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Jewish World Review June 28, 2001 / 7 Tamuz, 5761

Joseph Perkins

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Consumer Reports

Luddites of the world, unite! -- THE Luddites are coming! The Luddites are coming!

That's right. The anti-technology, anti-commerce, anti-trade activists who disrupted the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle two years ago, who bum-rushed the Emerald City's constabulary, who caused the city's shopkeepers millions of dollars in property damage, are descending on San Diego. They aim to make their noisy presence felt at the Biotechnology Industry Organization's international convention opening Sunday. The annual gathering will bring more than 12,000 industry leaders to San Diego, which boasts the nation's third-largest concentration of biotech companies.

The activists hope to use San Diego as a backdrop to continue their disinformation campaign against biotechnology. To frighten the American people into believing that bioengineered agricultural and pharmaceutical products are a threat to public health and well-being.

"If biotech companies have their way," claims Brian Tokar, a faculty member at the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont (where else?), "our food will be contaminated with untested, experimental varieties of engineered foods, and new genetic creations will continue to proliferate in the environment with no way to recall them."

That's a fiction. The reality is that three federal agencies are charged with ensuring the safety of biotechnology foods and crops: the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Meanwhile, such authoritative bodies as the American Medical Association, the National Research Council, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization have attested to the safety of biotech foods.

Former commerce undersecretary for international trade David Aaron put it best last year when he declared, "Thirteen years of experience with biotech products in the U.S. have shown us that biotech foods developed and used in the U.S. present no safety risk beyond those of their 'natural' counterparts.

"Not a single ailment has been attributed to biotech foods. Not one. Not a sneeze, not a rash, not a headache."

It's the same thing with biotech drugs.

Tokar, who is expected to join some 4,000 to 8,000 activists in San Diego, asserts, "The biotech industry promises endless medical miracles, but there is a compelling need for skepticism here as well.

"Where will this all lead us? Designer babies? Human clones? A new generation of eugenic attempts to 'perfect' human nature? These are all frightening prospects, but they are clearly where biotech medicine is trying to lead us."

I don't think so.

While Tokar and his fellow Luddites like to conjure up these scary future scenarios -- it makes good copy, as we say in the newspaper business -- here and now the nation's biotech pharmaceutical companies are trying to find cures, or near cures, for heart disease, cancer, AIDS, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other deadly or debilitating afflictions.

Indeed, the 90 to 100 biotech drugs and vaccines that are on the market have improved the health of more than 200 million people worldwide. And the 350 or so biotech medications in the pipeline will save or lengthen the lives of many millions more.

The activists who take to the streets of San Diego will conveniently ignore the obvious benefits of biotechnology. They will concentrate instead on demonizing the corporations involved in bringing biotechnology products to market.

"The same corporations that brought us DDT, PCBs, and Agent Orange now want to feed the world's hungry and develop medicines to save your ailing grandma," declares the Ruckus Society, one of the groups organizing the San Diego protests.

"The corporate colonization of life itself is the newest, most insidious form of globalization," it adds.

So that's it. The anti-biotech activists are not so concerned about the science or health implications of this brave new technology. That's just a convenient subterfuge. Their real concern is further expansion of global commerce.

They want American biotechnology companies to keep their genetically modified foods and their bioengineered drugs to themselves. Just like they want such multinationals as McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Disney to keep their hamburgers, their soft drinks and their theme parks to themselves. To stay out of other countries.

What particularly vexes is that these anti-technology, anti-commerce, anti-trade activists presume to speak for "the masses" throughout the world. But it is hard to see how the masses would benefit from being denied the more plentiful food supply and life-saving drugs that biotechnology offers.

JWR contributor Joseph Perkins is a San Diego Union-Tribune columnist and television commentator. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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