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Food and Fear
Column by Congressman Nick Smith - January 26, 2003

An increasingly acrimonious debate between the U.S. and Europe over biotechnology is now distorting trade worldwide. I issued a report as Chairman of the Research Subcommittee -- "Seeds of Opportunity" - about the safety and potential of agricultural biotechnology, and am following this debate that is affecting the WTO negotiations going on now. This "white paper" report, which has now been translated into five foreign languages, explains the safety and promise of this new technology.

The genetic engineering of crops harnesses the forces of nature in a more precise, and ultimately safer way than before. Traditional crop varieties are the product of selective and experimental cross-breeding, where scientists have sought to enhance desirable characteristics - such as pest resistance, greater tolerance of heat or cold, or increased yield. This process combines 20,000 to 30,000 genes from each parent, can take a great deal of time, and often causes other less desirable changes. Genetic engineering allows us to incorporate specific genes with known characteristics to achieve the desired results with more precision, and fewer unintended effects. As a result, bioengineered crops and pharmaceuticals have great potential.

So why are Europeans so opposed to genetically-modified (GM) crops? There are two explanations. The first is environmental. Vocal activists fear that bioengineered crops could have hidden harms. The scientific reality is that this is very unlikely. Because bioengineered crops face far more strenuous regulation and review from the FDA, USDA, and EPA than new cross-bred varieties, they are safer for consumers. Many GM-varieties also generate environmental benefits by reducing the need for pesticides and fertilizers that can become contaminants. The second reason is that Europe fears our lead in biotechnology will reduce production costs and allow American farmers to sell high quality food cheaper than they can.

The conflict is now escalating to other parts of the world. Europeans have been pressuring African and South American countries not to plant GM crops, telling them that their exports will not be accepted. As a result, Zambia has even rejected emergency relief for its starving population because some food grain could be planted and endanger future exports. This is especially unfortunate because bioengineered crops show some of their greatest potential in Africa. Biotechnology can produce crops that will grow readily in places where it is difficult or impossible to plant now. It can also improve nutrition and health by adding vitamins and immunizing agents to crops.

Science has been enormously important keeping the world fed. People are better fed today than ever before in human history despite enormous population growth. The "Green Revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s brought highly productive hybrids into use all over the world, averting famines and increasing living standards. Biotechnology now builds on the Green Revolution to ensure that the world's food supply continues to grow faster than its population.

Bioengineering opponents emphasize the very small and well regulated risks of GM crops while ignoring the immediate risk of starvation and malnutrition in many parts of the world. That attitude is tolerable in developed countries. But it is a betrayal of that majority of the world that struggles to feed itself through periods of war, natural disaster, and economic crisis.

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