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Biotech's 6 myths

  1. Genetically modified plants are not regulated.

  2. No data exist to support genetically modified products.

  3. The public does not have a role to play.

  4. Benefits of biotechnology do not exist.

  5. There is actual harm to health and the environment.

  6. No biotech products are labeled.

The truth about biotechnology has been clouded by half-truths, detail omissions and exaggerations of problems. Stanley Abramson, environmental attorney, recently spoke out about the “myths” about genetically modified plants that are widely propagated by opponents to biotechnology. These myths are disproved in research and field practice, according to Abramson.

He comes well qualified to discuss the issue. Last winter, he completed a committee assignment for the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The committee investigated the risks and benefits of biotech crops as well as their regulation. The committee included 10 scientists, one economist and Abramson, who is with the Washington, DC, law firm Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn.

“The report issued by the committee was a consensus report, a unanimous report,” he relates. “We found no evidence to conclude that products on the market today pose any harm.”

After working on the NAS committee, Abramson categorized the misconceptions about biotechnology into the following six myths.

Genetically modified plants are not regulated. “The first myth is that these products are rushed to market with no special governmental oversight,” Abramson says. “This is particularly painful to me because I was at EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] in the 1980s when the early experiments were conducted and the coordinated framework developed. I can speak firsthand about the years of regulation that go into the development of these products.”

The coordinated framework requires regulation by EPA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Each agency is responsible for regulating certain aspects of the new products. Using the Bt potato as an example, Abramson says EPA regulated the insecticidal protein, USDA reviewed the plant itself and FDA’s jurisdiction included the safety of the entire product.

“In the Bt potato, the health, safety and environmental data were reviewed by the three different federal agencies over a seven-year period. No comparable oversight for conventional hybrids exists,” he explains. The three agencies found no Bt protein in the environment or in food products, making the products safe for human consumption.

“Just because a plant is transgenic does not make it hazardous,” Abramson says. He notes that the biotechnology industry supports the framework’s regulation.

No data exist to support genetically modified products. “I was told just three weeks ago that there is simply no data to support [biotech product] approvals,” Abramson says. “The reality is that data are routinely submitted to these three agencies and reviewed by the agencies. There is clearly data and a great deal of it.” All the data are available for public review.

All three agencies require a variety of studies from the developers of the products. The studies must consider potential adverse effects, such as the impact on nontargeted insects and insect resistance. If an issue comes up that wasn’t considered during the initial reviews, the agencies often ask for more data.

The public does not have a role to play. Through the 1970s and 1980s as the issue of biotechnology developed, the agencies and even Congress held many public hearings and comment periods. “But the reality is that most people didn’t care,” Abramson says. Beyond industry representatives and a few environmental groups, very few members of the public or the media attended the debates.

Each agency’s public records show that these issues were debated in public. And the public continues to have opportunities to participate through Web sites and public comment periods, Abramson says. “Extensive public participation opportunities over the past 25 years have existed,” he adds.

Benefits of biotechnology do not exist. “The benefits are well known [to seed developers and growers], but not well known to the public,” Abramson says. “In fact, the public is told there are no benefits or only benefits to the developer of the crop. In reality, there are clearly established agronomic, environmental and health benefits from the crops on the market today.”

The NAS report considered benefits, he adds. For example, it cited the advantages of Bt cotton, which requires dramatically less insecticide. The report concluded the product causes a reduced application of chemical pesticides, which could lead to greater human health benefits.

Abramson worked at EPA in the 1980s when “we were being told every day that we must take these chemical products off the market. And then when EPA provides the opportunity to reduce the use of these chemical products, the same groups that wanted these off the market came to us in the 1990s and said no because it will cause harm to the environment.”

There is actual harm to health and the environment. Abramson reports that, in the past 14 years of intensive governmental, academic and commercial scrutiny, “not a single incidence of actual harm to health, safety or the environment has ever been documented concerning the crops on the market today.

“Am I trying to tell you this is a zero risk situation?” he asks. “Absolutely not. Zero does not exist in terms of risk. But is there evidence of adverse effects? Absolutely not.”

Abramson’s assertions about safety include Bt corn products. He says field studies show no adverse effects from Bt corn on monarch butterflies. “I’m not talking about lab studies where the monarch larvae have been stuck in Bt pollen in laboratories. I’m talking about in the field under real-world conditions.” Instead, loss of habitat and chemical sprays threaten monarch butterflies.

Greenpeace disagreed and filed a lawsuit in 1999 against EPA over the Bt crops. The group asked that all Bt product approvals be thrown out and no further approvals given. EPA answered with a 107-page response, available on its Web site, according to Abramson. He adds that Greenpeace then withdrew its lawsuit.

No biotech products are labeled. “This is simply not the case,” Abramson says. “Crops developed through modern biotechnology are subject to the exact same labeling requirements as all other food.”

Labeling is required for information that is material to the consumer, he explains. For example, if a new variety of orange is developed with less vitamin C than expected in the market today, that information must be provided.

The labeling line is crossed, Abramson adds, when the government requires labels for societal purposes. “There’s lots of information consumers say they want to know, like if oranges come from a farm where workers have adequate sanitation,” Abramson says. “It is important information. But is it information the government must put on a label? I don’t think so.”

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