October, 1999

Cover & Feature Stories

GMO's

The argument against genetically modified foods has always been more a generalized fear of the unknown – Franken-foods – than a scientific case. In contrast, the benefits of using genetic tools to alter the food supply are tangible.

Yes in Europe, agitation against genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) has been intense enough to lead many international food companies to think it will be impossible to sell genetically modified foods in Europe, and to cause these same companies concern about the prospects for sales in North America.

So far, the produce industry is barely affected by the controversy – a few potatoes, papaya, radicchio, some failed experiments with tomatoes – but as the technology improves, produce will get the attention that, up to now, has been reserved for large-volume crops such as soybeans.

In early October, at Blue Mountain Lake, NY, 22 activists from around the world gathered with the specific goal of orchestrating a campaign against genetically modified food in the United States. What is behind the opposition to genetically modified foods? And how should we as an industry – and as a civilization – deal with the prospect of genetically modified foods?

Defenders of genetically modified foods don’t help their cause by assuring people of things they cannot possibly know to be true. So, to promise people guaranteed safety for individual consumption and provide assurance of no negative environmental effects is preposterous.

At best, people who speak this way are simply flacks for industry; more seriously they are either ignorant or liars.

Even more unsettling, however, are the opponents of genetically modified foods who create scare lists of anything that could conceivably – or often enough inconceivably – go wrong.

Just as any individual’s life is launched in a moment of luck and uncertainty when a sperm and an ovum combine, with countless secondary consequences to a birth both unforeseen and unforeseeable at the moment of conception, so too, in making policy, we operate under the law of unintended consequences. In allowing automobiles, we set in motion the process that led to ribbons of highway, deep sea oil drilling and Operation Desert Storm. For better or worse.

And it is the “for better” part that opponents of genetically modified food are simply forgetting. The law of unintended consequences is not the law of bad consequences. It holds only that for any action there will be consequences that we did not intend and could not have predicted, it does not say those consequences will be necessarily be bad.

The Green Revolution

In Israel’s Jordan Valley, anthropologists have discovered evidence of plant breeding dating to approximately 9,000 B.C. – cereal plants that had been specially bred to avoid scattering their seeds and instead were bred to hold onto the seeds.

These simple seeds stand as a momentous marker in history for, with these seeds, mankind acquired the power to alter nature itself.

It is not surprising that these early farmers looked to make food more available to themselves, for throughout history scarcity of food has been the common experience of man.

And doing anything about it was, at best, arduous. This was true of the early hunter/gatherers, the first farmers and certainly these early Jordan Valley horticulturists who, most likely, painstakingly observed which plants kept the seeds tight and selected the seeds of these plants for replanting. Perhaps they even realized how to pollinate one plant with another.

And, in fact, until just yesterday in evolutionary terms, these were the only real tools at man’s disposal for creating more useful plant strains. In time these efforts to find better varieties were to shift from being the province of individual farmers to dedicated research institutes.

In one of the most productive federal laws ever passed, all across the United States, land grant colleges were established with no small part of their function being to help a growing America grow enough food.

From the late 1940’s until the early 1960’s, in the spirit of generous private philanthropy, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations spearheaded what came to be known as the “Green Revolution.” These foundations helped establish agricultural research institutes in both Mexico and the Philippines. The new crop varieties developed at these and similar institutes revolutionized the world’s agricultural system.

These varieties, combined with modern pesticides, fertilizers and mechanization, eliminated for the first time in history the constant prospect of shortages of food.

The dividends of the Green Revolution are such that, today, it is widely acknowledged that famine is no longer caused by a lack of food. Famines today are caused either by distribution problems – a lack of roads, harbors, etc. – or, more commonly, by political acts such as the desire of a totalitarian government to punish a particular tribe or people.

What the Green Revolution was about is something called high-intensity agriculture: taking a plot of land, applying high-intensity inputs – high-tech seed, fertilizer, pesticides, etc. – and getting high yields.

The very pinnacle of the Green Revolution can be easily noted as 1970. In that year a plant breeder from Iowa, hired by the Rockefeller Foundation, was granted the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to the Green Revolution.

The Counter-Revolution

But for every action, there is a reaction. As the world’s food supply became secure for the first time in human memory, the concern of the people running the foundation and influencing government in industrialized nations switched from a concern about producing enough food to a concern for limiting population.

Agricultural research has thus been neglected. U.S. land grant universities find that in real terms their budgets for Ag research are down by a third since 1960. The U.S. government’s investments in Ag research are down 30 percent in real terms since 1960. Even private U.S. foundations that once funded research into intensive agriculture have switched funded research to more popular causes. The research focus thus shifted to private companies and a few Third World governments, most notably Brazil and China.

The need, however, has not gone away. The United Nations declared October 12, 1999 as the “Day of Six Billion” designed to mark the day of the birth of the sixth billionth inhabitant of the planet earth. Although birth rates have moderated substantially and, indeed, are below the replacement rate in most of the developed world, the population of the planet is still expected to peak at around 8.5 billion in approximately 2035.

That is another 2.5 billion people that will have to be fed.

It is important to note that massive efforts to control birthrates are not likely to have much impact on these numbers. Experience has shown that birth rates are far more affected by general prosperity than by campaigns and contraceptives. If you want to reduce birthrates don’t pass out condoms; instead make people secure that their first born children will live to a ripe old age. It’s also important to understand why the world’s population has been increasing. It is not because people are having lots of babies all of the sudden. It is because modern technology – in sanitation, food supply, health care, etc. – has stopped people from dropping dead prematurely.

Our best numbers indicate that at the turn of the century, worldwide life expectancy was around 30 years. Today it is around 65 on a planet-wide basis. If you more than double life expectancy, you are going to have a population boom. But who is prepared to say that doubling life expectancy is a bad thing?

The Genetically Modified Future

Which brings us back to genetically modified foods. The Green Revolution tremendously increased yields and, in so doing, provided food for the growing population without a need to increase the land devoted to food production.

But the Green Revolution has played itself out. To get the gains in farming productivity necessary to not only provide nutrition for the additional 2.5 billion people in the next 35 years, but to provide the high quality food an increasingly prosperous population demands, we have no choice but to find ways to boost crop yields. That, in the end, means genetically modified organisms.

Recent discoveries are showing astounding possibilities. At Cornell University, researchers using modern techniques have cataloged distant wild relatives of common commercialized crop species. The relationship is too distant to allow for traditional crossbreeding techniques, but by splicing the genes directly into commercial varieties, researchers have realized rice yields a third higher than is typical commercially and tomato yields 50 percent higher than is typical commercially.

That old research station in Mexico funded by the Rockefeller Foundation so many years ago is still humming, and its new wheat varieties are showing 50 percent increases in yield.

Elsewhere in Mexico, researchers took a gene for citric acid production from a bacterium and inserted it into crop plants. The gene causes the roots of each plant to secrete citric acid, which blocks the uptake of aluminum ions. This is crucial. In the tropics, aluminum toxicity cuts yields by as much as 80 percent on much of the land. With this gene, crops may be able to grow without a problem.

The world is a stunningly complex place. The produce industry has had to confront this complexity and the importance of educating consumers and the media when it comes to the issue of organic versus conventional produce.

Some people believe that, long term; pesticides contribute to the development of cancer in humans. The one thing we know for sure is that the National Cancer Institute has found that when people consume conventionally produced produce, they reduce their risk of cancer.

This has impelled the produce industry to learn how to offer the sophisticated, and touchy, response that focusing on organics will likely hurt public health if the higher prices of organic produce reduce consumption of produce.

The Environmental Imperative

Some people believe that genetically modified foods will somehow negatively affect the environment. To deny that possibility is foolhardy. There is a certainty, however, that if we do not improve yields, one of two things will happen: Either there will not be enough food to feed the increased population of the world, or we will have to expand the acreage devoted to farming in order to grow enough food using today’s methods.

If we try to take more of the earth’s surface for food production, the most likely areas are the vast forests, including the tropical rainforests. But saving the rainforest in an environmentalist mantra, and for good reason – nowhere on the planet is the biodiversity greater. In just a few acres of rainforest, scientists identify more specifies of animals and plants than they do in all of North America.

Yet, math is a stern taskmaster. And whatever one’s well intended motivations, if one advocates stopping the development of genetically modified organisms, one is advocating a policy that, in all likelihood, will lead to deforestation around the world, including the rainforests.

The Cultural Rebellion

Much of the news devoted to genetically modified foods has mentioned Jose Bové, a Frenchman who likes to lead mobs of French farmers as they trash McDonald’s restaurants in France.

Bové’s self-proclaimed goal is “To fight against globalization and advance the right of people to eat as they see fit.” Bové’s top priority is to block the United States from exporting genetically modified crops and food.

It is an interesting way to advance “the right of people to eat as they see fit” by attacking the restaurants those same people have chosen to eat at. The absurdity of it points out Bové’s real agenda, which is not so much a reasoned policy as a wail of despair for the death of a culture. Traditional French café’s are charming, but they are slow and expensive, and many a Frenchman chooses to embrace non-traditional eating patterns.

A strong and vibrant culture accepts foreign influences and absorbs the best of them without losing its cultural self-assurance. But a weak culture, like a France preparing to abandon Frenchness for a new European identity, recoils at the foreign influence.

The United States has already made the transition to genetically modified foods. Drink a Coke – the corn syrup is probably GMO-based. Have a milkshake at McDonald’s – the soy base is a GMO.

Almost half of the U.S. corn and soybean crops are grown from genetically modified seed. And that is the rub for our Frenchmen. Farmers embraced GMO crops because they offer higher yields. On parity products like soybeans and corn, these higher yields translate into lower commodity prices so, other than boutique operations, all producers worldwide feel pressure to switch to GMO-based product, whose higher yield allows a profit in a high supply, lower priced marketplace.

In this sense, the capitalist imperative makes the political process irrelevant, and so those who wish to make slow decisions through the political process are presented with a fait accompli by the capitalist process. This is seemingly unbearable to Bové and to many Europeans.

The European opposition to GMO’s is not so much a thoughtful response to the complexities of biotechnology. It is more a rebellion against the vast impersonal forces of modern capitalism. The trashing of McDonald’s, which involved things like dumping tons of apples into the stores, was not about GMO’s at all. It was about Europe’s desire to keep out American beef fed with hormones. The truth is it is a frustration as much at the prospect of Wal-Mart going into Europe as the prospect of GMO’s.

There is a sense of loss of control, but look closely at who is losing control. It is not a shift of control to the United States or to international companies, it is a shift of control from French politicians and bureaucrats to the French people. This is unbearable to the French intelligentsia.

Extortion and Commercial Choice

The Blue Mountain Lake retreat was a strategy session set up to find a way to stop the momentum of GMO development in the United States. If the strategy was public education on the harms of GMO’s etc., one could scarcely object.

The vast bulk of Americans, however, seem unlikely to rise up in opposition to GMO’s any time soon. Surveys indicate that consumers are interested in what benefits GMO’s may provide. And the opposition has, at best, a purely theoretical case – perhaps someone will get an allergic reaction to eating a GMO food; perhaps a GMO trait will drift and affect other plants – all perhaps.

Certainly the issue of pesticide safety has not been sufficient to drive consumers away from conventional produce and toward organic, so there seems little likelihood that the theoretical cases would drive consumers away from GMO’s to merely hybrid strains.

But business has been pulling back. In some cases, it is to protect European export markets. Archer Daniels Midland, the Peoria, IL-based agribusiness giant, told its suppliers that it wanted them to start segregating genetically modified crops from conventional crops. This will enable ADM to offer non-GMO product to European buyers.

In other cases, though, vulnerable companies are basically giving in to a late-90’s version of extortion. Both Gerber and Heinz have announced an intention to make their baby foods free of genetically modified organisms.

This is a big inconvenience, but the decision was really a simple one: Babies are a very emotional subject and no baby food manufacturer wants to have protesters marching around saying their baby food will hurt Junior. As such, the decision to pull back on GMO’s is not so much a scientific one as it is a marketing one.

The Inevitability of Science

There is a kind of arrogance in thinking that, like Prometheus, we have it in our power to refrain from using fire. The truth is that technology with such benefits will be tried. If not tried by us then, very likely, it will be tried in a Third World country or someplace with fewer controls.

The question therefore is not whether we stand athwart history and yell stop, but what shall be our attitude toward technological advance?

This is not an insignificant question. Science and technology have created the possibility for human beings to live better lives. Capitalism has provided the wealth to pay for the benefits of science and technology and diffuse these benefits over a wide portion of the population. But neither science nor capitalism are enough or even possible without something more.

George Gilder, among the most insightful of modern commentators, named one if his books The Spirit of Enterprise, and the notion of a spirit animating an age and a culture is derived from the work of Max Weber, the noted sociologist.

This spirit depends crucially on a kind of boldness, a willingness to go…well, where no man has gone before. And if today that is a Star Trek cliché, it was no less appropriate a slogan for the pioneers who settled North America than it was for the Starship Enterprise.

But the outcry over GMO’s is really a kind of fearfulness – almost a little panic attack. We’ve seen it before – on pesticides, on irradiation, Alar on apples…much more.

There is a kind of anti-scientific attitude in which consumers will puff away on cigarettes while fretting over Alar on an apple. To some extent the problem is ignorance. But there is plenty of information out there, so this ignorance is willful.

In this sense, it is not so much a scientific problem as a cultural one. The cultural problem is a lack of trust in our institutions. The problem is real. The media and the bureaucrats and politicians all have their own incentives to encourage panic over scientific issues.

What we saw playing out in the Alar controversy and with Meryl Streep demanding absolute safety in the food supply was really a rejection of adult responsibility – a demand that one should be able to act without regard to the consequences. But this demand for consequence-free living is cowardly and self-indulgent…it also is impossible.

Science perpetually offers new possibilities. Some for the better, some for the worse. But our society has been built on the notion of an upward bias – a belief in history as progress. This was not always the vision. In other times and other places, history has been seen as cyclical. Sometimes it is seen as regressive, a decline from some once golden age.

But America did not conquer a continent and break the shackles of this earth on a flight to the moon by seeing the future as something to be afraid of. Surely our industry should not be a part to such ways of thinking.  pb