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OCA and US Activists Turn Up the Heat on Frankenfoods
Superior crops or 'Frankenfood'?

Wed March 1, 2000
The Christian Science Monitor
by Laurent Belsie (belsiel@csps.com)

Americans begin to reconsider blase
attitude toward genetically modified food.

If genetic engineering portends a revolution
in the way the world eats, Americans have
not seemed to notice.
While Europeans took to the streets in
protest, consumers in the United States
calmly digested tomatoes designed to ripen
slowly. While Asians and others passed
labeling laws to differentiate the foodstuffs,
Americans chowed down on steaks from
cows fed pest-resistant corn and on
vegetarian burgers made with
herbicide-resistant soybeans.
But after spending
five years rapidly
adopting this
technology, the US
appears set to take a
long, second look at
its risks. While the
technology offers
tremendous
potential for creating
better, healthier, and
cheaper food,
opponents argue it
has not been tested
thoroughly enough
to ensure it won't
hurt people or the
environment in the long run. Such protests
are beginning to be heard in executive
suites and farm fields, shareholder
meetings and the halls of Congress.
If opponents of genetically modified food
manage to sway consumers, they'll slow
down the biotech revolution that already
has lost steam in Europe and elsewhere.
"I think we'll lean a little toward Europe's
cautious approach," says Marshall Martin,
an agricultural economist at Purdue
University in West Lafayette, Ind. "But I
don't think the United States will go as far
as Europe has."
Some US
companies are
already bending to
the pressure against
genetically modified
organisms, or
GMOs. Last year,
for example, Gerber
and Heinz announced they would not
accept genetically modified material in their
baby food. Now, Mead Johnson
Nutritionals, maker of Enfamil baby
formula, is also backing away.
"We believe GMO technology has been
shown scientifically to be safe," says Pete
Paradossi, spokesman for the Evansville,
Ind., company. "But given consumer
concern on this issue, we have made a
decision to reduce and/or eliminate GMO
ingredients from our products."
Other infant-formula companies are
standing firm, however, pointing out that
the US Food and Drug Administration has
approved genetically modified food. "We
concur with the FDA," says Mardi
Mountford, executive director of the
International Formula Council, an
Atlanta-based nonprofit industry group that
represents Nestle and Ross Nutrition
(maker of Similac). "The ingredients that
are produced through this technique are
safe."

GROWING DEMONSTRATIONS:
Environmental activists protest the Food
and Drug Administration's approval of
genetically modified foods near the
Capitol in Washington. Some believe
genetically modified corn could be toxic
to the monarch butterfly.
J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AP/FILE


Bending to pressure
As long as the controversy was confined to
specialty markets, such as baby food or
health-food chains, mainstream food
companies felt little competitive pressure to
change. But last month, snack-food giant
Frito-Lay announced it was asking its
growers not to use genetically modified
crops.
It's not clear how the Plano, Texas,
company plans to enforce the request. Still,
"that's potentially an important step," says
Michael Hansen, research associate with
the policy-research division of Consumers
Union, based in Yonkers, N.Y. "It's just
moving on to the larger, more mainstream
companies, which is what's been happening
over in Europe."
Anti-GMO activists are pushing other
companies to take similar stands. For
example, they have initiated shareholder
resolutions at 18 large US companies that
would require them to stop using GMOs
until long-term testing proves them safe.
Such resolutions rarely succeed but often
embarrass corporations. PepsiCo (which
owns Frito-Lay) tried but failed to get the
Securities and Exchange Commission to
drop the vote.
Meanwhile, the Organic Consumers
Association and BioDemocracy Campaign
have targeted 15 food companies and
distributors - the "Frankenfoods Fifteen" -
to get them to stop using GMOs.
For economic reasons, farmers are also
taking a hard look at genetically modified
crops. While genetically modified soybeans
remain popular because they have
simplified planting and weed control, some
grain processors are likely to offer farmers
a premium for growing non-GMO crops -
especially along the Mississippi and Ohio
rivers, where terminals export grain to
Europe and Asia. Already, in the eastern
Corn Belt, many farmers appear to be
pulling back from genetically modified
corn and going back to conventional corn,
says Mr. Martin of Purdue.
"We see a little bit of a shift, but it's still a
little early to tell," adds Leslie Cahill, vice
president of government affairs for the
American Seed Trade Association in
Washington. Nevertheless, more than 80
percent of elevators still plan to accept
GMO corn, a recent survey found.
The issue is also heating up in Congress.
Last month, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of
California introduced a mandatory labeling
bill for genetically engineered food. The
European Union, Australia, New Zealand,
and Japan already require it or are moving
in that direction.
How different are they?
The heart of the debate hinges on the notion
of how new these foods really are. In one
sense, they're not new at all. All the foods
Americans eat are genetically modified.
Plant breeders have spent centuries creating
new strains and hybrids.
So when the FDA first examined the issue
and took four years to approve the
genetically altered Flavr Savr tomato, many
scientists and food companies felt the
process took too long for such a minor
change.
On the other hand, shooting an exotic new
gene into a known food represents a far
different process than traditional
cross-breeding, other scientists argue. It's
not clear it's more dangerous, but it
represents potential changes in a food's
genetic code that researchers don't fully
understand, they add.
"As consumers become aware of the fact
that foods are increasingly genetically
modified, they first want more information
about it and, second, they begin to demand
choice in the marketplace," says John
Fagan, chairman and chief scientific officer
of Genetic ID, a large testing company in
Fairfield, Iowa.
"This pattern is something that already has
become full-blown in Europe.... If you get
in a cab in London and you say: 'What do
you think about these GMOs?" you'll have
a 15-minute discussion on it," he says.
His guess is that it's only a matter of time
before the same happens in the US.
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