A Bumper Crop of Alarmism: Rachel Carson would have loved this corn.
Why don't environmentalists?
WILLIAM TUCKER; The Weekly Standard, February 12, 2001
WHEN RACHEL CARSON wrote Silent Spring in 1962, she decried the use of
chemical sprays, arguing for more benign and natural "biological"
pesticides. One of her favorites was Bacillus thuringiensis, a common soil
bacterium that produces a crystalline spore lethal to some insects.
"Shortly after eating foliage coated with this toxin the larva suffers
paralysis, stops feeding, and soon dies," wrote Carson. "[This is] an
enormous advantage, for crop damage stops almost as soon as the pathogen
Under Carson's prodding, BT (as it is affectionately known to organic
gardeners) became more widely used in agriculture. Then in 1990, molecular
biologists isolated its insecticidal protein, dubbed Cry (for
"crystalline"). Through the new techniques of genetic engineering, they
were able to implant various strains of the Cry protein in the corn plant.
The result was an astonishing environmental coup. Now the corn plant
itself produces the pesticide. There is no more need for indiscriminate
chemical spraying. Non-harmful insects and other wildlife are spared,
since the protein acts only against insects trying to eat the plant -- in
this case the voracious European corn borer. With 18 percent of American
cornfields now planted with insect-resistant corn, pesticide spraying in
1999 declined for the first time in history.
You'd think champagne glasses would be clinking in the headquarters of
environmental organizations all over the country. But no,
environmentalists are opposed to the effort. What's more, their opposition
-- combined with weak-kneed science at the Environmental Protection Agency
-- is now ruining our export trade with Europe and Japan and may
eventually cost American farmers hundreds of billions of dollars.
The problem has arisen from a single variation of the protein -- Cry9C --
marketed under the brand name StarLink by Aventis CropScience, a French
conglomerate. Ordinarily, the introduction of new crop varieties requires
no approval from the Food and Drug Administration. In a bureaucratic
land-grab, however, the EPA has claimed jurisdiction over insecticidal
corn on the grounds that the plant itself is a "pesticide." (When the
first genetically modified crop, a frost-resistant strawberry, was
introduced in 1990, the EPA also grabbed control, claiming frost itself is
a "pest." The product never made it through testing.) BT corn developed by
Monsanto and several other companies passed muster. But Aventis's StarLink
gave pause. Most Cry proteins break down immediately in the human stomach,
but Cry9C was found to take about 30 to 60 minutes. This led the EPA to
speculate that it might cause an allergic reaction.
Others questioned this reasoning. Allergic reactions are triggered by
antibodies, but "it's highly unlikely that anyone would have ever
developed antibodies against a protein that human beings almost never
encounter," says Steve Taylor, head of the University of Nebraska's
Department of Food Science and Technology and a leading expert on food
allergens. "There is virtually no risk associated with the ingestion of
StarLink corn in this situation." Only about 2 percent of the population
suffers food allergies, usually involving the "big eight" (cow's milk,
eggs, peanuts, wheat, fish, crustaceans, soy, and tree nuts).
Nevertheless, guided by the "precautionary principle" -- a current
favorite of environmentalists that says, in effect, if you can't prove
when you wake up that nothing bad is going to happen to you, you should
spend the day in bed -- the EPA pronounced Cry9C "unfit for human
In a cow's alkaline stomach, on the other hand, Cry9C does break down
immediately. Therefore it was judged safe for animal consumption. In a
move everyone was later to regret, the EPA issued StarLink a "dual
registration" -- fit for animal feed but unfit for humans. "If anybody had
asked us, we would have told them it would be impossible to keep the two
separate," says Jim Bair, vice president of the North American Millers
Association. "But nobody asked us." Farmers started planting the variety
By 2000, BT corn made up 18 percent of the American corn crop. Aventis's
StarLink had a 3 percent share of the BT market, making it .5 percent of
the entire American crop. Last June, however, environmental groups became
suspicious that StarLink harvests weren't being segregated from other
corn. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth commissioned a sampling. Sure
enough -- traces of Cry9C showed up in Kraft Foods' Taco Bell taco shells
and Frito-Lay's Chee-tos. The FDA ordered a recall.
By October, the StarLink panic was causing major disruptions in the
Midwest. Cargill and several other wholesalers announced they would not
accept shipments of corn tainted with even one kernel in 400 of StarLink.
The problem was particularly acute for farm cooperatives, where crops from
neighboring farmers are ordinarily mixed together. Corn delivery trucks
spent hours outside grain elevators waiting for their crops to be tested.
ConAgra shut down several milling plants and spent weeks trying to clean
out the residues. Aventis quickly withdrew StarLink and has agreed to
compensate farmers for the damages -- generally estimated to begin around
$ 100 million.
In the United States, all this amounted to little more than a
run-of-the-mill environmental panic. (No cases of Cry9C allergy, it should
be noted, were ever reported.) But in Europe, it has become a major
international issue that may permanently affect trade relations between
the two continents. Europe has been in a snit for years over genetically
engineered food crops -- generally considered an "American technology" --
and in 1998 banned its own farmers from planting them. Meanwhile, half the
American diet now contains foods that have been in some small way
One factor in the European antipathy is bovine spongiform encephalopathy,
or mad cow disease. Although completely unrelated (it is a virus that
spreads when animal remains are used to feed other animals), mad cow
disease has become fused with genetic plant science under the rubric of
Perhaps more significant has been the fact that environmentalism, a
movement fundamentally aristocratic in its origins, finds much more
support in Europe among people in high stations. The principal opponent in
England has been Prince Charles, who has sworn that no genetically
modified food will touch the royal table. The prince's efforts have been
opposed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has warned of an
"anti-scientific attitude" and says genetically modified food products
will be necessary to feed the world's people. (Two of the strongest
supporters of modern genetic plant science in the United States are Jimmy
Carter and George McGovern, both involved in international humanitarian
Emboldened by royal and aristocratic approval, European environmentalists
have become much more violent in their opposition. Activists have
destroyed experimental plots and trashed laboratories. Last April, a
British jury acquitted 28 protesters from Greenpeace and other groups who
had dug up and destroyed a six-and-a-half-acre plot planted with Aventis
corn. "We have known for a long time that people don't want to eat [such]
food," said Lord Melchett, executive director of Greenpeace, one of the
accused. "The time has come to stop planting it."
The panic over StarLink brought fears to a boiling point. By October,
environmental groups were barricading Liverpool docks to prevent the
unloading of American corn. McDonald's Europe announced it would no longer
serve hamburgers made from cows that have supped on BT corn or similar
products. (Some of this has been encouraged by European farmers, as always
seeking protection from U.S. imports.) Similar barriers are now being
raised in Japan, which will start labeling genetically engineered food
this spring. "If consumer resistance develops, it's going to be a disaster
for American farmers," says Lynden Peter, executive director of the
American Corn Growers Association. The soybean crop -- now more than half
genetically engineered -- will be particularly at risk.
What is really at stake is the future of agricultural research.
Agronomists say it will be difficult if not impossible to improve crop
productivity without genetic engineering. Seeds for "golden rice," a new
variety developed for Third World countries, already sit in a
grenade-proof bunker in Switzerland awaiting the outcome of several patent
disputes plus litigation by environmentalists to stop its export. Golden
rice has been bred to produce beta-carotene, the precursor to Vitamin A.
Rice grown throughout the tropics does not produce Vitamin A, and tens of
millions of people suffer from vitamin-A deficiencies, causing blindness
in about half a million children every year. Yet environmentalists say
there is greater concern in the possibly unknown consequences of fiddling
with nature's handiwork.
Beneath the pseudo-science of environmentalism there has always been a
clear nature-worship. Anyone suggesting we can understand nature or
manipulate it to our advantage is thus flirting with sacrilege. Yet this
"precautionary principle" -- which environmentalists want to apply to all
technology -- has one fundamental flaw. It doesn't evaluate the costs of
excessive caution. As the EPA is proving to American farmers, staying in
bed all day carries its own risks.
William Tucker is the author of Progress and Privilege: America in the Age
From: Tony Jackson
Subject: Human genome surprises!
One of the more remarkable findings from the just published human genome
sequence is that several hundred human genes were apparently derived from
bacteria via horizontal gene transfer. It seems that each of us - yea,
even Lord Melchett - is a natural genetically modified organism.
Indian Government: Indo-Swiss co-op in Golden Rice Technology to help
millions suffering from vitamin-A deficiency
M2 PressWIRE , February 13, 2001
The Minister for Science and Technology Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi has said
that the Golden Rice Technology invented by the Swiss Prof. Ingo Potrykus,
can help millions of people suffering from vitamin-A deficiency (leading
to blindness), now that it is available with the freedom to operate and
develop its lines with increased vitamin-A content. This would benefit
over 12 million people suffering from vitamin-A deficiency in India alone.
Dr. Joshi was inaugurating here today an international symposium on
Indo-Swiss Collaboration in Biotechnology, organised by the Department of
Biotechnology (DBT)and the Swiss agency for Development and Cooperation
Dr. Joshi pointed out that this should be done through proper linkages and
partnerships taking into account all environmental risk factors, IPR
issues and other safeguards. Expressing satisfaction that the overall goal
of Indo-Swiss Co-operation in biotechnology being poverty alleviation, he
said development of products and processes useful in improving the
productivity of wheat and pulses would ensure food and nutritional
security. The challenge therefore is effective use of modern biology and
biotechnology and new ways of managing knowledge to make the complex
agricultural system in India more productive in a sustainable way. Calling
upon experts of both the sides to deliberate on various technological
issues concerning this, Dr. Joshi asked them to keep in mind that
re-inventing the wheel is not called for. Wherever technologies are
available, we should in fact share it, he said. He also laid stress on
sustainable consumption and science having ethical values and a human face.
The Indo-Swiss Co-operation in biotechnology has entered the second phase
after the successful first phase which saw fruitful co-operation in about
20 projects relating to bio-pesticides, bio-remediation, bio-resources,
bio- sensors and soil improvement related to wheat. New network projects
on regeneration and transformation of chick-pea and black-gram for
resistance to insects/pests as well as water/salt stress, are being
finalised. In addition, the two countries would also go in for a joint
research project for increased pro vitamin-A gene developed by Prof.
Potrykus. This technology and the materials could be utilised to transfer
the research project genes in Indian lines of rice by genetic engineering
as well as breeding in Indian institutes. Biotechnology has solutions for
many a problem and India is ready to share her knowledge and expertise
with other countries of the world which face similar problems like India,
Dr. Joshi said.
The Secretary, Department of Biotechnology Dr. Manju Sharma said that a
joint apex committee has been set up to monitor and recommend projects by
peer review, during the new phase of collaboration (1999-2004).
Accordingly, agriculture and environment have been chosen as broad areas
and wheat and pulses improvement through technology transfer, she said.
The Director General of SDC, Dr. Walter Fust said the two countries must
work for alleviation of poverty especially through research in
biotechnology. In a reference to Gujarat-quake, he said his Government
will continue to support India in the relief and rehabilitation programmes
in the quake-hit areas.
About 50 scientists from both sides including Dr. Ingo Potrykus are
attending the international symposium.
M2 Communications Ltd disclaims all liability for information provided
within M2 PressWIRE. Data supplied by named party/parties. Further
information on M2 PressWIRE can be obtained at http://www.presswire.net on
the world wide web. Inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org .
From: C Kameswara Rao
Subject: Golden rice
This is with reference to the "Fool's Gold" tag attached to golden rice.
While it is too hasty to project golden rice as a panacea to all
nutritional problems related to beta-carotene deficiency, it is ridiculous
to expect that any single food item should provide the entire requirement
of a particular nutrient. We are concerned with people who cannot afford
anything other than rice with green chillies and salt. If they can afford
they would certainly add green leafy vegetables and fruits to their diet,
even if it is not carrots. Recommending pills for nutritional
supplementation should attract the wrath of the organics, as pills are
Purified beta-carotene costs US$ 185/25 mg and one requires to take 5
There are about 160 species of plants used as food and/or medicine in
India, that contain varying amounts of beta-carotene. A large number of
green leafy vegetables are commonly used as in the other parts of the
world. In India the highest content of beta-carotene is in one of the
commonly used leafy vegetable amaranths (14.2mg/100g) and in taro leaves
(12.0mg/100g), both much higher than in carrots (5.7mg/100g), spinach
(5.5mg/100g) and beetroot (5.8mg/100g).
Can any one eat 100 g/day of any single vegetable? The staple grain such
as rice and wheat are the only ones that can be consumed at about
200-300g/day. We get our nutritional supplements by complementation of
several different sources. Fenugreek seed is very effective in controlling
diabetes but one cannot eat some 100g of the bitter seed/day, Concentrated
chemicals are a necessity in certain cases. No leukaemia patient can eat
1kg of vinca leaves to get the required dose of vincristine. The
beta-carotene content of golden rice should certainly be maximised.
Whatever beta-carotene is derived from golden rice is better than not
having any of it at all. A number of people would be certainly be
benefitted by whatever quantities of beta-carotene golden rice can
provide, as their deficiencies are not excessive.
I wonder what different NGOs were doing when the Indian Government is
forcing iodized salt, which is not needed by a very large section of the
- C Kameswara Rao
From: Red Porphyry
Subject: Re:Potrykus Responds to Greenpeace Criticism of 'Golden Rice'
Hey, what's this I hear about Greenpeace using my analysis of golden rice
without proper attribution, hmmm? :-) Seriously, though, the end result of
all my badgering the members of this list about golden rice seems to have
borne fruit. Everyone (except possibly Syngenta :-) now appears willing
to place the benefits of golden rice in their proper perspective with
respect to solving VAD in Asia. This is real progress--at least I think
so. By doing this, pro-GE foods advocates have regained some credibility.
That's why I think it's now important to build that credibility by not
getting carried away and over-hyping "edible vaccines"--particularly given
the fact that vaccine skin patches appear to be a very promising
alternative delivery system (and are already in human clinical trials, so
they're further along, research-wise). Bottom line, if pro-biotech
scientists want to retain credibility with the public, basic "truth in
advertising" principles should be adhered to. Otherwise, there are going
to be problems.
For anyone curious about on-going micronutrient fortification research
projects in Asia, the following web site may be of interest:
ITALIAN MINISTERS IN ROW OVER GENETICALLY-ALTERED CROPS February 12, 2001
Agence France Presse English International News
(Via Agnet: Douglas A Powell )
ROME, - According to this story, supporters and opponents of genetically
modified crops planned to take their cause to the streets in Rome Tuesday
as Italy's farming and health ministers became embroiled in a dispute over
whether to ban research in the field.
Health Minister Umberto Veronesi on Monday was cited as voicing support
for scientists who disagree with an four-month-old order by Agriculture
Minister Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio of the small ecological Greens party that
all open-air research into genetically-altered crops be discontinued.
During the rally scientists were cited as saying they would present a
"manifesto for the freedom of scientific research."
Veronesi was quoted as saying in an interview with the newspaper Corriere
della Sera that, "To limit or put a stop to biotechnologies is to halt the
course of history. I wonder who would want that," and that the manifesto
is a way of "rebelling against a particularly near-sighted Italian
Veronesi has likened Pecoraro Scanio's adamant opposition to genetically
modified crops to "that of the (Roman Catholic) Church to many questions
of life." The Greens party, in a separate protest, is planning to back the
farming minister's policies which it says are being pursued "in the name
From: Katie Thrasher
Following is the FDA report (up to Apendix 1 due to length) and the link
to the complete report located on the FDA web site.
Report on Consumer Focus Groups on Biotechnology*
U. S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied
Nutrition Office of Scientific Analysis and Support October 20, 2000
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the labeling of food
products, including foods that are produced through recombinant DNA
techniques ("bioengineered" foods). FDA published a policy in 1992 to
provide guidance to industry on scientific and regulatory issues related
to bioengineered foods. FDA did not establish special labeling
requirements for bioengineered foods. If a food, including a bioengineered
food, is significantly different from its conventional counterpart, for
example in terms of its nutritional value or because it introduced a known
allergen, this information is required in the labeling of the product.
Recently European and other countries have proposed labeling requirements
for foods that have been created through genetic modification techniques
or that contain ingredients that are genetically modified. These types of
foods have become of growing interest in the United States as well.
FDA conducted three public hearings in 1999 to hear the views of
consumers, producers and others. The information available on consumer
awareness and understanding of bioengineered foods is very limited.
Surveys in the U.S. have shown growing concern but also limited factual
knowledge. There are a variety of terms that are in use to describe foods
produced through bioengineering, such as "genetically engineered,"
"genetically modified," "genetically modified organism (GMO)," "modern
biotechnology," "foods derived through biotechnology," "bioengineered
foods," and "food derived through recombinant DNA techniques."
FDA conducted a series of consumer focus groups in Spring 2000 to help
better understand how U.S. consumers think about these issues. The focus
groups were designed to provide insight into consumers' awareness of foods
produced through biotechnology, their familiarity and understanding of
possible terms for describing these foods, and their reactions to options
for identifying whether foods are or are not products of bioengineering.
Twelve groups were conducted between May 10-24, 2000 in four cities:
Calverton, Maryland; Burlington, Vermont; Seattle, Washington; and Kansas
City, Missouri. The cities were selected to provide a broad representation
of geographical and cultural diversity. Participants were recruited from
the general population. The three groups at each site were composed of a
mix of males and females of varying ages and ethnicity representing the
makeup of the local community. One group at each site was defined as
concerned about biotechnology on the basis of screening questions. (See
Screener in Appendix 1).
The final moderator's guide is included in Appendix 2. Refinements were
made to the guide over the course of groups. After the first set of groups
in Maryland, a handout was added that showed examples of foods that
contain genetically modified ingredients (see Appendix 3). Other handouts
consisted of descriptions of possible types of food modified through
biotechnology, examples of terms or phrases that could be used to identify
foods/ingredients produced through biotechnology, and terms or phrases
that could be used on foods that are not (or do not contain ingredients)
produced through biotechnology. These are included in the moderator's
The discussions generally followed the following progression:
1. Prior assumptions and attitudes about genetically modified foods, such
as overall awareness, familiarity with terms, and concerns and issues
related to bioengineered food, including views about labeling.
2 .Reactions to information on prevalence of bioengineered foods in the
U. S. marketplace.
3. Reactions to various labeling options for bioengineered foods and
foods not produced through bioengineering.
A. Consumer Expectations and Beliefs
The groups discussed the general topic of bioengineering of foods and
their understanding of what this encompasses. Participants demonstrated an
uneven knowledge and understanding of bioengineered foods. On the one
hand, they have heard a fair amount about the uses of biotechnology in the
context of medical and drug research and other areas, and they are not
surprised that biotechnology is being applied to foods. On the other hand,
most were vague about the details. Few participants could report on any
direct product experience with foods produced by biotechnology. Some had
heard that other countries in Europe did not want to import these types of
American foods but most of these participants were uncertain why. Very few
participants had any sense of what recombinant DNA procedures involved,
and some participants had fanciful views on the subject, e.g., Miracle-Gro
as a form of bioengineering. For the most part, participants had heard
about biotechnology as a new technology with great potential, but they
knew very little about how it was being applied. Some participants,
particularly in Vermont, had heard about the rBST controversy from news
stories. In other words, general awareness was high, though largely
abstract and based on second hand reports, while specific knowledge was
Despite their limited technical understanding of bioengineered food,
participants had well developed and nuanced opinions of the wisdom of food
biotechnology. These opinions, both pro and con, reflected similar
understanding of the potential benefits and dangers of the technology,
though individual participants weighed the benefits and dangers
Most participants recognized that food bioengineering is a powerful and
promising technology that offers both benefits and dangers to modern
society. Several types of benefits were mentioned, including feeding the
world's hungry, improving agricultural production to make it cheaper and
easier to grow crops, and making possible new varieties of foods with
desirable characteristics such as improved taste, appearance or
nutritional characteristics. While fewer dangers were identified, there
was strong consensus as to what the major worry was--unknown long-term
health consequences that might be associated with the technology but which
cannot be anticipated based on current science or knowledge.
This widely held view that there might be unknown long-term consequences
of food biotechnology seems to be based on analogies that participants
made between food biotechnology and other technological innovations of
modern agriculture. Some of the examples that people considered similar to
food biotechnology were use of pesticides, growth hormones and antibiotics
to promote animal growth; tomatoes bred for transportability rather than
taste; and novel products such as Olean. Cloning was mentioned in several
groups, often with concerns expressed about a progression to such research
on humans. In each case, participants saw a technological innovation that
was introduced mainly for the sake of producers/distributors, with little
apparent benefit to the consumer. Such innovations are seen as being
approved by scientists and regulators, but later found to have
unanticipated long-term health effects. It is this hazard model, drawn
from recent experience with technological innovation, that underlies
participants' views about the wisdom of food biotechnology.
This hazard model includes roles for various actors such as producers,
industry, government regulators, scientists and consumers. It is marked by
skepticism that the interests of consumers are sufficiently taken into
account by the other actors. Some participants complained consumers are
being used as "guinea pigs" and many were doubtful that government
regulators and scientists have the ability to counteract the powerful
profit motives of industry and producers.
For most participants, their concerns about food biotechnology did not
include recognition of possible environment or societal impacts of food
biotechnology. Although the monarch butterfly study was mentioned in
several groups, there was little discussion of the issue when it was
mentioned. Most participants appeared to be unfamiliar with this research.
A few participants expressed concerns about negative impacts on small
farmers or problems with sterile seeds and contamination across fields but
these mentions were rare.
Most participants accepted as a matter of course that the short-term
safety of bioengineered foods can be determined by science and therefore
it was not in question. The concept of unknown deleterious long-term
effects seemed to arise from a hazard model based on their experience with
the limitations of technology.
Opinions about food biotechnology varied considerably among participants.
Many participants recognized possible benefits and believed the risks
should be tolerated for the sake of these benefits. Men were more likely
than women to express this opinion. Participants who were more familiar
and sympathetic with farmers also expressed the view that the benefits of
biotechnology may outweigh the risks. Level of knowledge about food
biotechnology was not obviously correlated with how people saw the
risk/benefit tradeoff. There was a degree of technological fatalism, the
belief that ordinary people can't have much influence over the spread of
new technologies, associated with acceptance of food biotechnology.
Understanding of various terms to describe bioengineered foods.
The participants were asked if they had heard of several terms that have
been used to describe foods produced by biotechnology. It was clear that
participants did not have marketplace experience with the terms. As a
result they tended to evaluate the terms linguistically--how accurate or
appropriate these terms seemed to be as possible labels to be used in
marketing or product labeling for the designated class of products. The
terms "genetically engineered," "genetically modified," or "bioengineered"
were viewed as reasonably descriptive but linking the concept of
engineering with food was off-putting to some participants. The term
"modification" was seen as a vaguer, softer way of saying engineered. The
"bio" prefix had a positive connotation for some participants. Terms such
as "product of biotechnology," or "biotechnology" had the least amount of
negative implication. Acronyms such as GM and GE, discussed later in the
groups, were unfamiliar to most participants and not viewed favorably.
Most participants were unfamiliar with the term "genetically modified
organism" and considered it to be a strange and inappropriate label for
bioengineered foods since it seemed to imply that foods are organisms or
contain organisms, which people think is inaccurate and unappealing.
Prior views of the need for labeling
Before discussing specific labeling options, participants were asked how
they could tell if a food had been genetically engineered or contain a
genetically engineered ingredient. Their response was to complain that
they could not tell. Virtually all participants said that bioengineered
foods should be labeled as such so that they could tell whether a given
food was a product of the new technology. What is striking about
participants' initial discussion of their reasons for wanting
biotechnology labeling is the widespread perception that the information
they want the label to provide is how the food product was produced,
rather than the compositional effect of the process on the food product.
Virtually no one mentioned wanting to know the specific effects of
bioengineering on the product as a reason for labeling. Instead,
participants wanted to know whether the food was a product of
biotechnology because they were concerned about the potential for unknown
long-term effects of the technology, in particular health effects.
In other areas where we have done similar consumer research, such as
nutrition labeling and use-by-date labeling, consumers want information
about product characteristics that are relevant to their health and safety
concerns. Typically, product characteristics capture whatever is relevant
about the processes used to produce the food product. In the case of
biotechnology labeling, however, information about product characteristics
does not exhaust what consumers want to know. The concept of unknown
long-term effects, which seems to underlie the demand for biotechnology
labeling, implies that it is unknown product characteristics that are of
concern. A surrogate for knowing about unknown product characteristics is
knowing about the technology by which the product was produced, which may
explain why they want to know about the process.
B. Reaction to Specific Labeling Options for Claims about Biotechnology
The groups discussed the utility and acceptability of several labeling
approaches. There were three basic labeling approaches presented:
1."Mere disclosure" (e.g., "contains genetically modified ingredients",
"a genetically modified food"); 2.Disclosure plus statement of product
effect or purpose (e.g., "genetically modified to increase Vitamin A
content", "contains soy from plants genetically modified to be pest
resistant") and 3.Caution statement (e.g., "Caution, contains genetically
modified ingredients. Long term effects have not been determined.")
Virtually all participants saw value in having "mere disclosure" labeling.
They thought it would allow them to make more informed decisions about
whether or not to buy a product. This desire to be informed did not imply
any specific health and safety concerns about the labeled product, but
rather concerns about unknown long-term consequences of food
biotechnology. For those participants who said they would want to avoid
products they fear might have unknown long-term consequences, and any
product produced by biotechnology is considered liable to such effects,
mere disclosure labeling is required to exercise choice.
Many participants recognized symbolic value in choosing not to buy
products of biotechnology. They felt mere disclosure labeling gave them an
opportunity to register their view about the wisdom of food biotechnology,
i.e., to support or not support the dissemination of the technology, apart
from their views about the health and safety characteristics of the
individual product. They said they wanted to "send a message" to the
Participants were shown descriptions of six specific bioengineered foods
(cake mix, corn oil, canola oil, flavr-savr tomato, vitamin A rice, and
growth hormone salmon). The descriptions provided information on the
ingredient or food that was bioengineered and the purpose of the process.
As participants considered the various examples, they began to see the
value of having more information than mere disclosure of whether products
are produced by food biotechnology. They saw value in being able to
differentiate between particular products rather than applying a blanket
judgment to the technology as a whole. As a consequence, they preferred
label statements that give them more information about how and why a
product was bioengineered. Participants saw this kind of labeling as
accomplishing the same purpose as mere disclosure labeling, allowing them
to register their point of view about the wisdom of biotechnology, but
also giving them helpful product information and helping to educate them
about the possibilities of the new technology. Some participants were
concerned about the practicality of such labeling, questioning whether it
might be too wordy or complicated for the average consumer to understand.
Most participants recognized that such labeling put a burden on the
consumer to become more informed. The general view was that it had to be
executed well to be effective. They emphasized that any descriptions must
be simple to understand and "not require a college degree" to make sense.
Participants rejected the option of warning-type labeling for products of
food biotechnology. A caution statement was seen as overly negative and
too prescriptive. Concern about long-term negative consequences of food
biotechnology was considered insufficient to justify an explicit warning
statement. This suggests most participants remained open-minded and open
to future experience with foods produced by biotechnology.
C. Reaction to GM Free Labeling Claims
Similarly, the groups discussed different ways to label foods that were
not products of biotechnology, using as examples three products that could
plausibly show some type of non-GM labeling (organic carrots, milk, and
tortilla chips). The groups discussed the utility and acceptability of
three basic kinds of non-GM type labeling:
1.GM-free claims about the compositional status of the product (e.g.,
"GM-free", "contains no genetically engineered ingredients) 2.Non-GM
claims about how the product was produced (e.g., "not a product of
bioengineering", "not produced from genetically engineered seeds", "our
suppliers do not plant genetically engineered corn,") 3.Organic claims
(e.g., "Certified Organic")
Participants viewed claims that a given food was not a product of
biotechnology as being a familiar type of product promotion claim,
highlighting a product feature that some people may value and making it
easier for those who want such a product to find it and buy it. Because
such claims were seen as largely promotional in intent, they were not held
to very high standards, in the sense that a certain amount of puffery and
advocacy associated with the claim would be tolerated because it is easily
Nevertheless, participants did expect such claims to be accurate. They
interpreted compositional claims (e.g., "GM-free", "contains no
genetically engineered ingredients"), as meaning there should not be any
bioengineered ingredient in the product. They considered it deceptive to
define "GM-free" so as to allow a small amount defined by a threshold
level. The prevalent view was that "free" means zero.
Participants had little problem with claims that described the process by
which the food or ingredient is produced such as "not a product of
bioengineering", "not produced from genetically engineered seeds", "our
suppliers do not plant genetically engineered corn." Such claims
communicate relevant information in light of people's prior views about
the wisdom of food biotechnology. Participants had little appreciation of
possible verification and enforcement issues raised by such statements, in
part because they saw such statements as more promotional than scientific.
For the same reason, participants saw little value in requiring
disclaimers to disavow health or safety implications of such claims. For
the most part, participants did not interpret process or compositional
claims about foods "not produced by biotechnology" as adding anything to
their prior understanding of the relative advantages of genetically
modified foods compared to other kinds of foods. Whatever implications
they were likely to make from such claims followed from their existing
beliefs about the wisdom of food biotechnology. The idea that such claims
need a disclaimer seemed forced and unnecessary to most participants, and
it was often interpreted as a partisan stance that is pro-food
Participants also had little problem with certified organic claims
standing in as surrogates for "not genetically engineered" statements. The
idea that organic foods are by definition not products of food
biotechnology seemed reasonable to most participants. To many
participants, organic foods represent a rejection of modern agricultural
practices and therefore stand at the opposite end of the spectrum from
food biotechnology that represents the highest level of modern technology.
Participants had a hard time discussing how food products that are not
organic, but which are also not products of food biotechnology should be
described. Because such products seemed to have mixed characteristics, the
participants were not certain how they should be described.
Prevalence of Bioengineered Foods in the U.S.
The moderator provided information about the prevalence of bioengineered
foods in the marketplace (initially through a short factual description
read to participants, later groups received a handout showing examples of
everyday foods that are or contain bioengineered ingredients). The
discussion explored participants' reactions to this information about the
extent certain grain crops in the US are produced from bioengineered seed
and the extent such foods are present in processed foods.
After being presented with a factual account of the extent to which
certain grain crops in the US are being produced from bioengineered seed
and the extent to which bioengineered ingredients are present in processed
foods, most participants expressed great surprise that food biotechnology
has become so pervasive in the U.S. food supply. Even among participants
who considered themselves well-informed about biotechnology, many
registered amazement. The typical reaction of participants was not one of
great concern about the immediate health and safety effects of unknowingly
eating bioengineered foods, but rather outrage that such a change in the
food supply could happen without them knowing about it.
Some participants remarked that bioengineered foods have been "snuck in"
to the food supply. They were mainly disturbed by the lack of public
information and public input to a major development in the quality of
their food supply. This information about prevalence served to reinforce
the most negative and cynical views some participants held about food
biotechnology. Some participants saw this as evidence of a conspiracy to
keep consumers in the dark, that is, the rationale for not informing the
public must be that there is something to hide.
From: Chuck Benbrook
Subject: CFA Report Now Available
Ag BioTech InfoNet is pleased to make available, for the first time on the
Internet, the full text of the important Jan. 11, 2001 GMO-food report
released by the Consumer Federation of America. The 270 plus page report
is entitled "BREEDING DISTRUST: AN ASSESSMENT AND RECOMMENDATIONS FOR
IMPROVING THE REGULATION OF PLANT DERIVED GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS." It
is accessible at
We are pleased to also announce that Ag BioTech InfoNet finally has a good
and speedy search engine. Be sure to read the "Search Hints" at
You can use the search engine to find older documents and obscure
information. The search engine is accessible from just about anywhere on
Charles Benbrook, Ag BioTech InfoNet <http://www.biotech-info.net>
Benbrook Consulting Services <http://www.ecologic-ipm.com>