I’d like to know why Americans aren’t more skeptical of these GM crops. Why we are so quick to accept studies, put out by the industry, that assure us they’re safe to eat? In the industrialized world our population is the fatest and sickest. Our life expectancy, in some demographics, is decreasing. Allergies are going through the roof. Could it be tied to the low quality, pesticide and antibiotic laden food we’re eating? Just asking….
GMO debate stretches from farm to table
While proponents feel public will accept biotech food, others fear resistance
By JOHN O’CONNELL
Among the 20 genetically modified crops now awaiting USDA approval, two stand out — a new potato and an apple.
While most of the biotech crops being evaluated will be fed to livestock or crushed for biofuel feedstock, the potato and apple are intended for human consumption, sparking keen interest among both the farmers who will grow them and the public who will eat them.
Simplot Plant Sciences introduced the biotech potato, called Innate, that is engineered to resist browning and black spot disease and to have fewer sugars and acrylamide, a substance linked to cancer and is produced when a potato is fried.
A Canadian company, Summerland, B.C.-based Okanagan Specialty Fruits, introduced Arctic apples, which stay white after slicing. That makes them good for a variety of uses such as packaged apple slices and to be served in restaurants.
But even as regulators at USDA and consumers at local grocery stores consider those and other biotech food crops, the recent discovery of unauthorized genetically modified wheat growing in an Oregon field has escalated the intensity of the debate over genetically modified crops. USDA investigators have yet to figure out how the biotech wheat got into the field and how widespread it might be. Overseas wheat buyers have delayed some purchases of soft white wheat and are testing the shipments they receive for genetic modification.
Okanagan president Neal Carter believes consumers will accept more genetically modified foods.
“The consumer doesn’t know much about agriculture, period,” Carter said. “It’s only when it becomes a media story that it gathers attention. Three trillion servings of GMO foods have been served without a single health incident. At some point, people have to realize the safety thing is just not a concern.”
Though 60 to 70 percent of U.S. processed foods contain at least one biotech ingredient, Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, which opposes genetically modified crops, doubts consumers will turn a blind eye to genetic engineering in basic staples such as potatoes and apples.
Freese points out that biotech rice was approved but remains shelved. In the U.S., consumers haven’t welcomed the herbicide-resistant rice, and abroad, opponents including the Greenpeace environmental group have convinced developing nations not to feed malnourished citizens golden rice, a vitamin A-rich biotech variety.
“There is absolutely no question that the public has set a higher bar for staple crops,” Freese said. “About three-quarters of GMO crops (under development) are still herbicide-resistant corn, soy and cotton — the same crops they’ve been working with all along.”
Genetically modified crops are often referred to as genetically modified organisms — GMOs — genetically engineered, biotech or transgenic.
While opponents remain confident about the public’s feelings on GMOs, polls that Simplot and Okanagan commissioned reveal far greater acceptance to GMO staples.
A Simplot study of 1,000 consumers found 60 percent support general GMO technology, 91 percent approve of Simplot’s Innate method and 93 percent are comfortable with traditional breeding. Simplot has emphasized that its technology introduces only genes from other potatoes, rather than different species, to silence expression of specific traits.
In its study, Okanagan, which uses a similar approach to incorporate only other apple genes to silence browning traits in its Arctic apple, found 78 percent of 1,000 consumers were neutral, somewhat likely or extremely likely to buy the product after hearing about it, and only 12 percent were not at all likely to buy it. Nonetheless, industry groups including the U.S. Apple Association and the Northwest Horticultural Council have come out against the Arctic apple, fearing it might turn off some consumers.
As for potatoes, Freese recalls Monsanto’s Colorado potato beetle-resistant GM spud NewLeaf, released in 2000 and discontinued a few years later based on trade partners’ concerns. In general, consumers in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are wary of GM food.
Rupert, Idaho, grower Duane Grant was among the farmers who planted NewLeaf and intends to plant Innate as soon as possible. He believes the reaction to the Oregon wheat issue doesn’t reflect on other GMOs.
“The Innate potato, once they go through the regulatory process, it would be legal, and then distinctly different than Roundup Ready wheat,” Grant said. “If the consumer has a choice of a healthier potato, and healthier as a result of genetic modification that brings no additional risk to the table, the consumer will make an informed decision to buy it.”
By contrast, Freese believes the GM wheat controversy will fuel support for GMO labeling ballot initiatives. Connecticut recently approved the nation’s first labeling law, which would only take effect after at least four other states, including a neighboring state, enact similar requirements, and Washington will vote on a similar proposal in November. An Oregon initiative is in the early stages.
“There have been GMO labeling initiatives in dozens of states. That’s unprecedented,” Freese said.