The issue of genetically engineered food

WASHINGTON – A report published by a coalition of critics of the biotech

industry, the Genetically Engineered Food Alert Coalition, has found that Taco

Bell taco shells sold in grocery stores contain a genetically altered corn that

could trigger allergies in humans. The corn, produced by the Aventis

Corporation (aka StarLink in the human food products market), has been approved

by federal authorities only for animal feed because its genetic modification

makes it harder for humans to digest. The tested taco shells were manufactured

in Mexico and distributed by Kraft Foods, Inc.

When genetically engineered

foods first appeared on the market in the 1990s, they immediately drew

opposition. Their biggest detractors were the Europeans, who protested that

producers in the United States did not label genetically altered crops. Much of

this sentiment came from France, and it was dismissed as nothing more than

French farmer protectionism.

Some of the most common genetically engineered

foods include Monsanto soybeans. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans contain a

gene that makes the plant resistant to the chemical glyphosate, the active

ingredient in the top-selling herbicide Roundup. Critics argue that such genes

could transfer from crops to weeds. Moreover, the altered soybeans would only

perpetuate the use of toxic herbicides ,which can poison

farmworkers.

Another common genetically altered crop is Ciba-Geigy’s Bt

corn, which contains a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that

creates an insecticide to protect the plant from the European corn borer. Many

argue, however, that such a modification would only increase the rate at which

the insects become resistant to insecticides.

It isn’t only plants that can

be genetically altered. In the United States, some 90 percent of the beef on

the market comes from cows that were fed growth hormones. While the American

market has been surprisingly receptive to these products, Europeans have raised

many objections about the possible adverse effects that could come from genetic

manipulation. According to French cattle rancher Pierre Chevallier, European

consumers “are totally aware of what they eat. They demand to know exactly how

the animals were raised.”

Now there is a growing awareness of the dangers

of genetically modified foods in the United States, and many American groups

have sprung up to call attention to the issue. According to Joseph Mendelson at

the Center for Food Safety, “Currently we have a massive loophole where

genetically engineered food comes on the market with no mandatory safety

testing – no safety testing at all – and that, frankly, is simply

unacceptable.”

Paul Thompson, a bioethicist at Purdue University agrees.

“The way genetically engineered food has been brought on this market has really

short-circuited a lot of important ethical and political processes. I think

that some of the people who are concerned about this are quite reasonable and

quite warranted for their concern.”

So were the French right, after all? It

appears so.

On the other hand, there is no reason for us to run scared. We

simply need to get the facts, and that means political oversight and

encouragement of the scientific community’s efforts to properly test these new

foods. Then we can have thoughtful progress.

Jack Anderson and

Douglas Cohn are syndicated columnists who report on the Washington scene.

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