A regulatory nightmare that kept this year's American corn harvest from Europe's markets ended last month when the European Union reversed itself and approved a new breed of genetically engineered corn for sale in Europe.
That there was any controversy over the altered corn underscores how public misperceptions about genetic engineering are being unfairly exploited by opponents to damage the plant biotechnology industry and farmers who could benefit from its advances.
The corn, developed by Ciba-Geigy, contains a bacterial gene that makes it resistant to the European corn borer, an insect pest that has severely reduced corn yields in the past. The Ciba-Geigy corn represented less than 2 percent of the 1996 US corn harvest, but it had been mixed with other types of corn. This led to the impoundment of most corn shipments bound for Europe. In the future, genetically altered corn could well become the main type of corn planted by US farmers.
Before being approved in the US and Canada, the genetically engineered corn had undergone one of the most intense regulatory investigations applied to a food. But bioextremist forces in Europe have created so much public anxiety about genetic engineering that more than two-thirds of Europeans hesitate to purchase food containing genetically engineered products, polls show.
This anxiety made it possible for a British scientist - who advanced a potential scenario so remote that no documented cases have ever been seen - to frighten many European Union officials into abstaining when the corn issue came to a vote last June. This ruling led to the embargoing of the 1996 crop, which began to arrive in Europe early in October. In late December, the EU voted to approve the corn, but only after the corn was judged safe by yet another panel of scientific experts.
So far, European distrust of genetic engineering has actually benefited the US because excessive European regulations have forced many European companies to locate their biotechnology subsidiaries here, giving the US a distinct edge over Europe in plant biotechnology research.
This situation could change, however, if antibiotech groups inspired by Jeremy Rifkin, head of the Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends, succeed in generating a similar level of public anxiety here.
How legitimate are public concerns about genetically engineered plants? Such products are considered safe by a vast majority of scientists. They may even be safer than crops developed by traditional plant breeding practices because genetic engineering makes it easier to assess safety by creating only limited and specific genetic changes. By contrast, traditional plant breeding produces hybrids that have sustained many genetic changes in addition to the desired ones, and these unintended changes can have adverse effects.
Much of the public concern about genetic engineering is based on the incorrect notion that it is an unnatural process capable of producing Frankenstein monster mutants. In reality, genetic engineering is the controlled application of processes responsible for natural evolutionary change.
The introduction of bacterial genes into plants has ample precedent in nature. The plant chloroplast, an organelle that enables plants to photosynthesize, was originally a bacterium and contains bacterial DNA. Nature was the first genetic engineer.
Genetic engineering is our best hope for reducing reliance on harmful pesticides and herbicides without sacrificing high crop yields. Genetic engineering also promises to develop crops that address specific problems in developing countries, such as witchweed - a parasitic weed limiting agricultural yields in Africa.
Without genetic engineering, it is difficult to imagine how we can produce enough food to feed the world's population as the acreage under cultivation decreases steadily and population levels continue to rise. To turn our backs on the enormous potential of genetic engineering is absurd, especially in view of the flimsy arguments advanced so far against it.
* Abigail Salyers, a microbiologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is co-author of "Bacterial Pathogenesis: A Molecular Approach."