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Grocery quandary

For U.S.shoppers, a lack of labels limits choice on biotech products

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Too early to tell about safety

The first thing most people want to know about genetically engineered foods is, are they safe to eat? The question may be obvious, but the answer isn't.

The U.S. government says there's no evidence that existing biotech food products are any riskier to eat than conventional foods. Skeptics say that lack of evidence isn't proof.

A few scattered studies and incidents over the years have raised alarms. But many scientists have disputed the findings.

In the best-known of the studies, researchers in Scotland fed young rats an experimental potato engineered with a flower gene to make it resist insects and nematodes. The rats ended up with suppressed immune systems and stunted growth. The results were published in 1999 in The Lancet, a respected journal, but the study widely was dismissed by other scientists as incomplete and sloppy.

More recently, a Norwegian scientist investigating illnesses in more than 30 people living near fields of engineered corn in the Philippines found that the people may have had an allergic reaction to the corn's insect-killing toxin. Those preliminary findings were issued in February and have not yet been confirmed.

You might expect the government to settle the score. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not independently test any food - including biotech food - for safety. It relies upon analyses conducted by the companies that make the products. A 2002 report on the process by the U.S. General Accounting Office noted that the FDA could improve its evaluation by randomly verifying the companies' test data.

People in the past worried about the safety of frozen foods and about microwave ovens, worries that time didn't seem to support. On the other hand, it took decades for science and society to recognize the health dangers of some new technologies, such as chemical pesticides and hydrogenated fats. In that context, it may be too soon to tell how genetically engineered foods will play out.

- Edie Lau


A voice for choice

The debate about genetically modified organisms usually is cast in scientific terms. Are engineered foods safe to eat? Will they harm the environment? But science addresses only a sliver of what concerns its critics.

It fell to Andrew Light to deliver that message to scientists last autumn in Mexico City.

An environmental ethicist at New York University, Light was invited to a conference about biotech corn and “gene flow,” the tendency of genes to migrate. Sequestered for two days in a hotel, Light listened as scientist after scientist talked about the world outside - about the taming of corn from the wild, about corn biology, about ways to detect biotech genes.

When it came time for Light to speak, it was as if someone had thrown open a door and invited in a gale wind.

World opinion, said the slender philosopher, seems intractably divided over biotech foods. “If we want to get anywhere in terms of overcoming some of the big divides that exist over this issue, I don't think that the right approach is to say, 'Well, that perspective is not a scientific perspective, so we shouldn't listen to it.' ... If everyone had a scientific perspective, the world would be incredibly boring.”

Light spoke in jest, but the crowd wasn't laughing.

He kept going. People, he said, have fundamentally different beliefs about what's natural and unnatural; no amount of scientific data will change that.

“If people simply don't want to ingest these materials, we ought to respect their autonomy in making that choice,” he said.

Finally, Light concluded, popular resistance to genetically modified foods is not just about biotechnology. Instead, it's “about how people have felt excluded from making decisions....If you don't like that,” he chided, “then fundamentally you don't like the democratic process.”

Luke Anderson could be the embodiment of Light's democratic world. He's a veteran of .anti-biotech activity from Europe to Russia, Australia to Mexico.

A Briton living in Northern California, Anderson may be the guy carrying the picket sign, but he's also often in the background giving pep talks, teaching protest strategy, dispensing data.

Related Information

More Bee coverage plus information on biotech books, searchable databases and Web sites.

Anderson has made it his mission to study the social implications of biotechnology. So his mind plunges into the future, where he foresees people looking back on the early 21st century as a pivotal time for biotech.

Our descendants, he imagines, won't dwell on whether today's citizens were too busy to learn about genetic engineering or too distracted to form an educated opinion about whether it's good, bad or indifferent.

“They will say,” Anderson said, “these were the years, these were the decades, when people had the opportunity to make a choice.”


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