The Biotech Protest That Wasn't

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

Corncobs and monarchs might soon be headed for the unemployment line.

"15,000 Biotech Researchers, 5,000 Protesters Converge on San Diego." So declared an Associated Press wire story headline the day before the annual Biotechnology Industry Organization conference in San Diego began in late June. But an AP story after the conference had actually begun by referring to a mere "a handful of protestors."

These are the days of the so-called "Million Man March," the "Million Mom March," and the no doubt forthcoming "Million Manatee March." Numbers have taken on a special meaning and when it comes to protest rallies, you don’t need Masters & Johnson to tell you that size does count.

By the time I got to the conference center the day after the meeting opened, I counted one corn cob wearing a pair of Birkenstock sandals and a couple of sad-looking guys in monarch butterfly costumes. There might have been a rutabaga or tomato off in the distance, but I couldn’t be sure. Other media besides the AP commented on the smaller than expected crowd, which by the third day had disappeared completely.

Moreover, many of these were protesting things other than biotech. "Free Mumia" signs were quite fashionable, a reference to death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal convicted of killing a Philadelphia cop, not of destroying biotech crops. Others described as anarchists were protesting global trade.

To comprehend the importance of the tiny turnout, it helps to understand how much effort went into getting even that. Every name in the international anti-biotech scare business had worked to mobilize their troops, under the auspices of a group called "Biodevastation 2001."

More than 35 radical groups were listed on Biodevastation’s website, including: Greenpeace USA, Sierra Club Canada, the Ruckus Society, Genetically Engineered Food Alert, the Organic Farming Research Foundation, the Sunshine Project, Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Food, Northwest Resistance Against Genetic Engineering, Global Alliance Against Genetically Engineered Trees, genetiX snowball from the UK, and the South African Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering.

I could keep right on going, but for fear of carpal-tunnel injury.

To encourage these groups’ members to picket in San Diego, the organizer provided maps, directions, and connections to hotels, hostels, and restaurants. It planned nine days of "convergence training," along with teach-ins and motivational speakers. For all this, the myriad anti-biotech organizations apparently managed to deliver up less than a fraction of a demonstrator each.

Previous annual conferences in far less hospitable climates drew far more protesters (about 2,500 last year in Boston) dressed in an array of vegetable, insect, and monster suits.

While sitting on a conference panel, CBS reporter Andrew Wyatt was asked why, considering the tiny number of protesters, did journalists who covered the meeting feel obliged to devote large chunks of their stories to such small numbers of people.

He thoughtfully replied that those protesters’ positions represent apprehensions of many Americans who lacked the time or the inclination to play corncob for the day. But do they?

Biodevastation’s official symbol, as diasplayed on their websites, comprises the letters "DNA," with a circle around it and a slash through it. To put it in words, they’re against DNA. Apparently, unlike most of us, they are unaware that everything on earth that has ever crept, crawled, walked, flown, or dressed up like a tomato is made up of DNA. That includes, naturally, you and me and all the food we eat.

But often it’s these same tiny numbers of ignorant people who manage repeatedly to make mountainous fears out of molehill possibilities.

For example, the monarch butterfly remains the activists’ favorite symbol of the unintended consequences of planting biotech corn, based on a single laboratory study more than two years ago. Yet a veritable slew of new studies, with several more upcoming, show that initial concerns were groundless. Biotech corn poses virtually zero harm to butterflies.

Likewise for the scare over StarLink corn’s alleged allergenicity, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have now discounted. The product was intended for animal use but nevertheless found its way into human food. This exposed a regulatory gap, which has now been sealed.

Still, StarLink was never more than a potential allergen, and given the small amount inadvertently mixed into the food supply, it could never have been consumed in doses to cause allergies even if it were allergenic.

Americans have been eating biotech food for five years, with no evidence that it’s caused a single cough, sneeze, or pimple. Yet allergies to non-biotech foods kill about 100 Americans yearly.

It’s true that the public is woefully undereducated about biotechnology. Even well-informed people have questions and concerns over biotech. How could they not, considering that this is a science that is already changing the world?

But what the public demands is information, not disinformation. Polls show that merely informing people that they’ve already been eating biotech food for five years reassures them and tremendously bolsters their support for the products. So it’s no coincidence that more biotech food is being planted than ever.

The U.S. Agriculture Department reports that biotech soybeans alone jumped from 54% of all soy acres planted last year to 68% this year. Biotech cotton planting is also way up, though biotech corn does seem to have been hurt by the false accusations. Even at that, biotech corn acreage stayed even with last year.

Biotech promises to conquer diseases ranging from cancer to Alzheimer’s to AIDS, to end hunger and malnutrition in the underdeveloped world, and to clean up toxic and radioactive waste sites with engineered bacteria and plants. Yet none of this eliminates the need for scientists, businesses, and legitimate watchdogs to keep the public fully informed and to keep constant vigil for unexpected outcomes.

Still, perhaps the day when biotech opponents think they can win us over with infantile appeals to gut emotions and fear is behind us. The cantankerous corncobs and mischievous monarchs may soon be out of a job.