Their hysterics remind me of the story of the Salem witches–and especially the intriguing possibility that if biotechnology had been available in 1692, there might not have been any Salem witches at all.
More on that in a minute. First, some good news: So far, the American public at large has not displayed any of the debilitating symptoms we see in the activists. A huge majority–84 percent–believes farmers are concerned about food safety, according to a new poll sponsored by the Animal Agriculture Alliance and the National Corn Growers Association. Another 84 percent think farmers do a good job of producing healthy food at reasonable prices. Apparently the people polled feel the farmer makes good choices in the public’s behalf.
Eighty-four percent is an astonishing number. Imagine a baseball batter with an on-base percentage of .840. Or a president who scores an 84 percent approval rating–not just once or twice, but consistently across an entire term. It’s almost impossible. In a country that’s recently been called “the 50-50 nation” because it is so divided on a wide range of political and social questions, any kind of majority is precious, to say nothing of one that’s so overpowering.
And the news only gets better: The public holds farmers in high regard, alongside teachers and doctors. Americans have a much dimmer view of politicians and Hollywood celebrities. When the subject is animal welfare on farms, for instance, people are much more likely to put their faith in farmers, animal veterinarians, and officials from the Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration than they are in animal-rights activists.
Yet the poll also contains a few warning signs. Only 47 percent say scientists should be free to use genetics to breed farm animals that will resist bacteria that cause human illness. This is not to suggest that most people are against the practice–30 percent said they were neutral or not sure–but it is also far from where we want to see it. Is it too much to ask for another one of those 84-percent majorities, especially when most Americans eat some form of biotech food just about everyday?
We clearly have much work to do. Polls conducted for the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology have shown that Americans have a poor understanding of genetically enhanced food. They don’t know many facts and their opinions are malleable.
That’s why the enemies of biotechnology continue to pose a threat. The evidence from Europe suggests that the “anti-biotech disease” is contagious and can embed itself in a population of otherwise sensible people, making them more prone to fits of mass hysteria whenever somebody uses the words “food” and “genes” in the same sentence. Where’s the common sense in a “precautionary principle” that requires absolute, zero tolerance proof of the unprovable.
But the facts are too compelling to ignore because the record is so positive. The years of successful adaptation of the technology in crops, for instance, have shown no negative effects on the environment or human health. The record is cleanly positive. I prefer to view the evidence and not blindly follow the dire theories of those afraid of technological progress. The U.S. farmer understands how this technology works for him. That’s why it is widely adopted in one form or another. This highly trusted group of food producers has used a common sense approach to decisions that are now benefiting the U.S. food production system and consumers, alike.
This brings me back to the Salem witch trials. They are an iconic moment in U.S. history, one that fascinates each new generation of Americans.
What caused that bizarre outbreak of apparent lunacy more than three centuries ago? One theory holds that the young ladies were infected by ergot, a food-borne fungus that attacks rye, wheat, and other grains–as well as the humans who inadvertently eat it. Ergot poisoning can cause violent pain in limb extremities, leading to gangrene or even death. It also triggers hallucinations, because ergot shares an active ingredient with LSD.
Medieval historians have documented several local epidemics of ergot poisoning, also known as St. Anthony’s Fire, when whole towns seem to have gone mad. And there is some evidence to suggest that conditions were perfect for an outbreak in Salem in 1692: the weather had been warm and wet and people were eating food vulnerable to ergot.
Could it be the Salem witches had nothing more than a really bad case of food poisoning?
We’ll never know for sure. But we do know that ergot poisoning is rare today because of chemical sprays that act as fungicides. In the future, it will be almost non-existent because we’ll fend it off with biotechnology.
So maybe there won’t be any witches in the years ahead. The only remaining question is whether there will by any frenzied anti-biotech activists. Maybe biotechnology can cure them as well.