Compared To What?
Wednesday, August 23, 2000
Andrew Apel, editor of AgBiotech Reporter, claims that there is just not enough good research to assess the effects of biotechnology in food production.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the so-called "debate" over biotechnology in food production is the general lack of good research. The majority of research involved in the debate, be it conducted in the laboratory or on the street, is subtly biased against technology and designed so that the results will be largely irrelevant to the issues which clamor for resolution.
Source: AgBiotech Reporter
A perfect example of this is the research on the effects on monarch butterflies of Bt maize. People are validly concerned about how toxic the pollen from Bt maize might be for monarch larvae, but the real question is: Compared to what? Supposedly, the point of Bt maize is to reduce reliance on chemical pesticides which are far more indiscriminate than the toxin expressed by Bt plants-but the studies merely compare Bt plants to non-Bt plants. The comparison might satisfy the basic scientific requirement for a `control,` but the relevant question is whether Bt technology is safer than pesticides, making the control a formality, and the results irrelevant.
It`s not very good science, either, since the `control` for these butterfly larvae experiments amounts to an unrealistic, little-practiced form of agriculture which eschews both Bt transgenics and chemical sprays. Some might even be inclined to view all studies which use irrelevant or nonexistent controls as inherently biased in favor of low-tech food production. Every technology that works has an impact. Since these experiments merely compare a technology to its absence, rather than to its real-world alternative, the results will inevitably show the existence of an impact. If the impact is even slightly adverse, the obvious alternative, absent a relevant control, is to reject the technology.
The problem of irrelevance bias plagues other Bt studies as well, studies which investigate the possible emergence of insect resistance to Bt crops. It`s a big issue, since the industry has invested so heavily in the technology. The question is: Big, compared to what? Insects have become resistant to a variety of insecticides, so what is the relative impact of their resistance to Bt? The organic foods movement offers a suggestion. Since their industry relies on sprayable Bt to control pests, insect resistance will rob them of an insect control method. Yet there is no effort to compare plant-expressed Bt with sprayable Bt. A comparison might even suggest the possibility that the use of sprayable Bt might lead to insect tolerance to Bt-modified crops, or show that organic growers who spray Bt should use buffer zones or insect refuges.
Considerable work has been done to assess pollen-mediated outcrossing of herbicide-tolerance traits to wild, weedy relatives of cultivars. If this is a serious matter (the notion of `Frankenweeds` aside), the question remains: Serious, compared to what? Over the years, countless weeds have developed resistance to numerous herbicides. Would outcrossing to the cousins of modified crops be a worse calamity than the acquired immunity which hundreds of unrelated weed species currently enjoy? The issue gets a passing mention in the research, but receives no serious attention.
Many claim that genetically modified crops are good for the general environment. Compared to what? The UK may answer that question with its embattled farm-scale field trials. Still others claim that food made from genetically modified crops is safe. Compared to what? Safer, say, than the `organic` alternative, which seems to be the control most favored by scientists? These environmental and safety issues are so politically and economically charged that they may never be properly investigated.
New surveys emerge in a constant stream reminding us that large quantities of consumers are "concerned" about the use of biotechnology in food production. In some countries, the proportion of those concerned verges on unanimity. But concerned, compared to what? Without a relevant comparison, such studies will always suffer from irrelevance bias and suggest that consumers are rejecting the technology. Still, a few studies have taken trouble to compare consumer concerns and discovered, even in regions where concern over biotechnology is "high," that it ranks far, far below most others. Indeed, anecdotal evidence is mounting that concern over biotechnology ranks even lower than the cost of the food itself, both on the international markets and on the grocery-store shelves.
Then there are the claims that genetically engineered crops are efficient and profitable for farmers. The question is: Compared to what? In this instance, all the answers anyone could possibly need are available. The comparisons are done, the results are in, and wherever the technology is available, farmers are adopting the technology in droves. Farmers are confident in the new technology.
The industry has done an excellent job studying, and proving, how biotechnology improves agricultural production. Compared to what?