Biotech in Africa: ACSH Weighs In

The following letter from ACSH's medical director appeared in today's Wall Street Journal

To the Editor:

Neil King Jr.'s article about the brewing biotech-food contretemps in Africa ("U.S. Courts African Allies...," Feb. 20th) illustrates yet another example of the callous disregard of prosperous first-world "environmentalists" towards human life in the undeveloped world. Despite seven-plus years of widespread use, there is not a shred of evidence of adverse health effects in humans from the new food technologies represented by the rubric "genetically engineered." Despite shrill alarums from anti-capitalist groups pitching their unscientific agendas under the guise of friends of butterflies and "nature," there has never been any reliable evidence of adverse impact on the environment from these agricultural products (unless one includes "contamination" of tacos by g.e. corn, which I equate to "contamination" of pure rock formations by veins of gold).

Similar to the fate of DDT which while harmless to humans was effectively banned, at a cost of millions of African and Asian lives lost to malaria the alarmists in Europe would sacrifice the great potential for lifesaving improvements in nutrition on their altar of "genetic purity." Sounds like a program we, and the starving masses in Africa, would be well-advised to shun.

Gilbert L. Ross M.D.
Medical Director, the American Council on Science and Health


March 11, 2002

Who is being short sighted here? Who is really taking a caring attitude toward the starving millions in Africa? Are we really so stupid that we think this man is right?

There is no hard data anywhere that I have read or found in research which confirms that genetically-altered crops are safe. I see this article as a cynical attempt by those whose business it is to be interested in the marketing of such products to get a sympathy vote from us.

None of us who work for complete and thorough testing of these new biological technologies feel at all guilty about it, nor should we.

It is an unpalatable fact that we produce enough waste in the first world to feed the third, and it is not new genetically-altered crops that we need. What would be of some use is the sacrifice of one meal a day and the donating of that money to Oxfam or to some other reputable charity agency. We need efficient waste management, and governments who will legislate against high wastage and for more aid, ensuring that everyone gets a share of the wealth we now dispose of in landfills.

I do not support the idea of unrestricted aid, where the recipients can stow the funds in off-shore bank accounts, but aid that is monitored on its way to the starving, using troops to ensure this if necessary. We cannot sit by and watch people starve. But mutant foods? They are not required.

Mike Feehan

April 8, 2002

Mike Feehan's rave shows once again how knee-jerk responses are used instead of careful thinking.

Consider this. For at least 10,000 years, we have been selecting plants from wild ones to breed for food. We have selected them for big seeds, fast germination, good flavor, good yields, fast growth, often low water requirements, and indirectly for plant resistance. They have been bred with the aid of selection of seed stocks, natural radioactivity and cosmic ray-induced mutations, and cross-species gene transfer by viruses. All this time, the wild varieties have persisted in the background in spite of the vast amounts of new breeds shedding pollen to the four winds.

Today we are able to do it by creating exactly what we need, instead of (as in the past) a smorgasbord of random mutations with unknown properties. We will be able to deal with the destruction of habitats by kudzu grass or the blocking of water ways by water hyacinth with new g.e. plants.

And yes, there will be problems and they will be overcome in ways we can't even dream of. Could you ever guarantee not to crash your car and kill an innocent person? Ever? Of course not, and while there will be g.e. mistakes, the people involved are taking all care to make sure that they get it right, as far as humanly possible.

Look at the advantages of golden rice for Asian health, which far outweigh the minor risks of its widespread use. Would you have stopped the use of penicillin in WWII and afterwards because we might get penicillin-resistant bacteria? Just let all our wounded troops die? Would you never use an ambulance, since it creates CO2 and might have an accident?

Anthony Lealand

May 27, 2002

I find Dr. Ross' views startling and disturbing. I am surprised that a scientist would think "seven-plus years" is enough time to test and observe ill effects possibly wrought by a lack of biodiversity.

It was lack of biodiversity that led to the Irish famine, where people were dependent on a single source of food. Historians postulate that the low status of single women in the Middle Ages and the subsequent removal of witches and their rat-catching cats led to the bubonic plague. There are numerous other examples in history. The "shrill" voice of the concerned should be applauded by scientists like Dr. Ross. They are thinking beyond a mere seven years, and about other life systems which ultimately affect humans.

Daphne A. Tomchak, architect
Seattle, WA