Are These New Bio-Crops Safe? Research Shows Gene-Modified Plants Can Produce Unintended Effects

Article excerpt

It is an issue capturing attention from Paris to Peoria: Are genetically altered crops safe?

In Europe, a public backlash has forced many food companies to ban genetically engineered products from store shelves.

In the US, acceptance of the technology is widespread: Most of the nation's wheat and corn, for example, is genetically modified.

Now, however, new evidence is showing that some genetically altered crops can cause unintended consequences - which could spur more resistance to the booming bio-agriculture industry in the United States.

The latest sign: A study in the journal Nature that implies genetically modified cotton can promote resistance to pesticides in a well-known - and much feared - parasite.

The research comes in the wake of a study in May showing Monarch butterflies die after contacting pollen from genetically engineered corn.

Moreover, last week the country's largest baby food manufacturer, Gerber, announced it would stop using genetically engineered soy and corn products because of public concern - warranted or not - about safety.

"I think this is another small piece that tells us to be conservative," says Fred Gould, a North Carolina State University entomologist, of the news in Nature. "I think that what we need is a lot more science and a lot less talk."

Yet one group that is talking a lot more is environmentalists. They have seized on the latest research to buttress their claims that genetically engineered crops could pose a danger to people and the environment.

"There may be long term effects that we may not see for many years but could have serious detrimental impacts on brain development and organ development," says says Charles Margulis, a genetic issues specialist with Greenpeace.

But it is safe

For their part, the big biotechnology and agricultural companies argue there is no conclusive evidence that the crops are dangerous. In fact, they see them as beneficial to both the environment and consumers, since the crops require fewer pesticides.

"It's had a tremendous impact on the reduction of insecticide use," says Gary Barton, a spokesman for Monsanto Co., the big US chemical company. "The activist communities seem to ignore the nearly 1 million gallons of pesticide that hasn't been used on the cotton crops over the last three years. And that's just the cotton crop."

But it is precisely these claims, along with the lack of public opposition in the US, that make the Gerber announcement so surprising. Furthermore, Gerber's parent company, the Swiss pharmaceutical and agriculture conglomerate Novartis AG, has invested millions in developing the genetically altered plant strains that it now refuses to buy for Gerber baby foods. …