Henry I. Miller

Biotechnology applied to agriculture and food production has had a tough row to hoe. While agbiotech products have been virtually banished in Europe, testing and commercialization have progressed in the United States—but only at a snail’s pace, because of excessive, discriminatory government regulation and fear-mongering by activists.

Another factor that has hindered agbiotech’s advance is large companies’ capitulation to intimidation by anti-technology activists. Two of North America’s largest producers of baby food, Heinz and Gerber, announced in 1999, for example, that they would use only non-gene-spliced materials for their products. This means using ingredients that may be nutritionally inferior to or less safe than those made from gene-spliced plants. These companies would be boycotting such ingredients as those derived from plants modified so that they do not need to be sprayed with toxic chemical pesticides and those derived from soybeans altered in ways that make high-quality soy protein less expensive.

The food industry’s self destructive faintheartedness may be coming to an end. At a conference in Chicago in March, Kraft Foods’ Chief Executive Officer Roger Deromedi offered an upbeat view of the role of gene-splicing in food production: “We believe that over time genetically modified ingredients will play a very important role both nutritionally and environmentally in terms of reduction of pesticide use around the world.”

This endorsement is important. Kraft, a food industry giant with hundreds of major products and annual revenues of more than $31 billion, seems willing—while some of its competitors are not—to defend the use of new, superior technologies to improve the quality and safety of their products.

Deromedi’s comments reflect a broad consensus that the risks associated with new biotechnology products are no greater than for other products, while the benefits are potentially limitless. Scientists around the world, and even senior EU regulators, agree that new “gene-splicing” technology lowers even further the already minimal risk associated with introducing new plant varieties into the food supply. Thanks to this technology, it is now possible to introduce pieces of DNA that contain one or a few well-characterized genes, while older genetic techniques transferred a variable number of genes haphazardly. Dozens of new plant varieties improved with traditional techniques of genetic modification such as hybridization enter the marketplace each year without special labeling or premarket review. Foods derived from them are an integral part of European and North American diets; they are at the farm stand and supermarket—and in baby food.

Gene splicing enhances product safety not only by its greater precision but also by exploiting the subtleties of plant pathology. A good example is so-called “Bt corn,” crafted by splicing into commercial corn varieties a bacterial gene that codes for a protein that is toxic to corn borer pests (and somewhat so to other insects, but not to mammals). As it fends off the insect pests, the gene-spliced corn also reduces the levels of Fusarium, a toxic fungus often carried into the plants by the insects. This, in turn, reduces the levels of fumonisin, a potent fungal toxin that can lead to fatal diseases in horses and swine and esophageal cancer in humans. Thus, using the gene-spliced corn for food processing lowers the levels of fumonisin and insect parts in the final product.

In spite of such benefits, and merely because anti-biotechnology extremists have demanded it, companies like Heinz and Gerber are foregoing superior sources of foods that could yield healthier and safer products. Worse still, Gerber has announced that it will use mostly organic corn, which is especially prone to insect and fungal infestations and which will be far more costly, because raising corn without insecticide and other chemicals is labor intensive and produces lower per-acre yields.

Is that what mothers expect in baby food? Is that consistent with the justification from Al Piergallini, President and Chief Executive Officer of Gerber’s parent company: “I have got to listen to my customers. So, if there is an issue, or even an inkling of an issue, I am going to make amends”?

The food industry understands and aggressively uses advertising and could outspend activists ten thousand to one to explain and defend a policy of using the best ingredients and state-of-the-art technologies to guarantee a top-quality product. Therefore, Gerber’s decision to reject a superior, safer technology can hardly be called “making amends”—it is selling out, in one fell swoop, the interests of the company, its commitment to making a superior product, and its customers.

It is wrong, and in the end futile, to try to mollify extremists. Their agenda is to arrogate control over what research is performed, what tools are used, and what products are brought to market. Biotechnology is just a microcosm of this greater struggle.

by Henry I. Miller, M.D. 
Fellow, Hoover Institution and Competitive Enterprise Institute,
Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.
[email protected]