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An Unfounded Fear Of Eggplant

This article is more than 6 years old.

A recent decision regarding genetically modified food by an appeals court in the Philippines was a dramatic victory for the emotional calls of environmentalists, and an ominous defeat for science, reason and the open-minded search for solutions to humanity’s biggest problems. The decision also directly threatens the health of tens of millions of people around the world.

The court ordered a halt to field trials of eggplant bioengineered to include a gene from a common soil bacterium (Baccillus thuringiensis or Bt) that produces a naturally occurring pesticide. Bt crops let farmers use less industrial pesticide, which saves them money and boosts productivity. In turn, food is more available and affordable.

It is one thing to want to protect nature from the dramatically real harms of modern technology ... But it is quite another for policy makers to ... ignore a mountain of factual evidence...

Such crops have been grown for more than a decade, (a quarter of the corn and half the cotton grown worldwide is Bt) and the consensus among experts that they pose no threat to human health is about as broad and robust as the scientific consensus about climate change. Research also indicates that genetically modified hybrids are no more of a threat to the environment than plants with new traits created by any method of hybridization (including the modern technique of exposing seeds to mutagenic radiation), something humans have been doing since the dawn of agriculture.

The court heard about the safety of bioengineered crops. But it also heard from opponents of this modern form of hybridization who, short on factual evidence of any danger, relied more on emotional arguments to make their case. Uncertainty makes anything scarier, and they noted that the safety of genetically modified food cannot be 100 percent guaranteed. They also made the appealing moral case for protecting nature, arguing that the Bt eggplant field trials threatened Filipino’s constitutional rights to “a balanced and healthy ecology.” Not only did the court adopt the whole emotional argument, but their ruling used logic and language that if applied consistently across all risk management issues, could bring modern society to a screeching halt.

The court said genetically modified foods are “…an alteration of an otherwise natural state of affairs in our ecology.” Well, yeah, but that’s a ludicrous standard for banning things, given that the human species interacts with and alters the “otherwise natural state” of our environment with most of what we do. Imagine what society would have to forego if this standard was consistently applied across all of what modern human life involves. Anything that runs on electricity, for example, or any motorized form of transportation, or modern industrial food production methods that can feed seven billion people.

The court also ruled against the field tests because they “could not be declared…safe to human health and to our ecology with full scientific certainty.” (My emphasis.) Again, imagine what that appealing but ludicrous standard for acceptable risk — absolute scientific proof of safety — would do to most of how we live our modern lives.

The court also based its decision on another preposterously expansive standard. They banned the field trials in part because they ‘involve the willful and deliberate alteration [again, my emphasis] of the genetic traits of a living element of the ecosystem...” In other words, these hybrids are human-made, not natural. This common component of risk perception — human-made risks scare us more than natural ones — lies at the heart of environmentalist’s emotional rejection of not only genetically modified organisms but many modern technologies. But what does it have to do with whether genetically modified food is safe?

As righteous as this victory may feel for environmentalists, it carries profound risks for us all.

Beyond the danger that the Filipino ruling might become a precedent in cases elsewhere, the threat exists that the judiciary in the Philippines might apply these standards to Golden Rice, a species modified to include beta carotene, or vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) kills one to two million people a year and causes 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness. The International Rice Research Institute, which is based in the Philippines, has been conducting field trials of Golden Rice,
in part to make sure it’s safe. This ruling could kill those tests.

It is one thing to want to protect nature from the dramatically real harms of modern technology, and to rage at the greedy corporations that profit from them. But it is quite another for policy makers to be so taken by similar passions that they ignore a mountain of factual evidence and adopt an emotional approach to risk management that is more idealistic than realistic, more naïve than achievable, and that enshrines in law a
Utopianism about nature that denies society the progress and benefits that science and modern technology have afforded.

As righteous as this victory may feel for environmentalists, it carries profound risks for us all.

Mothers and children display painted baby tubs which they themselves designed during a protest on World Environment Day Wednesday June 5, 2013 at suburban Quezon city northeast of Manila, Philippines. (Bullit Marquez/AP)
Mothers and children display painted baby tubs which they themselves designed during a protest on World Environment Day Wednesday June 5, 2013 at suburban Quezon city northeast of Manila, Philippines. (Bullit Marquez/AP)

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This program aired on June 10, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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