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

Overview

Few topics have inspired as much international furor and misinformation as the development and distribution of genetically altered foods. For thousands of years, farmers have bred crops for their resistance to disease, productivity, and nutritional value; and over the past century, scientists have used increasingly more sophisticated methods for modifying them at the genetic level. But only since the 1970s have advances in biotechnology (or gene-splicing to be more precise) upped the ante, with the promise of ...

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Overview

Few topics have inspired as much international furor and misinformation as the development and distribution of genetically altered foods. For thousands of years, farmers have bred crops for their resistance to disease, productivity, and nutritional value; and over the past century, scientists have used increasingly more sophisticated methods for modifying them at the genetic level. But only since the 1970s have advances in biotechnology (or gene-splicing to be more precise) upped the ante, with the promise of dramatically improved agricultural products—and public resistance far out of synch with the potential risks.

In this provocative and meticulously researched book, Henry Miller and Gregory Conko trace the origins of gene-splicing, its applications, and the backlash from consumer groups and government agencies against so-called Frankenfoods—from America to Zimbabwe. They explain how a happy conspiracy of anti-technology activism, bureaucratic over-reach, and business lobbying has resulted in a regulatory framework in which there is an inverse relationship between the degree of product risk and degree of regulatory scrutiny. The net result, they argue, is a combination of public confusion, political manipulation, ill-conceived regulation (from such agencies as the USDA, EPA, and FDA), and ultimately, the obstruction of one of the safest and most promising technologies ever developed—with profoundly negative consequences for the environment and starving people around the world. The authors go on to suggest a way to emerge from this morass, proposing a variety of business and policy reforms that can unlock the potential of this cutting-edge science, while ensuring appropriate safeguards and moving environmentally friendly products into the hands of farmers and consumers. This book is guaranteed to fuel the ongoing debate over the future of biotech and its cultural, economic, and political implications.

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What People Are Saying

Publisher
Around 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.

Wesley J. Smith
Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko are true believers in the power of biotechnology in agriculture to improve life as it generates bounteous profits for innovative companies with the vision to invent and develop "superior" genetically modified GM plants. The fly in their ointment is overly zealous government regulation stimulated by vocal and paranoid bio_skeptic activists whose alarmism impedes biotech companies from feeding a hungry world.

They make many valid points. It is indeed a crime against humanity that some African leaders, egged on by radical European Greens, decided to let their people starve rather than distribute corn they deemed "toxic" because it had minor genetic modifications. But if the authors hoped to convince the masses that so_called "Frankenfoods" are as safe as crops that have been modified through natural cross_breeding techniques, their book doesn't quite make the grade.

Miller and Conko write as if it is irrational to worry that there may be a qualitative difference between developing seedless watermelons through selective breeding on one hand, and introducing genes from unrelated organisms, such as splicing bacterium DNA into a tomato plant to make it more pest_resistant, on the other. And rather than methodically demonstrating why gene_spliced foods really are safe, the authors often write as if their forceful assertions alone are sufficient to convince readers that it is so.

It isn't. I'm an agnostic on the GM food issue who wants to be convinced. But after reading The Frankenfood Myth, I remain on the fence.

This is not to say that the authors' consternation isn't just. For example, their critique of the "precautionary principle," under which biotech companies have been forced to demonstrate almost to a metaphysical certainty that their GM foods are safe before being permitted into the marketplace, is both passionate and compelling. But, they also ignore the truth of the old maxim: "Just because you are paranoid doesn't mean that they are not really after you."

The excessive reticence on the part of regulators that they bemoan did not arise in a vacuum. Corporations have too often covered up known safety problems with their products in order to pass regulatory muster. Their failure to adequately grapple with this history undermines the authors' argument.

Moreover, Miller and Conko's ideological resentment of even the most rational concerns about GM crops limits their effectiveness. For example, plants can be genetically modified to produce substances that could be harvested for medicinal purposes, an approach known as "biopharming" that is rightly lauded by the authors.

But, given the potentials for company_crushing lawsuits and/or a catastrophic loss of consumer confidence should biopharmed substances enter the food chain and cause harm, it is not irrational or anti_biotech for the food industry to insist that non_food plants be used when making such products. Nor is it "cowardly capitulation," as the authors angrily assert, for Gerber to forgo using GM foods in its products based on customer preferences - even if baby food made from biotechnologically altered crops would indeed be superior.

Readers who care a lot about regulatory processes will unquestionably enjoy The Frankenfood Myth. And indeed, much of what the authors advocate is worth considering. Unfortunately, their fixation on the arcane and their overheated ideological resentments make it unlikely that a general audience will adopt a sense of righteous indignation that the authors hope to ignite.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His current book is "Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World."

Charles Rousseaux
Around 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.

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780275978792
  • Publisher: ABC-CLIO, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 8/28/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 294
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

HENRY I. MILLER, M.D., is a Research Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where, since 1994, he has focused on the relationship between science and regulation, models for regulatory reform, and federal and international oversight of new advances in biotechnology. A physician and molecular biologist, he served for 17 years at the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He is the author or editor of six books, including To America's Health and Public Controversy in Biotechnology, as well as hundreds of articles in such publications as Forbes, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Policy Review, and Nature Biotechnology.

GREGORY CONKO is Director of Food Safety Policy with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an interest group based in Washington, D.C. He is also co-founder and Vice President of the AgBioWorld Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides information to teachers, journalists, policymakers, and the general public about developments in plant science, biotechnology, and sustainable agriculture. His writings have appeared in scholarly journals, newspapers, and magazines, and he frequently participates in international conferences on food safety and trade.

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Table of Contents

Foreword
Prologue
1 A brave new world of biotechnology? : more like a brave old world! 1
2 Myths, mistakes, misconceptions ... and mendacity 19
3 Science, common sense, and public policy 37
4 Caution, precaution, and the precautionary principle 71
5 The vagaries of U.S. regulation 97
6 Legal liability issues 137
7 The vagaries of foreign and international regulation 163
8 European resistance to biotechnology 181
9 Climbing out of the quagmire 201
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