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

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2 October 2000

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 1, No. 38

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Taco Shell Recall Is Frivolous Rich Country Luxury

by Jerome F. Winzig

On September 18, a newly-formed U.S. anti-biotechnology organization demanded an immediate nationwide recall of all taco shells marketed under Kraft Food's Taco Bell label. It was only the second pronouncement for the group, Genetically Engineered Food Alert (GEFA), which launched itself just two months ago with a demand that Campbell Soup and Kellogg's remove all genetically engineered ingredients from their products.

GEFA said it had tested some taco shells and discovered they contained StarLink corn, a variety of genetically-engineered corn not yet approved by the EPA for direct human consumption. GEFA did not say what percentage of the corn used in the taco shells was StarLink corn, but the Associated Press reported that GEFA's tests had found "traces of the corn." GEFA said that StarLink corn, which is approved for animal consumption, contains a gene called cry9c, which "exhibits some characteristics of known allergens." That is, it is "heat stable and resistant to stomach acids and enzymes;" therefore, GEFA went on, it might potentially cause nausea and worse in those with hypersensitivity to certain proteins (such as those allergic to peanuts or peas).

Dr. Steve L. Taylor, head of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, disagrees with GEFA's assessment: "First and foremost, the Bt protein produced from the cry9c gene (Bt cry9c) in Starlink corn is NOT allergenic. Since Bt cry9c has never been in the human diet previously, it is virtually impossible for any consumer to have an existing allergy to Bt cry9c. Allergic sensitization to a novel protein, like Bt cry9c, newly introduced into the human diet would require multiple exposures over some extended period of time." Nonetheless, on September 22, Kraft caved in to GEFA's scare tactics and announced a total recall of several million packages of taco shells.

Fueled by highly-organized anti-biotechnology fanatics, encouraged by the statements of a few entertainment celebrities, and publicized by a news media which knows that fear sells, such frivolous food panics are becoming more common. In Europe, the use of whole crops is being outlawed in response to these orchestrated attacks. Some anti-biotechnology groups would like to see such bans instituted in the United States and would like to outlaw the export of biotechnology to Africa and Asia.

In spite of this media blitz in the West, some African leaders don't share the American and European sense of panic about biotechnology. In a recent Washington Post article entitled, "We'll Feed Our People As We See Fit," Hassan Adamu, Nigeria's minister of agricultural and rural development, wrote:

"It is possible to kill someone with kindness, literally. That could be the result of the well-meaning but extremely misguided attempts by European and North American groups that are advising Africans to be wary of agricultural biotechnology. They claim to have the environment and public health at the core of their opposition, but scientific evidence disproves their claims that enhanced crops are anything but safe. If we take their alarmist warnings to heart, millions of Africans will suffer and possibly die."

Adamu goes on, "To deny desperate, hungry people the means to control their futures by presuming to know what is best for them is not only paternalistic but morally wrong." He says that starving people don't have the luxury of such practices as outlawing biotechnology and advocating organic farming. "They want food and nourishment, not lectures, and we certainly won't allow ourselves to be intimidated by eco-terrorists who destroy test crops and disrupt scientific meetings that strive to reveal the facts."

Another African leader, Florence Wambugu, director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications in Nairobi, Kenya, points out that the biotechnology lambasted by groups such as GEFA has the potential for alleviating the very kinds of allergens cited in its Taco Bell press releases. Wambugu says, "In the future, biotechnology may be able to reduce or remove allergens from wheat, rice, peanuts and other foods, which could free millions of people from restricted diets or life-threatening allergic reactions."

Wambugu, who is extremely skeptical about the fuss over genetically-modified crops, says, "Many of these concerns have nothing to do with food safety." She points out that such foods are eaten daily in the United States, Australia, Canada, and Mexico with "no reported undue effects" and blames a "strong anti-biotechnology lobby that actively promotes misinformation and fear." Wambugu says Africa needs access to herbicide-resistant crops, "'We could liberate so many people if our crops were resistant to herbicides that we could then spray on the surrounding weeds. Weeding enslaves Africans; it keeps children from school."

Some in the United States are also beginning to resist the anti-biotechnology scare tactics. The Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation has just announced a $41.5 million grant over the next nine years to expand its focus on agricultural science. In its announcement, McKnight calls the outcry over genetically-modified foods "a creation of the well-fed privileged classes in Europe and North America." McKnight's web site quotes environmental writer Richard Manning, author of "Food's Frontier: The Next Green Revolution," to dismiss the argument that genetic engineering is unnatural: "From lop-eared rabbits to wine grapes, artificial forms of life as a result of human-engineered selection surround us. Every form of life we call domestic has a genetic makeup that is artificial as a result of human activity."

Perhaps these voices of reason will be heard above the cacophony of shrill anti-biotechnology fanatics in rich Western nations. It is no small matter to Africa, which, as Wambugu points out, missed the "green revolution" and cannot afford to miss out on the current biotechnology revolution.

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