The March of Life
Biotech's Bright Promise of a Better Life
April 16, 2002
by Dennis T. Avery
The man who supplanted Jeremy Rifkin as the world’s most famous anti-biotechnology activist turned up in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in early April which is starting off as a great month for biotechnology.
Jose Bove, the French farmer who has trashed McDonalds and vandalized biotech crops on three continents, harassed Israeli soldiers and demanded to be arrested. He was.
About 70 of Bove’s fellow anti-biotech and anti-globalization activists also turned up in Israel, offering to serve as human shields to protect Yassir Arafat, architect of the Palestinian violence.
None of this low drama had anything to do with genetically engineered crops or world trade. But hey, newspapers have given little space to activists since Sept. 11unless the activists were Moslem terrorists planning death scenes.
Bove and his fellow antis made a professional decision that joining Arafat in Israel was a safer way to get back in the headlines than joining Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.
There was always a question about the sincerity of Bove’s opposition to biotech crops; his father was one of France’s senior agricultural researchers. Many thought he started attacking biotech crops to embarrass the old man.
Now he’s revealed his true agenda personal publicity.
While Bove was aligning himself with suicide-bombers, the British science journal Nature admitted in writing that it should not have published a study claiming that Mexican landrace corn varieties had been polluted by “jumping genes” from genetically engineered U.S. corn.
The mea culpa came only after three separate groups of legitimate scientists came forward to question the claim of gene-jumping made by two University of California/Berkeley academics. They warned that David Quist and Ignatio Chapela had used a test famous for turning up “false positives,” and failed to do the follow-up studies needed to validate their work.
As with Bove, there had been a clue that the Cal/Berkeley team wasn’t totally objective. The senior researcher, Chapela, served on the board of a pro-organic activist group called Pesticide Action North America.
Another clue: More than 50 activist groups signed a complaint that the Quist/Chapela critics were engaging in “academic intimidation” and “highly unethical mudslinging.” They seemed intent on trying to forestall the legitimate debate that has always been crucial to good science.
It was Nature’s second major biotech embarrassment. In 1999, the journal published a paper by John Losey of Cornell University noting that genetically modified corn pollen carrying the Bacillus Thuringiensis toxin had killed Monarch butterfly larvae in his laboratory.
Of course, the Bt toxin had been engineered into the corn precisely because it kills caterpillars including the destructive corn earworm and corn borer. The real question was whether Bt corn represented a danger to real Monarchs in real cornfields.
Losey gave the Monarch larvae in his lab nothing to eat but milkweed leaves heavily dusted with Bt pollen. Subsequent field studies showed the Monarchs were safer in a Bt cornfield than in the usual cornfield sprayed with insecticides to control the earworms and borers.
April’s promising start continued when a Chinese research team and the Swiss firm Syngenta both announced they were publishing the genome of the rice plant 450 million units of DNA encoding about 40,000 genes. Both groups are making their research public to encourage its use by plant breeders around the world.
The New York Times, which for years has carried on a virtual campaign for organic farming the antithesis of biotech declared the mapping of the rice genome will “help breeders create better varieties not only of rice but also of corn, wheat, barley and other crops.”
One biotech research team has already inserted a corn gene into rice to get a higher rate of photosynthesis and 35 percent higher yields.
Perhaps it was inevitable that a new scientific breakthrough as powerful as biotechnology would be controversial. Perhaps it was inevitable that rich overfed Americans should worry more about 14 captive Monarch caterpillars than about higher crop yields able to feed the planet’s 800 million still-malnourished people some 230 million of them children.
Yet, it’s becoming increasingly clear that a minority willing to use street violence and embrace terrorist suicide-bombers as freedom fighters must not be allowed to use fraudulent science to shape the 21st century.
The hopeful events of early April emphasize that the world should stick with the democratic process, free markets, and peer-reviewed science that have given more people more affluence, longer lives, more freedom from pain and a wider set of attractive lifestyle choices than at any time in previous human history.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.