Consumer Reports Biotech Bashing Falls Flat

January 01, 1999  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Biotech

In France last month, I picked up a magazine depicting a tomato with a burning fuse below the big bold words: "La Cuisine du Diable." No, it wasn’t a reference to a dynamite devil’s food cake made with tomatoes, but rather to food developed through biotechnology. Now I’m looking at a far more influential U.S. magazine with an article and several sidebars that one might call "La Cuisine du Diable Lite".

Consumer Reports (CR) presents in its September issue a more truthful look at biotech than the French magazine. Considering CR’s growing tendency to find corporate-produced horrors behind every bush, that’s remarkable.

Indeed, the CR article stated, "There is no evidence that genetically engineered foods on the market are not safe to eat," adding that "genetic engineering offers the possibility of foods that would benefit consumers" in such ways as lowering cholesterol and adding cancer-fighting genes.

But like Darth Vader, CR likes the dark side. It repeats many false claims about biotech foods, says biotech development hasn’t nearly enough safeguards, and recommends mandated labeling of "all foods containing genetically engineered ingredients."

You can be sure CR wasn’t about to weaken its case by explaining that there is no inherent difference between a bioengineered food and a non-bioengineered food. None.

The difference is merely in how they were developed. Virtually nothing we eat is truly "natural". Other than non-farmed fish, the few things we consume that are as nature made them begin with"wild," as in "wild game" or Ewell Gibbons’ "wild hickory nuts."

From cattle to corn, apples to artichokes, today’s food is the result of cross-breeding experiments dating back to the dawn of history. Many of the plant varieties we now consume didn’t exist even century ago.

Biotechnology simply means that instead of using the time-consuming, clumsy technique of cross-breeding one plant or animal with another in hopes that the desired traits will arise in the offspring, you isolate a specific gene or genes with the desired features and splice them into the organism you want to improve.

It’s faster and surer, and being surer it’s safer. "The handful of harmful plants that were developed before there was gene-splicing, such as two types of squash, and a type of celery and potato, would have been much less likely to occur with" biotech, says Dr. Henry Miller, a former official with the FDA and a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Can biotechnology guarantee food that is utterly, absolutely, 101% safe? Sorry, no technology can. But, Miller told me, biotech food regulations are always at least as tough as for non-biotech varieties and often needlessly tougher.

Since biotech "is merely an extension of the sort of food development that’s been going on for such a long time, the scientific consensus holds there’s no justification for additional scrutiny," he says. That’s also the FDA’s view. But the heavily politicized EPA, he says, takes a different tack, discriminating against biotech food and burdening it with worthless tests.

University of Nebraska food scientist Steve Taylor is chairman of an international panel of scientists formed by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization. It was given the job of coming up with standards for biotech food safety evaluation. "The testing done by major U.S. biotech companies meets or exceeds those standards," Taylor says.

Yet government regulators aren’t the big problem for companies investing billions of dollars to bring us these foods. They suffer under a constant barrage of false claims from environmental activists, organic farmers, and media crusaders. They are besieged by Europeans and their governments who perceive (correctly) that their already-heavily subsidized farmers will need even more subsidies to compete with cheaper American biotech crops.

If they ever actually committed the sins of which they’re accused, media attention and perhaps ensuing lawsuits could destroy them. Already, Friends of the Earth have sent chilling notifications to individual researchers that they will be held personally legally liable for problems.

So the food is safe. Why label it then? Simple, says CR. "Consumers have a fundamental right to know what they eat . . . "

That sounds so nice but doesn’t mean much.

For example, CR and other biotech labeling advocates note that many European governments mandate biotech food labeling. They ignore that almost none mandate nutrition labels such as our government does.

Thus it is we, not the Europeans, who provide consumers with the most important information about their food.

Why don’t we require labels telling us in which states the individual ingredients were grown, slaughtered, or synthesized? Why don’t they tell us the specific variety of blueberry in that muffin, or grapes in that juice. Because it’s not important.

Since biotech food is distinguishable only in how it was developed, there’s no purpose to labeling it.

That is, there’s no non-political purpose. But activists and their media allies will continue to fight for it in the hopes that a biotech label will scare consumers away. Further, because labeling will require food testing at every stage of transport from picking to processing, it will increase the cost of biotech-containing processed foods by as much as 30%, probably pricing it out of the market.

What the public really needs is a label on all the malicious or just scientifically inaccurate articles and press releases on biotech food. Something like "This piece is 5% somewhat factual, 10% obfuscation, and 85% rubbish."