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Debunking the Biotech Myths

Stung by mounting public criticism, seven leading biotech companies last year created the Council for Biotechnology Information, launching a massive $50 billion per year public relations campaign over the next 3-5 years. Their blitz includes a toll-free consumer number, print and television advertising campaigns, and programs to get into schools and universities to indoctrinate students with their pro-biotech propaganda. Let’s look closely at some of their claims:

  • Myth #1: “Agricultural biotechnology is a precise scientific process.” The reality: Single changes in genes do not translate to simple changes in crops because of a principle called pleiotropy. Pleiotropy means that if you change any gene in a plant, generally you won’t change just one trait, you will affect a whole host of characteristics, especially complex ones like flavor and yield. In short, genetic engineering produces unexpected side effects.
  • Myth #2 “Biotech products are safe.” The reality: Research from Cornell and Iowa State universities has confirmed that Bt corn pollen kills monarch butterflies. Research from NYU shows that Bt toxins exude from the roots of living corn plants and persist in the soil for at least 243 days with unknown effects on soil microorganisms. These impacts were not predicted or researched prior to release. And on and on.
  • Myth #3 “Agricultural Biotechnology...is a continuation of the work that Mendel and others began.” The reality: Genetic engineering is drastically different from conventional plant breeding. Conventional breeding with whole plants uses sexual reproduction and respects natural boundaries. Genetic engineering physically transfers DNA from one organism to another using laboratory-constructed artificial genes or genes from unrelated species. It could not occur in nature without high-tech intervention.
  • Myth #4 “Herbicide-resistant soybeans improve yield, while reducing the need for chemical application.” (This is often generalized to: Biotech crops will increase yields while reducing chemical imputs) The reality: A University of Nebraska study showed Roundup Ready soybeans had yields of 6-11% less than corresponding conventional varieties. In a survey of more than 8,000 field trials conducted by the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Charles Benbrook found that farmers growing Roundup Ready soybeans used 2-5 times more herbicide per acre, yet achieved 5% fewer bushels per acre than those growing conventional soybeans.
  • Myth #5 “Biotech varieties are tested more thoroughly than conventional crops before they ever come to market.” The reality: Against the advice of some of its own scientists, the FDA ruled in 1992 that GE foods are substantially equivalent to other foods and therefore should be regulated the same as any other foods entering the market. Most of the pre-market testing of GE foods has been conducted by the very biotech companies who are heavily invested in bringing these foods to market as swiftly as they can.
  • Myth #6 “1994: The first food product enhanced through biotechnology...The FLAVR SAVR™ tomato is developed to be more flavorful than other tomatoes.” (Often generalized to: Biotech foods will have enhanced nutrition and taste better.”) The Reality: FLAVR SAVR™ tasted so bad that it had to be pulled off the market swiftly. Its developer, Calgene, lost tens of millions of dollars on it. See Carol Deppe’s Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties for the whole story. So far I know of no biotech releases with improved flavor.
  • Myth #7: “The world’s population will likely increase to approximately 9 billion by 2050. Biotech will help feed that growing population...We’ll...be able to grow more food but also better food.” The reality: There is already sufficient production to feed 11/2 times the present world population. People are starving, not because of food scarcity but because of inequitable distribution. The starving are too poor to buy the food that is available or lack the land on which to grow it themselves. How will they be able to buy biotech seed which is more expensive than conventional seed? Or do the biotech behemoths intend to give their products away?

Myths 1-4 quoted from Novartis video “A Short Course on Biotechnology”
Myths 5-7 quoted from “Biotechnology Good Ideas Are Growing,” Apr. 2000 pamphlet put out by the Council for Biotechnology Information.