October 25, 1999
JOHN DONVAN: We are what we eat as the old saying goes, which naturally implies that we can control our own destiny, or at least our own health. But that assumes we know what weıre eating, say, at dinner tonight. But ever heard of a tomato whose DNA has been altered with a gene taken from a fish to be more resistant to the cold? Ever hear of corn, genetically modified to be toxic to insects, even as we consume that same corn in the form of chips and cornflakes and corn syrup. These are all real examples of food created by a process the government only gave its permission for in the last few years, and now widely applied to corn and soybeans. It is not the traditional sort of cross breeding that produces, for example, the seedless watermelon, itıs a whole new technology called GMO. That stands for genetically modified organism. And it involves moving genes between entire species, like our fish gene in the tomato example. That is pure GMO. The potential is mind boggling. Manipulating a plantıs DNA, scientists may be able to create crops that are bigger, cheaper, and more nutritious than anything the human race has ever seen. But then why this year, did Gerber announce it would stop using GMO ingredients in its baby food? Why are Europeans taking to the streets to protest the GMO revolution? The concern is human health. Nobody really knows how GMO food will affect the human organism or the environment over the long run. This year a third of the nationıs corn and more than half of its soybean harvest fit the description of genetically modified organism. We went to American farm country where the process begins with the seeds. We went to Iowa, where on a late crisp autumn afternoon, the grain really does appear to stand in amber waves, the classic picture of the classic American farmer bringing in the crop. Except that Joe Hawskins who farms 500 acres outside the town of Freemont, joined the GMO revolution. The corn he grew this year was a genetically modified organism. By todayıs standards, about as new fangled, high tech, brave new world, as agriculture gets. And starting out, Hawskins was pretty excited.
Mr. JOE HAWSKINS You see it on TV, you hear it on radio, you read it in farm magazines, you know, this is the greatest thing since sliced bread and ice cream.
DONVAN But what does Hawskins say about GMO corn now, one growing season later?
HAWSKINS: I canceled all my GMO corn. There will be no GMO corn planted on this place next year.
DONVAN Hawskins speaks for a lot of American farmers, who went full tilt into the DNA engineered future, and are now seriously considering switching back to the corn they used to grow, because all of the sudden, this cutting edge corn is having trouble competing in the market. The big food makers like Heinz and Gerber have sworn off the use of any GMO derived ingredients in their baby foods. In some places the market has begun paying more for corn raised the good old-fashioned way, while the big grain buyers like Cargill have stopped buying some of the hybrids of GMO corn. The odd thing is the problem is not that the seeds didnıt work as advertised. If anything, the sheer ingenuity of a GMO soybean field engineered to be weed free is breathtaking when you compare it to a conventional soybean field. The corn is even more amazing. As seed salesman Gary Adams showed us, conventional corn frequently gets gnawed on by an insect called the corn bore.
Mr. GARY ADAMS You can see the hole in there that a corn bore has worked vertically through this stalk. DONVAN The new corn has been tweeked with a gene that scientists took from a bacterium. Now when a corn bore takes a bite, the bug is poisoned and dies.
Mr. ADAMS And you know weıre talking about whatıs good for the farmer here is also good for the consumer, because wewe grow more grain cheaper which keeps food costs down.
DONVAN So whatıs the problem? In a word, Europe. The land where food is politics. From Italy to Britain to Switzerland to France, the opinion has taken hold that genetically modified food is a monstrosity, potentially dangerous to anyone who eats it, potentially a disaster for any environment where itıs grown. They call it Frankenstein food. And where it has been grown over there in experimental sites, Greenpeace has also been to rip it down. Prince Charles is against it, Paul McCartney is against it.
Mr. PAUL McCARTNEY I think weıve got to take more care and find out exactly what the implications of GM food are.
DONVAN The laws in Europe say that if there is something genetically modified in the food it has to say so on the label. Even restaurant menus have to come clean. The anti-GMO protest in Europe has worked. The European Union is holding up approval on new hybrids of GMO corn, while dozens of food companies have rushed to announce theyıre banning all varieties of GMO ingredients from their products sold in Europe, even though many of them say they believe the technology is safe. Europeıs labeling law is being copied in New Zealand, Brazil, and Japan. In fact, just the other day, we spotted a delegation of Japanese food quality experts visiting a small laboratory in Iowa that tests food products to uncover genetically altered ingredients. The labıs business is booming. It has clients from around the world, and yet right here at home, when we asked one of the labıs scientists to walk with us through an American supermarket, the puzzling thing to him was why Americans have not joined the panic, especially considering how much food with GMO ingredients Americans are actually consuming.
Mr. JOHN FAGAN The pasta over here, the corn, the popcorn, the snacks there, the sweetener in the canned fruit, the, you know, the applesauce could again if it has sweetener in it, it could well be that. Consumers here are not aware of the fact that, for instance, they are walking into a grocery store like this and somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of all packaged products contain at least one genetically engineered ingredient.
DONVAN All GMO products on American shelves have been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Food and Drug Administration. No one is known to have developed any health problems as a result of eating a GMO product. There is even some evidence from this laboratory at Iowa state that the new GMO corn is less susceptible to a fungus that may cause throat cancer. But a few blocks away, another study in progress. Following up on research done at Cornell University, these Iowa state researchers say that pollen from GMO corn is killing the larvae of monarch butterflies, which is not at all what the cornıs designers intended. What other unintended consequences may there be, critics challenge? Might this gently waving grain eventually do unforeseen harm to people who consume it? Might these plants do damage to the environment by cross pollinating with weeds that no herbicide can kill, or by creating an insecticide resistant corn pest? Right now, the answers to these questions may matter less than the questions themselves, if they plant doubts in the minds of consumers.
Mr. NEIL HARL Remember in our system, that the consumer is king. The consumer may be right, the consumer may be wrong, the consumer may be misguided, but thatıs immaterial. We are going to give the consumer what the consumer wants. The events of the last couple months have ratified that.
DONVAN Thatıs why Joe Hawskins had trouble selling his grain this year to the neighborhood food processor heıs been selling to for years. Thatıs why Hawskins had to move it instead by truck a hundred miles away to another buyer on the Mississippi increasing his transportation cost by a factor of four. Thatıs why next year Joe Hawskins says heıs putting plain old conventional corn seed in his ground at planting time. So, has science gone where consumers donıt want to follow? And is this food safe? Well, here are three views when we return.
DONVAN Joining us from Atlanta, the Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, and here in Washington Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation of Economic Trends, who is calling for a worldwide moratorium on genetically engineered food crops, and Val Giddings, vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization. And, Mr. Giddings, we had been hoping to also include some members of representatives of Monsanto and Novartis, some of the leading people in developing these sorts of see products. They declined, so you are effectively their stand in. And the question I would put to them and do put to you is how do we really know how do you really know that these products are, after all, safe?
Mr. VAL GIDDINGS (Biotechnology Industry Organization) Well, itıs an interesting question. I think some of those who are complaining that theyıre not safe Iıd like to know how much of a demonstration of safety would be required to convince them otherwise. The fact is that foods produced through crops that have been improved through modern biotechnology have been subjected in advance to more detailed, lengthy, and extensive scrutiny, laboratory tests, field tests, environmental analyses, food and feeding feeding studies to demonstrate safety than any other foods that have been produced in the history of humanity. You know, itıs itıs itıs a record which has voluminous amounts of data that are available to the public. You know, thereıs a massive amount of experience which corroborates the results of all of these analyses. And, you know, as your researcher from the food lab indicated, you know, starting from a basis of the safest most abundant and nutritious food supply that humanity has ever known, biotechnology is being used to improve further safety record by reducing, you know, microtoxin contamination and so forth.
DONVAN Mr. Rifkin, you are the skeptic in regard to the issue of testing.
Mr. JEREMY RIFKIN (Author ³The Biotech Century²) Mm-hmm.
DONVAN And the question was just raised, how much testing is enough? Is there a point where you would be satisfied with the degree of testing?
Mr. RIFKIN Well, I think we have some real potential health and environmental problems here with this new and very radical approach to food.. To begin with, we need to understand that these genetically engineered foods contain genes from unrelated species that weıve never had as part of the human diet. So the fact is that when we eat these foods and processed foods, we donıt know what the possible consequences are going to be. There may be allergenic effects. There may be toxic effects. The fact is, we consumers become the ultimate guinea pigs in a radical, radical experiment. For example...
Mr. GIDDINGS Excuse me.
Mr. RIFKIN ...I should point out that the Food and Drug Administrationıs own scientists in internal documents that have been released recently in a new lawsuit, havetheir internal documents have said that they at FDA believe there may be some serious toxic effects and allergenic effects from these foods. Yet, those documents were never made public. They should be.
Mr. GIDDINGS Mr. Rifkin...
DONVAN Mr. Giddings, excuse me, I want to bring the Secretary of Agriculture into this while we still have a chance. Secretary Mr. Secretary, you head the agency one of the agencies which has given the approval. We assume, therefore, that you have done the testing. Can you tell us about the testing and why youıre satisfied that this stuff is safe?
Mr. DAN GLICKMAN (Secretary of Agriculture) Well, I do believe that we have the safest food supply in the world, but it is because of that we have to continue ins to insure public confidence in that food supply. Now, we at USDA, do do testing and approve the application of these seeds. The FDA does the food safety part of the picture, and the EPA is involved with the pesticides application part of it. And all three agencies, I think, have done a very rigorous job of ensuring that the public is protected as we do with respect to all foods.
Mr. GIDDINGS: That doesnıt meanthat doesnıt mean we should be satisfied, however. And thatthe technology is evolving very quickly, and we are doing our best to ensure that, in fact, this subject of genetic modification of foods gets the highest and most professional review possible.
DONVAN Mr. Secretary, I think itıs fair whenwhen people think about these products being tested they equate it with say, a pharmaceutical, which goes through a rigorous process of being tested on animals and humans. Have these food products been put through that same sort of process?
Mr. GLICKMAN I canıt speak for the FDA or the EPA. We do not do the same kind of testing at USDA and never have as has been done with respect to foods. But the FDA does a very effective job of looking at this. As a matter of fact, theyıre going out in the next couple of weeks with public hearings to talk about this issue. And what weıve done at USDA, because this is a subject thatıs very important to me personally as well as millions of consumers here and around the world, as weıre looking to get our own processes peer reviewed by people like the National Academy of Sciences and weıre look and looking at ways that we can upgrade our review process in a technology which is rapidly evolving, but one which offers great promise for the health and safety and environmental protection of our citizens.
Mr. RIFKIN Let me...
DONVAN Mr. Giddings Mr. Giddings, I promised you next round.
Mr. RIFKIN Yeah. Right.
Mr. GIDDINGS Yeah, itıs really important for your viewers to realize that the extent of the review process that these new foods have to go through. The Food and Drug Administration scientists will not tell you that there are major safety risks. What they will tell you is that the foods that weıve approved that are on the market have, in fact, as I said, been subjected to more scrutiny than any others in history. As far as allergenicity and so forth goes, it is possible to do things that you would not want to see done, but no one is producing foods that would introduce those sorts of allergy issues. And anyone who would do so, would have to indicate that on the label. In fact, the work thatıs being done with allergenicity, thereıs a number of folks who are looking to use biotechnology to remove from certain foods that are known to cause allergy problems, like peanuts, the genes which incurred for the proteins that cause those severe allergy responses in some people. So biotech just in producing microtoxins, biotechnology offers the promise to make foods safer from an allergenicity point of view. Toxicity studies are routinely done by companies before they go in to talk to FDA, excuse me, to insure that theyıve done everything they need to to demonstrate the safety of the food that they intend to put on the market.
Mr. RIFKIN May I...
DONVAN Mr. Rifkin, quick response.
Mr. RIFKIN Yeah. May I respectfully disagree with my friend Val Giddings here. Iım smiling because the fact is the Food and Drug Administration doesnıt do all these tests. They simply rely on the tests provided by the companies. So the companies are the one who are responsible for saying whether the products theyıre putting out are safe are not. Frankly, I donıt trust the companies to be the arbiter of last resort in terms of whether their own products are safe.
Mr. GLICKMAN And and theyıre not.
Mr. RIFKIN I think itıs an absolutely...
DONVAN Actually, weıre weıre going to take a...
Mr. RIFKIN ...flawed process.
DONVAN ...weıre going to take a break at this point. When we come back I want to talk to all of you about what Europe is doing in terms of putting warning labels on genetically processed food. And weıll be back in just a moment.
DONVAN And weıre back with Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, Jeremy
Rifkin, and Val Giddings.
Mr. Secretary, I believe on a visit to Europe you had the suffered the
indignity of being pelted by protestors throwing US made GMO food. And my
question to you is, over here the awareness of the situation seems to be
practically nil. In Europe, theyıre marching on the streets. Is this a is
this a cultural thing?
Mr. GLICKMANI think itıs a variety of things. One is Europe has no independent food safety regulatory agency like the United States does. They donıt have an FDA thatıs out there protecting the public interests. And thatıs whatıs so critical about the US, is that whatever weıre doing in this whole issue, as long as we have an independent armıs length regulatory process thatıs geared to protect the public health and safety and the environment, weıre going to be in good shape because the consuming public will have confidence in us.
DONVAN But, Mr. Secretary...
Mr. GLICKMAN In Europe but let me just say, in Europe theyıve had mad cow disease, theyıve had dioxin, theyıve had a whole series of terrible scares, and itıs created a lot of hysteria over there. And one of the things weıre trying to work with our European friends is for them to establish a food regulatory a food safety regulatory regime like we have in the United States. And I think it would help give them at least some comfort that thereıs a process there that they can rely on.
DONVAN Mr. Rifkin, you spend a lot of time traveling over to Europe and advising governments there over what to do, and now several governments have taken the step of requiring a label that says this food is genetically modified, genetically manipulated. Do you think that that is a practical solution here, and isnıt that just basic like putting a skull and crossbones on the product?
Mr. RIFKIN No, I donıt think so at all. I think consumers have a right to know what theyıre eating and to know what kind of products theyıre buying. And Iıd like to take an opportunity now to ask the Secretary this question. You know, Mr. Secretary, every opinion survey of the last few years here in the United States shows that over 90 percent of the American consumers want mandatory labeling of these genetically engineered foods. The biotech industry wants voluntary labeling. So my question, Mr. Secretary, is can you tell us, the American people tonight, will you grant us our wish and recommend mandatory labeling of genetic foods so the American consumer can make these choices like consumers all over the world. Or will you continue to represent the interests of the industry and go for voluntary labeling?
Mr. GLICKMAN Well...
Mr. RIFKIN I would like to know.
Mr. GLICKMAN Mr. Rifkin, Iım a loser any way I answer the way you phrased that question. But, I I...
Mr. RIFKIN Itıs a very simple question.
Mr. GLICKMAN ...if you if youıll let me answer, I have basically said that I that Iıve encouraged industry to voluntarily label their products because weıre not at a stage yet where we would even know how to mandatorily label or test or even create the kinds of conditions by which a consumer would really know whether something is genetically modified or not genetically modified. I do agree that in this country consumers like to have these kinds of choices available to them. And one of the things Iıve encouraged both the government as well as the private sector is to develop the testing procedures so that if there is labeling, it will be meaningful to people. But the basic premise should consumers be notified of whatıs in their food? I generally agree with that premise. But I donıt think...
Mr. RIFKIN But it has to be mandatory...
Mr. GLICKMAN But, well...
Mr. RIFKIN ....because the industry is never going to do it on their own...
Mr. GLICKMAN Well, that...
Mr. RIFKIN...and other countries seem to be able to do it.
DONVAN Mr. Giddings Mr. Giddings, itıs your crack.
Mr. GIDDINGS The industry is absolutely committed to making sure that consumers have choice. Biotechnology is all about providing consumers and farmers with additional choices. We actual absolutely believe that far that consumers have the right to information and we are eager to provide that to them in a variety of ways. But you canıt put the Encyclopedia Britannica on a label. The FDA requires that information on labels be accurate, informative, and not misleading. Some activists would like to have a GMO label so they can use it as a skull and crossbones to try and stimulate this hysteria that we have seen in Europe. Any changes that are made to foods produced through biotechnology or any other way must, by law, be indicated on labels here in the United States. You know, that thatıs a fact. And the FDA is the last arbiter of safety. They make sure that companies have, in fact, demonstrated that the foods they produced are safe before they allow them on the market.
Mr. GLICKMAN John, if I...
DONVAN Mr. Secretary, yes.
Mr. GLICKMAN ...if I may, we are in the process of upgrading our reviews, both at USDA and FDA and EPA of these issues. This is a rapidly evolving issue both politically, emotionally, as well as scientifically. And, you know, it may be that at some point in time, there is more aggressive labeling. But it has to be done on the basis of good and adequate science so you are informing consumers of the kinds of things that have meaning to them. The most important thing is to ensure that the regulatory process is above board, is independent, and is armıs length from both the industry as well as from some of the activist groups so that we can take in a position that is in the best interests of the public as a whole.
DONVAN Secretary Dan Glickman, Mr. Giddings, Mr. Rifkin, thanks very much. Global Food Fight
** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed for research and educational purposes only. **
Last Updated on 11/3/99
By Karen Lutz