fb - voice of agriculture
April 2000

Food Companies Yielding to Anti-Biotech Pressure

Bob Stallman
American Farm Bureau
By Bob Stallman
President, American Farm Bureau

An increasing number of major North American food manufacturing companies are rejecting biotech crops in the belief that customers are worrying about the safety of the enhanced products. Surveys commissioned by Farm Bureau and others indicate that American consumers are willing to accept the new products. Yet, the misinformation campaign by biotech opponents grows louder; loud enough to scare responsible businesses. Several companies now face shareholder-written resolutions to stop using approved crops.

Nearly a decade ago, the Food and Drug Administration began evaluating the safety and nutritional value of tomatoes enhanced with biotechnology. Officials ruled the new product as safe as any other commercial variety. More important, government specialists found that biotech foods are essentially identical to the original plant. Developers of new biotech products consult closely with FDA scientists prior to commercial distribution, so there is continued oversight to ensure public safety. USDA and EPA also play a role in examining new products of biotechnology. Products are not allowed on the market if they have not met the highest U.S. safety standards, among the toughest in the world.

U.S. farmers quickly recognized the benefits of the new products to us. They include greater flexibility in terms of crop management and production, higher yields and cleaner and higher-grade end products. In the few years biotech seeds have been available, U.S. farmers quickly adopted them, to the point where more than a third of our corn acreage and about half of our soybean and cotton acreage will be planted with biotech-enhanced seed. We are not alone. Farmers in China, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, France, Spain and several Eastern European nations are growing biotech crops.

Biotech Benefits Imminent

We eagerly await the introduction of crops that will offer us the opportunity to grow higher-valued, improved and specialized nutritional food and feed products. Farm Bureau's goal is to protect the integrity of our food system and support retention of a useful technology. Fruits and vegetables are being developed to provide specific nutritional and medical benefits. Most widely publicized is a rice rich in beta-carotene to combat blindness. Even as work progresses on this, the scientists are working to further enhance the rice by improving its iron content to prevent anemia.

Many other exciting new food products are in the pipeline. Scientists are developing foods that contain enhanced levels of vitamins C and E to help reduce cancer and heart disease. They are developing corn that provides blood-replacement components; other plants that make antibodies against bacterial lung infections in patients with cystic fibrosis and bananas that will deliver the Hepatitis B vaccine. Scientists involved in this work estimate that, in some cases, these enhanced food products of biotechnology could deliver a vaccine in developing countries at a cost of 2 cents a dose versus $125 for an injection.

Global Food Strategy for the Hungry

The growing anti-biotech rhetoric is attracting attention in underdeveloped countries, those most in need of the new advances. Their yields are significantly lower than those in developed countries, mainly due to losses to pests, weeds and diseases. Most of the 800 million people who suffer from starvation and malnutrition do not live in industrial nations. Biotech crops offering nutritional and medical benefits would be a boon to poorer countries, producing the type of food where it is needed most.

So far, the biotech debate is being waged by people who don't go to bed hungry. It is easy to be philosophical when someone else bears the difficulties. As the global demand for more abundant, more nutritious, more healthful foods grows, enhanced products of biotechnology will prove to be the accepted, obvious and safe solution. Farm Bureau is carrying this message to the food industry and urging them to consider scientific fact, not activist fiction.