Engineered-food claims are hard to swallow

"What is being presented as an act of charity is in fact nothing more than an act of marketing."

— Zimbabwean farmer at the Johannesburg Earth Summit, referring to U.S. dumping of genetically engineered food aid in Africa

A number of recent editorials and opinion pieces in the media regarding famine in southern Africa claim that genetically engineered (GE) food is necessary to "feed the world."

These may actually be attempts to bolster the sagging fortunes of the biotech industry rather than efforts to end hunger. Arguing that spoiled yuppies of the European Union and U.S. are blocking attempts to end famine in Africa by attacking genetically engineered foods, these articles generally distort the existing knowledge relevant to GE issues.

The principal claim they make is that there is no evidence that genetically engineered food poses a health risk. "No evidence of risk" is not the same as "evidence of no risk." Since neither the U.S. government nor industry appears to be funding any research into the health effects of GE food, the situation is really "don't look/don't find."

Thus, no one knows whether continued eating of genetically engineered food is safe. Perhaps chronic exposure to GE food might be associated with the 70 million incidents each year of "food poisoning" reported by the government, or with the apparent rises in autism or attention deficit disorder in kids. Or, perhaps not.

Whatever industry research there may actually be on GE food, it is not reported in the open, peer-reviewed literature where it would be subjected to the rigors of scientific scrutiny. It is secreted away as "confidential business information." Nonetheless, the U.S. government calls this approach to not regulating GE food "sound science." Claims that the United Nations has certified that such food is safe to eat are based on such irregular studies, not independent testing.

Indeed, the U.N. is in the process of establishing a biosafety protocol to regulate the international movement of transgenic organisms, including food. It should be operational by next spring, and will explicitly recognize the legitimacy of the actions taken by the southern African countries in rejecting the importation of GE foods. In the meantime, many countries currently have put up barriers to GE food, which is severely impacting U.S. agricultural exports.

The protocol has, as a key component, the "precautionary principle," a doctrine of risk regulation stating the old adages "look before you leap" and "better safe than sorry." Similar to dozens of U.S. regulatory statutes, the principle says that when there is scientific uncertainty about a potentially important risk, a government is justified in prohibiting action until more scientific research is done to better establish the exact risk parameters. And then, when there is information, a society may make an informed choice as to what level of risk it chooses to run.

However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made a political decision in 1992, without any scientific inquiry and over the objections of some of its senior scientists, that genetically engineered foods were "substantially equivalent" to conventional varieties.

In other words, if they share a few characteristics in common, they are probably the same in other characteristics. So ... Since GE tomatoes are round, red and hang from their vines they must be as healthy as conventional tomatoes.

The biotech industry, however, has no shame in going across the street to another federal agency, the Patent Office, and arguing that GE foods are substantially different from conventional ones, and so should be awarded patents.

Hunger is a political/economic phenomenon, not essentially a technical one. That is why countries like the U.S. have so many hungry residents despite our huge food surpluses, and why Ethiopia (the former poster child of malnutrition) has been able to be food-self-sufficient for the past seven years, using traditional technologies within an overall system of careful conservation practices and planning.

All the technical "revolutions" we have proclaimed — hybrids, pesticides and other agrichemicals, the Green Revolution, etc. — have not ended world hunger, and it sounds like a shell game to proclaim that just one more (technical) fix is going to do the trick.

In fact, there are signs that the biotech industry may be in dire straits. A study by the British Soil Association (an organics group) titled "Seeds of Doubt" recently estimated that North America lost over $12 billion in the period 1994 to 2000. It notes:

• The profitability of growing GE herbicide-tolerant soya and insect-resistant maize is less than non-genetically modified crops;

• The claims of increased yields have not been realized overall except for a small increase in some maize yields.

• GE herbicide-tolerant crops have made farmers more reliant on herbicides and new weed problems have emerged;

• All farmers are suffering a severe reduction in choice about how they farm as a result of the introduction of genetically modified crops by some;

• Non-GE seeds have become almost completely contaminated by genetically engineered components.

The industry, its government allies and their spokespeople don't seem particularly concerned with their need to dump unwanted food upon unwilling, but starving, people. Indeed, there is evidence that they welcome this chaos as leading to a situation in which opposition to GE foods will be rendered futile. As Emmy Simmons, assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said to me after the cameras stopped rolling on a vigorous debate we had on South Africa TV, "In four years, enough GE crops will have been planted in South Africa that the pollen will have contaminated the entire continent."

Let organic farmers, the producers of heirloom varieties, and even those who plant conventional but unique hybrids be damned. Under the specious claims of "free choice" for farmers, the industry will deny consumers all choice about whether to eat engineered genomes.

The repeated insistence that the countries of Africa are being manipulated by white northern activists reflects a colonialist mentality that cannot imagine Third World nations being able to decide what is actually in their best interests. At a meeting of the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization in June 1998, all the delegates from the continent (except South Africa) published a statement that "strongly object(ed) that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us."

More Americans should be asking why propaganda is keeping us from being educated about subjects that Africans seem to know so well.

Philip L. Bereano is a University of Washington professor in the field of technology and public policy. He has participated in the negotiations of the biosafety protocol and attended the Earth Summits in Rio and Johannesburg on behalf of national and Washington state citizens' organizations.