Biotech Corn...Safer Than Peanut Butter?
A Growing World That Wants To Both Preserve Habitats And Feed Itself Will Require Biotech Food
December 28, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
THE BridgeNews FORUM: Viewpoints on farming, farm policy and related agricultural issues, December 15, 2000.
CHURCHVILLE, Va.--A few days ago, a panel of science advisers for the Environmental Protection Agency refused to recommend human-use approval for StarLink corn--not because it would cause allergies, but because they couldn't prove it wouldn't.
(StarLink is the genetically engineered biotech corn approved for livestock feed only, and that recently "contaminated" the U.S. food system.)
Under this EPA panel's safety standard, even if StarLink were tested safely on all 280 million Americans, it wouldn't be sufficient. Someone in Albania might still get an allergic reaction.
At almost the same moment, a Hudson Institute conference on StarLink safety in Washington heard scientists testify StarLink corn is at least 700 times safer than peanuts and highly unlikely to be more allergenic than ordinary corn.
Larry Bohlen of Friends of the Earth, the group that started the StarLink scare told the Hudson conference that science was moving too fast in genetic engineering in the fields of food and medicine. He urged society to adopt organic farming, despite sharply lower yields that would take more land from wildlife for food production.
But Bruce Chassy, assistant dean of agricultural research at the University of Illinois expressed the view that "EPA science advisers are setting a bizarre new safety standard for a food products, and one that few natural foods could meet. I'll eat all the StarLink taco shells you can give me." He labeled the StarLink problem a regulatory failure, not a food safety lapse.
Ruth Kava, of the American Council on Science and Health, noted that more than 200 natural, non-biotech foods frequently cause allergies. Moreover, a small number of people are allergic to ordinary corn. (My nephew, in his youth, was allergic to corn and virtually every other food except white rice flour.)
Kava noted the purportedly allergenic protein in StarLink makes up such a tiny proportion of the corn's total proteins (0.0013 percent) that even if it was as allergenic as peanut protein, consumers would run only a small allergy risk
Dan Lynn, president of Azteca Milling, which recalled millions of pounds of corn flour products, told the conference the levels of StarLink in Azteca flour were so low that two different testing labs often got opposite results from the same samples.
I pointed out to the conferees, as I do to many audiences, that the world will need three times as much farm output in 2050, and we're already farming 37 percent of the planet's land area.
Unless we use biotechnology to help triple the yields again, we're faced with either letting a billion people starve or accepting the destruction of most of the planet's wildlife. Shouldn't that problem concern our environmental protection agency?
C.S. Prakash, a biotech plant researcher at Alabama's Tuskegee University, noted that the biotech version of rice, just engineered by the Chinese, will fend off enough rice stem borers to raise yields by more than 25 percent. That would protect an amount of wildland equal to the land area of France.
Prakash also pointed to biotech papayas that fend off the ringspot virus and thus protect another staple food of the tropics.
A native of India, he is enthusiastic about "golden rice," which could save millions of children in poor rice-eating cultures from the blindness and even death brought on by severe Vitamin A deficiency.
Tom Dorr, an Iowa farmer and seed merchant, told the conferees that farmers were caught in the middle. Biotech corn has eased farmers' pest problems and lowered their costs.
Dorr said biotech corn would also help prevent the loss of farmers' fingers and hands in corn harvester accidents, many of which occur while they try to clear jams caused by fallen cornstalks damaged by corn borers.
He warned, however, that none of the farmer advantages from StarLink were big enough to make up for a potential loss of major crop markets in Europe and Japan.
Karil Kochenderfer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association told the conference her members hope biotechnology results in safety, quality and desirable products for consumers but the food processing industry must ultimately produce what consumers want.
A recent New York Times editorial rejected the precautionary principle--the idea that we must prove any new technology is completely safe beyond any doubt--because it would prevent us from adopting powerful ways to conserve nature, such as low-till farming, which saves topsoil using chemical weedkillers. The Times said we must continue balancing potential benefits and risks.
The StarLink panelists agreed with that viewpoint, except for Friends of the Earth's Larry Bohlen.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.