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Denver Ballot Initiative Heightens GE Foods

Denver Ballot Initiative Heightens GE Foods

Biotech menu serves up conflict
Engineering benefits, risks confront public

By Ann Schraderand Steve Raabe
Denver Post Staff Writers

Sunday, May 27, 2001 - Bethann Hubbard's biggest grocery-shopping question
used to be whether generic products offered a better value than name brands
for her family of four.

Then last year, StarLink, a strain of laboratory-engineered corn approved
only for animal feed, leaked into the human food supply.

Suddenly, Hubbard and others began to worry and wonder about something that
most Americans had barely noticed before: genetically engineered foods.

Now the issue polarizes opinions about benefits and risks.

Foes call the products "Frankenfoods," which they say endanger human health
and the environment. They worry that genetically engineered foods are an
inadequately tested and regulated experiment that could create "superweeds"
and "superbugs" and reduce biological plant diversity.

What some fear most is the unknown.

"We have stepped into an area that we don't understand," said Suzanne
Wuerthele, a regional toxicologist with the Environmental Protection Agency
who specializes in pesticides and consults on genetic engineering issues
with the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Sierra Club.

Supporters say fiddling with the genes of plants increases farmers' yields,
even offering a way to fight world hunger, while reducing pesticide use.
They envision so-called GE foods delivering nutrients, vitamins and even
vaccines.

While there are unknowns, advocates say the new crops are monitored and
there have been no documented cases of someone being harmed by GE food.

"People have been watching too many B movies," said June Medford, a
Colorado State University biologist who has published numerous scientific
papers on her plant-genetics research. "This is not the attack of the killer
tomatoes."

In Colorado, GE food increasingly is attracting attention in kitchens and
grocery aisles, on farms, in the political realm and, possibly, on Denver's
ballot this year.

"I read about those taco shells they had to recall, and that worried me a
little," Hubbard said, rolling a shopping cart through an east Denver
Safeway parking lot.

"I've heard that this food engineering can do some good things, but there
are some concerns also. I'm not sure if I'd buy them or not."

Chances are, however, that her grocery bags - and yours - already are
filled with GE foods.

About 60 percent of processed foods on grocery shelves contain genetically
engineered ingredients, experts say.

Many consumers may not know it, but it's likely that products they buy
containing corn, canola and soy come from seeds that have genes inserted to
change their characteristics. The engineered genes are widespread in items
such as baking mixes, soft drinks, cereals, soups, cooking oils, salad
dressings, juices, canned foods, crackers, snacks and baby food.

GE foes in Denver seek ballot initiative


Engineered traits also have popped up where they're not supposed to be.
In the case of StarLink, farmers and others couldn't keep the GE corn
segregated. Organic farmers and others who don't want to grow GE crops
say pollen from biotech crops could blow onto their fields. Testing has
discovered genetically engineered organisms in many products, including
some labeled as being GE-free.

Genetically engineered plants first were grown in test fields 15 years ago
and have been on most Americans' tables for six years.

Petitions to ban the sale or distribution of GE foods on school property in
Denver will soon be popping up. By summer's end, backers hope to gather
the required 2,500 valid signatures needed to get the initiative on the November
ballot.

Debate over genetically engineered foods has been heightened by fears in
Europe. Skeptics there said they were concerned the safety of GE foods had
not been adequately proved. This was before health concerns were heightened
by the recent outbreaks of mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth disease,
events unrelated to genetic engineering.

In one sense, all crops have been genetically altered. They've been bred and
crossbred, both deliberately by humans and by the vagaries of pollination.

What's new is the technological breakthrough that lets researchers create
new strains by inserting a gene from another organism - a bacterium, a plant
or an animal - into a plant's genetic blueprint.

The idea is to transfer a trait or characteristic, such as taking a common
soil bacterium's ability to kill insects and incorporating that into a crop
plant's genetic makeup.

Cotton, tobacco, potatoes, corn and soybeans are among the crops
transformed through designer genes to battle pests, disease and weeds.

Wheat has been altered to withstand drought and strawberries changed
to weather frost. Still other tests aim to bolster plant nutrition, deliver
vaccines, slow spoilage and lower fat and cholesterol.

The ability to design new living organisms has created a brave new world
of science, ethics, politics, sociology and economics.

"The genie is clearly out of the bottle," said Boulder County Commissioner
Paul Danish after the commission unanimously declined in January to ban
GE crops on 40 to 60 acres of county open space leased to farmers.

The National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy announced in January
that genetically engineered crops accounted for 54 percent of the nation's
acreage devoted to soybeans, 19 percent of corn and 2 percent to 3 percent
of the potato crop.

In Colorado, a small portion of corn, potato and sugar beet crops are being
grown with GE seed, say state officials, who do not track the exact amount.
Biotech research is focusing on several other vegetables, fruits and grains.
GE wheat, for example, may be available commercially in two to four years.

"You could conclude that just about all crops have transgenic breeding
underway," said Jim Quick, a CSU crop researcher.

Does that pose a health risk?

Proponents say no, noting that not one case of illness has been linked with
GE foods. They also note the plants and foods are regulated by the EPA,
U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration.

"This is not some kind of witchcraft. This is harnessing nature," said CSU's
Quick. "I look at it as a genetic opportunity rather than a genetic risk."

Jim Geist, director of the Colorado Corn Growers Association, said the crops
and effects are closely watched by many federal and private agencies.

But opponents note that with other products, harmful effects took years to
appear.

"The industry told us for 30 years that DDT was safe and that there was
nothing to worry about," said Patrick West, state chairman of the Colorado
Natural Law Party, which supports, among other things, organic agricultural
practices and mandatory labeling of GE foods. West also heads the Consumer
Coalition for Food Labeling.

Some experts, including CSU's Medford, see genetic engineering as a solution
to issues as sweeping as hunger by boosting productivity. By 2025, she said,
with a projected world population of 9 billion people, "we could have two
options: mass starvation or another doubling of food production."

As in any new scientific endeavor, there are some risks, "but I think they
are pretty minimal," said Medford, whose research concentrates on
Arabidopsis, a small noncommercial plant that is a relative of wild mustard.
She blames fears on ignorance or elitism.

"Do we do it safely and carefully? I think we do."

'Why aren't they feeding the world already?'

But others aren't convinced.

"Why aren't they feeding the world already?" said Sister Dorothy Mary Bauer,
a member of the Sisters of Loretto religious order based in Denver and part
of a group of environmental activists called the Loretto Earth Network.

Bauer objects to GE crops on many fronts and says that because they are more
expensive to purchase, they "make it difficult for farmers in developing
countries."

There's a similar division of opinion over whether GE crops help the
environment by reducing the need for pesticides.

Genetic engineering has cut pesticide use by 3.5 million pounds each year,
according to Syngenta Group Co., a producer of genetically engineered seed.

Chemical giant Monsanto, for example, developed Roundup Ready plants,
which are bred to withstand the weed-killer Roundup.

Roundup-resistant plants reduce herbicide use because a farmer can spray
the herbicide on the field shortly after the crop has emerged, killing off all
the weeds. Roundup, generically called glyphosate, is considered less toxic
than most herbicides and breaks down quickly.

The alternative is to spray more toxic herbicides that kill specific weeds
several times throughout a growing season, supporters of genetic engineering
say.

But foes worry that use of Roundup Ready crops will create "superweeds"
that acquire the ability to resist herbicides and spread with impunity. Or that
insects could become "superbugs" by learning to adapt to pest-resistant
plants.

Where does all this leave consumers?

Wary and feeling uninformed about GE foods, according to several national
surveys.

Those responding to a May 2000 FDA questionnaire were surprised, and some
were even outraged, when they learned how many foods contain GE ingredients.

The same questionnaire revealed consumers overwhelmingly support labels
disclosing which products have GE ingredients. But they disliked labels that
said: "Caution: This food contains GE ingredients."

Proposals to label GE products, such as is required in the European Union,
have been introduced in Congress and 17 states, including Colorado. A
labeling bill by state Sen. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder, was shelved in February.

State Agriculture Commissioner Don Ament contends labeling would cast
"a cloud" on crops that have been certified by federal agencies.

"We produce the healthiest foods in the world," Ament said. "What we really
want to do here is not to spread hysteria about all of these "Frankenfoods.'"

But things have gone wrong, despite monitoring by various regulatory
agencies.

The best-known example is StarLink corn.

Engineered to repel insects called European corn borers, StarLink corn has
not been approved for human consumption out of concern it could cause
allergic reactions.

In September, StarLink corn popped up on U.S. grocery shelves in taco shells
made by Kraft Foods.

This year on March 8, lab tests found meat-free corn dogs made under
Kellogg's Morningstar Farms label - a brand aimed at health-conscious
consumers - contained StarLink.

And a month later, StarLink corn seed was found mixed with seed scheduled
for planting this spring.

Another fear is that GE foods could increase bacterial resistance to
antibiotics, already a growing problem, since antibiotics have been used to
test where a plant gene has been transferred.

'Transferring genes should be carefully examined'

The FDA has given two Colorado State University plant scientists, Pat Byrne
and Sarah Ward, a half-million dollars to educate the public about GE crops.
Building on their team-taught class on genetically engineered plants, the
two self-described "neutral experts" have a Web site with verified
information.

"Many of us see benefits to this technology," Byrne said, "but we also think
that the risks of transferring genes between species should be carefully
examined on a case-by-case basis."

On the business side, some experts see a potential for GE crops to fetch
lower prices than "natural" food, for which consumers might be willing to
pay more. A more likely obstacle is loss of export markets for biotech
crops.

For Colorado farmers, that raises questions about whether to plant crops
that produce lower yields with high risk from insects and weather, or
engineered crops that may be tougher to market.

The debate takes on more sweeping dimensions as well.

"These are spiritual, religious objections, such as we should never play
God, that it's tinkering with nature and we shouldn't cross species
boundaries," said Gary Comstock, an ethicist at Iowa State University, who
once opposed biotech crops.

Comstock said he became a "cautious champion" of GE crops after finding no
logic in opponents' arguments that humans shouldn't tamper with genes.

Still, Comstock said, with new technology "we need to be vigilant. We need
to hold our regulators' feet to the fire."

Wuerthele, the EPA toxicologist, sees the same grand dimensions to the issue
but comes away far more concerned.

"As we release these things in the United States - this country is really
gung ho - we find out about problems after they're released," said
Wuerthele, whose agency is neutral on biotech plants but has approved her
Sierra Club work.

"We do it and learn by our mistakes. That's OK, as long as your mistakes are
small and reversible and don't create huge problems. But if you get a
mistake that is serious, then you've done something that has opened
Pandora's box."

For consumers such as grocery shopper Bethann Hubbard, genetic engineering
holds the promise of better foods. But the issue is also tinged with
concern.

"I have a few worries from some of the things I've heard." she said. "But
basically I just want to do what's best for my family.

"If they can show me there are benefits, then I'll listen."

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