The nonprofit asked questions its own research shows the public is unprepared to answer.
There exists a constant tension between the development of innovative, valuable new technologies and activists opposed to them. Following the partial meltdown of the core at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station in 1979, nuclear power in the United States has fared badly. So has the "new biotechnology," or gene-splicing, applied to agriculture and food production in Europe, where activists' proselytizing and government over-regulation have made it virtually nonexistent.
But food biotech in the United States is here to stay. More than 80 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves – soft drinks, preserves, mayonnaise, salad dressings – contain ingredients from gene-spliced plants, and Americans have safely consumed more than a trillion servings of these foods. But opposition to the genetic improvement of plants using these highly precise and predictable techniques remains, largely because it is fanned continually by the misleading claims of anti-biotechnology activists.
Radicals like Greenpeace flaunt their intention to eliminate gene-splicing entirely from agriculture, while other groups, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, claim not to oppose gene-splicing but only to want it "properly" regulated.
Reports published by the lavishly funded Pew Initiative, for example, receive extensive media and government attention, largely because Pew touts itself as occupying the thoughtful, disinterested middle ground in the biotechnology debates. But contrary to their claims that they are non-partisan and agnostic about biotechnology, Pew's workshops, conferences, and publications show a pervasive pro-regulation bias, ignore essential context, and promote the impression of genuine controversy where none exists.
The latest Pew survey of consumer attitudes, just released, is a prime example. It finds that about three in five persons surveyed have not "seen, read or heard recently about [gene-spliced] food that is sold in grocery stores," and it concludes that "public knowledge and understanding of biotechnology remains [sic] relatively low." It also reveals that "just 26% believe that they have eaten [gene-spliced] foods, while 60% believe they have not."
Little do consumers know. . . Almost 100 percent of residents of North Americans consume gene-spliced foods daily, inasmuch as they're contained in practically every product made with corn oil, high-fructose corn syrup or other corn products, soybean oil, or soy protein. And even that fails to take into account that with the exception of wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the grains, fruits and vegetables in our diets have been genetically improved by one technology or another.
After establishing that those polled lacked even the most basic understanding of the science of genetic modification of foods, the surveyors went on to ask detailed questions like, "Do you think there is too much, too little, or the right amount of regulation of genetically modified foods?" And "Do you think genetically modified foods are basically safe or basically unsafe?" That's tantamount to asking average consumers which nuclear reactor design they prefer.
At least they didn't reprise the 2003 survey item, "Companies should be required to submit safety data to the FDA for review, and no genetically modified food product should be allowed on the market until the FDA determines that it is safe," with which 89 percent of those surveyed agreed. Please. That's like asking whether repeat child molesters should be banned from teaching kindergarten.
Because the public's understanding of science is so meager, hoodwinking consumers on surveys isn't difficult. A study by the U.S. National Science Foundation found that fewer than one in four know what a molecule is, and only about half understand that the earth circles the sun once a year.
The Pew surveys take advantage of respondents' ignorance about the status quo. With the exception of wild berries and mushrooms, game, and fish and shellfish, virtually all the organisms—plants, animals, microorganisms—in our food supply have been modified by one genetic technique or another. Because the techniques of the new biotech are more precise and predictable than their predecessors, biotech foods are actually likely to be even more safe than other foods. Food producers are already legally responsible for assuring the safety of their products, and the FDA does not normally perform safety determinations, but primarily conducts surveillance of marketed foods and takes action if any are found to be adulterated or mislabeled. Unwarranted, excessive regulation, including unnecessary labeling requirements, discourages innovation, imposes costs that are passed along to the consumer and are a disproportionate burden on the poor.
Even if the Pew surveys were crafted to elicit more honest responses, they would still suffer from the fact that there is often a huge disparity between the public's responses to hypothetical questions about their buying habits and their actual behavior in the supermarket. According to former European Commission official Mark Cantley, "that's one pragmatic reason for the NGOs' trying so vigorously to keep these products off the market: They might be rather embarrassed by the actual choices made by consumers when the goods were on the shelf."
In both flagrant and subtle ways, Pew and others continue to perpetuate the patently false impression that gene-splicing in agriculture and food production is untested, unproven, unwanted and unregulated. They ignore our vast experience and the scientific consensus that gene-splicing is an extension, or refinement, of less precise, less predictable techniques. They are both scientifically and ethically challenged and if technological innovation is to thrive in the United States, their mischief must be exposed at every opportunity.
Henry I. Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former FDA official. His most recent book, "The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution," was selected by Barron's as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.
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