Academic journal article Policy Review

Biotech and Baby Food

Academic journal article Policy Review

Biotech and Baby Food

Article excerpt

WARNINGS ABOUT ONE societal danger or another often portray children as the likeliest or most susceptible victims. As is the case with so many other public health false alarms, the attack on the new biotechnology -- also known as bioengineering, gene splicing, or genetic engineering -- is less about real concern for children's health than about environmental activists' willingness to exploit children's issues for their own benefit. Biotechnology has been the target of scare campaigns since the technique was first demonstrated in 1973. Activists, like Jeremy Rifkin of the Foundation on Economic Trends, have been warning against the supposed dangers of biotechnology for three decades, calling it "the most radical, uncontrolled experiment we've ever seen" and even likening it to "Nazi eugenics." Others have claimed that gene-spliced crop plants are "worse than nuclear weapons or radioactive wastes." Fortunately, the American public has not taken such arguments seriously.

The first biotechnology-derived medical treatment, human insulin, was commercialized in 1982, and the first biotech plant in 1994. During the past two decades, thousands of new medicines, foods, and industrial products have been produced with the aid of modern biotechnology and sold to doctors, farmers, manufacturers, and consumers. So powerful is the technology that literally tens of millions of lives worldwide have been protected, enriched, and even lengthened due entirely to these techniques. But so subtle and precise are the production changes generated by the technology that very few people recognize how widely biotechnology figures in everyday life.

Indeed, it was not until the late 1990S that activist scare campaigns began to gain traction. The earliest successes were in several Western European countries, where environmentalists capitalized on recent food scares -- primarily the concern about Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or "Mad Cow Disease" -- to frighten consumers about what seemed to be another mysterious threat in the food supply. But no similarly frightening affliction has beset the U.S. food supply in decades, so Americans have not been so easily scared away from the technology. However, environmental activists may have found the right approach for their U.S. audience in the time-tested tactic of capitalizing on parents' concern about the health of their children.

In 1998, the environmental activist group Greenpeace began a campaign aimed at frightening baby-food producers away from using biotech-derived ingredients in their products. Prior efforts had failed to scare Americans away from agricultural applications of biotechnology, but Greenpeace had significantly better luck with this new approach. The ploy had worked wonders in Europe earlier that year as part of a broader campaign. In that case, Greenpeace activists simply asked, in a letter to executives of the Swiss baby-food line Galactina, whether their products contained biotech ingredients. Galactina's parent company, the pharmaceutical giant Novartis, buckled under even that minimal pressure literally overnight, promising to remove certain existing products from grocery store shelves and to reject biotechnology in future production. Naturally, when Greenpeace targeted Gerber Foods, the U.S. babyfood brand also owned by Novartis, it expected a similar result -- and got it.

In May 1999, Greenpeace activist Charles Margulis faxed a letter to Gerber headquarters in Freemont, Michigan, demanding to know whether Gerber used gene-spliced products in its baby food and inquiring about any steps Gerber was taking to make sure that no gene-spliced ingredients were used. Earlier that year, a spurious environmental issue had been raised when the journal Nature published a brief report suggesting that certain gene-spliced corn varieties could have a negative impact on Monarch butterflies. The report had been picked up and grossly exaggerated by the popular media and, in any case, was later discredited. …

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