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The Seeds of Concern

March 27, 2004

It's a good thing that such groups as Greenpeace and the Union of Concerned Scientists keep a close eye on genetically modified foods, because the federal government doesn't.

In a new study sponsored by the scientist group, independent laboratories found small amounts of genetically engineered DNA in what were supposed to be traditional food seeds. The "transgenic" material was found in half the corn and soybean samples and 83% or more of the canola samples.

The food industry doesn't dispute the findings but says they don't represent a threat to consumer health. In the short term, that is almost certainly true. Farther down the road, though, contamination by modified DNA has the potential to put unwanted drugs in food, make crops unacceptable to foreign nations, damage the organic farming industry and deprive us of traditional seeds that might prove important some day. A more aggressive federal role is needed to prevent cross-contamination.

Still undergoing tests are modified crops planted not for food but to produce pharmaceuticals and plastics. This is DNA nobody wants in food. Biotech spokesmen say they guard those crops so carefully that contamination couldn't happen. That's what they said four years ago, too, before Greenpeace discovered in taco shells a modified corn not approved for human consumption.

Organic farming relies in part on its ability to market food as free of genetic tinkering. What happens if organic farmers no longer can make such assurances? Or if markets such as the European Union, which restricts engineered food, refuse traditional U.S. crops over contamination fears?

Americans eat far more genetically modified foods than most people realize, and with no discernible ill effect. More than a third of the corn grown in the country now is modified, and most of the soybeans. Although making crops more resistant to pests is a worthwhile effort, the long-term success of these foods is unknown. Just a few years ago, everyone thought farmed salmon would save wildlife while putting healthful seafood on tables year-round at the price of hamburger. Recent public awareness of the ocean damage caused by farms and of the artificial coloring and higher fat and PCB levels in the salmon itself has spurred new demand for wild fish. In 2000, a study found that a modified variety of corn was potentially lethal to the larvae of the monarch butterfly. Fortunately, only one strain, which had not been widely planted, was found to be a danger.

People have eaten modified foods for about a decade; they have eaten traditional foods for many thousands of years. Should genetic engineering of food prove a disappointment for some reason, humans will need those old seeds.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is right to call for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study DNA contamination on a bigger scale, pass rules to prevent contamination and preserve traditional seeds in all their variety and dependability.

Remember the true story about potatoes. The ancient Incas grew and ate hundreds of varieties, protecting themselves against starvation should any one strain fail. The Irish depended on one type of potato; when it was hit by blight in the mid-1800s, the devastating potato famine resulted. Ancient foods are worth saving.

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