The modern techniques of genetic engineering-also known as biotechnology, recombinant DNA technology, or genetic modification--offer plant breeders the tools to make old crop plants do spectacular new things. In the United States and two dozen other countries, farmers are using genetically engineered crop varieties to produce higher yields with lower inputs and reduced environmental impact. Most of these new varieties are designed to be resistant to pests and diseases that ravage crops or to be resistant to herbicides so that farmers can more effectively control weeds while adopting more environment-friendly no-till farming practices and more benign herbicides. Other varieties possess improved nutritional quality. But the greatest boon of all in the long term, both to food security and the environment, may be the ability of new crop varieties to tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses.
In spite of such benefits, many of which have already been realized, and the absence of adverse effects, these advances are opposed staunchly by anti-biotechnology activists. Their intractable opposition and outright lies about supposed adverse impacts of genetically engineered plants-ranging from claims of allergic reactions to allegations of killing butterflies and bees--have led to public confusion and government over-regulation. Over the last few years, four California counties have gone so far as to ban the cultivation or sale of genetically engineered plants, including those that could help to ameliorate critical local and regional pest infestations and shortages of water. As recently as March 2012, a coalition of anti-biotechnology nongovernmental organizations claimed to have amassed more than a half-million signatures on petitions calling for mandatory labeling of foods made from genetically engineered organisms.
Baseless charges may confuse not only the public, but also policymakers. Donald Kennedy, president emeritus of Stanford University and former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, chided bureaucrats: "Frequently decisionmakers give up the difficult task of finding out where the weight of scientific opinion lies, and instead attach equal value to each side in an effort to approximate fairness. In this way extraordinary opinions ... are promoted to a form of respectability that approaches equal status."
This kind of undeserved moral equivalence frequently compromises governmental decisionmaking. It has given rise to unscientific and inconsistent regulation of not only biotechnology applied to agriculture but also many other products and technologies, including pesticides and other chemicals and silicone breast implants.
In addition to undeserved moral equivalence, we have the problem of a kind of moral relativism applied to science itself. During the Clinton administration, then-under secretary of agriculture Ellen Haas, who previously headed an anti-technology advocacy group, deconstructed science thus: "You can have 'your' science or 'my' science or 'somebody else's' science. By nature, there is going to be a difference." Translation: "I don't care about the consensus in the scientific community. My views are just as valid."
In the remainder of this article, I will review the government regulation of genetically engineered plants and fish as case studies of scientific consensus completely ignored or perverted in the formulation of regulatory...
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