Bogus Biotech Hype

January 01, 2001  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  National Review Online  ·  Biotech

Here’s how Greenpeace’s dual anti-biotech strategy works.

First, if you throw enough "darts," one may eventually stick.

Alternatively, the collective weight of one false scare after another could send agricultural biotech the way of nuclear power.

Neither strategy will probably prevail in North America, but they do wreak havoc. And they may have a devastating impact in a developing world that desperately needs biotech foods and as yet lacks our scientific sophistication.

One such dart was that biotech corn kills monarch butterflies. Okay, so it doesn’t. But Greenpeace still uses the claim as an opportunity to prance around in wings and antennae.

Another was that StarLink corn intended only for animal consumption but found its way into human food in minuscule quantities could cause devastating allergies. Okay, so it doesn’t. But the charge did give agricultural companies and farmers a severe sinus headache.

And now another dart, this one tossed with the help of the New York Times. "Mystery DNA Is Discovered in Soybeans by Scientists," ran the headline.

Then Greenpeace pounced.

Invoking yet again Mary Shelley’s horribly overexploited character, the group declared, "Like Dr. Frankenstein, Monsanto has created a new life form but doesn’t know what will happen when it’s turned loose in the world."

The soybeans in question are called "Roundup Ready." They have a bacterium gene spliced into them, allowing the plants to resist the herbicide glyphosate, sold by Monsanto under the brand name "Roundup."

This allows Roundup to be sprayed over weeds and crops alike, instead of trying to zap just the weeds, saving farmers time and fuel and–according to some studies–herbicide as well.

That may be why Roundup Ready soybeans are the most popular biotech crop in the world, accounting for over two-thirds of total U.S. soy acreage.

But what’s this "mystery"?

The New York Times piece and the Greenpeace allegations were responses to an article just published by Belgian scientists in the print edition of European Journal of Food Research Technology.

The Belgians noted that the soybeans contain a bit of what some reporters labeled "alien" genetic material. More precisely, this was soybean DNA that was not described at the time Monsanto received approval to sell the seeds.

According to Monsanto, the heretofore unknown sequence was 534 DNA "letters" out of a soybean genome of about 1.5 billion letters, or the rough equivalent of a cockroach burp in the Taj Mahal.

Remarkably, Monsanto made these allegedly "startling new" findings available to U.K. regulators 14 months ago. They were then posted on the Internet and a British newspaper, The Sunday Herald, immediately wrote about them. Health agencies of both the U.K. and Belgium reviewed them and declared they amounted to nothing.

Even the European Journal of Food Research Technology article appeared in electronic format over two months ago, giving Greenpeace plenty of time to evaluate the findings and prepare its disinformation campaign.

But the chief Belgian researcher, Marc De Loose, "Rejected calls by environmental group Greenpeace International to suspend safety approval of the product," according to the Associated Press. Said De Loose, "There is no scientific data to support this idea" that the soybeans could pose any harm.

Indeed, right after the New York Times piece appeared, the European Commission in Brussels also declared there was no reason to believe the soybeans were unsafe.

This was an easy call, explains Washington State University toxicologist Allan Felsot, because "This DNA contains no functional genes and therefore can’t affect a plant one way or another."

Yet even without that, he says, the safety of the soybeans would have been assured.

"All the safety testing in the early 1990s included the so-called ’mystery DNA,’ even if Monsanto didn’t know it was there," he says. "Plants are tested as a whole, not bit by bit. The fact that you didn’t know something was in there doesn’t change its safety."

Adds Felsot, "Greenpeace is acting like somebody who suddenly discovers their car has a heretofore unknown part, and tears his hair out over the possibility it therefore might not run anymore. This notwithstanding that they’ve already driven it over 200,000 miles."

One of the possibilities for the previously unknown sequence, explained De Loose, "is that during the integration of the [herbicide-resistance gene], there are some rearrangements at the site of insertion."

The "alien DNA" is not from the Angry Red Planet or a "galaxy far, far away" and it doesn’t want to be taken to our leader. Rather is a slight mixing of soybean material already present.

Similar rearrangements occur with conventional breeding techniques.

Monsanto’s "wrongdoing" was in not building a time machine to bring back a test that wouldn’t be available for several more years.

Thus, while the opening line of the New York Times article was that this latest development (or non-development, as it were) is "casting some doubts on the biotechnology industry’s assertions that its technology is precise and predictable," the opposite is true.

It demonstrates that while DNA-detection technology was excellent several years ago, it continues to improve.

This makes it progressively easier for Monsanto and other companies to give us better biotech foods with the same safety assurance.

If knowing genetic sequences is indicative of food safety, then biotech food is inherently safer than non-biotech food since we know more about the sequences of biotech crops than non-biotech crops.

If it’s mystery DNA you’re worried about, you might consider trying to eat only genetically engineered food.

But a better option may be to start ignoring crop pests like Greenpeace, who insist that we apply double standards to biotech foods and make demands of them for which other foods couldn’t possibly comply.