Despite Killer Bees, Biotech Does Work

Biotechnology is a far more exact tool than traditional "cross your fingers and hope for the best" cross-breeding techniques.

But opponents of food biotechnology try hard to scare the public about the "unknown" consequences of altering the genetic makeup of agricultural crops. Much more is known about biotechnology than opponents admit — including their real motives.

So-called "killer bees," an example of traditional crossbreeding run amok, have attacked many Americans and killed about a dozen people over the last few years. Brazilian beekeepers, wanting to improve honey output in the late 1950s, crossed native honeybees with an African variety that produced more honey.

The crossbreeding worked — sort of. The hybrid bees produced more honey, but they took on the African species' aggressiveness. They attacked people, overcame native species and migrated to the United States.

If the Brazilian apiarists could have employed current "single-gene insertion" techniques they would have transferred only the specific gene controlling honey production. Mild-mannered bees producing more honey would have resulted. Single-gene insertion is what occurs in plant biotechnology.

A single gene can be inserted into a crop to produce a desired effect. The gene is thoroughly studied before insertion. Several generations of plants are examined before marketing to ensure no undesired or unexpected effects occur. The process is precise.

In contrast, traditional crossbreeding mixes all the genes of one organism with all the genes of another, often leading to many unpredictable outcomes.

Biotech opponents encourage public skepticism of biotechnology because it involves the transfer of genetic material between species. But conventional plant breeders have used a variety of techniques other than biotechnology to cross species.

Chemical and radiation techniques can hybridize plants of the same species, different species and even more than one genus to create a variety of genetic "mutants." Varieties with superior traits may become commonly consumed foods that are properly regarded as safe. But there have been some notable exceptions to this trial-and-error method.

A crossbred potato was withdrawn in the 1960s for having unusually high levels of a natural toxin. A new celery variety was withdrawn in the 1980s for causing skin rashes among farm workers.

Biotechnology improves on traditional methods by removing the guesswork. So why is activist group vitriol reserved for single-gene insertion? The problem is not the technology; it's who uses the technology — big business. Many activist groups traditionally have opposed big business, refusing to acknowledge that multinational corporations developed a new technology holding tremendous promise.

Greenpeace now reviles Patrick Moore, one of the environmental activist group's founders, for his insights into this area. Moore recently told Oregon Wheat magazine that many environmentalists have taken a sharp turn to the ultraleft. He points out Greenpeace has called for a "grassroots revolution against pragmatism and compromise."

Moore links the change to two key events. First, business and government adopted the agenda espoused by science-based environmentalists of the 1970s and 1980s. "This left environmentalists with the choice of either being drawn into collaboration with their former 'enemies' or of taking ever more extreme positions. Many environmentalists chose the latter route," says Moore.

In matters of food production, low-yield, labor-intensive, high-cost organic farming is the only acceptable option for uncompromising activists, a choice that would not begin to feed the global population, which will increase by at least 50 percent in the next 40 years.

Moore says the other key event is the fall of the Berlin Wall. "Suddenly the international peace movement had a lot less to do. Pro-Soviet groups in the West were discredited. Many of their members moved into the environmental movement bringing with them their eco-Marxism sentiments."

This helps to explain why radical environmentalists opposed global trade so vociferously during the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. A recent press release by a group that throws pies at biotech supporters refers to the United States as the "U$A."

Moore says the new variant of the environmental movement "is so extreme that many people, including myself, believe its agenda is a greater threat to the global environment than that posed by mainstream society."

Moore's arguments make even more sense given that groups opposed to chemical pesticides also oppose biotech plants that reduce pesticide use. They even oppose humanitarian projects, such as vitamin-enriched rice that can prevent childhood blindness among millions of children in developing countries.

Biotechnology works; it's the activists' motives — and the consequences — that don't.

— Steven Milloy is a biostatistician, lawyer, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and publisher of