US Poised for a Biotech Food Fight ; Europe's Suspicion of Genetically Altered Foods Crosses the Atlantic

Article excerpt

Eldon Gould can't "for the life of me" understand why anyone would object to the genetically modified corn and soybeans he grows on his farm in Maple Park, Ill., about an hour's drive from downtown Chicago.

He now uses fewer pesticides, and weed control on his soybean acreage has become "a breeze."

Mr. Gould is also confident government regulators wouldn't let anything on the market unless it was safe. "I have no reason to think that they haven't tested this beyond question, as they would with any other new product," he says.

But biologist Lincoln Brower isn't so sure. In the new high-tech farming, he sees a potential for unexpected threats to the world's rich biodiversity. That's best reflected in the monarch butterfly, which can die from contact with pollen from the genetically engineered corn.

"I see the monarch as the canary in the coal mine, warning us that there's a bigger problem," says Professor Brower of Sweet Briar College in Virginia.

Those are two sides of the debate over genetically modified foods, which is gaining ground on American soil as environmentalists and the biotech industry begin a pitched battle to win over public opinion.

Polls show most Americans share Mr. Gould's overall confidence in the country's food- and environmental-safety regimen. But only 10 percent are fully aware that genetically modified foods have become a staple in the country's daily diet just in the past three years.

But that awareness is now growing as the European uproar over the biotech revolution - and its unknown consequences - crosses the Atlantic. The battle here is expected to center on whether the US government's regulatory safeguards are tough enough to keep people's trust. At stake is the future of the billion-dollar biotechnology industry and, in the eyes of some, nature's natural order.

Major American environmental and consumer groups have started sounding alarms about what they contend is a lax regulatory process and the potential for unintended consequences, like damage to the monarch butterfly. Several major international food companies such as Unilever, H.J. Heinz Co., and Gerber have also pledged not to use GM foods in their products.

Pushing back

To fend off what they say is unjustified hysteria, the US government and the industry are trying to buttress American confidence in the food regulatory system.

Biotech companies are mounting a major public-relations push to defend their products. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has called for an independent scientific review of the USDA's biotech-approval process to ensure it is thorough. And Nov. 18 in Chicago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will hold the first of three public hearings to explain its increasingly controversial policy governing GM foods.

"The FDA is in a listening mode," says Laura Tarantino of the FDA's office of pre-market approval. "We'll use these open meetings to share our experience over the past five years ... and solicit views from all interested parties."

The FDA requires stringent testing and review procedures for other new foods or additives, but recommends only that companies consult it when they bring new biotech products to market, as long as the additional genes do not substantially change the nature of the foods.

Environmentalists and consumer activists say that's a recipe for disaster.

"When you have a technology that is utterly novel and is being pushed into the food supply at an unprecedented rate, then there's a responsibility on the part of the regulatory agencies and purveyors of the technology to take some extraordinary steps to assure its safety," says Margaret Mellon, director of the agriculture and biotechnology program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

The biotech industry insists it has taken those extraordinary steps and that its products are some of the most tested, studied, and analyzed in US history. …