It's time to get real about genetically modified (GM) foods. Consumer resistance to GM products is growing. Biotech promoters seem mystified by rejection of what they see as an advanced form of beneficial plant breeding.
Both sides should wise up.
It's true that some consumer concern is based on irrational fear - GM killer tomatoes aren't lurking in the markets.
It's also true that farm biotech promises a quantum leap in food production for a hungry world. Nevertheless, there are substantial risks, and unless these are faced honestly and resolved satisfactorily, negative public reaction could sidetrack potential benefits.
GM technology is not an extension of traditional plant breeding. Moving genes into plants from the animal or bacterial biological kingdoms is not the same as shuffling genes between plants. More care should be taken to prevent alien genes from migrating to weeds and the crops' wild relatives. Special precautions should be developed to ensure that crops with insecticide genes from a bacterium don't harm innocent insects while pests develop resistance.
Using antibiotic-resistance genes as genetic markers in food crops is a needless risk to human health. There are other ways to tag the alien genes engineered into crop plants. Also, the suspected potential of GM crops to cause food allergy problems for some people should be investigated.
Biotech companies and other GM food promoters have acknowledged the possibility of such risks. But they have not acknowledged that their efforts to deal with them are widely perceived as inadequate - and probably are inadequate. They even resist labeling GM products to inform consumer choices. This reinforces public suspicion.
Also, the policy of some GM seed producers to give their plants terminator genes undercuts their claim to benefiting the hungry. These genes prevent subsistence farmers from saving seed from year to year. If they want to benefit from GM plants, these farmers have to keep on buying seed.
GM food promoters try to counter suspicion, but with inadequate public information. The suspicious public turns a deaf ear. Unfortunately, in ignoring the hype, skeptics also ignore GM crops' substantial benefits. Better pest resistance means less use of chemical pesticides. Increased ability to thrive on brackish water means marginal farmlands become less marginal. Improvement in the amino acid, protein, and vitamin content of foods means better nutrition. Such benefits will be lost if consumer resistance to GM foods stifles their development.
This issue is part of the larger question of what humanity is to do with its growing ability to manipulate Earth's biology at its fundamental level. GM farming raises issues that can't be resolved by propaganda, confrontation, or bans on new products. Full and honest public discussion - both nationally and globally - can clarify those issues and begin to build consensus on how to deal with them.
GM food producers and protesting organizations should take the lead in stimulating the discussions. This demands unaccustomed humility. But they should recognize that the alternative is to mire biotech farming in perpetual acrimony.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society