Playing God with Potatoes: Consumers Want to Know When They're Eating Genetically Altered Food-But the Subject of Labeling Is Controversial

By Farquhar, Doug; Bigger, Crystal | State Legislatures, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Playing God with Potatoes: Consumers Want to Know When They're Eating Genetically Altered Food-But the Subject of Labeling Is Controversial


Farquhar, Doug, Bigger, Crystal, State Legislatures


The Vermont House Agriculture committee just wanted to pass a labeling law. It wanted dairy manufacturers to label products containing milk from cows that had been given a genetic growth hormone.

But a federal judge saw it differently and ruled that dairy manufacturers have a First Amendment right "not to speak." The Vermont law, according to the judge, takes no position on whether or not this genetic growth hormone is harmful to the public. The law simply sought to provide consumers with information on whether dairy products contain a genetically modified hormone. Therefore, the state lacked sufficient need to force manufacturers to speak, the judge ruled.

"The case had a chilling effect on laws related to biotechnology," says Vermont Legislative counsel Sam Burr, who is an organic farmer. "Legislative bills the public wants on biotechnology have languished."

Biotechnology refers to the transfer of genes from one species to another. Take the resistant qualities of one plant, such as a potato bacteria lethal to insects, and add it to the genes of another, such as corn, creating a new species: bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt) corn. Such corn requires one-fifth less pesticides, meaning less chemical spraying and fewer health and environmental hazards.

But experiments have shown that Monarch butterfly caterpillars die after eating Bt corn pollen. Bioengineered corn approved for animal use slipped through regulatory protections and found its way into taco shells.

"Consumers want to know and should know what they are putting into their mouths," argues Senator John Nutting, a dairy farmer from Maine.

Do states have sufficient interest to regulate genetically modified organisms? Will this science harm species, like Monarch butterflies, if organisms escape into environments where they have no natural controls? Can they transfer their genetic traits to native plants and animals, thereby causing environmental or health problems? Will they serve as a source of new plant, animal or human diseases? Can there be unexpected or undesirable results altering ecosystems?

Or will these organisms increase crop yields, offer greater flexibility in growth, allow for less use of chemical pesticides and improve nutritional content of food? Is genetics the savior of agriculture or the apocalypse?

INTO THE UNKNOWN

"We are changing the future in ways that are irreparable," says Maryland Delegate Dan Morhaim, a doctor who advocates a precautionary approach to biotechnology. "Certain species, like potatoes and corn, are not meant to cross-pollinate. DNA is to life like splitting the atom is to physics."

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the molecular code that carries the information of life. Genes are the segments of DNA that carry the instruction for a single protein. By transferring the genes of one organism into another, science is manipulating life.

Genes from toads have been bioengineered into potatoes, fish genes into tomatoes, carp genes into trout. When scientists tried to enhance the protein content of soybeans with Brazil nuts, they discovered an unexpected consequence--some people allergic to nuts became allergic to the engineered soybean. But the scientists caught this, and the soybean never entered the market.

Biotechnology's successes greatly outweigh the failures. Two-thirds of processed food comes from genetically altered crops. Almost all the corn grown in the United States, and most of the soy and cotton, come from genetically-modified seeds. Consumers have eaten bio-engineered food for years without knowing it and without complaint.

WHO REGULATES WHAT

Contrary to popular myth, the federal government does regulate biotech foods, just not through a single law or agency. Rather, biotechnology is regulated by current plant and animal inspection laws, laws regulating pesticides and toxic substances, and food safety laws governed by the U. …

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