TCS Daily

You're Eating Genetically-Modified Food

By James Freeman - April 10, 2000 12:00 AM

There's no escape. The milk on your Cheerios this morning came from a genetically-modified cow. The Cheerios themselves featured genetically-modified whole grain goodness. At lunch your french fries came from genetically-modified potatoes, along with that bucket of genetically-modified fried chicken. If you don't have meetings this afternoon, maybe you'll wash it all down with the finest genetically-modified hops, grains and barley, brewed to perfection - or, if you're drinking Schaefer, at least to completion.

Everybody's doing it. When a rancher in Wyoming selected his stud bull to mate with a certain cow to produce the calf that ultimately produced milk on your breakfast table, he was manipulating genes. Sorry, but you get the point.

Long before you were born, farmers were manipulating genes to create more robust plants. Genetic modification used to be called "breeding," and people did it for centuries without controversy. Thomas Jefferson did it at Monticello, as he experimented in his gardens with hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables.

"Breeding" isn't a scary word, though, so people who oppose biotechnology came up with "genetic modification." And the critics are waging a very successful campaign, especially in Europe where they've managed to limit the availability of "genetically modified" foods. Even in the US, where we generally embrace technology and its possibilities, the fear is spreading. Not because of horrible events related to the food supply - the news is good and getting better, with lower prices and more abundant food.

As for the future, the potential to reduce human suffering is enormous. According to the World Health Organization, more than one million kids die each year because they lack Vitamin A in their diets. Millions more go blind. WHO estimates that more than one billion people suffer from anemia, caused by iron deficiency. What if biotechnology firms could provide rice or corn plants with all of the essential vitamins for children?

Critics remain focused on the dangers of genetically-modified crops. The Environmental Protection Agency wants to regulate the use of bio-engineered corn seeds because they include a resistance to pests. Specifically, the seeds are bred to include a toxin called BT that kills little creatures called corn borers. With BT, farmers don't need to spray pesticides.

But it turns out, according to the EPA, that the toxin in the corn can also kill Monarch butterflies. The butterflies don't eat corn, of course, but the EPA is afraid that the corn pollen will blow over and land on a milkweed and confused Monarch caterpillars will then inadvertently eat the pollen.

Not exactly the end of the world, but it sounds bad. Until you consider the alternatives. According to Professor Nina Fedoroff, Willaman Professor of Life Sciences at Penn State, "A wide-spectrum pesticide sprayed from a plane is going to kill a lot more insects than will be killed by an in-plant toxin."

Most biotech opponents will admit that they don't like pesticides either. They promote organic farming, which would oblige farmers to use more land and clear more wilderness. We would also pay more for food, if we chose not to employ the efficiencies that come from technology. Maybe not a problem for most Americans, but big-time bad news for millions of malnourished kids around the world.

Says Fedoroff, "I think that most inhabitants of contemporary urban societies don't have a clue about how tough it is to grow enough food for the human population in competition with bacteria, fungi, insects and animals and in the face of droughts, floods, and other climatic variations."

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