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U.S. consumers challenge spread of biotech food
Thursday October 3, 12:13 pm ET

By Carey Gillam

KANSAS CITY, Mo., Oct 3 (Reuters) - Tomato genes crossed with fish. Vegetables that glow in the dark.

Much of the modern-day lore surrounding genetic modifications to food has the ring of science fiction. But with real-life genetic alterations now embedded in a myriad of commonplace food products from produce to potato chips, Americans are starting to sit up and take their supper seriously.

From the West Coast to the East, grass roots consumer groups are lining up alongside a mix of scientists and environmentalists, challenging corporate giants to answer questions about what is happening to the food they eat.

"We don't necessarily know what we're doing," said Ignacio Chapela, a microbial ecology professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a member of a national committee of scientists studying the environmental impact of commercialized transgenic crops.

"We're making major transformations of the environment," Chapela said. "This simply calls for regulation."

SANDWICHES AND SALADS

In a landmark move, Oregon citizens are seeking to do just that, placing on their November ballot a measure that would require all foods containing at least one-tenth of 1 percent of genetically modified material to be labeled as such.

The measure extends to dairy and meat products derived from animals that have eaten genetically modified corn or other substances.

Opponents of the measure say it would create costly and complicated red tape, and would force senseless situations such as requiring deli operators and restaurants to label the sandwiches and salads they serve up.

"It is meaningless information that would come at a high cost for consumers," said Shannon Troughton, a spokeswoman for Monsanto Co. (NYSE:MON - News).

Monsanto, a leading U.S. developer of transgenic corn, soybeans and other crops, including a transgenic wheat ready to be rolled out, is a staunch opponent of the proposed law.

The company is working with a group of other biotechnology companies and food industry giants such as General Mills Inc. (NYSE:GIS - News), Procter & Gamble Co. (NYSE:PG - News) and PepsiCo Inc. (NYSE:PEP - News) to try to stop the labeling law. Together, they have chipped in nearly $4.6 million to the "Coalition Against the Costly Labeling Law."

The chief supporters of the bill have raised less than $85,000. Despite the powerful opposition, several other states, including California, Colorado and Vermont, are pursuing similar initiatives.

Oregon ballot organizer Katelyn Lord said opponents were exaggerating the law's complications. She said there were many reasons genetically modified food should be clearly identified, including a basic right of consumers to know what they are eating. Other worries include health and environmental concerns tied to biotech, as well as a philosophical unease about tinkering with nature.

"There are as many reasons as there are people," said Lord. "We label sugar, salt, calories ... and I don't think anybody questions whether or not we need to know that."

SCIENTIFIC UNKNOWNS

The United States leads the world in the production of genetically engineered food and has generally provided a safe haven for biotech crops, even as more than two dozen other countries have placed tight restrictions on genetically modified plants and food products.

With no established scientific evidence that genetically modified foods harm human health, U.S. regulatory agencies have approved a wide array of products, and federal law currently has no mandatory labeling requirements for genetically modified foods. Food industry experts estimate 70 percent of the products found on U.S. grocery shelves contain genetically modified ingredients.

St. Louis-based Monsanto has commercialized biotech seeds, particularly crops resistant to pests and weed-killing chemicals, so successfully that the company's genetic modifications are embedded in crops that cover millions of acres of U.S. farmland and make their way into both human food products and animal feed.

Farmers like the biotech crops because they make it easier to control weeds and bugs. Ongoing research is developing a variety of potentially beneficial plants, including drought-resistant crops and plants that contain vaccines.

Yet both supporters and opponents of biotech say that over time, containing and controlling the genetic modifications introduced into the environment are likely to become difficult, if not impossible, and their long-term impact is unknown. Among the likely scenarios, they say, are weeds that become resistant to herbicides and insects that develop resistance to pesticides.

More research is needed, many argue, but this has been hard to come by as a lack of government funding plagues independent research efforts, and research at public universities in many cases is compromised by large monetary contributions made to the schools by the very corporations marketing biotech products.

"It's become a huge problem," said Jeanne Merrill, a representative of Greenpeace, an avid opponent of genetic engineering of food. "Universities are to benefit the public interest, not corporate profits and corporate patents."

PROMISES YET TO BE KEPT

While much work is under way, the healthful benefits from genetically modified plants are still largely seen only in the lab, and organizations working to feed hungry people around the world say the solutions involve improving economics for farmers and their communities, not delivering biotech seeds.

Debate over the issue was heated at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August, and conflicts among and within countries continue, with many world leaders and noted scientists seeing biotech foods as a way to get nutritious food to starving people.

Some 800 million people go to bed hungry, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Anuradha Mittal, co-director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy think tank, said the for-profit corporate push for biotech food acceptance is overshadowing efforts to explore other solutions to world hunger as well as research efforts into the safety of biotech foods.

"There might be potential benefits (to biotech)," Mittal said. "My concern is that all the focus on ending hunger has gone to the technological solution. This is really about precautionary principles. We need to err on the side of safety. In a civilized society you would hope to do so."