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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

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15 May 2000

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 1, No. 18

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Labeling Bio-Engineered Foods Would Be a Disaster

by Jerome F. Winzig

Consumer food products are labeled in many ways. Brand names are followed by informative names, such as saltine crackers, sweetened corn cereal, granola bars, ginger soda, barley, and salad dressing. Brand names are supplemented by words that encourage us to choose the product, such as "original," "natural fruit flavors," "moist and chewy", "low calorie," "medium pearled", and "light". Trademarked marketing terms are also used, such as "premium," "berry berry," "chewy," "barrel aged, bold taste," "scotch brand," and "light original ranch."

In addition, packaged food products in the United States have two federally required labels. The "nutrition facts" label provides detailed information about calories fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, and protein. The "ingredients" label lists all the foods and additives used to make that product.

However, food manufacturers are not required to disclose everything that goes into food production. If cocoa butter is used in a product, the label doesn't have to indicate whether the cocoa was harvested from cocoa beans in Latin America or Africa. If high fructose corn syrup is used, the label isn't required to tell whether the syrup was made from hybrid corn. If salt is an ingredient, the label doesn't report how it was mined. If water is used, the label doesn't say whether well water or city water was used, or whether the water was treated with fluoride or chlorine. If wheat is an ingredient, the label doesn't indicate whether the wheat was treated with pesticides. If sugar is used, the label doesn't tell whether it was made from sugar beets or sugar cane.

Why then is there an impassioned effort on the part of some people to have governments all over the world require labels that indicate whether food products consist of foods that have been genetically modified? Why are some of the news media promoting this as a consumer concern? Why are some editorial writers endorsing government-required labeling of genetically modified foods without regard for the significant costs and serious ramifications for the earth's food supply?

Some of the concern about genetically modified foods is well-meaning. Some is motivated by political power. Some is driven by a generalized fear of science. However, regardless of motivation, much of the concern about bio-engineering is also characterized by ignorance. But this issue is too important to ignore such ignorance, and two misconceptions are key.

The first is that genetic engineering is something radically new, and one we could easily do without. It is not. The methods may be new, but the processes are not. Human beings have been selecting and cross-breeding plants and animals to obtain desirable traits since the beginning of human agriculture thousands of years ago. For most of this time, however, the logic underlying the inheritance of traits was not understood very well.

In the 1860s, the Austrian biologist Gregor Mendel demonstrated the results of plant heredity. He did so by hybridizing different varieties of peas and examining how traits such as flower and seed color, seed and pod shape, flower position, and plant height changed in subsequent generations. He showed that through controlled cross-pollination, characteristics could be inherited in a logical and predictable manner.

After Mendel, other researchers made further progress. In England in 1905, Roland Biffin's experiments on two varieties of wheat showed that the ability to resist infection by a rust fungus was inherited. His discovery encouraged farmers and plant breeders to intensify their efforts to produce pest-resistant crops. Today, blight resistant traits from a Mexican potato species have been introduced into over half of all potatoes. Blight-resistant corn, rust-resistant wheat, and aphid-resistant alfalfa have also been noteworthy successes.

In 1907 in the United States, Erwin Smith and C.O. Townsend discovered that a serious plant disease called crown gall was caused by a soil bacteria. In 1947, U.S. plant pathologist Armin Braun discovered that crown gall could grow in a mixture of salts and sugar and concluded that the bacteria had transformed the plant cells into tumor cells. In 1974, Flemish scientists Jeff Schell and Marc Van Montagu isolated the tumor-inducing genes in the crown gall bacteria. In 1977, microbiologists Eugene Nester, Milton Gordon, and Mary-Dell Chilton at the University of Washington determined that the genes in the bacteria were transferred into the chromosomes of the plant cells.

In other words, gene transfer already occurs in nature. Scientists began to wonder whether, since bacteria can introduce undesirable genes into plants, it might be possible to introduce different genes that would produce desirable traits such as pest-resistance, higher yields, or improved flavor.

This ongoing progress in agricultural improvement has been enormously important. Without it, billions of people would most likely be starving today. In the last 50 years, yields of corn, wheat, and sorghum have roughly tripled, and yields of soybeans, cotton, and rice have roughly doubled. It is estimated that genetic improvements in hybrid varieties account for about 80 percent of the increase in corn yields from 1930 to 1980, more than 50 percent of the increase in soybean yields since 1920, 50 percent of the increase in wheat yields from 1954 to 1979, 40 percent of the increase in sorghum yields from 1950 to 1980, and as much as 80 percent of the increase in potato yields from 1967 to 1990. Those huge increases have made it possible for food production to grow faster than the world's population.

The second key misconception about bio-engineering is that it would be easy and cheap for the federal government to mandate labeling of all genetically modified foods. It would not. In 1999, 57 percent of the American soybean crop and 33 percent of the corn crop were genetically modified. Other products that are genetically engineered include cheese, canola, cotton, milk, peanuts, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes.

The costs of producing duplicate collection, processing, and distribution mechanisms for all of our food products boggle the mind. It would require separate grain elevators, cattle yards, hog farms, and dairy farms. It would necessitate separate facilities for milling flour, processing livestock, producing corn syrup, making vitamins, and packing frozen and canned foods. Finally, it would mean doubling the number of products in the grocery store, including produce, meats, beverages, cereals, baked goods, condiments, vitamins, and pet foods, to name but a few.

The costs would be staggering in other ways as well. Many farmers, food producers, and food distributors would be pressured into dropping the use of genetically modified foods. McDonalds' Restaurants have already announced they will no longer use genetically modified potatoes for their French fries, thereby excluding half of all potato growers, and Frito-Lay has announced it will no longer use genetically modified corn, thereby excluding 57 percent of all U.S. corn growers.

This has enormous possible repercussions that go well beyond McDonalds' fries and Frito-Lay's chips. It's a lot more serious than the hysteria of affluent consumers in Europe, Japan, and the United States. From 1948 to 1994, agricultural productivity in the U.S. alone increased at an average rate of more than 1.9 percent, almost twice the rate of growth for the non-farm economy. Many other parts of the world have seen similar growth.

But if that rate of growth is halted, the results for the world would be fearsome, for the world needs more food. Net cereal imports by developing countries will need to double between 1995 and 2020, and net imports of meat will need to increase eight-fold. Even if Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and Australia substantially increase their net exports, 60 percent of the net cereal imports in 2020 will come from the United States.

Because of increases in agricultural productivity, there have been phenomenal gains in worldwide nutrition levels over the last fifty years. Even so, 135 million children under the age of five are projected to remain hungry in 2020. If a label-induced wave of fear and disruption halts humankind's agricultural improvements, that number will be much, much higher. That threat is far more substantial than the imagined terrors of bio-engineered foods.

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