how Greenpeace's dual anti-biotech strategy works.
First, if you
throw enough "darts," one may eventually stick.
the collective weight of one false scare after another could send
agricultural biotech the way of nuclear power.
will probably prevail in North America, but they do wreak havoc.
And they may have a devastating impact in a developing world that
desperately needs biotech foods and as yet lacks our scientific
One such dart
was that biotech corn kills monarch butterflies. Okay, so it doesn't.
But Greenpeace still uses the claim as an opportunity to prance
around in wings and antennae.
that Starlink corn intended only for animal consumption but found
its way into human food in minuscule quantities could cause devastating
allergies. Okay, so it doesn't. But the charge did give agricultural
companies and farmers a severe sinus headache.
And now another
dart, this one tossed with the help of the New York Times.
"Mystery DNA Is Discovered in Soybeans by Scientists,"
ran the headline.
again Mary Shelley's horribly overexploited character, the group
declared, "Like Dr. Frankenstein, Monsanto has created a new
life form but doesn't know what will happen when it's turned loose
in the world."
in question are called "Roundup Ready." They have a bacterium
gene spliced into them, allowing the plants to resist the herbicide
glyphosate, sold by Monsanto under the brand name "Roundup."
Roundup to be sprayed over weeds and crops alike, instead of trying
to zap just the weeds, saving farmers time and fuel and according
to some studies herbicide as well.
That may be
why Roundup Ready soybeans are the most popular biotech crop in
the world, accounting for over two-thirds of total U.S. soy acreage.
York Times piece and the Greenpeace allegations were responses
to an article just published by Belgian scientists in the print
edition of European Journal of Food Research Technology.
noted that the soybeans contain a bit of what some reporters labeled
"alien" genetic material. More precisely, this was soybean
DNA that was not described at the time Monsanto received approval
to sell the seeds.
Monsanto, the heretofore unknown sequence was 534 DNA "letters"
out of a soybean genome of about 1.5 billion letters, or the rough
equivalent of a cockroach burp in the Taj Mahal.
Monsanto made these allegedly "startling new" findings
available to U.K. regulators 14 months ago. They were then posted
on the Internet and a British newspaper, The Sunday Herald,
immediately wrote about them. Health agencies of both the U.K. and
Belgium reviewed them and declared they amounted to nothing.
Even the European
Journal of Food Research Technology article appeared in electronic
format over two months ago, giving Greenpeace plenty of time to
evaluate the findings and prepare its disinformation campaign.
But the chief
Belgian researcher, Marc De Loose, "Rejected calls by environmental
group Greenpeace International to suspend safety approval of the
product," according to the Associated Press. Said De Loose,
"There is no scientific data to support this idea" that
the soybeans could pose any harm.
after the New York Times piece appeared, the European Commission
in Brussels also declared there was no reason to believe the soybeans
This was an
easy call, explains Washington State University toxicologist Allan
Felsot, because "This DNA contains no functional genes and
therefore can't affect a plant one way or another."
Yet even without
that, he says, the safety of the soybeans would have been assured.
safety testing in the early 1990s included the so-called 'mystery
DNA,' even if Monsanto didn't know it was there," he says.
"Plants are tested as a whole, not bit by bit. The fact that
you didn't know something was in there doesn't change its safety."
"Greenpeace is acting like somebody who suddenly discovers
their car has a heretofore unknown part, and tears his hair out
over the possibility it therefore might not run anymore. This notwithstanding
that they've already driven it over 200,000 miles."
One of the
possibilities for the previously unknown sequence, explained De
Loose, "is that during the integration of the [herbicide-resistance
gene], there are some rearrangements at the site of insertion."
DNA" is not from the Angry Red Planet or a "galaxy far,
far away" and it doesn't want to be taken to our leader. Rather
is a slight mixing of soybean material already present.
occur with conventional breeding techniques.
"wrongdoing" was in not building a time machine to bring
back a test that wouldn't be available for several more years.
the opening line of the New York Times article was that this
latest development (or non-development, as it were) is "casting
some doubts on the biotechnology industry's assertions that its
technology is precise and predictable," the opposite is true.
that while DNA-detection technology was excellent several years
ago, it continues to improve.
it progressively easier for Monsanto and other companies to give
us better biotech foods with the same safety assurance.
genetic sequences is indicative of food safety, then biotech food
is inherently safer than non-biotech food since we know more about
the sequences of biotech crops than non-biotech crops.
If it's mystery
DNA you're worried about, you might consider trying to eat only
genetically engineered food.
But a better
option may be to start ignoring crop pests like Greenpeace, who
insist that we apply double standards to biotech foods and make
demands of them for which other foods couldn't possibly comply.