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[whitespace] Seeds of Controversy

The debate rages over genetically engineered food

By Ken Roseboro

IT'S NOT EVERY DAY that a scientist sacrifices a promising career to take an ethical stand on an issue. When John Fagan, a respected molecular biologist, returned a $614,000 government grant for genetic research in 1994, he stunned the scientific world.

Rather than continue with work he could no longer justify, Fagan decided to speak out about the hazards he saw in genetically engineered food. His stand has fueled a debate about a technological revolution, with billions of dollars and the future of corporations and international trade relations at stake.

Genetic engineering has been described as the most powerful technology ever developed. In the lab, scientists cut genes from one organism and inject them into another, transferring the traits of those genes. For example, genetic engineers have injected genes from a bacterium that kills the corn borer into the DNA of corn, creating a new pest-killing corn plant.

Biotech critics, however, worry about the unpredictable side effects these new techniques can create. They point to a study conducted at Cornell University after the plant was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency showing pollen from the modified corn could kill monarch butterflies.

A few years ago, scientists at the Pioneer Hi-Bred seed company of Des Moines, Iowa, introduced a gene from Brazil nuts into soybeans to improve their nutritional content. Before the soybean reached the market, a University of Nebraska scientist found that the engineered soybean would cause allergies in people who are allergic to Brazil nuts. The fearsome prospect was that people with the allergy, which can be extremely serious, would not think to avoid eating soybean products.

"When you insert a gene into a DNA using genetic modification, you have no idea where the gene goes, it's absolutely a shot in the dark," said Fagan. "This can cause mutations to existing genes of that plant and produce new toxins or allergens or reduce the nutritional value of the food."

This potential for harm is one reason why Fagan returned his grant money. In 1996, he developed the first DNA test to detect genetically modified organisms, or "GMOs," as they are called, in food products. His company, Genetic ID, tests grains and foods for farmers, grain traders, exporters, food manufacturers and retailers, and consumer groups all over the world. Like detectives looking for clues, lab technicians at Genetic ID analyze foods for microscopic GMOs.

Sitting in his office in Fairfield, Iowa, overlooking fields of corn and soybeans which may be genetically engineered, Fagan emphasized the need to safety test genetically engineered foods. "The key is that these foods need to be tested in biological systems with animals and human beings, and it should be long term," he said.

But biotech proponents say the technology is more precise than traditional plant breeding and that modified foods have proved safe. "Crop varieties produced through recombinant DNA technology have been subjected to more scientific and regulatory scrutiny than any products in the history of humanity," said Val Giddings, vice president of food and agriculture for the Biotechnology Industry Association.

The Union of Concerned Scientists disagrees. "It's misleading to say all genetically engineered food products have been tested for safety; it's just not the case," said Margaret Mellin, director of the group's agricultural and biotech program.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't safety-test engineered plants and foods, considering them to be "substantially equivalent" to conventional ones. Safety testing is left up to the companies that produce them. Critics describe this policy as the equivalent of "leaving the fox to guard the chickens."

Proponents say it's in the best interest of companies to ensure their products are safe. "A plant breeder spends a decade looking at a new plant, because it's the way to produce good food plants," says Susanne Huttner, director of the Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program at the University of California.

Nowhere is the debate over genetically engineered foods more intense than in Europe. The British press often refers to them as "Frankenfoods" and protesters have torn out engineered crops from test fields. The British Medical Association called for a moratorium on approving genetically engineered foods, citing unknown risks to the environment and human health.

Consumer resistance is so strong that the European Union has called for a moratorium on accepting new genetically engineered crops until 2002. Consequently, U.S. corn sales to Europe shrank from 70 million bushels in 1997 to 3 million last year, according to figures kept by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a loss of $200 million in sales. This year's sales look to be similar.

Fagan is familiar with the situation in Europe. About 75 percent of his company's business comes from European companies. He attributes the trade problems to overly optimistic biotech companies who thought Europe would readily accept their modified crops. They haven't, compromising the position of American farmers, Fagan said.

With testing technology like Genetic ID's now available, labeling modified foods is possible. Labeling is now required in the European Union, Switzerland and Norway and soon will be in Japan, Australia and New Zealand. In the United States, the FDA doesn't require labeling unless the genetically engineered ingredient alters the nutritional content, health or safety of the food product.

Biotech proponents support the FDA's policy and say that labeling would be costly and time-consuming. "You would have to determine what the label should say, determine the levels of genetically engineered ingredients required for labeling and determine what kinds of tests are needed," says Giddings.

But the FDA's policy is coming under increasing fire. In June, Consumer Right to Know campaign, organized by a group called Mothers for Natural Law, delivered petitions with 500,000 signatures to President Clinton, Congress and the FDA demanding mandatory labeling and safety testing of modified foods.

Another group, the Alliance for Bio-Integrity, filed a lawsuit against the FDA in May 1998 to demand the same. The Union of Concerned Scientists also favors labeling. "People have a right to know," says Mellin, echoing a common phrase.

When surveyed about labeling modified foods, a large majority of Americans say they want it. A 1995 Department of Agriculture survey of 604 New Jersey residents found that 84 percent favored labeling. A recent Time magazine survey showed 81 percent also in favor.

Some say labeling is an inadequate solution. "Labeling is a smoke screen that covers the fact that these products were marketed without adequate safety testing," says Marc Lappe of the Center for Ethics and Toxics.

Opinions vary on what a label should say. Biotech critics say genetically engineered foods should be labeled as such and contain a list detailing sources of the engineered genes. Others propose a "GMO-Free" label. Australia and New Zealand have proposed a "May Contain GMOs" label.

Biotech proponents say labeling would indicate a safety or health difference where there wasn't one. But Fagan questions this stance. "If the promises of biotechnology are so great, then labeling should indicate a premium product and increase its value, not scare people off," he said.

Genetic ID's rapid growth may be a barometer of increasing concern over engineered foods in the U.S. The company is testing more and more foods for the United States market, says Fagan. Natural-food companies are particularly concerned about the issue, and the National Nutritional Foods Association recently called for labeling.

Major American food producers are starting to react to concerns. Gerber, the largest baby food producer in the United States, recently announced that it would no longer buy genetically modified corn and soybeans for its products.

There are signs that the biotech industry recognizes the need to address people's concerns. Leading proponents, including Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and Rockefeller Foundation president Dan Conway, emphasize that the industry needs to build trust with consumers and say labeling is one way to do that.

"We need to discuss this issue as widely and deeply as possible," said Giddings.

The anti-genetic-engineering movement also plans to educate consumers. The Natural Law Party, a grassroots political party, will hold summits on the hazards of genetically engineered foods in major U.S. cities this fall. Laura Ticciati, a summit organizer, said, "We are convening these summits to make sure the American people know what is happening to their food supply, so they can decide for themselves whether they want to eat genetically engineered foods or not."

The debate over genetically engineered foods may be conducted in government offices, corporate boardrooms and high-tech laboratories, but it most likely will be decided around the dinner tables of American consumers. "In a democracy like ours people can make up their own minds," says Margaret Mellin. "They can vote with their forks."

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From the May 11-17, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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