Do you know what you’re eating?
A recent cover of Time magazine lauds the nutritional value of “golden rice,” a genetically modified form of grain that promises to deliver the much-needed nutrient beta carotene to the Third World.
Mansanto, the seed and biotechnology firm that just two weeks ago agreed to forgo licensing fees on the rice to speed its distribution to the needy, believes the rice proves that “biotechnology can help not only countries in the West, but in the developing world as well.”
Meanwhile, on the shelves of grocery stores in the Roaring Fork Valley, customers have been been gobbling down genetically modified foods for years now. They’re not worried about their beta carotene intake; most are just simply unaware that these ingredients are almost ubiquitous in prepared foods. The lower costs involved in raising bioengineered crops means more profit in the industry.
One might expect Dr. Pat Kendall, director of Colorado State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, to rejoice at the prospect of 200 million children suddenly free of vitamin A deficiencies, and at the idea of lower food costs here at home.
But even this tireless advocate of nutrition has her reservations about genetically modified foods.
She will speak on Tuesday at Aspen’s Given Institute about the promise and potential threats of bioengineered foods, and the attitudes of people worldwide concerning their growth and consumption. The lecture will take place at 6 p.m. at the Given Institute. A reception at 5:30 p.m. will precede Dr. Kendall’s talk.
“Genetically altered foods are as safe or even safer that unmodified food,” said Kendall, “But that is speaking strictly of them as food; many other questions must be answered.”
For instance, some people fear that modified genes may interbreed with wild plants, creating a “superweed,” or that pest-resistant plants may force the evolution of stronger pests. “Already,” she said, “bacteria found in the food supply are getting stronger.”
Others fear that genetically altered food may harm beneficial species, such as the butterflies and other animals that help pollinate crops. Some opponents also point to evidence that bioengineered crops may trigger new food allergies.
The attitudes of Americans and Europeans, in general, are starkly different. The European Union requires that all foods containing genetically modified ingredients must be labeled as such. The U.S. government believes this amounts to discrimination against American products.
The dispute recently became a major trade issue when the U. S. launched a formal complaint to the World Trade Organization. Many in the U.S. feel that the labeling is European protectionism against a dominant American agriculture system, enacted more in the interest of preserving economic health than ecological or personal health.
Few Americans, according to polls, are even aware that such foods are being sold. The U.S. has no laws requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods, and is only now working on guidelines for companies that wish to do so. Even produce labeled “organic” is no guarantee of its unmodified condition; only this year did the National Organic Safety Board recommend that genetic engineering be an excluded farming method for the designation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to act on that recommendation.
In Aspen at Clark’s Market, even president Tom Clark is a little awash in America’s laws concerning genetically modified food.
“We have a wait-and-see policy on this,” he said. “No one has asked me to carry any modified products, but surprisingly, I haven’t heard any one ask me to avoid them either.”
Clark acknowledges that genetically modified foods may have some advantages: “Some of these foods require the use of fewer pesticides and herbicides, and that’s something we always look for.”
But even a supermarket guru has trouble knowing what foods are modified.
“Farms and distributors are not required to tell us if they’re selling us a genetically altered product,” Clark says. “The industry is set up so that it’s hard to tell.”
Currently, only one major supermarket chain, Whole Foods (which has branches in Boulder and Denver), requires its vendors to prove that all produce is genetically unmodified. But even that requirement only goes so far: a significant amount of processed food sold in the U. S. contains genetically modified ingredients.
“Your tomatoes may be unmodified,” said Kendall, “But your canned spaghetti sauce probably isn’t.” Beef, pork, and chicken are also fed on grains that may be modified; some 50 percent of the U.S. feed corn crop is bioengineered.
Clark says he relies largely on guidelines set by the USDA to determine what is safe to eat. Opponents of genetically modified foods say those guidelines are weak at best. And though the government is stepping up its investigations into the issue, many people see that action as a case of too little too late.
An umbrella group of consumer and environmental organizations calling itself the Genetically Engineered Food Alert has recently begun a pressure campaign against Campbell’s, America’s largest soup company. They are hoping to persuade Campbell’s to follow in the footsteps of Frito-Lay, Gerber baby foods, and McDonald’s in reducing or eliminating GM ingredients in their products.
Eventually, they hope for a European-style ban on the technology. Popular pressure has also had an effect on American farmers: For the first time since large-scale planting of these crops began, total tonnage is expected to decrease in 2000.
“Exploring Genetically Modified Food” is the third in a summerlong series of lectures at the Given Institute dealing with medical and ethical issues accompanying advances in the science of genetics. The series is cosponsored by the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation.
For more information, contact the Given Institute located at 100 East Francis St. in Aspen; by phone at 925-1057; or visit its Web site at http://www.giveninstitutute.org
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