by Ed Andrieski
February 25, 2011
You may not want to eat genetically
engineered foods. Chances are, you are eating them anyway.
Farmhand Jason Adler walks through a field of sugar beets on
the Rasmussen farm near Longmont, Colo. A federal judge in
California has ordered plants that produce seeds for genetically
modified sugar beets be destroyed, saying there is a significant
risk the plantings will cause environmental harm.
Genetically modified plants grown from seeds engineered in labs now
provide much of the food we eat. Most corn, soybean and cotton crops
grown in the United States have been genetically modified to resist
pesticides or insects, and corn and soy are common food ingredients.
The Agriculture Department has approved three more genetically
engineered crops in the past month, and the Food and Drug
Administration could approve fast-growing genetically modified
salmon for human consumption this year.
Agribusiness and the seed companies say their products help boost
crop production, lower prices at the grocery store and feed the
world, particularly in developing countries.
The FDA and
USDA say the engineered foods
they've approved are safe - so safe, they don't even need to be
labeled as such - and can't be significantly distinguished from
Organic food companies, chefs and consumer groups have stepped up
their efforts - so far, unsuccessfully - to get the government to
exercise more oversight of engineered foods, arguing the seeds are
floating from field to field and contaminating pure crops. The
groups have been bolstered by a growing network of consumers who are
wary of processed and modified foods.
Many of these opponents acknowledge that there isn't much solid
evidence showing genetically modified foods are somehow dangerous or
It just doesn't seem right, they say.
It's an ethical issue.
"If you mess with nature there's a
side effect somewhere," says George Siemon, CEO of Organic
Valley, the nation's largest organic farming cooperative, which
had more than $600 million in sales last year.
"There is a growing awareness that
our system makes us all guinea pigs of sorts."
The U.S. government has insisted there's
not enough difference between the genetically modified seeds its
agencies have approved and natural seeds to cause concern.
But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack,
more so than his predecessors in previous administrations, has
acknowledged the debate over the issue and a growing chorus of
consumers concerned about what they are eating.
"The rapid adoption of GE crops has
clashed with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other
non-GE products," Vilsack said in December as he considered
whether to approve genetically modified alfalfa.
"This clash led to litigation and
uncertainty... Surely, there is a better way, a solution that
acknowledges agriculture's complexity, while celebrating and
promoting its diversity."
Vilsack later approved the
engineered alfalfa for use - along
with sugar beets and a type of corn used in ethanol - to the
disappointment of the organic industry, but he said the department
would do additional research on ways to prevent contamination of
natural seeds and improve detection of contamination.
Organic companies have praised Vilsack for even acknowledging the
issue, as large seed companies like
Monsanto and the substantial chunk
of agribusiness that use their seeds have long held sway at USDA.
The organic industry fears contamination could hurt sales of its
products, especially in Europe, where consumers have been extremely
hesitant about biotech foods.
While opponents of engineered foods haven't found federal agencies
overly receptive to their concerns, they've been able to delay some
USDA approvals with lawsuits.
The alfalfa decision followed a lengthy
court battle that was closely watched not only by the organic
industry, but by consumers - a development opponents believe will
help their cause.
"We're seeing a level of reaction
that is unprecedented," says Jeffrey Smith, an activist who has
fought the expansion of genetically engineered foods since they
were first introduced 15 years ago and written two books on the
"I personally think we are going to
hit the tipping point of consumer rejection very soon."
Many consumers also have followed the
Food and Drug Administration's consideration of an
engineered salmon that grows twice
as fast as the conventional variety.
If the FDA approves the fish for sale,
it will be the first time the government has allowed genetically
modified animals to be marketed for humans to eat.
Consumer interest in the issue has magnified in the past five years,
along with interest in eating locally grown and organic foods, said
Organic Valley's Siemon. Young, educated consumers who are driving
much of the organic market have no interest in eating crops derived
from a laboratory, he said.
Genetically modified crops were introduced to the market in 1996.
That year, engineered corn accounted for less than 5% of the total
crop. Last year, the USDA estimated that 70% of the nation's corn
acreage was planted with herbicide-tolerant corn and 63% had been
planted with insect-resistant seeds. Rates for soybeans and cotton
are even higher.
The federal government approves genetically modified plants and
animals on a case by case basis, with the FDA and USDA looking at
the potential effects on food safety, agriculture and the
environment. Critics say the process needs to be more thorough and
more research should be done with an eye on potential dangers.
Agencies often rely on companies' own data to make their decisions.
The genetic engineering industry says its products already receive
far more scrutiny than most of the food people put in their mouths.
It also says 15 years of consumption with no widely recognized
health problems shows much of the concern is overhyped.
David B. Schmidt, who heads the
International Food Information Council
Foundation, a food-industry funded group that has polled
consumers on genetically modified foods, said their responses depend
on how the issue is framed. When pollsters tell consumers that some
foods can be engineered to have health benefits - such as biotech
soybeans designed to reduce trans fats in soybean oil - they become
more open to them.
Most consumers are more open to
modifications in fruits and vegetables than in animals, he added.
Still, many people don't know what to think. About half of
the consumers the foundation has polled recently have either been
neutral on the subject or didn't know enough to have an opinion.
Dan Barber, a well-known New York chef who grows his own food
and sits on President Barack Obama's
Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and
Nutrition, said the growing popularity of organic foods
has given an "economic legitimacy" to the criticism.
He believes messing with nature will always have collateral damage.
And, the more genetically modified crops
are used, he said, the more pure crops will become compromised.
"Once you head down that road you
don't turn back," Barber said.