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Corn Kids

A new strain of genetically-altered corn can help feed the world and cut down on pesticides. Why are some environmentalist groups against it?

11:00 PM, Feb 26, 2003 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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ON TUESDAY, after winning approval from the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, agribusiness giant Monsanto gained consent from the EPA to sell genetically-altered corn designed to resist rootworm, one of the biggest pests to America's largest crop, corn.

"Corn rootworm is the pest that requires the single largest use of conventional pesticides in the United States," said the Environmental Protection Agency's Stephen L. Johnson. "What this decision means is that the environment will have literally millions of pounds of very toxic pesticides not being used." How many pounds? About 50 million of them, according to Monsanto product manager Jennifer Ozimkiewicz.

So environmentalists should be thrilled, right? Wrong.

Approval of the genetically modified corn was picked up right away by most major newspapers and wire services and reporters reflexively turned to reliable critics of genetically modified foods, like the Union of Concerned Scientists, for "balance." A standard quote reads: "To some people, this is technological progress toward a more efficient global agricultural system that could feed the hungry and help farmers. To others, it sounds unnatural and potentially hazardous, an unparalleled level of human tinkering with nature."

"What we have here is companies doing as they usually do: profiting in the short term" even if it endangers long-term viability, said Jane Rissler, of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Environmental groups say they are concerned that the small amount of rootworm not killed off by the GM-corn will breed a new race of super-worms, resistant to known pesticides and other pest-control mechanisms. But to allay these concerns the EPA is going to require that 20 percent of any field containing the modified corn be planted with ordinary corn. That way resistant rootworms will breed with those feeding on nearby non-GM corn, reducing the resistance in ensuing generations.

Gregory Jaffe of the lefty Center for Science in the Public Interest claims 20 percent of the acreage set aside to prevent resistance development isn't nearly enough. He says that at least half the acreage should be set aside for the buffer zone as an extra precaution.

Why 50 percent and not 20 percent? Jaffe offers no discernable scientific reason, yet CSPI issued a press release saying the EPA is "gambling with an important public resource."

EPA HAS ASSEMBLED an impressive report on the subject and officials say the corn "does not pose risks to human health or to the environment." But rather than using the real science available as the EPA has done in this case, environmental groups operate on the "precautionary principle," which, as the Wall Street Journal points out, is "an environmental neologism, invoked to trump scientific evidence and move directly to banning things they don't like."

The precautionary principle dictates a "wait and see" approach. Jane Rissler says, "Do we assume the technology is safe . . . or do we prove it? The scientist in me wants to prove it's safe." However, when an interviewer suggested to her that "genetically modified crops are arguably much less harmful to the environment," Rissler responded: "It depends on where you want to compromise. There's another issue here with corporate control of the food supply."

Which gives away the game: The real topic of these environmental scientists' concern is corporate behavior. A 50 percent refuge makes it less profitable to use GM corn. Ultimately UCS wants to reduce the amount of GM products for reasons that have everything to do with politics, and nothing to do with science.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.