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Superior crops or 'Frankenfood'?

Americans begin to reconsider blas attitude toward genetically modified food.

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Anti-GMO activists are pushing other companies to take similar stands. For example, they have initiated shareholder resolutions at 18 large US companies that would require them to stop using GMOs until long-term testing proves them safe. Such resolutions rarely succeed but often embarrass corporations. PepsiCo (which owns Frito-Lay) tried but failed to get the Securities and Exchange Commission to drop the vote.

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Meanwhile, the Organic Consumers Association and BioDemocracy Campaign have targeted 15 food companies and distributors - the "Frankenfoods Fifteen" - to get them to stop using GMOs.

For economic reasons, farmers are also taking a hard look at genetically modified crops. While genetically modified soybeans remain popular because they have simplified planting and weed control, some grain processors are likely to offer farmers a premium for growing non-GMO crops - especially along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, where terminals export grain to Europe and Asia. Already, in the eastern Corn Belt, many farmers appear to be pulling back from genetically modified corn and going back to conventional corn, says Mr. Martin of Purdue.

"We see a little bit of a shift, but it's still a little early to tell," adds Leslie Cahill, vice president of government affairs for the American Seed Trade Association in Washington. Nevertheless, more than 80 percent of elevators still plan to accept GMO corn, a recent survey found.

The issue is also heating up in Congress. Last month, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California introduced a mandatory labeling bill for genetically engineered food. The European Union, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan already require it or are moving in that direction.

How different are they?

The heart of the debate hinges on the notion of how new these foods really are. In one sense, they're not new at all. All the foods Americans eat are genetically modified. Plant breeders have spent centuries creating new strains and hybrids.

So when the FDA first examined the issue and took four years to approve the genetically altered Flavr Savr tomato, many scientists and food companies felt the process took too long for such a minor change.

On the other hand, shooting an exotic new gene into a known food represents a far different process than traditional cross-breeding, other scientists argue. It's not clear it's more dangerous, but it represents potential changes in a food's genetic code that researchers don't fully understand, they add.

"As consumers become aware of the fact that foods are increasingly genetically modified, they first want more information about it and, second, they begin to demand choice in the marketplace," says John Fagan, chairman and chief scientific officer of Genetic ID, a large testing company in Fairfield, Iowa.

"This pattern is something that already has become full-blown in Europe.... If you get in a cab in London and you say: 'What do you think about these GMOs?" you'll have a 15-minute discussion on it," he says.

His guess is that it's only a matter of time before the same happens in the US.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society