused on returning the world to some idealized natural state.
They're ignoring the urgent likelihood that a non-biotech world will clear 10 million square miles of forest to grow low-yield crops for a peak population of 8.5 billion affluent people in 2050.
Nobody has gotten an allergic reaction from the corn. The evidence says convincingly that no one will.
Independent laboratories have found nothing to confirm the EPA's original suggestion that StarLink corn might be allergenic. But the EPA's blunder has helped poison the well for biotech crops, one of the key strategies for preserving wildlands in the 21st Century. Isn't the EPA supposed to worry about wildlands?
Consider the reality of the charges against the Cry9c protein, the protein added to the Starlink corn. Most allergenic food proteins are present at fairly high levels--1 percent to 40 percent of the total protein in the allergenic food.
The Cry9C protein makes up little more than one-tenth of 1 percent (0.013 percent) of the StarLink proteins. A single serving of peanut butter doses the consumer with 1.3 grams of peanut allergen. That's more than 50,000 times the Cry9C protein even the most ardent taco lover would ingest in a year!
Spreading fear about biotech foods is directly contrary to the EPA's major responsibility – protecting the environment.
What about biotech escapes into nature? Let's make all the biotech crops sterile. So what if farmers have to buy seeds every year? Most of them already do, even in the Third World.
Hybrid seeds don't breed true, but their yields are so high that farmers eagerly plunk down cash to get them. Besides, there are competing seed companies to buy from.
EPA's StarLink bungle has materially damaged the potential for biotechnology to help raise crop yields (and save the environment) in the next 40 years.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.