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PublisherAround this time of year, most of us wish we could make food disappear - before we've consumed it. Holiday feasts are as much a part of the season as New Year's fasts. But what if the food wasn't there? Empty platters and place mats might save some from over-indulgence, but they would also wreck the season, and could harm those faced with continual fasts. Even worse, what if there were plenty of safe-to-eat food on the table, but no one was allowed to touch it? Those already sated might experience hunger pains. Those already starving might perish. That is exactly what is happening with genetically modified GM food, according to Henry Miller and Gregory Conko. In The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution, they describe how activists and regulators have almost literally taken foods off the table, out of the mouths of those who might choose it and those who desperately need it. Regardless of their motives, those anti-biotech zealots have caused tragic results, and they now threaten what could be the next Green Revolution.
Limiting the growth and production of GM foods might be merited if they proved dangerous according to scientifically defensible standards of risk. But that is not the case. As Mr. Miller and Mr. Conko point out repeatedly, genetically modified foods are actually safer than their "natural" counterparts. To modify an organism predictably, whether plant or paramecium, one has to first have a sense of what genes are there and how they work together. Attempting modifications blindly - randomly crossing strains of wheat or rice to produce a high-yield line - tends to result in wastage and unpleasant surprises. In fact, farmers have been trying blind modifications for millennia - it's called traditional agriculture. Modern molecular techniques differ from previous plant-improvement methods only in their higher degree of accuracy. Given that continuum, Mr. Miller and Mr. Conko insist that genetically modified foods are at least as safe for consumption as their conventional counterparts, and probably safer. They do outstanding work putting such foods in the proper context, and then backing up their claims with extensive studies and copious endnotes.
Those facts form the framework for what is essentially a guidebook to the policies and public relations of GM foods. Most of the 200-plus pages in the volume describe their regulatory landscape, ranging from discussions about the derivation of U.S. policies to a description of U.N. biosafety protocols. It's not reading for the light of heart or the heavy of stomach. Again and again, regulators have used vacuous reasoning to single out GM foods, increasing their costs and discouraging their developments. Astonishingly, agriculture companies and even science boards have sometimes joined regulators, under the mistaken assumption that doing so will help allay foolish fears of GM foods. As Mr. Miller and Mr. Conko point out, that tactic has consistently resulted in the sowing of greater anxiety.
Moreover, Mr. Miller and Mr. Conko argue that there is little point in attempting to placate anti-GM foodies, "To well-meaning colleagues . . who would attempt to propitiate or carry on meaningful dialogue with the anti-science, anti-biotechnology activists, we would counsel that it is fruitless . . . . There is little common ground. One cannot have a reasoned debate with a mugger." In Europe GM food phobias and over-regulation have reached ridiculous levels. European policy-makers have even placed restrictions on GM foods to prevent hypothetical risks - the precautionary principle. As Mr. Miller and Mr. Conko note, the principle proves problematic in practice, since the potential benefits of the new product are silenced, while the risks inherent to the old product are amplified. The precautionary principle is problematic in principle too, since it is impossible to conclusively rule out all risks.
As the authors repeatedly point out, " 'Completely safe' is a never realized ideal." Rather, risks are always relative. Tradeoffs are inevitable. Policymakers are expected to make decisions based on a rational risk analysis and a careful weighing of alternatives. There are costs for both allowing unsafe products to reach consumers, and for disallowing safe products to reach them. Regulatory structures are much more biased towards preventing the former types of errors Type I than the latter Type II - it is much easier to see headlines screaming about product recalls than to see the foods and medicines that simply are not there.
The book closes with ideas for making policymakers more responsive to Type II errors, and to reforming the regulation of GM foods. Their provocative ideas deserve the attention of policymakers. Unfortunately, the expertise of Mr. Miller and Mr. Conko works against them at some points. They assume that their audience has more than a basic familiarity with the subject - descriptions of the science are sparse. There are no pictures, not even any of genetically modified plants, and the only diagram used is less than illuminating. Ultimately, the book is perfect for policymakers, but may prove difficult going for laypersons. That is a pity, since there is a need for more books like it. One of America's little noticed freedoms is the freedom to feast and fast when one wants to or at least as long as one can maintain the willpower. By restricting American's range of food choices, activists and regulators have constricted their freedom.
If the authors are correct - and they make a compelling case - then GM food phobes and regulators have made the world a poorer place. The losses could become even graver if GM food phobes continue to have their way. As Mr. Miller and Mr. Conko argue, "If today's rich nations decide to stop or turn back the clock [to a point at which the new biotechnology is no longer used on GM foods] they will still be rich. But if we stop the clock for developing countries, they will still be poor and hungry. And many of their inhabitants will be dead."
Great costs have already come from the myth that GM foods are unfit for consumption. "Frankenfoods" should have a place at the table of all who want them.
Charles Rousseaux is the speechwriter for Interior Secretary Gale Norton. The all-natural views expressed are his own.