Biotechnology Project
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Genetically engineered foods hold more potential than they do risk.
But lack of a clear legal authority to regulate them poses a greater risk.



April 23, 2003

Genetically engineered crops, lampooned by critics as "Frankenfoods," actually are yielding major benefits to farmers and the environment.

Cotton, long the most-sprayed crop, has been implanted with a pesticide-producing gene that enables American farmers to increase their yields and profits, while reducing their use of toxic pesticides by about two million pounds annually.

Similar benefits are expected from Monsanto's newly approved corn, engineered to kill rootworm.

In China, biotech cotton is helping small farmers increase profits while reducing pesticide poisonings and protecting wildlife. In Hawaii, papayas engineered to resist viral infections have saved that state's papaya crop. In the offing are virus-resistant sweet potatoes and cassavas that will help subsistence farmers in developing countries fend off pests.

But with each scientific step forward, agricultural biotechnology seems to take a step backward. In recent months, the controversy over biotechnology has roared again, due largely to industry and research blunders:

University of Illinois scientists producing genetically engineered pigs sent some of the pigs' offspring to market without the Food and Drug Administration's permission.

Prodigene, a small biotech company, contaminated soybeans intended for the food supply with an experimental corn that was engineered to produce pharmaceuticals.

Pioneer and DowAgroSciences were fined by the Environmental Protection Agency for growing experimental corn in Hawaii in ways that could have pollinated nearby conventional crops.

Those mishaps caused no harm, but they demonstrate that the industry and researchers cannot be trusted to abide by government-imposed conditions that safeguard our food and our environment. Instead of seeking clear legal authority to regulate new products, the government defends policies that rely upon industry's voluntary actions. For example, the FDA relies on companies to voluntarily consult before marketing their genetically engineered foods.

Whenever regulatory agencies must choose between strong environmental and food-safety measures or weaker measures advocated by industry, the agencies side with industry. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently issued rules for plants producing pharmaceuticals. Despite pleas from the food industry and consumer groups to prohibit growing pharmaceutical corn in the Midwest, the USDA sided with the industry and placed no geographic restrictions on those crops.

Similarly, when the EPA approved Monsanto's rootworm-resistant corn, it ignored its own advisory committee's advice to limit plantings to half a farmer's corn acreage. Instead, the EPA is allowing farmers to plant genetically engineered corn on 80 percent of their acreage, as Monsanto wanted.

The shortsighted actions by the biotech industry and government have alarmed some of biotechnology's most loyal backers. The National Food Processors Association, whose members include General Mills and Kraft, has bluntly warned that the Prodigene mishap validates its concerns that current practices are not sufficient to protect the integrity of the food supply. Companies like Kellogg are terrified that minuscule amounts of a pharmaceutical might accidentally contaminate their products. That kind of accident could possibly be the death-knell for agricultural biotechnology for years to come.

The current regulatory system is weak and outmoded. Companies can market genetically engineered crops without the FDA approving them as safe to eat. The FDA's approval process for engineered animals lacks thorough environmental-impact assessments and is entirely secret. And crops engineered to produce industrial chemicals can be commercialized with little government oversight.

Those and other shortcomings easily could be corrected if biotech advocates and critics alike support sensible legislation that protects the public and the planet - and, indeed, the companies themselves.


Michael F. Jacobson is executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Gregory Jaffe, director of CSPI's biotechnology project.