Genetically Modified Foods
April 20, 2001 Episode no. 434
: To hear the bio-tech industry tell it, modern science has
the potential to feed the world and provide all of us with healthier lives.
: From medicine to agriculture, biotechnology is providing
solutions that are improving lives today, and could improve our world tomorrow.
: The industry may have a hard time persuading Dr. Keith Finger,
a Florida optometrist, who says he went into what's called "anaphylactic shock"
after eating what he believes to have been genetically modified Starlink corn.
(Optometrist): I had hives covering probably 90% of my body except
for my face. That big - like raspberries. Raised, red, bloody-looking raspberries.
My throat was constricting so that my breathing was becoming labored.
: Could it have been the tortillas he had for dinner? Or the black
beans and rice? Nobody knows yet, but the Food and Drug Administration is looking
into whether corn products in both the tortillas and the black bean dinner may
have been the same genetically modified Starlink corn which, although only approved
as animal feed, recently found its way into the human food chain.
MS. LISA DRY
(Biotechnology Industry Organization) Starlink is a mistake
that should never have happened.
: And a public relations disaster for the bio-tech industry.
: Somehow, and we still don't know how it happened, it made itself
into the food system.
The company that produces Starlink corn, Aventis CropScience, has since tried
to pull it from the market, but company officials say it's too late, that the
modified corn is now cross-pollinating with traditional corn and it may be impossible
to separate the two.
Whatever the reason, the Starlink debacle has only added fuel to the ongoing debate
over genetically modified food. McDonald's and Burger King have told their suppliers
they no longer want genetically modified potatoes for their famous French Fries,
citing concerns about consumer acceptance. Some upscale supermarkets are similarly
More than 40 states are considering new restrictions on genetically modified foods.
North Dakota wants to impose a two-year moratorium on growing genetically modified
wheat -- backed by farmers concerned about their ability to market their produce
in Europe and Japan, where opposition is intense. Exports have dropped to a trickle.
In an industry with such exceptional promise, what on earth has gone so wrong?
(Union of Concerned Scientists): There have been hundreds of
millions of dollars invested in developing new products for biotechnology. A mere
pittance has gone to research on risk.
: Critics, like Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists,
complain the industry has paid inadequate attention to potential risks.
: There is the possibility that genetic engineering introduces
new proteins in the food that people could be allergic to. If you became ill,
would you say, 'Oh my gosh, it's because of genetically engineered food?' No.
How would you know? You don't know whether you're eating it or not.
: Religious groups, concerned about dietary restrictions, have demanded
genetically modified foods be labeled as such. The industry has resisted, fearing
labeling might be unduly alarming. To some, the mere idea of tampering with the
gene pool -- even of vegetables -- violates scripture.
RABBI FRED DOBB
: The major text that applies here is from Leviticus, Chapter
19, verse 19. "So you should not let your cattle mate with a different kind, you
should not sow your seed of a mixed kind and you should not put on cloth that
is from mixed material, wool and linen."
We've had hybrid fruit and vegetables for years, but what science is tinkering
with now is quite different -- introducing the DNA of living organisms, of animals,
into the food we eat.
For example, there soon could be something fishy about the tomatoes you eat. Really
fishy. Researchers have been toying with the idea of infusing the tomato with
the DNA of the Arctic salmon, a fish that won't freeze in icy waters. The idea?
It just might prolong the growing season and prevent tomatoes from being wiped
out with the first autumn frost.
Biotechnology is already being used as a substitute for pesticides. Watch, as
worms devour the cotton plant on the left; the plant on the right has not been
sprayed with any pesticides, but its DNA has been altered to make it repellant
Professor Galen Dively, a researcher at the University of Maryland, has spent
years studying the effects of inserting a bacteria gene, bacillus therangensis
or "BT" into potatoes and corn.
PROFESSOR GALEN DIVELY
(Researcher, University of Maryland): This bacteria
is unique in that it produces a protein, a crystal protein, that has insecticidal
: Insecticidal properties?
: Insecticidal properties!
: No farmer is going to send corn like this to market. His choice,
if he wants it to look like this is either use the BT, the genetically modified
corn, or he's going to have to spray it with insecticide 15-20 times?
: Exactly, definitely, with this type of pressure, at least
ten or 15 times at least.
: Actually, the question might not be which is better, but which
: The Colorado Potato Beetle can quickly destroy an entire potato
crop. But not if treated with BT.
: These are plants that have been totally defoliated; all the leaves
have been chewed off and consumed, and basically you just have stems remaining.
And adjacent, you have then the BT variety.
: Now, no insecticide here?
: Absolutely no insecticide. It's 100% control.
: Yet, because of the controversy, many farmers are choosing the
old insecticides over the new technology.
(to Professor Dively): Does that dismay you?
: Definitely. And I talk to farmers and field supervisors
that work with these companies, and they're very angry because they see this as
a real benefit in their industry.
: The industry acknowledges a growing public skepticism of bio-engineered
: The public doesn't know and that's because we've not done a great job
at sharing information and that's something that's being addressed now. We're
trying to be as open as possible.
: The major corporate players -- companies like Monsanto, Dupont,
Syngenta, and Aventis -- all have elaborate Web sites in which they boast of their
safety precautions. But given the recent rash of negative publicity, they are
now declining most requests for media interviews, including ours. It's no secret
that some companies are backing off from the new technology until the controversy
The outcome of Keith Finger's case could significantly affect public perception.
He is now part of a class action suit against Aventis and others, alleging they
"knowingly or recklessly" allowed Starlink corn to enter the human food chain.
Meanwhile, other concerns linger about the wisdom of tampering with nature or,
as some see it, "God's handiwork." The questions so outnumber and so outpace the
answers, they have essentially put genetically modified foods on hold -- at least
for now -- for better or for worse.
For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I'm Tim O'Brien in Washington.