Dissecting a Retro Issue: Food Biotechnology and its Decades of Safety and Efficacy

By: Dave Schmidt, President & CEO, International Food Information Council & Foundation   Date: 11/7/11

I was somewhat amused, yet disappointed, recently when I read a media article highlighting sensational claims, that I quickly surmised were unfounded, about biotech sweet corn.  It was like Groundhog Day for me, because I remembered the same individual from the article making similar claims about risks of food biotechnology more than a decade ago.  Science prevailed then and continues to prevail now over such misleading rhetoric.

Since the 1990's people around the world have been safely consuming many food products containing  biotech crops.  I attended a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland in early 2000 that was hosted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which convened a "who's who" of proponents, opponents, experts, regulators, industry and other stakeholders involved in the food and agricultural biotechnology issue.  The meeting was chaired by Sir John Krebs who would later become one of Europe's top food safety officials.  After hearing much debate and discussion about the benefits and risks of food biotechnology, Dr. Krebs brilliantly asked his audience:  "Is there anyone in the room who can present any evidence of any harm from human consumption of foods produced using biotechnology anywhere in the world?"  The answer was the most deafening silence I've ever experienced, particularly because some of the world's most vocal activists were part of that audience.  Fast-forward more than a decade, that silence continues and the answer is the same.

So now those who would profit from the fears of consumers who we know are less than informed may try again to alarm a new generation of individuals used to soaking in reams of information from countless electronic sources.  It is incumbent upon the rest of us to bring accuracy and greater context to public discussions.  We should always be open to new information and new data, but it should be placed in the context of all the science and rigorous research to date that has produced such advances as agricultural biotechnology and other modern technologies that we must rely on to feed this and future generations safely.  So the next time you read sensational claims about food and agricultural biotechnology, remember these tenets:

1.            The purpose for each new product of food biotechnology and its benefits must be explained clearly at the beginning of public discussion.  For example Bt (a naturally occurring soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis) sweet corn helps growers produce a more reliable crop of safe corn on the cob that provides tolerance to insect damage while reducing the amount of insecticides needed.
2.            Biotechnology must be placed in context with the evolution of agricultural practices.  Bt sweet corn is a sophisticated seed that produces a more economical crop for growers and consumers.
3.            When farmers plant the Bt sweet corn seeds, the plants that grow from seed already contain insect-tolerant traits developed through biotechnology, reducing the need for insecticides.
4.            An accurate, rather than absolute, view of food and environmental safety determinations by regulators should be communicated for each product in each country.  Bt sweet corn has been safely consumed by consumers for a decade (with another decade of research and development before being brought to market) without evidence of problems that would concern regulators.
5.            Exhaustive research over many years led to the introduction of Bt sweet corn and other products of food biotechnology.
6.            The FDA mandates additional food labeling requirements when there is a significant change in the composition, nutritional value or introduction of a potential food allergen from a gene transfer.  Bt sweet corn does not trigger any of these labeling disclosures as it is substantially equivalent to conventional sweet corn.
7.            Government, academic and industry communications on food biotechnology must be consistent in order to earn consumer confidence, and the substantial weight of evidence among these stakeholders confirms the safety and efficacy of Bt sweet corn.
8.            Consumer group activism does not necessarily reflect consumer attitudes, and many consumer groups either support or do not oppose biotechnology.
9.            Multinational approvals of many products of food biotechnology are the result of strong international scientific consensus.
10.          Food biotechnology also provides important benefits in addressing hunger and food security throughout the world.

IFIC and IFIC Foundation have a wealth of resource materials on food biotechnology including:
Background on Biotechnology
Questions and Answers About Food Biotechnology
Fact Sheet: Benefits of Food Biotechnology
Food Production Fact Sheet