If genetic engineering portends a revolution in the way the world eats, Americans have not seemed to notice.
While Europeans took to the streets in protest, consumers in the United States calmly digested tomatoes designed to ripen slowly. While Asians and others passed labeling laws to differentiate the foodstuffs, Americans chowed down on steaks from cows fed pest-resistant corn and on vegetarian burgers made with herbicide-resistant soybeans.
But after spending five years rapidly adopting this technology, the US appears set to take a long, second look at its risks. While the technology offers tremendous potential for creating better, healthier, and cheaper food, opponents argue it has not been tested thoroughly enough to ensure it won't hurt people or the environment in the long run. Such protests are beginning to be heard in executive suites and farm fields, shareholder meetings and the halls of Congress.
If opponents of genetically modified food manage to sway consumers, they'll slow down the biotech revolution that already has lost steam in Europe and elsewhere.
"I think we'll lean a little toward Europe's cautious approach," says Marshall Martin, an agricultural economist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "But I don't think the United States will go as far as Europe has."
Some US companies are already bending to the pressure against genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Last year, for example, Gerber and Heinz announced they would not accept genetically modified material in their baby food. Now, Mead Johnson Nutritionals, maker of Enfamil baby formula, is also backing away.
"We believe GMO technology has been shown scientifically to be safe," says Pete Paradossi, spokesman for the Evansville, Ind., company. "But given consumer concern on this issue, we have made a decision to reduce and/or eliminate GMO ingredients from our products."
Other infant-formula companies are standing firm, however, pointing out that the US Food and Drug Administration has approved genetically modified food. "We concur with the FDA," says Mardi Mountford, executive director of the International Formula Council, an Atlanta-based nonprofit industry group that represents Nestle and Ross Nutrition (maker of Similac). "The ingredients that are produced through this technique are safe."
Bending to pressure
As long as the controversy was confined to specialty markets, such as baby food or health-food chains, mainstream food companies felt little competitive pressure to change. But last month, snack-food giant Frito-Lay announced it was asking its growers not to use genetically modified crops.
It's not clear how the Plano, Texas, company plans to enforce the request. Still, "that's potentially an important step," says Michael Hansen, research associate with the policy-research division of Consumers Union, based in Yonkers, N.Y. "It's just moving on to the larger, more mainstream companies, which is what's been happening over in Europe."
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.
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