White House enters the biotech food fight

But its proposal to sharpen scrutiny of altered foods is decried as too tentative.

Supergrowth salmon. Corn and cotton plants that make their own pesticides. Papayas, potatoes, tomatoes, and soybeans engineered with bacteria genes.

Biotech foods, mixing the genes of two or more species, are moving from the world's laboratories onto Americans' dinner tables at a quickening pace.

All this rapid change and high-tech razzle-dazzle involving something as basic as the nation's food supply has created a wave of concern in Congress and among the American public - and has now prompted the Clinton White House to act.

The administration, seeking to calm public concerns, this week announced a multipart program to heighten scrutiny of new genetically engineered products coming to market.

Critics immediately denounced the plan, however, as drastically inadequate.

US Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio, a leading bio-food critic, complains that the public is being kept in the dark about potentially dangerous changes.

All sides in this debate agree that what's happening to America's food supply is unprecedented in its speed, scope, and potential impact. The Union of Concerned Scientists says some estimates show that 60 percent of the items on America's grocery shelves now contain some genetically modified ingredient.

The new products are hailed in some quarters as the leading edge of a food revolution that will be a boon to farmers everywhere, and a 21st-century solution to world hunger. Bio-foods could even help the environment, it is claimed, by reducing farmers' dependence on pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals.

Yet critics contend that new plants (and soon, animals) are being put onto the market without sufficient testing. They worry about the potential health effects, and also about unforeseen and potentially disastrous consequences to the environment.

Farmers and consumers are sometimes the pawns in this intensifying debate.

Gary Goldberg of the American Corn Growers Association says, "Farmers have really been caught in the middle."

The farmers who grow some of America's most important crops, like corn, soybeans, and cotton, face this year's growing season in a state of heightened uncertainty. If they plant the old-style crops, which can cost more to produce, they could be at an economic disadvantage. But if they opt for the new high-tech seeds, they worry that the markets for gene-altered crops will suddenly vanish.

Last year more than half the acreage sown to soybeans and upland cotton in the United States was planted with genetically altered seeds, as was one-third of the corn acreage. The US Department of Agriculture, however, estimates that corn, soybean, and cotton farmers will reduce use of gene-altered seeds this year.

"The market is ... demanding non-GMO [genetically-modified] crops, right or wrong," says Mr. Goldberg. "And in this business, the customer is always right."

Meanwhile, many consumers are also expressing frustration. At supermarkets, it is virtually impossible to distinguish foods that contain genetically altered material from those without. Some companies, such as Frito-Lay (snack foods), Heinz (ketchup, sauces), and Gerber (baby foods) make an effort to avoid using genetically altered ingredients.

The White House on Wednesday laid out a multipart proposal to deal with biotech concerns. Highlights include:

*A six-month study of current biotechnology regulations, with a mandate to propose improvements if needed.

*A requirement that biotechnology products be released into the food supply only after the government receives at least four-month advanced notice.

*An expanded research program that focuses on safety issues.

*New guidelines for voluntary labeling of foods that contain bio-engineered ingredients.

Critics say the proposals fall far short. Now a bipartisan group of about 50 congressmen is pushing the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act as a kind of consumer bill of rights. The group includes Representative Kucinich, author of the bill along with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California. They would mandate that manufacturers and grocers label products with genetically altered ingredients.

Kucinich charges that geneticists and corporate executives working in the food industry are too often "arrogantly assuming god-like power to bring forth a second genesis." They are "combining genetic material from plants, animals, and humans in some weird commercial potion and then marketing it for all to consume."

In many cases, these high-tech food products should not be released into the environment or into the food system without years of testing, Kucinich says. But he charges that the administration is blithely supporting efforts to speed the process with little government overview.

Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Food Safety, says: "Genetic engineering allows you to mix life forms that have never been mixed in traditional breeding. At least, I am not aware of any instance when a flounder has been mated with a tomato."

Biotech companies, on the other hand, argue that they are merely continuing the ancient process of cross-breeding with modern methods that combine desirable features of different species - even if the species are widely disparate.

*Staff writer James N. Thurman contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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