Henry I. Miller, M.D.

The world is becoming corn-crazy, with widespread hysteria over “contamination” of yellow corn-—and products made from it, such as chips, tortillas, taco shells, even chicken feed—with tiny amounts of a gene-spliced variety. The bottom line is that not a single person is at all likely to be harmed by this StarLink corn. The worldwide furor is the inevitable result of the United States government’s wrong-headed regulatory approach to gene-spliced plants.

StarLink corn differs from other commercial varieties by containing a protein called Cry9C. This bacterial protein, introduced into corn with gene-splicing techniques, has been approved for animal feed but not for humans because, although it does not resemble known allergens, it was not immediately degraded in digestion tests. Most food allergens are not readily digested, so the Environmental Protection Agency wanted more data before concluding that consumers could not be allergic to the protein.

The food products in question are actually far less likely than thousands of other products on the market to cause allergic or other health problems. After exhaustive testing, no allergic reactions, toxicity, or any other problem has been demonstrated with Cry9C or any substance similar to it. 

The ripple effect of this non-problem concerning StarLink is monumental, and growing. Mission Foods, the largest U.S. manufacturer of tortilla products, recalled all its yellow corn products, and major U.S. grocery chains removed many corn products from their shelves. A Japanese consumer group has charged that some of these banned corn products have found their way into food products in Japan. This raises the stakes significantly, because Japan annually imports about 16 million metric tons of U.S. feed corn, worth around $2 billion. 

Predictably, EPA officials have blamed the manufacturer of the corn, Aventis S.A., accusing the company of failing in its responsibility to segregate StarLink from other varieties of corn that are normally eaten by humans. 

But the real blame lies in the U.S. regulatory policy toward gene-spliced plants and foods. EPA and other government agencies in the U.S. and elsewhere hold gene-spliced foods to a far higher standard than other similar foods, even requiring the hugely expensive testing as pesticides of gene-spliced crop and garden plants such as corn, wheat, and tomatoes that have been genetically improved for enhanced pest or disease resistance. The policy fails to recognize that there are important differences between spraying synthetic, toxic chemicals and genetic approaches to enhancing plants’ natural pest and disease resistance. EPA’s policy is so potentially damaging and outside scientific norms that it has galvanized the scientific community, which has repeatedly and unequivocally condemned federal agencies’ policies. 

A recent analysis of biotech food safety by the Institute of Food Technologists took current regulatory policies to task, concluding that the evaluation of gene-spliced food “does not require a fundamental change in established principles of food safety; nor does it require a different standard of safety, even though, in fact, more information and a higher standard of safety are being required.” It continued that science “does not support more stringent safety standards than those that apply to conventional foods.” 

Scientists worldwide agree that adding genes to plants does not make them less safe. Dozens of new plant varieties produced through hybridization and other traditional methods of genetic improvement enter the marketplace each year without scientific review or special labeling. 

Gene-splicing is more precise, circumscribed, and predictable than other techniques, and can better exploit the subtleties of plant pathology. For example, the corn in the recalled products was made by splicing in a bacterial gene that produces a protein toxic to corn borer insects, but not to people or other mammals. The gene-spliced corn not only repels pests, but also is less likely to contain Fusarium, a toxic fungus often carried into the plants by the insects. This, in turn, significantly reduces the levels of the fungal toxin fumonisin, which is known to cause fatal diseases in horses and swine that eat infected corn, and esophageal cancer in humans. Thus, gene-spliced corn not only is cheaper to produce but also is a potential boon to public health. Moreover, by reducing the need for spraying chemical pesticides on crops, it is environmentally friendly. 

Yet, regulatory agencies have regulated foods from gene-spliced plants in a discriminatory, unnecessarily burdensome way. They have imposed requirements that could not possibly be met for products of conventionally bred crop plants. Paradoxically, only the more precisely crafted, gene-spliced crops are exhaustively, repeatedly—and expensively—reviewed before they can enter the field or food supply. Policy makers have ignored a fundamental rule of regulation: that the degree of scrutiny of a product or activity should be commensurate with the risk. What we need is government policies that make scientific and common sense, and that do not punish innovation. Until then, biotechnology applied to agriculture and food production is in for difficult times, indeed. 

by Henry I. Miller is a Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Stanford, Calif., and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C.