Buying Into Gene-Altered Foods

Mark up a big victory for agro-Luddites: The biotech giant Monsanto said this week it had shelved plans to sell the world's first genetically modified (GM) wheat.

The market for this lab-altered foodstuff had been scared away by environmentalists warning of unknown consequences. Too many consumers in Europe and Japan wouldn't have bought bread or pasta with GM grain in it, and thus too many North American wheat farmers decided they didn't want the new seeds - for now.

But wait. While Monsanto - the world's leading innovator of GM crops - finally has shown some restraint, so too has Europe, the main opponent of GM foods.

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Next Wednesday, the European Commission is expected to approve a biotech corn known as Bt-11 for human consumption. The decision will mark the first authorization of a GM crop for the European Union since its moratorium in 1998.

These two decisions suggest the polarized debate over GM foods may finally be pulling back from the extremes, allowing the potential benefits of GM food - less use of pesticides, higher yields in arid lands, better nutrition, etc. - to finally become more widespread.

On one side are those who push the "precautionary" approach of waiting for any and all science studies to prove a GM product will do no harm (nearly impossible to prove conclusively).

On the other side are geneticists who too easily dismiss public concerns and the potentially adverse consequences of their DNA splicing.

The depolarization may finally have arrived for several reasons. Science has become more advanced in foreseeing possible damage to plants or humans. And GM products already introduced haven't caused any harm (the EU had introduced 18 biotech plants before the moratorium).

But also, Europe's scientists warn the EU risks falling behind the US in this potentially huge market. And the US has gone to the World Trade Organization to challenge the EU stance, claiming it must first prove these products do harm before blocking them.

Compromises are possible if geneticists reduce their arrogant certainty and those groups that purposely play up the scare factor aren't allowed to dominate policy.

Then a hybrid of views and actions can be allowed to grow.

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