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Jewish World Review Dec. 9, 1999 /30 Kislev, 5760

Joseph Perkins

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Politics gets in
the way of food -- HADN'T SEEN MUCH of, or heard much from, the folks at Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth over the past two years, since the United Nations' global warming summit in Kyoto, Japan.

But then they turned up in Seattle for the yearly conference of the 135-nation World Trade Organization (joining more than a hundred fellow leftist groups that journeyed to the Pacific Northwest with the apparent intent to riot).

As it turns out, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are no longer working the global warming issue (it just didn't take off the way they'd hoped). They're now crusading against genetically modified foods or, as they scarily refer to them, "Frankenfoods."

This is all so much unscientific nonsense. The fact is that farmers have been genetically modifying plants for centuries through such techniques as crossbreeding and hybridization.

As the folks at the Biotechnology Industry Organization point out, "Many of our most common plants -- including corn, potatoes, tomatoes and strawberries -- bear little resemblance to their ancestor plants that developed in nature, prior to improvement by humans."

So all biotechnology does today is speed up the process of genetic improvement of plants and animals. And resistance to use of this new technology in the farm patch (instead of the time-consuming, inefficient techniques of crossbreeding and hybridization) makes as little sense as resistance to use of modern-day tractors instead of the old hand plows.

Of course, the Luddites on the environmental left are unswayed by this argument. They insist that genetically modified foods have no place at the supper table.

GM foods "pose grave risks to both human and environmental health," insists Friends of the Earth. "Genetically engineered food is poison," declares Greenpeace.

And the activist groups have a "scientific" report to back up their claims. It was authored by Professor Arpad Puztai of the Rowett Institute in Scotland.

The prof said he fed genetically modified potatoes to five rats. After 100 days or so (the equivalent to 10 years in human terms), the rats suffered from slightly stunted growth and damaged immune systems, he reported.

Puztai's sensational findings made international news. It prompted calls by left-leaning British politicians for a moratorium on the sale of genetically modified foods -- much as 47 mostly left-leaning members of the House of Representatives recently signed a letter to the Food and Drug Administration urging the agency to require that all genetically modified foods carry labels.

But here's a footnote to the Puztai story that didn't make nearly as much international news: His research was a fraud. That's what got him suspended in August 1998 by the Rowett Institute. Administrators discovered that he could not substantiate his claims with the data he obtained from his research.

"We have been misled by a very senior scientist at this institute," said Puztai's chastened superior.

But much as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were undeterred during their global warming crusade by evidence that cast doubt upon their hysterical warnings of cataclysmic climate change, they haven't let a little thing like scientific fraud slow down their war against genetically modified foods.

Indeed, having achieved a de facto ban on GM foods in England, France and other European nations -- by duping the masses into believing that GM foods are unsafe, by coercing grocery stores to remove GM foods from their shelves, by terrorist attacks on GM crops in the field, and by persuading governments to require labeling of GM foods -- the environmental left is now bringing its crusade to this side of the Atlantic.

However, they face a more daunting challenge here in this country. Because Americans routinely consume genetically modified foods. And of those who have any thoughts on the matter one way or the other, most view GM foods favorably.

Of course, all of this can and will change if the government allows itself to be drawn into the war on GM foods. And that is precisely what the FDA appears to be doing by holding hearings around the country at which the public is invited to offer its two cents' worth as to whether the regulatory agency's policy on GM foods "should be modified."

This plays right into the hands of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, whose activists turned out in force at the FDA's first two hearings, in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Since the environmental lefties know the FDA is not going to ban GM foods (what with biotech accounting for 50 percent of processed foods in the nation's supermarkets) they seek the next best thing -- mandatory labeling of all GM foods.

While false-hearted advocates of labeling say that it would simply make consumers aware when they buy genetically modified foods, the real aim of label advocates, like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, is to make American consumers wary.

Indeed, that's why agriculture groups, food industry organizations and biotechnology companies almost unanimously oppose labeling GM foods. They argue, correctly, that labeling would mislead consumers into believing that biotech foods are either "different" from conventional foods or present a risk or potential risk.

The federal government ought not allow itself to be used by groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to further their nonscientific, politically motivated goals.

Especially when it would come at the expense of America's farmers, its food makers and its biotech industry with no tangible, commensurate benefit to the nation's consumers.

JWR periodic contributor Joseph Perkins is San Diego Union-Tribune columnist and a television commentator. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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