BIOTECH FOOD FEARS UNFOUNDED
FDA tests show genetically altered corn hasn't triggered allergies
August 3, 2001
by Dennis T. Avery
This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on July 18, 2001.
OPPONENTS OF BIOTECH FOOD have come up with another false alarm. The Food and Drug Administration says the people who claimed they suffered allergenic reactions to genetically engineered StarLink corn were wrong. None of their blood samples revealed anti-bodies to the Cry9c protein engineered into StarLink.
It's yet another blow to the credibility of the anti-biotech activists, whose most effective biotech 'fear factor' has been the possibility of allergies triggered by new crops or foods.
The activists are not giving up, of course. Rebecca Goldburg of Envi-ronmental Defense said the FDA's 'sample was too small,' but she apparently misunderstands the meaning of sampling. The FDA tested 100 percent of the 17 blood samples submitted by people who claimed they had suffered allergenic reactions to the corn.
'Test results from such a small sample could easily have missed allergic reactions,' said Bill Freese of Friends of the Earth, who started the StarLink scare by submitting samples of taco shells to an Iowa laboratory. Is Freese recommending that the FDA blood-test large numbers of people who haven't reported allergenic reactions - after finding no allergenic antibodies in people who did?
More than 75 million consumers suffer food-borne illnesses each year, the vast majority from bacteria, so the FDA demands solid evidence before declaring new food threats.
The allergy argument against bio-tech foods was never very strong. It was based on the idea that biotech researchers would fail to watch out for allergens. However, the only allergen ever associated with bio-tech foods - from the Brazil nut - was spotted by the researchers and dropped from the development program.
The allergy argument was particularly weak in StarLink, since the Cry9c protein makes up only thirteen-hundredths of 1 percent of the protein in the corn. That guarantees that StarLink is at least 500 times safer than peanut butter. Beyond that, Cry9c is not derived from any known allergens, and its protein sequence does not resemble known allergens.
The Environmental Protection Agency nevertheless approved Star-Link only for feed use, on the grounds that it took the Cry9c protein several minutes to dissolve in human digestive fluids rather than seconds. The EPA's regulatory mistake became clear when the feed-only corn leaked into the food system.
The Genetically Engineered Food Alert issued a nationwide call for any consumers who suffered a reaction to corn products to come forward. A total of 28 people said they'd suffered reactions, and 17 of them submitted blood samples to the government.
Field tests this year also found that the activists' other biotech threat - that Monarch butterfly caterpillars would be killed by genetically engineered corn pollen - is likewise a false alarm.
The pollen from Bt corn (which carries its own natural pesticide) can kill Monarch caterpillars. But corn mostly pollinates early in the summer, well before Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed.
Corn pollen is heavy, seldom falling more than a yard to two outside the cornfields. The pollen usually doesn't stick to the glossy milkweed leaves, and it takes lots of the pollen to kill the Monarchs. There's not even much Bt danger in the cornfields, where farmers have always hoed or sprayed any yield-robbing weeds, including milkweeds.
One Monarch expert says we could do more good for the Monarchs by skipping one mowing per summer of the nation's roadsides than by banning biotech corn.
Don't expect any letup in the activist campaign against biotech foods, however. The activists need scares to keep themselves in the headlines and the contributions coming in, and there aren't many lurking dangers left in the modern world. People have been more willing to fear their food than their cars and cigarettes.
Nor have farmers yet learned to defend effectively modern farming systems, which have saved 16 million square miles of the world's wildlands from being plowed to get today's food supply with traditional, low-yield farming. The world's current forest area, coincidentally, is about 16 million square miles.
Expect the activists to continue assailing biotechnology, pesticides, fertilizers, confinement feeding and all the other elements of high-yield conservation. It's ironic that they call themselves environmentalists.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.