Food Fight: Genetic Engineering vs. Organics: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

AT A SUPERMARKET in the Midwest. Mary Lee Treter passes aisles of shelves stocked with countless products containing genetically engineered ingredients: cereal, muffins, milk, taco shells, frozen pizzas. Hawaiian-grown fresh papayas, hot dogs and soda pop. She notices the labels don't say anything about genetically engineered ingredients.

Coca-Cola, Sprite. Pepsi, Hershey's bars, Campbell's soups, Progresso soups, Quaker rice cakes, frozen dinners by Swanson and Healthy Choice, and cereals by Kellog's and General Mills are among hundreds of products found to contain genetically engineered ingredients, according to tests conducted by Greenpeace for its "True Food Shopping List." About six out of every 10 processed foods Treter could choose to drop in her cart contain genetically modified organisms, such as corn altered to contain its own pesticide in every cell.

Then Treter arrives at the organic foods section, a recent innovation at her total Kroger in Toledo, Ohio. "It's really nice, and I'm impressed." she says. "We don't have a an food markets in this area. It's a little bit more expensive, and that's a downside."

ORGANIC OR BIOTECH?

How Treter and tens of millions of other consumers spend their money is akin to casting a vote between competing and ascending forms of agriculture; genetically modified foods versus organics. Both expanding industries say their techniques are the bet and most sensible way to feed the world's growing population. Both maintain they're sustainable forms of agriculture and lighter on the environment than conventional better-living-through-chemistry agribusiness.

But only genetically altered foods raise concerns from a broad range of scientists, academics and ethicists for developing never-before-seen techniques such as adding jellyfish genes to wheat to make plants glow whenever they need water. Or inserting a bacteria gene into corn to ward off pests. Only biotech foods have sparked a campaign among farmers calling for a moratorium on genetically engineered (GE) wheat, and prompted some parents to campaign against genetically engineered foods in school cafeterias. And significantly, biotech threatens--through overuse--to render useless organics' main defense against pests, a natural pesticide derived from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis known as Bt.

Proponents contend that future biotech products such as cancer-fighting tomatoes and vitamin E-enhanced soybeans will do for the 21st century what vitamin-fortified foods did in the 20th century. While the industry makes assurances that GE foods are safe for people and the environment, the world's scientific community has not come to a consensus. U.S. regulators are playing a slow game of catch-up, relying on a gap-filled patchwork of existing regulations to deal with a novel industry. Monsanto is embroiled in lawsuits with farmers over patent matters. Meanwhile, some corn and soybean growers complain that the technology costs too much, bringing them smaller yields and higher costs. And to the frustration of consumers like Treter, politicians can't agree on whether these foods need to be labeled.

Without labels, the only way consumers can be certain to avoid gene-spliced ingredients is to buy foods from the other ascending form of agriculture--certified organics. Of course, organic food may also carry benefits beyond food safety: a 2001 study in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine found that organic crops had higher average levels of 21 nutrients studied, including vitamin C and iron. Last March, research at the University of California revealed that organic produce may contain more natural antioxidants, which have been linked to reduced risk for cancer, stroke, heart disease and other illnesses.

It's an odd choice: "organic" or "other." Treter absolutely believes GE foods should be labeled and confirms industry fears when she says labels may discourage her from buying: "It would certainly make me think. …