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Americans Turning Against Genetically Engineered Foods

Americans Turning Against Genetically Engineered Foods

The Christian Science Monitor
August 2, 2001, Thursday
Bioengineered food sows ethical concerns

BY: Jane Lampman, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Whether it's the result of global protesters, well-publicized mistakes
slipping into the food chain, or a sudden awareness of the speed with which
bioengineered foods are filling the supermarkets, Americans' support for
genetically modified foods is eroding.

Although the biotechnology industry has mounted an advertising campaign and
points out that no evidence exists that anyone has been harmed by
bioengineered foods, unease seems to be spreading over safety, potential
environmental impacts, and concerns that freedom of choice are being
undermined.

Several polls capture the shifting mood. A June survey of adults nationwide
by ABCNews.com found 52 percent saying such foods are "not safe to eat," and
only 35 percent expressing confidence. One year earlier, a Gallup poll had
found the reverse, with 51 percent seeing no health hazard. The ABC poll
also found that 93 percent wanted the federal government to mandate the
labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods.

For many, ethical issues are as important as safety concerns, and last week
The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology released a nationwide survey of
attitudes based on religious faith.

While the majority of Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims surveyed
believe that "humans have been empowered by God to use such knowledge to
improve human life," only among Jews did a majority favor moving genes from
one organism or species to another (see below).

In a Pew-sponsored panel discussion July 26, religious leaders and ethicists
identified concerns about potential harm to nature, and issues of freedom
and control posed by the way GM foods have been introduced.

Are there ethical questions raised by modifying salmon to grow three to five
times faster? Or modifying cats so they don't produce a protein that makes
humans allergic to them? The use for which a change is made does matter
morally, the panel agreed, and it calls for risk-benefit analysis, said
Rabbi Avram Reiser of Baltimore Hebrew University.

They weren't impressed with the case for the cat, which would be pursued for
human convenience. It's a question of animal welfare, offered David Magnus,
a bioethicist from the University of Pennsylvania. "Would it cause other
harms, and does the cat get any benefit?"

"Abraham Lincoln said he didn't trust any religion that didn't make a person
treat a dog or cat better," added Jaydee Hanson, of the United Methodist
Church. "Making the cat affect me less doesn't help the cat much."

In the salmon case, one key issue is environmental impact, suggested Robert
Gronski, of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. "The ecological
impact would be disastrous, [given] the way thousands of cultivated fish
escape from aquaculture these days," Dr. Magnus agreed. "It's too soon to
introduce it."

A real-life instance of the salmon story is occurring on the eastern coast
of Canada, where a US company, Aqua Bounty, has experimental facilities for
transgenic salmon that it wants to sell commercially. According to the
Toronto Star, two recent Canadian reports warn that federal regulations are
inadequate to ensure environmental safety, and that even a few transgenic
fish "could wipe out wild populations if they escape from rearing pens."
According to the Star, lab tests with other fish have found that offspring
from interbreeding between transgenic and wild fish produced offspring that
did not survive to maturity as often as normal fish. The company has said it
would introduce only sterile female salmon to avert that problem.

The industry says that speeding the growth of animals and foods will help
feed the developing world. Panelists agreed that some GM products are a
boon, but also that people have a right to technologies that they can
control. In the Pew survey, called "Genetically Modifying Food: Playing God
or Doing God's Work?" the definition chosen most often for "playing God"
involved "who controls the technology and who is exposed to its risks."

One concern is the rapidity with which croplands are going to bioengineered
production. Questions people have as they become more aware of the global
food system, Mr. Gronski says, include: "Who is deciding what type of food
we are eating?" and "How can we have some local control?"

"People need to have the option to make informed choices, and to opt out of
the system," Magnus says. "If all foods are genetically modified, the option
doesn't exist."

All agreed on the ethical responsibility to inform, a prime issue of debate
in the US. "The FDA says it's safe, and therefore the consumer doesn't need
to know; but in a democratic society, people have a right to know," says
Rabbi Reiser.

The Food and Drug Administration is now modifying regulations on GM foods,
but the proposed changes fall far short of the hopes of some consumer
groups, which are seeking mandatory labeling and more safety research. The
FDA is requiring companies to notify it 120 days before introducing products
on the market and to provide information that demonstrates safety. No
requirements are made for pre-market testing or for labeling.

In contrast, in the European Union, more stringent rules were proposed this
week that would establish a system to trace organisms from farm to
supermarket and require all GM foods to be labeled. EU governments and the
European Parliament still must approve them.


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