If genetic engineering portends a revolution in the way the world eats, Americans have not seemed to notice.
While Europeans took to the streets in protest, consumers in the United States calmly digested tomatoes designed to ripen slowly. While Asians and others passed labeling laws to differentiate the foodstuffs, Americans chowed down on steaks from cows fed pest- resistant corn and on vegetarian burgers made with herbicide- resistant soybeans.
But after spending five years rapidly adopting this technology, the US appears set to take a long, second look at its risks. While the technology offers tremendous potential for creating better, healthier, and cheaper food, opponents argue it has not been tested thoroughly enough to ensure it won't hurt people or the environment in the long run. Such protests are beginning to be heard in executive suites and farm fields, shareholder meetings and the halls of Congress.
If opponents of genetically modified food manage to sway consumers, they'll slow down the biotech revolution that already has lost steam in Europe and elsewhere.
"I think we'll lean a little toward Europe's cautious approach," says Marshall Martin, an agricultural economist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "But I don't think the United States will go as far as Europe has."
Some US companies are already bending to the pressure against genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Last year, for example, Gerber and Heinz announced they would not accept genetically modified material in their baby food. Now, Mead Johnson Nutritionals, maker of Enfamil baby formula, is also backing away.
"We believe GMO technology has been shown scientifically to be safe," says Pete Paradossi, spokesman for the Evansville, Ind., company. "But given consumer concern on this issue, we have made a decision to reduce and/or eliminate GMO ingredients from our products."
Other infant-formula companies are standing firm, however, pointing out that the US Food and Drug Administration has approved genetically modified food. "We concur with the FDA," says Mardi Mountford, executive director of the International Formula Council, an Atlanta-based nonprofit industry group that represents Nestle and Ross Nutrition (maker of Similac). "The ingredients that are produced through this technique are safe."
Bending to pressure
As long as the controversy was confined to specialty markets, such as baby food or health-food chains, mainstream food companies felt little competitive pressure to change. But last month, snack- food giant Frito-Lay announced it was asking its growers not to use genetically modified crops.
It's not clear how the Plano, Texas, company plans to enforce the request. Still, "that's potentially an important step," says Michael Hansen, research associate with the policy-research division of Consumers Union, based in Yonkers, N.Y. "It's just moving on to the larger, more mainstream companies, which is what's been happening over in Europe."
Anti-GMO activists are pushing other companies to take similar stands. For …