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