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Should We Grow GM Crops? by peter tyson
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Set #2: April 26, 2001
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Readers Against Growing GM Crops | Readers in Support of Growing GM Crops | Readers Addressing Other Issues


Readers Against Growing Genetically Modified Crops

As an individual who has been affected by genetically modified organisms, my opinion is both biased and factual. I suffer from autoimmune disorders due to GM'd L-tryptophan taken from 1988 to approximately 1990. At some point, the brand (which I won't mention) included a "bad batch" -- at least that's what I was told. I was very lucky as several individuals died, and many suffered more severe problems than I did. It wasn't until years later that I learned that the "bad batch" was genetically modified L-tryptophan.

Subsequent to having developed autoimmune disease, and as my immune system is compromised, I have multiple allergies from ingesting GMO-containing foods. According to doctor(s) and tracing my med history and allergy tests, etc., since my immune system was compromised from the L-tryptophan, it made my body less able to resist problems with ingesting GMO's. They said it was much like when there is bacteria on food, the young, elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are more likely to be affected. The GMO containing foods, etc. triggered multiple allergies.

I am allergic (true allergies, not simply food intolerances) to soy, wheat, MSG, many foods, medicines, and even cosmetics and toiletries. I cannot eat or use any products with soy, wheat, gluten, MSG, yeast, autolyzed and/or hydrolyzed proteins, sulphur and/or sulphur-based materials, latex, morphine, cipro antibiotic, etc., etc., etc. They cannot be used as ingredients in the items I use; they cannot even be fillers and/or binders in the medicines I use.

It is very difficult to find medicines that do not use soybean oil in capsules or glutens as binders, etc. I have to read every label for everything I use. Before my doctor can prescribe a medication for me, he has to get out this huge book, find the company's number, and have the materials sent to him, etc.

I have been blessed that in my many trips to the emergency room, doctors have been very knowledgeable and saved my life. Anaphylaxis is extremely scary. Acute asthma is very scary. And violent sickness is no fun. Of course, while I've been very blessed by doctors who have saved me, I have also been treated by doctors who have not read my chart (as extensive as it is) well enough and have attempted to give me things that could have killed me. In those cases, I've been blessed by guardian angels.

I see and understand the proposed benefits for the GM's and I understand the want for what they seem to offer in hope. I believe some of the individuals wanting them to be sincere, but, I know, too, that there are valid risks and problems -- severe health risks -- that all are ignoring in blind passion and in most cases by not seeing the tarnish for the glare of the gold. I know that GMO's are not safe for human consumption. Thank you for your time.

Mary A. Bardasian

I voted no on all pages. Here is why.

Natural hybridization is not the same as gene manipulation. GM is not natural by any sane measure. Using that argument to justify the corrupting of the food supply is criminal. If this were a natural process of evolution, no one would need to justify it. Nor would they need to intimidate to get it approved. GM is profitable. The promise of aiding the starving world is ego-inflating. The fact that thousands of people get sick from the foods on supermarket shelves is ignored. It is not profitable to acknowledge that fact. Just as the thought of aiding the poor of the world will cause you to write off my letter as that of a fanatic.

I am going to die from severe allergic reaction to my environment. That is what my doctors told me anyway. I am not only allergic to foods but to antibiotics and to drugs used to fight off allergic reactions. I cannot take medication for my asthma. I have severe allergic reactions to the beef sold in the store, because of the chemicals used to unnaturally make cows weigh more. Not for aiding world hunger but to increase the price when the animal is taken to market. This is a proven fact.

Carlajean Polan

The benefits and technology involved in GM are interesting enough to continue to be pursued as science, however, there are several very strong arguments against releasing these types of experimental products into the wild.

First, industrial comments not withstanding, there is no scientific way to prove that the GMO products are absolutely safe. No matter how many tests an item passes, it is not possible to prove that something is safe. It is only possible to prove that something is not safe. Their argument is bad science and as mentioned in your show seems eerily similar to the DDT experience.

Second, I find the argument about how natural the mutations are preposterous. A fish gene in a tomato natural? And how would that fish gene find its way into the tomato family under normal circumstances?

Third, the odds of introducing an unintended consequence are incredibly high. Therefore the expectation of perfection that would be required to produce perfectly safe GMO's is too irrational to believe. What are the potential consequences of even one inadvertent or ill-advised mutation being released? In the computer industry we might refer to this as a 'bug.' Considering the unlikelihood of writing a perfect piece of software, even a small one, is it rational to expect that extracting a small piece of partially understood genetic matierial and inserting it randomly into another living thing is going to produce perfect, bug-free results with absolutely no unintended side-effects?

The consequences of even one major screw up could be astronomical. Is it going to take a Chernobyl-like problem to outrage people? I also believe that we should learn a lesson from the obvious parallels to the overuse and abuse of anitbiotics. As usual, thanks for producing such a great show.

William Needel

Even before your program "Harvest of Fear" I was against GM food. If we are to use the precautionary principle, GM foods should not be allowed to be introduced into the environment until they have been proven safe. Even with their best management systems currently in place, look at the Starlite corn, it got into the human food web. And I'm to believe that other countries (i.e. in Africa) will have superior management systems that will ensure this will not take place there?

As your program showed, even Gerber is hard pressed to find food products today that are not genetically modified! What does that say for our democratic right of choice, our freedom of choice?? I want to know what I'm eating and drinking, that's why I read food labels. So why are we being denied the freedom of choice when it comes to GM good? Isn't a sign of democracy an informed public? We are not being informed. If it wasn't for the 'radical' environmental groups, would we have learned about Gerber food, Starlite corn?

Scientists and industry take note: The public has the right to know, and if you don't comply voluntarily we will demand it from our politicians. We do have a way of making our voices known and that is the organic produce. Watch sales of organic food, I think they will begin to increase!!

Anonymous

This is not like "natural selection." This is tinkering with the very nature of nature. We are not showing the proper respect and such tinkering will come back to haunt us. Such tinkering is risk-taking by a few that affects us all with possible catastrophic consequences. Genetically modifying flora and fauna is against nature and therefore immoral.

Jay Twigg

So far our agricultural technology seems to be causing more damage to the planet than benefit. The proponents of feeding the world through improvements based on prevailing agribusiness techniques, chemical-heavy for both fertilization and protection, and genetically modified crops, seem to be missing the point of sustainability and subsistence farming.

Neither sustainable nor subsistence farming benefits from dependency on genetically modified organisms produced by corporations that control the patents on the organisms. The existing biological diversity of food crops is already dwindling and the introduction of GM crops that may out-compete and cross-pollinate only further reduces the diversity. There is also the issue of organically grown crops, which will be inadvertently modified by cross pollination.

Guarionex Delgado

Your show presented some useful information in its first half, but then fell into a classic false dilemma. The notion that GMO foods are 'necessary' to be able to feed people in developing nations is clearly untrue.

It is a simple, harsh fact that the people of nations like Kenya, Mexico and India have far more children than they can support. If they were able to grow more food, their population would commensurately increase. Thus, increasing the yield of food would not solve the problem.

This dynamic is much like building another freeway to relieve congestion in a metropolitan area. Inevitably, such an increase in capacity always results in an equal, increased growth. What is truly needed is common sense, and -- especially -- birth control. If Americans were truly interested in benefiting people in developing nations, we could do no better than to set a good example by living within our own means.

The notion that companies like Monsanto have the best interests of humans and other elements of nature at heart would be laughable if it weren't so crass. Obviously, profit is their main concern, and they prefer as little oversight and as few delays for testing as possible. When in doubt, I think it is far wiser to do without such new technologies. That is why we eat only organic foods, and have done so for the past seven years.

Robert & Kelly Haines
San Francisco

I believe that in the long run -- that is over generations of time -- the price for our short-term decisions will be paid globally in terms of the basic health of the world organism. This sort of long-term thinking is not practiced by our society and is certainly not in the interest of corporations who make technological advancement an imperative survival strategy. Global long-term health depends on diversity primarily and within that the continual balance of resources and the give-and-take among species.

My primary argument against genetically modified foods is the reckless and truly ignorant manner in which we are eliminating vast numbers of species in deference to a few, corporate controlled species, without true understanding of end consequences and with merely the benefits of short-term financial success and some good intentions to guide us.

Although we may save millions of lives in Africa with better, cheaper medicines and food sources, will poverty and hunger thus be forever eliminated? I think rather, that populations would continue to exponentially grow along with the everpresent threat of resource depletion and environmental destruction.

Our species' success is other organism's demise. Until we can truly fathom this equation and understand our humble position in the balance, America and other industrialized nations will continue to exploit all the world's resources, including genetic information, for their own greedy profit, with the ironic idea that we are doing the world a favor with our measured doling out of minor salves for Third World suffering.

With our technological advances, we are now in the awkward position of playing God, while not having an iota of intelligence on how to operate the Earth's extremely intricate ecosystems. The consequences for mistakes will obviously be severe.

Dain Olsen

Readers in Support of Growing Genetically Modified Crops

Wow! After slogging through all of the arguments your site presented against GM products, all but the most self-assured would have succumbed to the siren song of greenness. Face it, mankind has been bioengineering plants and animals since recorded history; only in the last few years have we been able to be surgically accurate in our methods. The technological genie is already out of the bottle. Let's use the tools we now have to create better farming and pharmaceutical methods for all mankind.

It is not a sin for a company (and its shareholders) to profit from products that benefit others. Fewer chemical pesticides, more effective medicines, increased yields, lower costs, easier production methods -- the list of benefits is long.

Yes, I would consume GM foods. I already do and have been most of my life. The life expectancy in the United States continues to rise. Is there a correlation?

J. Mapes

In my freshman biology class we spent a month researching genetic engineering in foods and eventually had a debate in class on it. Although the pro side won, I realize in the real world things might be different. On my weekends during the summer, I volunteer at First Avenue Service Center. Every time I go there I meet people who don't have enough food and barely get along through life. The fact seems with the growing populations that eventually there will not be enough food for everyone.

I think that we should not prohibit genetic engineering. Through history our scientific knowledge has grown significantly. If we were to block this technology and not allow our food supply to grow it would be horrible. I watch the people of Greenpeace and I see mostly older people in the crowd. I believe that our food running out will not happen in our lifetime, but what about during the lifetimes of my children or my chrildren's children? Our food supply should grow and not be weakened by not using new technolgy.

Nick Van Hoy
Bishop Blanchet High School
Seattle, Washington

The world has been genetically engineering food crops from recorded time. We are doing it a bit faster and better now. I for one want the healthiest food I can get at a fair price. I like to eat fish. Looking at the limited fish stock that exist in the oceans, I would like to see the genetically engineered fish stocked in my supermarket.

I wonder how many of those who object to GMO have tried to grow subsistence crops? Have tried to feed a family on the poor soils that exist in most developing countries? Better foods mean healthier people, which in turn will lead to a lower population growth rate. Better educated people will result from the availability of better foodstuffs.

I agree there are problems with GMO as there with any new technology. These problems will be worked out with time and the entire world will benefit. If we listened to the Luddites, most of us would be working in the mills and mines for the overlord. I for one am very happy with technology, and I am not scared about the potential problems with GMO. If a company makes a buck out of it, so be it. Every great innovation, be it GMO, drugs, or computers, will ultimately benefit all of humanity.

Bernie Waltzer

Our population is growing, as is our need for food. We need a source that we can rely on, one that is not plagued by viruses and pests. In order to overcome these viruses and pests that are destroying our food sources, we need one of the two options that are available to us: pesticides or GM products. As of now there are no side effects to GM products that we know of. Pesticides are known to cause side-effects; this is a fact. As with any new product that has not been thoroughly tested, there is the possibility of flaws. Since no discrepancies have been documented as facts with GM products, we must choose between the lesser of two evils.

Jeremy & Stacey Mills
Oak Harbor, WA

Natural selection is naturally occurring mutations being tested in the real world. Most mutations fail to help the owner and so are weeded out of the gene pool. GM is just the introduction of mutations far more likely to be helpful. I am sure that some GM will be unhelpful but it will not lead to total disaster. In your show someone said that poor farmers in Third World countries just needed money. The next speaker pointed out that even free food would cost greatly to be transported to the hungry and that as beggers the farmers would have no self-respect. The logic of the money commenter is as fuzzy as the the Luddite-like logic of all the anti-GM speakers. We are multipling rapidly and need everything science can provide. We need to accept some risk to reap a rich reward. I favor labeling. If a person is allegic he needs help to avoid his allergen. The companies' refusal to label is very wrong.

Anonymous

GM crops are obviously a step in the right direction by reducing the use of pesticides in American farms. However, the silent introduction of GM products into the American food supply could eventually prove to have been a deadly mistake for the food industry, literally. I believe the gradual introduction of GM organisms and food products to the American people should be encouraged, but only under the watchful eye of the USDA, FDA, EPA, and the scientific community, not just the biotech and food industry. Only after several decades of research done after the introduction of GM foods will the truth about the toxicity of these products be known, but until then, major food companies should be required to warn their consumers of the possible risks involved.

Anonymous

Readers Addressing Other Issues

One exercise I like to use to determine if opponents are more concerned with the subjective (ethical, political, socioeconomic, etc.) or the objective (health or environmental threat, etc.) is this example:

A new fungal disease blows into our wheat-growing areas, leaving wheat fields (and farmers) devastated in its wake. A gene offering good resistance to this disease is found in an Ethiopian wheat variety, but the Ethiopian wheat performs poorly here. Breeders begin using two techniques to transfer the resistance gene from the foreign wheat into domestic varieties as quickly as possible.

One technique, traditional crossing, takes about 12 years to provide a local new variety combining good disease resistance (from the foreign gene) with good growing and quality characteristics. The second technique, GM, extracts a copy of the same disease resistance gene from the Ethiopian wheat and inserts it directly into an already good local wheat variety. This technique takes about six years to conduct and evaluate.

In both cases, the final product -- the new disease-resistant wheat variety -- is identical: They both carry the same disease-resistant gene from another wheat plant. There is no 'foreign' DNA or genes or proteins; they're all from wheat. Yet the GM method saves several years and many farmers.

Are you opposed to the use of GM to make this disease resistant wheat?

Dr. Alan McHughen
Professor and Senior Research Scientist
University of Saskatchewan
Saskatoon, Sk, Canada

I live in Oregon and am the mother of a 20-month-old son. For myself and my family, I choose to purchase organic, non-processed foods whenever possible. I do not purchase foods that have either been genetically modified or that are derived from such crops. However, I don't feel it is my place to insist that these crops are banned entirely.

It is all fine and well for those of us who live in the U.S. and other highly industrialized nations to rally against these GM crops. We can sit in our warm homes on our expensive furniture and feel enraged and politically correct and demand that these abominations be stopped. Realistically, how much would such a ban affect our own lives? It's easy for us, considering we can trot down to our local co-op and plunk down some cash for food that is grown to our specifications.

However, I am sure that there are some people in the more impoverished areas of the world who would not be so picky. These crops have the potential to save countless numbers of people from starvation or malnutrition. How dare I tell these desperate people, whose lives could be saved by such innovations as "golden rice," that they cannot have the food? If I were given the choice between consuming food that was genetically engineered, or having myself and my family starve to death, I would say "Bring on the Frankenfood!" How dare I deny others that choice?

As for me, I'll stick to the co-op, thank you. For the rest of the world, however, I feel I have no right to make that decision for them.

Brandy Martinez-Rogers

I thank you for offering such a well balanced view on the subject of genetically modified crops.

The only problem with voting Yes or No is that it leaves out the many gray, in-between areas that are important to make a final plan work. I believe that GM products can be a great help to people, both in the area of feeding the people and animals of the Earth as well as in the area of medicine. I do agree, however, with the opponents that say we need more testing of the potential hazards of the modified substances.

Therefore, my answer is undecided.

I realize that many of today's medications came out of experimentation, also that some experimentation, say with antibiotics, has yielded resistant bacteria and viruses. There will always be a pro and con in matters of science. So, yes, go on with GM crops but do it slowly and with a conscience; the benefits could be enormous but so could the cost. Focus on the future and not just current profit margins. If industry can continue in efforts to help humankind but with the use of restraint, we could all be much better for it.

Michelle Levy-Croach

In most of the discussions that I have seen concerning GM crops and animals (salmon, for instance), there is one very understated argument. Does anyone think for one instant that the entire world is going to unite on this issue and ban GM food-producing organisms successfully? The obvious and understated reply is absolutely not.

In some corner of the globe, some wily fisherman is going to one day catch an escaped mutant fish that has been released or has escaped into our oceans. I would ask that no one naively believe that this will never happen. I would also ask everyone to consider whether or not they realistically believe that starving people will not buy into this potential resolution to their food-production problems. We should all recognize that someone somewhere is going to grow GM food.

With that said, I want to offer a realistic, if not practical, solution to this question. Let's get on top of it.

  • Make laws requiring informative labels. Labels that are fair and honest about content.
  • Appoint governmental subcommittees (FDA, EPA, etc.) to monitor progress and ensure safety. Make the bureaucrats, politicians, and biotechs accountable for their actions.
  • Withdraw and do not issue patents concerning food technologies in genetic mutation. Here we need to be careful, but the point would be to promote responsible biotechs through competition in the marketplace.
  • Bring in the enemy of the biotechs. Get Greenpeace and other opposing groups involved by letting them have full access to information and work at negotiating some agreements that work. Bring people to the table from all viewpoints on the matter and don't let them leave until there is positive progress in allowing these worthwhile technologies to be introduced to our world. Surely, Greenpeace as an organization realizes that this technology also has qualities that will further the cause of protecting the environment.
  • Establish laws supporting our findings from the above.
This, of course, is just my humble opinion. If these ideas are undesirable for everyone else, we could always take a shot at terraforming Mars....

Don Davis

I'm not worried about GM crops' effect on my health or the next generation. They are probably safe, but there is more at stake than the limited part of the world I know. I am concerned about mucking with nature, but it would not be intolerable if it would help feed the world now.

I am concerned with the fact that a limited number of companies --about 10, according to your program -- controlling the patents and seeds already have more control over the process than the governments, people, and economies they affect. Companies like Monsanto can and have patented all or most of the genetic coding of natural (or bred) strains of major crops like rice and soybeans. They can control the distribution of any seed containing that genetic coding whether they created it or not. They can restrict the use of seeds that have any gene they have patented, meaning that if my crop's pollen infiltrates my neighbor's, his seeds legally belong to that company and cannot be sold or traded.

This is particularly important in those developing countries with a long history of trading seeds among producers. On the other hand, it hardly matters if the companies make crops intentionally infertile (as they do) to ensure repurchase. These countries would be greatly benefitted by GM foods if the legal restrictions did not mean selling patented and infertile crop genes in developing nations means selling the farmers of those nations into further economic bondage.

Patenting genes creats economic monopoly, limits diversity, and is frankly just as bad as the pharmaceutical companies fighting production of generic AIDS drugs that would save or improve the lives of millions in developing nations. Patenting genes means companies like Monsanto can hook desperate farmers on their product, eliminate the (natural) competition, and control prices. It will not lead to feeding the hungry.

We should never act in violence to prevent governments from testing GMO's. But we should ensure companies are required to maintain diversity within the mix of seeds they sell, cannot sell seeds that produce infertile crops (requiring repurchase and eliminating trade), and cannot patent genes or gene sequences. Neither the companies nor we who in the "industrialized world" who dissent with them should have a monopoly.

Molly Bresnen
Austin, TX

I read through the arguments that you gave and found some to be compelling (reduced spraying of pesticides) and some to be misleading (people are not starving because there is a lack of food). I really disliked the format because you are grouping together so many issues.

So here are my responses:

Labeling: I merely want the option to choose. I do not wish to outlaw the experimentation or deny other countries the use of this technology. However, if I am able to read the ingredients on the food that I buy, shouldn't I also be informed of what types of modifications have been made? If this is safe, then why not label?

While I realize there is no clear evidence that GM foods are harmful, neither is there conclusive evidence that they are safe. We are a society that is moving at a technological pace that often ignores caution. A wonderful example of this is mad-cow disease. How often are those in charge looking at the money to be gained and fail to see the problems that could arise?

So much is altered with our foods already, that people are unclear as to the cause of many health problems. I think that a wonderful gauge of this concern is shown through women. All of the women I know having children are eating only organic foods. We have so much intelligence that we forget we are animals. The animal instinct is strong enough to say, "I don't want to risk this."

No one can promise that these small, 'natural' changes will not have lasting harmful effects on human health. I considered each argument you gave with that thought in mind. I checked Undecided, but that was only because I did not like your format. I am decided, for myself.

I feel outraged that I am not being aloud to make this decision. However, it is within this same reasoning that I do not wish to make decisions for others. But, what if this does create a marketing discrepancy? What if the natural, organic food is very expensive, and the GM foods are very cheap? And what if, in the long run, these GM foods do cause harm? Won't we have created a culture where only those who could afford the organic food are healthy?

Some things to think about.

Susan

Thank you for providing such an informative and non-biased show on genetic engeneering. I am outraged that genetically modified foods have been in the public food supply for years without making the public aware of it. I consider this a violation and a manipulation of the American people.

GM foods are not the same as hybridized foods. You can't cross a pig and a tomato in nature. I get the general feeling that scientists are trying to solve all of the world's problems without even looking at one quarter of the possible conseqences for their actions.

The agencies that have been put there to protect us have failed us in the past. The FDA has approved a large number of drugs that had to be recalled after people were injured or killed by them. I recall women being given a drug for morning sickness during pregnancy that resulted in babies being born with missing limbs.

For years humankind has been using people as live experimental objects and claiming that it was in "our" best interest. I question who's interest is really benefiting from a salmon that grows faster. Will I get cheaper salmon? Will it be better for me? Could it kill off or damage the wild salmon population? Could it cause illness in me or my loved ones?

And what about purity? You have vegetarians that have chosen not to eat animal products that are being fed tomatoes with pig genes in them. You have Jewish people trying to eat foods that are kosher being fed foods that have nonkosher genes in them. The very fact that these biotech companies don't want labeling to occur tells me that the bottom line is money! If they truly belived that there products were benefitting man kind they wouldn't fear telling man kind what products had been altered. I hope that people come to understand that every action causes a reaction of some kind. There will be a consequence to this biotech age. My question is, Who will pay the price?

Jenny Vanhoff

Third World farmers count on being able to use the seeds that they save every year for growing the foods that they've thrived on for generations. GE [genetically engineered] foods interfere with that. Traditionally grown organic foods grown in soil rejuvenated by rock dust and organic compost will give us foods that are superior to GE foods.

Jean Mayes

I was appalled at your commercial for Monsanto and the biotech industry. Rather than relying on actual comparisons of energy and cost inputs of organic agriculture vs. biotech, you relied on the best of the biotech compared to the least of the organic. The biotech industry has no intention of feeding the world's hungry.

The food exists, we refuse to give it to the poor. I live in Butte County, California. This has some of the most productive agricultural land in the world. I know for a fact that we regularly destroy thousands of tons of food in my county rather than ship it as far as the Mexican border, beyond which there are millions of malnourished people.

Kenyan scientists were used to argue for the use of biotechnology in the Third World. There was no mention of the fact that Kenya has one of the top five birth rates in the world. No amount of agricultural production can keep up with a geometric increase in population. The fact is that we have a limited amount of land, and we share this planet with insects and viruses. We are only beginning to understand what the role of these inputs mean on an ecosystem basis. What we do know is that ecosystems can be destroyed and rendered unproductive by rapid exploitation.

A change in the design of cars does not threaten the existence of all cars. A change in the genetics of corn or fish may very well threaten the existence of all corn or all Atlantic salmon. These risks are too important to take lightly and far too important to trust to the likes of Monsanto. Biotech must be on a very short, short leash.

John Poteet
Chico, CA

Crops that have been genetically modified should not be cultivated in open fields. GMO's [genetically modified organisms] should always be grown under heavy security in confined environments and should receive a prolonged period of testing before they are introduced into the general population. They should never be introduced in live seed form or in any way that would allow their unmonitored propagation. In every case, a product containing GMO's should be labeled as such, and complete information as to the manner and extent of modification should be available to the public.

Anonymous

Just hours before I saw your show I gave a speech about labeling of consumer products. For me, this is the most important aspect of bioengineering. Put a label on the product that is bioengineered and I, as a cosumer, can choose if I will buy the product or not. If I am informed enough I can and will make my decision. But this decision should be in my hands and not in the industries'.

At the moment I feel like in a long-term experiment and in 20 years they will tell me, if GM foods were good or bad for me. It's like smoking. Twenty years from now smoking was considered not to be harmful. Now, after we found out about the long-term effects, we cry out and ask, why nobody warned us.

As a conclusion I can only say: Give the consumer the right to choose if to eat or not eat GM food. Label GM food!

I thank you for this very interesting TV program.

Carlo Barretta



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