(April 24) There are 200 times more bacteria in a human’s colon than there are people who have ever lived. That’s a lot of bacteria.

That’s also one of the tidbits of information in the latest edition of National Geographic, which devotes two articles to food — one to food safety, the other to biotech foods.

Much of the magazine’s material is gleaned from talking to officials at the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They paint a scary picture — deadly new bacteria, new outbreaks, antibiotic resistance. And they stress that they are on the case and that things are looking a bit better because of their work.

It’s not that the National Geographic article is inaccurate — it’s just incomplete. There’s little said about the efforts of the produce industry to police itself. Instead, we are told that produce may be contaminated by runoff from manure, by polluted rinse water, unsanitary trucks and wrong temperatures. Produce will become infected if exposed to water tainted with feces and raw sewage. Duh. All fruits and vegetables should be carefully washed.

There is no mention that these incidents in the mainstream industry are rare, and that cases of manure runoff tainting produce are so rare they have become legendary as cautionary tales of stupidity.

There is also little said about the horrible consequences for companies that don’t tighten their sanitation and food safety: lawsuits, diminished sales, lost customers, the threat of bankruptcy. Again, the industry itself has stepped up to the plate — and cleaned the plate.

National Geographic is widely respected and is certainly not known for sensationalizing stories. It reaches 8.5 million subscribers, which translates into 17 million to 20 million readers because each copy is typically read by two or more people. But the magazine does dredge up old cases to illustrate its food safety points: the E. coli in hamburgers at Jack in the Box, the infamous Schwan’s ice cream that made 224,000 people sick with salmonella. The recall of 15 million pounds of tainted meat.

The article follows the case of mangoes that caused sickness. They were traced to Brazil, where hot water treatment for fruit flies was using water open to outside contamination. That was easily corrected. And it’s not always foreign produce making Americans sick. There was a case where U.S. almonds caused foodborne illness in dozens of Canadians.

The article points out correctly that globalization and changes in eating habits, with great desire for fresh produce year-round, are making produce available from more places. An estimated 40% of fruit eaten in the U.S. is imported. FDA’s food safety outreach extends to 30 foreign countries.

One of the success stories, according to the magazine, is in Costa Rica, which is producing a lot of fresh produce for U.S. and Canadian tables: berries, pineapple, vegetables. Costa Rica wants to make sure food safety concerns don’t cut off lucrative export sales.

On the biotech front the magazine rightly points to the continuing controversy over biotech foods. This battle rages in the developed nations, where people can afford food fights about who is the most pure and unspoiled and has kept out the “evil” biotechnologists.

Poor countries don’t have this luxury. They are happy to get any technology that boosts yields, enhances nutrition and protects against insects and diseases. That’s about 70% of the world. Genetically enhanced rice with beta carotene promises to lessen vitamin A deficiency in 140 million poor children. It’s a deficiency that can cause blindness.

Of course, the so-called transgenic alterations scare people, even if the end product is benign. There’s the possibility of inserting rat genes in lettuce and moth genes in apples. These concepts give people the creeps even though there is no direct transfer of rat material or moth material to food.

Every drama needs a villain, and for many opponents of biotech in Europe and the U.S., the chief bad guy is St. Louis-based Monsanto, the company referred to by critics as “Mon-Satan.” That’s not a good image to have.

But Monsanto, which “sins” by wanting to kill weeds and sell better growing methods to the world’s farmers, is caught in a wider philosophical battle over who controls technology, who will use it, who will get paid and how much.

Who will own patents and rights to basic foods, and who will control a globalizing world economy? It’s hard to imagine a more controversial business to be in than plant and animal biotechnology.

But the real question ought to be the efficient production of safe and abundant food. This is not an issue just for poor nations. The Japan International Agricultural Council in its newsletter points out that in 1960 Japan produced 80% of the calories its people needed. Today, it produces only 40%. Japan produces only 44% of its fruit and 3% of its vegetable oil. In 1960 it produced 100% of its own fruit.

These declining numbers, although good for U.S. and other food exporters, have the Japanese worried. Compared to the nation’s declining agriculture and food production, issues of biotechnology and food safety seem relatively easy.