Source: Washington Post, September 17, 1999
THE HULLABALLOO in Europe about genetically engineered foods is starting to spill over into American markets — not in consumer opinion but in strategic choices being made by American producers. The giant commodity buyer Archer Daniels Midland, faced with the combined resistance of fervid European consumer activists and protectionist European governments, has signaled it will switch, not fight: It has asked farmers to segregate modified and non-modified products so that the latter can be sold to Europe. Down the production chain, such companies as Gerber have pledged to look for non-genetically engineered sources of corn and soybeans so they can market their food as free of such elements.
All this properly miffs U.S. farmers, who complain they are being asked to absorb heavy costs and left hanging after investing in the new modified crops. Their plight is part of the double-edged sword of globalization: Big producers here will alter course to satisfy a large overseas market even when, as now, that market is acting irrationally. International free-trade pressure may, and should, eventually force European governments to lift official barriers to so-called GM (genetically modified) foods. But that doesn’t reach the parts of the issue fueled by emotion and culture or by Europe’s unhappy history with food safety regulation.
How to keep the politics of the issue and the probable ripple effects of choices like ADM’s — which send the message that there’s something wrong with modified products — from derailing biotechnology’s larger promise? This technology, after all, has been hailed as holding out hopes from lowering pesticide use to cutting Third World malnutrition. One important step is to distinguish the various criticisms being leveled at GM foods — some of them thoroughly farfetched, others worthy of additional testing that could calm consumer fears.
Least persuasive are the claims of specific harms to human health from ingesting GM foods, whether from the natural pesticides contained in “” corn, soy and potatoes (the added gene causes the plants to secrete that kill predatory insects, so spraying is unnecessary) or the antibiotic resistance gene that is inserted as a nonfunctioning “marker” in modified plants. A study reported in Britain to have found evidence of the first of these hazards was subsequently debunked as badly designed. Analyses of the second have found the danger vanishingly small.
Less cleanly resolved are questions of what bioengineered plant varieties could do to ecosystems by cross-pollinating with weeds or by causing the development of pesticide-resistant “superbugs.” The Agriculture Department plans to open regional centers to handle these and other pesticide regulation questions from a closer vantage point; for now, much depends on the proper management of techniques such as “refuges” planted with non-resistant plants to maintain biodiversity. The department also has asked for an independent study of the system by which it grants permits for new biotech products, which some complain leaves too much up to companies or does not require enough tests — for instance, for rare allergens.
The proper balance of safety testing between companies and the government is a legitimate area for further debate. So are companies’ environmental safeguards. But the purpose of such debate should be to improve biotech research and enhance its acceptance, not stop it in its tracks.