High-Tech Food Fight: The Controversy Surrounding Genetically Engineered Foods
By Michele Simon
Originally published in New Age, March/April 1999.

That tomato on your salad or in your spaghetti sauce may seem innocent enough, but it could be harboring hidden genetic traits from bacteria, peanuts or even a fish. Genetically engineered foods are causing quite a stir worldwide and increasingly here in the US. In Paris, protesters used a 12-foot tall condom-sheathed corncob to represent "safe crops," while in England others donned protective clothing to destroy crops in the middle of the night. Activists are staging "Frankenfoods dumps" and organic farmers are calling for an immediate worldwide ban on the technology. And American consumers are demanding labeling, though a major petition drive, protests and even a lawsuit.

Some experts believe this is much ado about nothing. Even former President Jimmy Carter got into the act with a New York Times op-ed piece accusing "extremist anti-biotechnology activists" of purveying misinformation. But the Prince of Wales declared he would never eat or serve to his guests any food from a technology that "takes mankind into the realms that belong to God and God alone." Meanwhile, the US government is scratching its collective head, still figuring out just what organic means, and justifying its hands-off policy in the regulation of these high-tech foods.

Why all the fuss? Just what makes a genetically engineered tomato different from any other? What do we know about the long-term safety of these foods? Is the federal government doing all it should to protect consumers? What options do you have if you'd rather avoid these foods?

At least 36 different genetically engineered (GE) whole foods are currently being sold without identifying labels, including potatoes, tomatoes, soy, corn, squash and many other fruits and vegetables. It's estimated that 60 to 70 percent of foods on store shelves contain some genetically engineered food component - everything from pizza to chips, soda to baby formula. Even dietary supplements, such as vitamin C, derived from corn, and lecithin, derived from soy, could contain genetically engineered components. The current regulatory status of GE foods consists largely of a voluntary program in which companies submit forms to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stating they have adequately tested their products for safety. But because GE foods aren't labeled, people with uncommon allergies don't know if a food had been altered with a potentially toxic substance. Also, vegetarians and followers of religious dietary restrictions face the prospect of unwittingly eating vegetables and fruits containing genetic material from animals.

The science of the process involves isolating the genetic material of a desired trait from one organism and inserting it into the cells of the target plant. Approved in 1994, the first such product on the market was Calgene's Flavr Savr tomato, engineered to extend shelve life. Another common application is pest resistance, most notably being applied by agribusiness giant Monsanto Corporation.

Promoters of GE foods claim that farmers have been creating new crops for thousands of years by traditional cross-breeding methods. GE foods, they say, are merely a logical extension, taking these natural principles to the next level. So the theory goes, inserting a fish gene into a tomato is really no different than crossing broccoli with cauliflower. But some prominent scientists disagree. Molecular biologist Liebe Cavalieri, a professor at the State University of New York, says those making such a claim are perpetrating a "disgraceful sham." Biologist and lawyer Margaret Mellon, Agriculture and Biotechnology Program Director for the Union of Concerned Scientists concurs. "This is a radically different technology because it's artificial. It moves traits from one organism to another without regard for species boundary, from bacteria to human, from camel to butterfly." And because these foods are not being adequately tested before being placed on the market, Mellon says "we're taking a lot of risks. Why should people have to participate in this big experiment?"

One major food safety concern is allergies. Two to five percent of the population, especially children, have allergies to common foods. In 1996, a study showed that soybeans genetically altered with a gene from Brazil nuts caused a reaction in allergic people, confirming for the first time that allergens could be transferred at the molecular level. Margaret Mellon finds this very troubling because the allergens are hidden and can be fatal. "It was already difficult to avoid reactions when you could actually recognize the food. Now it's even harder when you can't." Monsanto claims they can test for the presence of allergens, but Mellon says, "they're living in a dream world" because it's virtually impossible to adequately test for the presence of every known allergen in these new foods.

Because of this and other uncertainties, such as the long-term safety of these largely untested foods, outcry is growing steadily over the need for labeling. In 1993, FDA determined that labeling of GE foods was unnecessary. Under federal food additive laws, anything new that's put into a food must undergo rigorous scientific safety testing and the food must be labeled accordingly. Why don't GE foods get this scrutiny? According to FDA spokesperson Judy Foulke, labeling only applies when the product is materially altered. In other words, FDA has determined that nothing has been added to GE foods. But Rebecca Goldburg, senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund says this doublespeak is the only way FDA can justify its hands-off policy. "Of course something's been added — it's garbage to say that it hasn't. FDA doesn't want to label GE foods except in the most stringent circumstances because the biotech industry doesn't want to scare consumers away", she says. Monsanto asserts there's no need to label GE foods because, according to Allyssa Hollier, Manager of Public Affairs: "Biotech is a process — it doesn't change the end result. The product is exactly the same." Monsanto also points to FDA's decision not to label. But Margaret Mellon explains that FDA's regulation is dependent in large part on Monsanto's influence. "They use all their lobbying power to weaken FDA policy and then say, 'Well, FDA says no need to label.'

European consumers have been on top of this issue a lot longer and thus far, a lot louder than their American counterparts. But Laura Ticciati, Executive Director for Mothers for Natural Law, says the US is catching up. She explains that Europeans are more environmentally aware, that food safety a bigger concern because of the mad cow scare in England, and how food and culture are intimately connected -- a concept she agrees with. "Food is an intimate thing", she says. "What we place in our bodies is very important. As a mother, what I feed my family is an expression of my love for them and I want to make sure what I give them is safe and healthy." Mothers is leading a national petition drive — the Consumers Right to Know campaign — to demand that FDA label GE foods and will be taking the issue to Congress next.

In another grassroots effort, the Alliance for Bio-Integrity filed a lawsuit last May with a coalition of scientists, health professionals, religious leaders, and consumers against the FDA to obtain mandatory safety testing and labeling of all genetically engineered foods. The suit also charges that FDA policy violates religious freedom. Attorney and president of the Alliance, Steven M. Druker says: "Current FDA policies are unconscionable. FDA officials are engaged in a campaign of misinformation deliberately designed to confuse consumers. This suit sends a clear message that government policy on genetically engineered food is unsound on both scientific and religious grounds."

Ron Epstein, plaintiff in the lawsuit and Research Professor, Institute for World Religions, Berkeley Buddhist Monastery is particularly concerned about Buddhist vegetarians having no way of knowing if a GE product is a pure vegetarian food, as defined by Buddhist scriptures. He explains: "The basis of all Buddhist teachings is respect for all life and the non-harming of that life. Because of genetic engineering's tremendous potential for long term harm of life on the planet, Buddhists should be particularly wary of it."

All those concerned agree that the number one thing consumers can do is to buy and support organic products. Thanks to a huge public outcry last year with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) organic standards proposal, foods organically grown cannot be made with genetically engineered products. The agency is still working on the final rule, but for now, organic foods are still safe. In the meantime, the natural products industry is developing its own labeling strategy. Last fall, the Hain Food Group became the first to label selected products as free from genetically engineered components. Keep a look out in the future for foods with a "GE Free" sticker from the Genetically Natural Certification Program.

One of Monsanto's most ubiquitous GE products is Roundup Ready soybean. Soy is found in a variety of natural products, from tofu to energy bars to supplements. Often GE soy is co-mingled with organic soy, so it can be difficult to sort out, explains Now Natural Products quality assurance manager Jim Roza. His company is currently working with suppliers to develop GE free soy products. "We believe in the philosophy of the natural products industry to provide whole and natural products to our consumers and GE simply doesn't fit into that model" he says. The issue is clearly consumer-driven, says Michael Funk, President of United Natural Foods, the nation's largest distributor of organic and natural foods. "The bottom line is that if people vote with their dollars, they'll force companies to respond."

Meanwhile, what does the future of biotech have in store? Monsanto's Allyssa Hollier promises with glee that "this is just the tip of the iceberg." Indeed, Monsanto is currently developing foods that will contain multiple foreign genes to protect against viruses, fungi and other bugs. And stay tuned for Roundup Ready corn, potatoes, rice, wheat and sugar beets. But activist Laura Ticciati remains undaunted: "It's a classic David and Goliath struggle and we know how that turned out. They may have all the money in the world, but we have the truth and concern for our children and that's invincible. I'm confident that the truth alone triumphs."

For more information:
Organic Consumers Association

Alliance for Bio-Integrity