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Are biotech crops sowing seeds of dispute?


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Key research still needed

Fear of 'Frankenfood'?

Biotech crops already here

Needed: facts not science fiction

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(CNN) -- From a taco shell recall to new organic food standards that exclude genetically modified crops, the science of biotech agriculture is increasingly under fire.

But experts tell CNN that support for biotech-based agriculture is strong and that GM crops, if they're regulated properly, could solve most of the world's hunger problems.

"In certain parts of the world, especially in developing countries, farmers are increasingly going to have to expand their output," said Shanthu Shantharam, a researcher at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, which works on ways to meet the food needs of developing nations.

"They will have a very handy tool in biotech farming to enhance their output."

The debate over genetically engineered foods is growing. Some of the benefits and risks:

More information from AsiaWeek
(Source: AsiaWeek)

During the year 2000, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, said it had received requests for assistance or policy advice in planting biotech crops from Malaysia, Jamaica, Namibia, Libya, Paraguay, Ecuador and dozens of other countries.

Key research still needed

But huge questions remain before biotech crops become a key component in feeding the world's hungry. Who will regulate the transfer of GM crop science from the lab to the field to the grocery shelf? Are there any remaining questions about adverse reactions in certain humans when they consume biotech food? Will widespread use of biotech agriculture impact the environment in ways we don't fully understand?

Recently, a group of U.S. scientists argued that some of these unanswered questions were too important to ignore.

"A review of existing scientific literature reveals that key experiments on both the environmental risks and benefits are lacking," wrote LaReesa Wolfenbarger, an ecologist and co-author of a U.S. status report on GM food published in the journal Science. The study found GM crops have the potential for both risks and benefits, but its authors ruled fiddling with the DNA of world crops is too dangerous without more study.

One example cited in the Science report -- the need for more tests to be able to detect the accidental creation of pesticide-resistant "super-weeds" that could overrun important crops.

Questions about biotech food risks aren't entirely new. Since the last century, humans have crossbred plants to make them tastier or hardier or to give them some other desired quality. In the last 20 years, new DNA technology has given researchers the ability to remove individual genes from one species to insert them into another.

Fear of 'Frankenfood'?

The public's unease over this melding of the hi-tech world and food reached the forefront in the mid-1990s when some shoppers balked at the first full-scale GM crop -- the Flavr-Savr, a tomato bolstered with another organism's gene in order to give the fruit a longer shelf life.

In Europe, the backlash against GM food over the past few years has reached the fervor once reserved for nuclear power plants. Some grocery stores and restaurants have proclaimed themselves "GM free" and protestors warn of "Frankenfoods", as the British tabloids are prone to call biotech food.

Scientists and regulators say GM food has already made its way into most people's breakfast, lunch and dinner -- in some form or another. By 1999, in fact, about half the U.S. soybean crop and 25 percent of the corn crop was genetically altered, either to make the crops resistant to weedkillers or to produce their own internal "bio-pesticides."

"We're in new territory and this is a complex issue," said Margaret Wittenberg, of Whole Foods Market, a major organic food retailer. Wittenberg serves on a U.S. Department of Agriculture advisory committee on agricultural biotechnology.

Officials at the World Health Organization said they have yet to develop a blanket policy on whether biotech crops could help or harm world crops. But WHO has released a statement urging GM crop scientists and policy officials to "consider the health benefits as well as possible negative health implications."

Many farmers fear a consumer backlash. The largest U.S. farm group agreed recently to push food regulators to adopt a single approval process for both animals and humans when evaluating GM crop seeds to prevent massive recalls like the one related to StarLink biotech corn.

Biotech crops already here

Delegates at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting said they wanted crops approved for all uses rather than for limited use such as animal feed -- as happened with StarLink. They also called for tags on seed bags to guarantee seed purity.

StarLink somehow made its way into human food supplies even though the corn variety has not been approved for human consumption due to questions that one of its biotech proteins might be allergenic.

The biotech industry, however, insists there's no need for concern.

"We've been field testing these (GM) crops for some 13 years," said Gary Barton, a researcher at the agribusiness giant Monsanto. "Last year alone, there were over 100 million acres of these crops grown all over the world and in many continents."

Michael Hage, a FAO spokesman in Washington, said UN officials are "transferring agricultural biotechnology -- in one way or another -- to well over 50 countries in response to official requests. This ranges from plant tissue culture" to performing DNA tests to troubleshoot crop disease.

And more benefits are waiting to be seeded. GM food scientists have already developed a yellow rice, or "golden" rice, that is rich in vitamin A and iron and helps prevent anemia and blindness, especially in children. Farmers in developing countries who adopt these crops could help whole populations avoid serious nutritional deficiencies.

Barton said Monsanto had already begun working with officials in Africa, Kenya, India and the Philippines to share the company's biotech food technology after farmers in those countries became interested in the possible benefits.

Needed: facts not science fiction

But environmental activists and others have urged caution. Rebecca Goldburg is a senior scientist at Environmental Defense, a New York-based nonprofit group that champions the scientific, economic and legal aspects of environmental protection. She is among those who hope the issue forces regulators to put a better system in place to monitor GM foods.

"We desperately need a science-based, peer review program," Goldburg said.

Many farmers believe that biotech crops won't hurt humans, experts said, but in the end they're going follow what consumers say they want. The WHO said it hopes to pinpoint some answers after holding a GM food and allergy conference going on this week in Rome.

The politics of the issue have already become explosive.

In the first week of January, Canada blamed Europe and the United States for dashing hopes of feeding the world's poor by sticking with protectionist policies and adopting what it felt were ill-informed attitudes toward GM foods.

Canadian agriculture minister Lyle Vanclief said biotech food fears were crowding out the possible benefits.

"The old ways of doing business clearly are not working in everyone's favor," Vanclief said. "That is not to say consumers shouldn't have a choice. But the choice should be based on science -- not fiction."

Report: Regulation system allows genetically-modified foods to enter food supply -- January 11, 2001
Expert: StarLink biotech corn a test case for regulatory needs
November 30, 2000
Should you fear franken-corn?
November 10, 2000
Scope of biotech corn product recall revealed
November 1, 2000
In defense of gene-spliced corn
October 13, 2000

World Health Organization -- Biotech Foods
International Food Policy Research Institute
Biotechnology Industry Organization
Greenpeace -- Genetic Engineering
Greenpeace -- UK Shopper's Guide to GM Food
Aventis site on StarLink
Environmental Protection Agency

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