Nutrition Action Healthletter
June 2000 — U.S. Edition 

Biotech Foods
Michael Jacobson.
  Critics and advocates of crops that are engineered to carry genes from other species are waging a battle royal. Greenpeace and others have sponsored full-page ads charging that biotech companies are turning “millions of consumers into guinea pigs.” The companies and others, in turn, extol the safety and benefits of “GM” (genetically modified) foods.

      Genetic engineering is a powerful technology. If used properly, it has great potential. It has cut pesticide use on cotton farms, reduced water pollution by toxic pesticides, and increased yields of papayas, potatoes, and cotton. But if misused, it could cause great harm.

      The government needs to tighten its regulation of GM foods to prevent any harm and to reassure consumers. The mandatory scientific reviews of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) are open to the public. In contrast, the Food and Drug Administration (which shares oversight) reviews products behind closed doors.

      Though there is no evidence that GM foods have harmed a single consumer or the environment, Congress should require the FDA to review—in public—the safety of every GM food before it is marketed. And the FDA shouldn’t allow genes that could cause allergic reactions to be put into GM foods.

      In one case, when a company put a gene from Brazil nuts into soybeans, it didn’t know that the gene produced a protein to which some people are allergic. Luckily, company tests detected the problem in time.

      Last April, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences generally endorsed the safety of plants that have been engineered to ward off insects and other pests. But it advised the government to:

  • develop better tests to identify allergy-causing proteins in GM foods,
  • make sure that plants that have been engineered to produce their own pesticides don’t harm non-pests (like the Monarch butterfly), and
  • prevent genes that have been introduced into crops from spreading to wild relatives of those crops, which could dimish genetic diversity and create herbicide-resistant weeds.

     Even assuming that biotech foods are as safe as conventional foods, they should be clearly labeled, which polls show the great majority of Americans support. Labeling would help consumers who want to avoid—or choose—biotech foods because of concerns about health or the environment, or who don’t don’t have access to organic foods, which are not genetically modified.

      In addition, the FDA should define the term “GM-free” and allow it on food labels. But labels should not mislead consumers into thinking that GM foods are riskier—or that GM-free foods are safer—than other foods.

      The public will hotly debate biotechnology for years to come. Our goal should be to throw out any dirty bathwater, but not the baby.


Michael F. Jacobson
Executive Director
Center for Science in the Public Interest


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