For 10 years, American and European companies have been conducting research into genetically modified foods. The goal generally has been to increase profits from produce that is easier to grow and more appealing to the consumer. But in recent years, European consumers have been resisting such products, and that movement, like automobiles and olive oil, may have been exported to the U.S. RFR/RL's Andrew F. Tully looks at what America faces on this emotional and, at times, confusing issue.
Washington, 7 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- American food companies are bracing for the debate that already has plagued their European counterparts: genetically modified foods.
For a decade, the U.S. has been a pioneer in genetic engineering, particularly in foods, and Europe was quick to follow. But in recent years, the issue has become emotionally charged. European farmers and consumers have mounted increasing protests against the practice. They complain that genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, may be unhealthful to humans and to the environment, and could rob small farmers of their livelihoods.
Resistance to GMOs in Europe grew since the recent trouble in England over so-called "mad cow" disease, and the health scare involving Coca-Cola products in several European countries. Because of a general public distrust of modifying foods, only nine genetically modified crops have been approved by the 15-nation European Union. U.S. regulators, meanwhile, have approved more than three times as many.
But similar resistance to GMOs may be growing in America. The protests in the U.S. city of Seattle during the World Trade Organization meetings in December included denunciations of genetically modified foods. Groceries are beginning to scrutinize the value of GMOs in the foods they sell. Some American farmers are beginning to shun genetically modified seeds, despite their hardiness. And certain foreign trading partners are insisting on buying products that are free of GMOs.
The issue is as confusing as it is emotional. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, which regulates processed foods among other things, has until recently held a policy established in 1992. Recently it began gathering more information on GMOs and is in the process of evaluating that policy.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, which has jurisdiction over raw, unprocessed foods, has decided not to issue a formal definition of GMOs. This disturbs some members of the food industry. They say they cannot make intelligent decisions on labeling without such a point of reference.
Formal definitions aside, what is a genetically modified organism? Typically, scientists working for food companies alter the genetic makeup of a food in order to make it hardier or more productive. For instance, a gene may be implanted into a seed to produce grain that is more resistant to drought or insects. This would increase a farmer's yield. Or a gene could be introduced into a seed to increase a crop's eventual yield of starch or oil.
But there is a concern that a gene that is beneficial to a cash crop could, through cross-pollination, embed itself in an undesirable plant, like a weed.
Marc Allard is a professor of biology at George Washington University in Washington who specializes in genetics. Allard told RFE/RL that there is concern about how genetically modified produce may interact with other plant life.
"The fear that these genetic elements get loose -- say they get into the grasses or they get into some other weed -- and then these things are more difficult to manage. Because if they have -- if they're getting less eaten [by pests] -- they're going to be growing more and causing us other problems."
But in general, Allard says, he believes that genetically modified grains and vegetables are safe for humans because humans and vegetables rarely exchange genetic material. Still, the biologist is cautious about what he eats, and supports further safety studies, as well as labeling that discloses whether a food's ingredients have been genetically modified.
"I think I would like to know what's in my food. So in that sense, I'd like to know what the labeling is. But in general I guess I'm fairly trusting. And I do believe it [genetic engineering] should be regulated and that we should keep track of this sort of thing."
Some environmentalists say further study is not enough. Benedikt Haerlin is the international coordinator for the Greenpeace campaign against genetic engineering. He told RFE/RL that it is meaningless to call for further studies of the effects of genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs.
"We are at this moment saying, 'Stop it.' We are not calling for a few more risk assessments because the problem at this moment is that science is not in the position to predict this. Even if you do another hundred risk assessments, as long as you don't know enough about the environment this GMO communicates with, it is futile. We are probably not saying this is never going to be possible to understand, but we are certainly saying that this is not a matter of a few more tests or a few more years to study."
The American food industry also takes a cautious line. Karen Brown is the chief spokeswoman for the Food Marketing Institute, a trade association representing food wholesalers and retailers in the U.S., including some of the biggest chains of grocery stores.
Brown tells RFE/RL that the members of the association worked hard to come up with a unified position on genetically modified foods at a time when U.S. government regulations regarding genetically modified foods remain unclear.
Brown says Food Marketing Institute's position can be summed up in two points:
"There needs to be a clear definition of what is genetically modified, because people are confused. There needs to be a mandatory review of products that are genetically modified or products that contain genetically modified food ingredients. And that review needs to include safety and a review of whether or not labeling is appropriate."
Whole Foods Market Incorporated owns grocery stores around the U.S. that are known for providing more organic and specialty foods than ordinary retailers. It is not a member of the Food Marketing Institute, but shares some of the association's positions on GMOs.
Margaret Wittenberg, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods Market, says her company has received telephone calls, letters, faxes and e-mails from customers expressing concern about foods containing GMOs.
Wittenberg says Whole Foods Market is working to have its own brands free of GMOs. But she says the company will still sell foods made by other companies that include these ingredients. She says Whole Foods Market prefers that these products' labels say whether such ingredients are present, but it will not insist on it for now.
In the meantime, Wittenberg says, shoppers at Whole Foods Markets' stores soon will be able to choose whether to buy foods with or without genetically modified ingredients.
"There's a lot of questions out there, but our main concern and the main reason that we have done this goal and this stance is to give our customers the options they are wanting, and listening to our customers. And then the second thing is that even as a company, we encourage the government to explore this more carefully. And in the meantime, we should have labeling, since it's such an experimental project."
But until the U.S. government settles on a concrete policy, and issues an explicit definition of genetically modified food, it may be years before American consumers know exactly what they are consuming.