As our bombs keep falling on Serbia, the United States is engaged in another war in Europe. This one's over the right to market foods that have been genetically engineered, and Americans are getting clobbered.
Gene-altered crops have proliferated in this country over the past four years and caused barely a ripple. Half of this year's soybean crop and a quarter of the corn crop have been genetically spliced to resist insects and weed-killing chemicals.
You've probably been eating genetically modified food without knowing it, since soy products are found in nearly two-thirds of all processed foods, including breads, pasta, yogurt, ice cream and chocolate.
Such foods have been deemed safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and require no special labeling.
Our nonchalance contrasts vividly with European attitudes. Resistance has been greatest in Britain, where biotech products have been scorned as "Frankenstein foods" and "mutant crops." Prince Charles has vowed not to eat them, saying, "That takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone."
Activists have ripped up test plots planted on British soil by Monsanto, the U.S. company that is a world leader in biotechnology. Concern over genetically altered corn has stopped almost all exports of U.S. corn to Europe. Public opinion has been so negative in England that grocery chains and fast food restaurants - including McDonald's and Burger King - have pledged to sell no products containing any added genes.
The latest shot was fired Monday by the British Medical Association, which called for labels on all gene-altered products. The group didn't claim the foods were unsafe, but said consumers may want to avoid them until more research is done.
Those fears are considered irrational by many U.S. scientists, including Brian Larkins, a plant geneticist at the University of Arizona.
He's working on ways to put genes into corn that boost its nutritional value. Genetic engineering, he says, is not fundamentally different from conventional plant breeding to bring out desirable characteristics, only more efficient. Last summer, an experiment in Iowa using genetically altered corn increased yield nearly 10 percent - "more than plant breeding was able to do in the last 10 years," Larkins said.
"Genetic engineering is safe and highly productive. When the world's population doubles, we will need new ways to increase food production, and conventional agriculture can't do it."
Ralph Backhaus, professor of plant biology at Arizona State University, agrees the new technology shouldn't be feared.
"If you want to talk about Frankenstein, open a Burpee catalog and take a look at things like white eggplants," he said. "You'll see hybrids of different species with far more genetic combinations than the soybeans being grown today."
He cautioned, however, that genetic manipulation could have a dark side. For example, addictive neuropeptides could conceivably be spliced into a fruit, and consumers could develop an artificial craving for it.
Such possibilities animate Jeremy Rifkin, probably the most outspoken U.S. opponent of genetic engineering. He concedes that enormous good can come of genetic technology but worries about unforeseeable risks to human health, biological diversity and the environment.
He also sees the day when a handful of multinational corporations like Monsanto, which already holds scores of crop patents, will gain control of the world's food chain and gene pool. He envisions "gene wars" in the next century.
I think Rifkin hyperventilates, but neither he nor his British soul mates should be ignored. The accelerating pace, staggering profits and vast potential of genetic modification - in animals as well as plants - could produce nasty outcomes.
The revolution in life sciences promises to be more far-reaching than the computer revolution. Better to ask hard questions now than wish we had after the biotech wizards take us places we don't want to go.
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Last Updated on 5/28/99
By Karen Lutz