So What Do You Think?

Article excerpt

Opening Communication on Genetically Engineered Foods

Many Cornell researchers and extension educators are actively involved in addressing concerns about genetically engineered foods. But what are their personal thoughts about the risks and benefits of this technology?

As genetically engineered products like Round-up Ready soybeans, Flavr Savr tomatoes, Bt-corn, and Bt-potatoes make their way from the laboratory to our grocery store shelves, people are questioning the advantages and perils of genetic engineering. Are genetically engineered foods safe to eat? Will they harm the environment? Will they be a magic bullet against hunger and malnutrition? Will they reduce the need for pesticides?

Researchers at universities like Cornell play a key role in advancing the science and sorting out and answering these questions. In addition to their technical and scientific expertise, they bring their own perspectives, values, and beliefs to the research process. So what do these scientists and educators think about the technology they're investigating? Is there a common understanding of the potential risks and benefits? Is there a consistent voice for educating the public on the issues surrounding agricultural genetic engineering?

Jennifer Wilkins, a senior extension associate in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, turned to Cornell faculty and Cornell Cooperative Extension educators to get a pulse on how they view the technology. She conducted a study of viewpoints before the fall 1999 agriculture and food system in service education on genetically engineered foods and crops. Wilkins' research team included Vivica Kraak, research nutritionist, David Pelletier, professor of nutrition policy, Christine McCullum, doctoral candidate, and Ulla Uusitallo, doctoral student.

According to Wilkins, one of the primary responsibilities of a land-grant university like Cornell is to facilitate open communication on timely issues. A range of viewpoints should be accepted especially at Cornell because the university is a major center of research on genetic engineering and has an extension system that informs the public about the technology.

"If we're going to have a constructive dialog, one of the first things to work on is discovering how we talk about this topic and deciding what the salient issues are," Wilkins says.

People's viewpoints will be shaped by their values, experiences, and beliefs as well as their awareness and understanding of science-based facts, Wilkins adds. And while scientific research will address some of the concerns related to the technology, some of the ethical and social concerns will need to be addressed in other, more participatory ways.

Wilkins' study of 223 on-campus faculty and off-campus extension educators across New York State characterized the viewpoints of this highly educated group on the genetic engineering of foods. The study participants were given 48 statements, each on one of eight complex issues that surround the research, development, and application of this technology: public health, environmental sustainability, consumer aspects, agriculture and the food system, food security, animal welfare, land-grant university responsibilities, and regulatory and policy processes. They were asked to sort the statements according to levels of agreement and disagreement.

Based on their responses, Wilkins found that the participants fell into three distinct viewpoints: precautionary, promoter, and cautious supporter. The majority held either the precautionary or promoter perspectives.

Those with a precautionary viewpoint toward genetically engineered foods are most concerned with the consumers' "right to know." They want food labels that distinguish genetically engineered foods from non-genetically engineered foods. They disagree with the claim that genetically engineered food crops are essential to solving global food insecurity and micronutrient deficiency diseases. …