Amy Paris

Do You Know What You Are Eating?

Do you know what you are eating?Look at the label. If one of the top few ingredients is a corn or soy derivative, for example, soy lecithin or corn syrup, then chances are, you are eating what's been dubbed "Frankenstein food"-a food whose genes scientists have tinkered with in the laboratory. Half of the nation's soybeans and a third of the corn are genetically engineered, and these ingredients are used in foods such as Fritos corn chips, Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Coke, and pretty much all juices and soft drinks, McDonald's hamburger buns, Ball Park Franks and Heinz ketchup, to name only a few. Unless you eat only organic foods, chances are you eat food with genetically modified ingredients every day, and have been doing so for several years.So why isn't that on the label? That's what more and more people are trying to figure out. As it turns out, back in 1992, the Food and Drug Administration adopted a policy toward genetically modified foods that not only did not require these foods to be labelled, but did not even require mandatory safety testing for most of them.The 15 countries of the European Union have come to a different conclusion, and passed a law last year that requires food containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs as they are commonly abbreviated, to be clearly labelled. Overseas, widespread popular opposition to the technology gained an even higher profile when Prince Charles recently announced that no genetically modified foods would pass his royal lips. Now a movement is afoot in the United States to get the FDA to require the same. Groups as diverse as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace and Chefs' Collaborative 2000, a nationwide group of prominent chefs, have found fault with current FDA policy.Behind the scenes, the cavalry is being armed; sides are being taken, and lines are being drawn in the sand. On one side are consumer activists, environmentalists and organic farmers who either want to see genetically modified foods labeled as they are in Europe, or taken completely off the market. On the other are huge multinational biotech companies, such as Monsanto and Novartis, who have invested millions of dollars in this technology, and scientists who believe that genetic engineering is the answer to the world's food supply problems. Caught in the middle are farmers who have planted their fields with these crops, but have lost their export markets and are threatened with losing domestic markets as well. It's an issue that activists say will finally make its way from the lab and the corn fields to the supermarket and the ballot box in the upcoming year. "If you look at the public opinion surveys in the US-more than 90 percent of Americans, when asked about genetic foods, say they want them mandatorily labeled so they can make choices," said Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation on Economic Trends, and the most high profile opponent of biotech foods in the United States. "Over half of Americans say they would have some reservations and would probably not choose genetic foods. So there's a large potential opposition to the foods; it's just that the public doesn't know about it. It hasn't been on the television. It's as simple as that."Biotech BreedingA quick biology lesson (no snoozing, please!): All plants and animals have a genetic blueprint, a master plan contained in the nucleus of each one of their cells. This master plan is encoded in a chemical compound called DNA, and it is divided into sections called genes. Each gene controls a different trait-just as humans have genes for brown eyes or curly hair, tomatoes have genes that make them red and sweet. Farmers have always toyed with the DNA of their crops, by selecting seeds from the plants which had, for instance, the biggest, juiciest tomatoes to replant the next year. Scientists have also toyed with plant DNA by breeding: crossing a red pepper with a green one, for instance, to try to produce a Christmas plaid-colored one (this hasn't worked yet).Traditional breeding more or less limits scientists to crossing plants that are related closely enough that they could reproduce in nature. But biotech agriculture revolutionizes breeding by allowing scientists to pluck a gene out of one kind of animal and insert it directly into a totally unrelated plant. This opens up possibilities that were unheard of before. For example, scientists have been trying to introduce an antifreeze gene from the Arctic flounder, which helps it withstand cold temperatures, to various plants, so that food could be stored at cold temperatures without freezing. The first bioengineered food to hit the market in the United States was developed in Davis, California. In 1994, the Flavr Savr tomato was designed to take longer to spoil; therefore, it could be left on the vine to ripen longer than typical supermarket tomatoes, which are customarily picked while still green and then artificially turned red by exposure to ethylene gas. The Flavr Savr tomato was invented and patented by Calgene, a company that was later bought out by Monsanto, the leading multinational biotechnology company. The tomatoes turned out to be kind of a bust commercially, though, and the initial excitement about biotech food faded into the background.Meanwhile, biotech companies such as Monsanto, Novartis, Du Pont, AstraZenica, and Aventis continued to develop a whole host of genetic innovations for their soy, corn and potato seeds, and farmers quietly switched their crops over to genetically engineered varieties. In the past few years, these new crops have found their way into processed foods all over the world.At present, more than half of all the soybeans grown in the United States, and a third of all the corn crops are now genetically modified to produce their own pesticides or to resist being damaged by chemical weed-killers. Other GMOs approved by the U.S. government for commercial sale are canola, chicory, cotton, papaya, potato, squash and tomato. Because genetically modified crops are not segregated from traditional ones, food ingredients containing soy or corn, such as soy flour, tofu, corn syrup, corn starch and corn oil are likely to contain genetically modified ingredients. Since testing for GMOs is pretty expensive and complicated, there is really no way to tell whether the food you're eating contains them. The only sure way to avoid genetically modified foods right now is to buy "certified organic." Organic foods, by law, must not contain genetically modified ingredients, though the biotechnology industry has attempted to get its products classified organic.Cons and ProsSurely you have noticed that after eating a hearty breakfast of bioengineered corn flakes and soy milk this morning, you failed to drop dead, or even come down with a case of indigestion. So what's the problem? Should you even be worried?Among people who have studied the issue, there is a huge debate about this. There are quite a few specific safety concerns, and for each there is a counter-argument as to why consumers should not be concerned at all. Many scientists say that these foods are perfectly safe, that genetically engineered foods are no more dangerous than foods developed by traditional breeding techniques, and the fact that people have been eating them for years without a major public health epidemic underscores their safety. "We've had millions, literally millions of people eat biotech food at this stage, and there is not one documented case of anybody having adverse effects," said geneticist Martina McGloughlin. McGloughlin has argued in the L.A. Times that consumers should "embrace biotechnology's benefits."But then there are others who say that these foods are new and weird, and not enough testing has been done to assure that we should be eating them. "The problem is, it's a massive game of health roulette," said Rifkin. "We're the guinea pigs. And I think the public is saying, why should we be the ones to take the risk? We're not getting anything out of it."There are some specific safety concerns: Gene splicing is not an exact science and has been known to have unforeseen consequences, such as accidentally causing a plant to produce high levels of its own natural toxins. Opponents of biotech food say that we simply do not know what the risks are, and until we do, these foods should be tested further, labelled or taken off the market altogether. Some say we should follow the "precautionary principle," which holds that if there is even a possibility that this technology will do irreparable damage to humans or the environment, then it should not be commercialized.But proponents of GMOs say that extensive testing is already done on genetically engineered foods in the lab to make sure that they are safe before they ever make it to the supermarket. No technology can ever be proven absolutely safe, and if that were the standard, practically every technology-from cell phones to diet sodas-would have to be taken off the market.Foes of GMOs point out that it is possible to transplant an allergen from one plant into another without the consumer knowing. In one oft-cited example, a Brazil nut gene was spliced into soybeans, and the new protein in the soybean would have caused allergic reactions in people who were allergic to Brazil nuts. (This was discovered before this soybean was commercialized.) Because biotechnology makes it possible to transplant genes from organisms that we don't eat into ones that we do, there is also a possibility for new, unforeseen allergic reactions.McGloughlin cites the Brazil nut-soybean as an example that the industry's own safety testing is adequately protecting consumers. "They caught it. To me, that shows the checks and balances are there," she said. The single most prevalent genetically modified food on the market is "Roundup ready" soybeans. These are soybeans that have been engineered not to die when they are doused with Roundup, a popular weed-killer sold by Monsanto. Biotech foes, logically, worry that farmers are using more herbicides on this crop, and those chemicals are making their way into our food.But McGloughlin says that the modified soybeans actually allow farmers to use a smaller amount of chemicals. "First of all, Roundup is the most benign of all herbicides," she said. "Second, farmers are going to use the minimum amount they need to grow anything. Now farmers could put more on it, but why would they? It would cost them more money."Certain varieties of corn and potatoes have been genetically modified to produce their own pesticide, called Bt. Although Bt is widely used in organic farming, little testing has been done about possible health effects when it is engineered directly into every cell of the corn and potato. A disputed study published in a British medical journal showed that potatoes engineered to produce a different kind of pesticide caused a thickening in the lining of rats' stomachs, suggesting a reaction to a toxin or irritant. Proponents of biotech say that the risks posed by GMOs are relatively minor when compared to risks posed by natural toxins and microbial contamination in foods."The toxins produced by fungi are a thousand times worse than anything manmade," McGloughlin said. "Sometimes people think that if it's natural, it's good. But some of the worst toxins in the whole world are natural. "There is a far greater chance of you getting E. coli from someone having taken a dump out in the lettuce field than any risk from genes we put in there. It's pretty gross to think of it, but that's the reality-you don't know what's in your food."Ignorance Is BlissIf any single entity is responsible for why we still don't really know very much about what we're eating here, it's the FDA.In 1992, the FDA adopted a policy towards biotech foods that said that they were no different than traditional foods and required no special regulation or testing. Its official policy is as follows: "FDA is not aware of information that would distinguish genetically engineered foods as a class from foods developed through other methods of plant breeding and, thus, the agency does not require that such foods be specially labeled to disclose the method of development."Just as with traditional foods, if scientists want to engineer a new and unknown additive-say an artificial sweetener-into a food, or if they want to add something that people might be allergic to, like a peanut gene, they need FDA approval. In all other cases, the FDA has no requirements. Instead, the agency has established an "informal consultation process" by which it "encourages" biotech companies to "voluntarily" submit their safety testing data.Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety, is the lead attorney in a federal lawsuit against the FDA to try to force the agency to require safety testing and labelling of GMOs. He sums up the FDA's policy as follows:"If I am producing a Bt potato, I have zero legal responsibility to even talk to the FDA."Kimbrell argues that safety testing of GMOs should not be left up to the industry. "Our whole regulatory system is not based on an honor system of the corporations," he said. "It is the [industry's] burden to show these foods are safe, and they haven't done that. And the FDA, shamefully, has not made them do that."Carl Winter, a food toxicologist and director of the FoodSafe program, defends the FDA's regulatory process. He and McGloughlin agree that the agency's consultation process and the industry's own safeguards are working. Winter says he is sure enough of the safety of these foods that he is comfortable feeding them to his kids."I think consumers can trust that process as well as they can trust any process," Winter said. "I haven't seen indications thus far to lead me to believe that anyone's falsifying their data to get their product on the market. There are a lot of safeguards in the process. But no process is perfect."Not a Perfect SolutionAlthough labelling might at first seem like an obvious answer, it too has its problems and its critics. In Europe, where labelling has been the law since last year, it has not been a perfect solution. European food manufacturers have to label a food genetically modified if it contains more than 1 percent genetically modified ingredients. A food can only be labelled "GMO-free" if it contains less than 0.1 percent genetically modified ingredients. In England, even restaurants, pubs and caterers have to tell their customers when they're using genetically modified foods. But there has been lots of confusion, claims and counter-claims about what exactly constitutes "GMO-free" food, and some critics say the resulting label mayhem is worse than no labels at all.In response to Europe's labelling law, food processors have scrambled to try to get the GMOs out of their food, rather than have to label it. As a result, American farmers, who depend largely on the Europeans to buy their corn and soybeans, have taken a hit. The problem has become severe enough that Archer Daniels Midland, a huge commodity buyer, has encouraged its farmers to segregate genetically modified crops. Fearing a public relations disaster, Gerber, the largest baby food producer in the United States, announced in July that it would not use bioengineered ingredients in its baby food. It was an ironic move since Gerber is owned by Novartis, one of the world's major ag biotech companies."The farmers now are upset here because if they grow genetically engineered food crops they don't have a market for it," Rifkin said. "Many farmers are pulling away from it next year, and going back to conventional food. You're going to see a decrease in GMOs each year."There are also those who argue that labelling does not go far enough, that instead we should be calling for a moratorium on all commercialization of GMOs. To understand this argument, it is important to realize that food safety concerns are only one of the issues raised by biotech agriculture. To ecologists, the scariest aspect of GMOs is the threat they pose to the environment. Ecologists are worried that by tinkering with plant DNA, scientists will create "super weeds" that are resistant to herbicides and which will out-compete existing plants and proliferate out of control in the environment. They are concerned about "biological pollution" -- the leaking of bioengineered plants into the environment, and their unknown ecological effects. They are also worried that bugs will quickly become resistant to the bioengineered pesticides, and it will be harder and harder to control them."If you take a plant and modify it like that, you're going to change the way it interacts with the environment," said Aaron King, co-director of the Student Environmental Resource Center. "I think labelling is a great idea, but it's not enough. It's a reasonable first step."There are economic concerns as well: Organic farmers, in particular, are worried that labelling will put them out of business. Already they have to pay to get organic certification; now will they have to pay to have their crops tested for GMOs? There is also the concern that their crops will be cross-pollinated with genetically modified ones, and that they will lose their organic certification. "If a grower's product is inadvertently contaminated by a genetically modified crop, who's responsible for that grower's inability to market that crop as GMO-free?" said Mark Lipson, spokesman for the Organic Farming Research Foundation.Opponents of biotech also argue that, like chemical pesticides and herbicides, biotech foods favor an industrial approach to agriculture instead of a smaller scale, sustainable approach. "What's going on is that the genetics researchers do not understand ecology," said King. "They don't understand socio-economic impacts. All they understand is genetics -- they're very good at that. But the researchers -- no matter how gifted they may be -- do not understand the implications of their work."The Death of Biotech?On the other end of the spectrum are the biotech advocates, who argue that labelling is unnecessary, that it will cause biotech research to take an undeserved public relations hit, and that it will drive up food prices by forcing farmers to segregate genetically modified crops from non-genetically modified crops. A label should give a consumer information about the safety and content of the food, not the process that was used to make it, McGloughlin contends. If GMOs are labeled, she says, then all the pesticides used on the crop, as well as the machinery used to harvest it and the ways it is processed should also be labelled, and that would clearly be more information than the consumer needs. Yet science may lose out to public skepticism, she realizes. "Even though it has no scientific basis, you may, from the point of view of public opinion, have to go that way," McGloughlin said "But then it's going to end up like wallpaper because everything is going to say it, 'May contain genetically engineered products.' Every single thing out there is going to say it, so what's that going to tell you?"Biotech companies have joined forces and set aside tens of millions of dollars over the past few months to stage a massive public relations campaign to try to counter a European-style backlash here in the United States, according to a recent New York Times article.It's a campaign they might have been able to avoid if they had been smarter about strategy from the beginning. If the industry had continued along the lines of the Flavr Savr tomato and introduced a line of products that had direct, obvious benefits for the consumer right away then much of the backlash might have been avoided. Monsanto, in particular, received huge amounts of negative publicity for developing what was dubbed the "terminator gene," a gene that would render seeds produced by its plants infertile, forcing farmers to buy new seeds from the company every year. Facing declining profits and growing public outrage, Monsanto recently announced that it would not attempt to commercialize the technology.Although the industry has made lofty promises-that biotech food will feed the world's hungry, that nutrient-enriched, better tasting, healthier foods will do everything from fighting cancer to keeping you safe at night, most of what is on the market right now is of benefit only to industry. So far, if consumers have benefitted, it's only been in the most indirect way. Stan Dundon, who is coordinator of the Soul of Agriculture, a project that promotes sustainable agriculture, argues that consumers would be foolish to accept the risks of biotechnology when they are seeing no clear benefit."For a land grant university, or a federal regulatory agency, to demand we run these risks and not enable us to pick and choose whether we want to run these risks for no benefits, is about as immoral a thing as you can do," he said. "It's like someone selling you a car and saying, 'We can soup this car up so it will go a lot faster than you really need it to go, and we're going to charge you a lot of money for it, but there's a certain risk that the wheels are going to fall off.' Well, who would buy the car?"When we Americans find out what we are eating, will we be outraged and demand labelling and safety testing, like our European counterparts? Or will we shrug our shoulders and chalk it up as yet another invisible, inevitable risk of modern life? It remains to be seen."I actually think genetic foods are probably on their way to the deathbed," Rifkin said. "Because around the world, consumers don't want them; governments are staking out a position for moratoriums against them, and in the United States, as more information becomes available, more of the public doesn't want to buy the food. I just don't see light at the end of this tunnel for the biotech industry."