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Biotech Foods: Second Thoughts

December 19, 1999

Americans are having second thoughts about genetically modified food after years of paying little attention while consumers in Europe were in hysterics.

Since the early 1990s, genetically modified grains and vegetables have turned up on produce shelves and as ingredients in processed food. But that's changing as consumers, legislators and even federal regulators begin to raise questions about the safety of biotech food and about farmers' problems caused by genetically modified seeds.

The industry hopes to ward off regulatory action with more lobbying; that's a mistake. The questions about what has become known as GM food must be answered, not shoved aside.

As in Europe, many U.S. consumers have now become jumpy about food with altered genes. They raise reasonable questions about the unknown risks, the unintended consequences or the long-term effects of genetic engineering--from the potential escape of modified traits into wild species to the effect on infants of eating plants that produce their own pesticides to mutations producing harmful side effects. Others demand clear labeling simply because they want to have a choice.

U.S. government safety and environmental agencies say that test after test has found the food safe to grow and eat. But caveats are beginning to multiply. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, whose department has admitted that the tests are fine as far as they go, said "there are many more questions that haven't been thought of, much less answered." The Food and Drug Administration was sure back in 1992 that no labeling of GM food was needed. Last month, it held a series of hearings around the country to take a closer look. Glickman now concedes that some kind of consumer labeling of GM food might be inevitable.

Monsanto and other leading producers of GM seeds are also under assault in the courts. A handful of farmers filed a class-action suit Dec. 14, claiming that the plaintiffs were defrauded by safety claims on GM seeds. The companies were also accused of illegally controlling the supply of the seeds.

Litigation is hardly the best forum for the determination of scientific issues. Moreover, most farmers like the souped-up corn or soybeans and do not consider themselves to be Monsanto's dupes. But the lawsuit sends a clear signal to the industry that the opposition to the new technology must be taken seriously.

The industry, instead of fighting its ultimate customers, should concentrate on trying to build public confidence in the new technology.

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