StarLink Settlement Unsettling for Science

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Two biotech companies agreed last week to pay $110 million to corn farmers who lost money because of consumer fears three years ago when some genetically-modified StarLink corn, intended as animal feed, found its way into the human food supply.

Reporters could easily spin this as a story in which farmers and consumers are victims and the villains are the reckless Dr. Frankensteins of the biotech firms aided and abetted by lax EPA regulators. But it's worth pausing to remember that no one was actually shown to be injured by StarLink. The lawsuits that occurred at the time from a handful of customers concerned that they might be having allergic reactions to the corn and the subsequent financial losses suffered by the farmers were all fear-driven, not the result of good science showing that stomach upset was any more likely among (non-frightened, non-litigious) StarLink eaters than among ordinary taco shell eaters. (ACSH pointed this out in a 2001 press release, not long after the CDC reported there was no evidence of harm from StarLink.)

When the anti-biotech activists and even some people who are ostensibly "neutral" about biotech weigh the pro's and con's of the new food science, the StarLink incident will probably be placed in the con's category. But it's important to remember that so far, the only "damage" psychological or financial done by biotech is really a function of the panic activists have spread about it, not a function of flawed science or industrial disasters. Absent the efforts of Greenpeace and others to keep the public terrified about biotech, we might well live in a world in which people say, "I ate some biotech corn but I feel fine, so who cares?" Then the biotech firms could put their $110 million to some more productive, innovative use than mopping up the fallout of fear.