The Weekly Report Cornerstone

   WEEK 8 Feb 12th to 18th 2001


   Fifteen years after the first plants genetically engineered to resist insects and disease took root, GE seeds are sprouting on almost 100 million acres of prime farmland around the world. By the silo-full and the truck-load, food companies buy up these harvests to use in everything from soft drinks to French fries to tomato soup. There's just one problem: fewer people want to eat them.
   You pick up a few items for dinner. You might scan the label for calories, fat or maybe fiber. But what about the ingredients you might be eating that you can't read about? Chances are that bag of tortillas in your cart contains corn whose genes were manipulated to kill insects. In fact, the growth of genetically engineered crops is at an all-time high. Last year, nearly 100 million acres were planted, more than 70 million of which filled the fields of the United States. And those harvests are filling the shelves of your local grocery store.
   It is these unlabelled but ubiquitous smidgens that have some consumers nervous. In Europe, the opposition to genetically engineered foods has boiled for years. In the United States, it has just begun to simmer.
   And it is not just the major grain crops that are being engineered. Genetically engineered canola, chicory, corn, cotton, flax, papayas, potatoes, soybeans, squash, sugarbeets, radishes and tomatoes are all grown for the commercial food supply. Others such as rice, wheat, strawberries, apples and even walnuts are being planted on test sites. Most of these crops are still fairly small-scale. Engineered potatoes, for example, account for less than 5 percent of the potatoes grown in the country, squash less than 10 percent.
   While corn and soybeans dominate the genetically engineered food arena, other foods are coming into play.
   Two crops dominate this food industry. More than half of the U.S. soybean crop and one third of the corn crop is genetically engineered. Together, they covered more than 60 million acres of U.S. farmland in 1999. Used to make snacks, cereals, vegetables oils, soft drinks and countless other products, these grains are found in "about 60 to 70 percent of packaged foods," according to Hansen.
   In July, a coalition of environmental and consumer groups launched the latest campaign, pressuring food giants Kellogg and Campbell's to remove altered ingredients from their products.
   While people are worried about environmental threats to wildlife and plants, human health seems to stand out as the greatest concern, according to Simon Harris, West Coast field organizer for the Organic Consumers Association. His group is trying to establish a moratorium on genetically engineered foods until they are proven safe. "Ask the FDA-there are no long-term studies on the effects of eating [engineered] foods," he says. "There are a lot of unanswered questions."
   And the issue is not just about labeling. "Most people don't want them at all," Harris notes. "They see it as a ploy by industry to ram something down our throats that we don't need."
   Some companies are listening. Frito-Lay stopped using engineered corn in its chips, Gerber Products and Heinz banned engineered ingredients from their baby food, and McDonald's asked its suppliers to stop shipping genetically altered potatoes-as did McCain Foods, the world's largest producer of french fries. Last month, Novartis, one of the world's leading agricultural biotechnology companies, announced that it had eliminated genetically engineered ingredients from all of its food products.
   Yet none of these companies is actually abandoning biotechnology. The agricultural division of Novartis continues to sell genetically modified seeds. PepsiCo, Frito Lay's parent company, still uses corn syrup made from engineered crops for its soft drinks. And McDonald's still cooks its fries in oil made from genetically altered corn and soy.
   According to the big food producers, that's because genetically engineered crops are so pervasive. There's simply no system to segregate them from other crops. Many companies say they do not even know whether or not their product contains engineered ingredients.

   The insanity of genetic "modification"







To PageOne

Entered 2001-02-18