Group lobbies for labeling genetically altered foods
By Scott Allen, Globe Staff, 06/18/99
WASHINGTON - American consumers become unwitting guinea pigs in a poorly understood experiment every time they go food shopping, a diverse group of scientists, activists, and a British supermarket executive warned yesterday, because increasing amounts of corn, soy beans, and other crops are grown from genetically altered seeds.
The group, gathered for a forum called the National Summit on the Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods, presented petitions with 500,000 signatures to Congress and the Food and Drug Administration calling on the government to require genetically modified foods to carry labels so that consumers will know if a tomato has been treated with fish genes or corn chips contain genes from bacteria.
Yesterday's demonstration was the first sign that a deep distrust of genetically altered foods that has swept Europe could catch on in the United States.
"Don't I have a right to know what's in the food I select for my children so I can decide for myself what I feed them?" asked Laura Ticciati, executive director of the Iowa-based Mothers for Natural Law that headed the petition drive.
But FDA officials, as well as seed company and grocery industry executives, said labeling would only stigmatize the foods, without providing real information. They said the foods are just as nutritious and safe as crops grown from conventional agriculture techniques.
"It's not a safety issue," said Lisa Katic, science and nutrition policy director at the Grocery Manufacturers of America. Federal researchers, she added "reviewed this for the past 20 years. . . . They felt comfortable that it was one step further than the selective breeding that scientists have done for years."
Scientists at the conference, however, questioned how well anyone understands the long-term impact of genetically modified foods. They pointed to a new study showing that pollen from genetically modified corn kills monarch butterflies as proof that these crops have not been studied enough. . . .
Yet American farmers are unquestionably embracing genetically modified seeds, which have been commercially available for a few years. A quarter of the US corn crop, 35 percent of soy beans, and smaller percentages of everything from potatoes to sugar beets have been genetically modified to increase pest resistance, to improve yields, or to change taste.
Because regulators do not require that the foods be labeled, conventional and genetically altered crops are freely mixed, making it impossible to say definitively what consumer goods contain altered genes.
The American debate over the subject has been remarkably low key. Most politicians and the Clinton administration, back the industry's use of genetically altered seeds as the way of the future for agriculture, boosting agricultural output to match a growing population. Only one member of Congress, David Bonior of Michigan, sent a representative to yesterday's meeting at the Capitol Hilton Hotel.
Europeans, meanwhile, have been far more nervous about the trend, especially the British, where tabloids call the products "Frankenfoods."
The differences have fueled growing trade tensions between the United States and Europe as the European Union slows its approvals of genetically engineered products, virtually all of which are coming from American fields. Last month, 36 senators wrote a letter to Clinton warning of a "looming trade conflict" if Europeans don't ease restrictions on genetically modified foods.