Stricter government oversight recommended

WASHINGTON - Foods currently on the market, such as corn flakes and salad dressings, that are made from genetically engineered (GE) crops, are safe to eat, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). However, that group recommends stricter government oversight to ensure that future crops and foods will be safe for consumers and the environment.

     The cover story in the November issue of CSPI’s Nutrition Action Healthletter advises that people should not be nervous about eating food that contains genes from another plant or bacterium. “We eat foods with new genes and proteins all the time,” said Gregory Jaffe, co-director of CSPI’s Biotechnology Project. “The tomatoes, potatoes, and wheat we buy in the supermarket have been drastically altered by breeding them with wild relatives, and those products are considered safe.”

     Current genetically engineered crops, which include soybeans engineered to resist herbicides and corn and cotton engineered to kill insect pests, benefit farmers and the environment by increasing yields, reducing the use of pesticides, and lowering costs.

     “Genetically engineered crops could be a boon to farmers and consumers, especially in developing countries,” said CSPI Biotechnology Project co-director Doug Gurian-Sherman. “For example, scientists are working on crops that resist pests and droughts and contain more nutrients. The U.S. Government needs to support that research because if left primarily in the hands of large corporations, such products will not be developed for the impoverished countries that need them.”

     Engineered crops, along with genetically engineered animals, could possibly contain unwanted new allergens or toxins. “That’s why biotech companies must demonstrate that engineered foods are safe before they reach the market,” said Jaffe. “Current GE crops have been tested voluntarily, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should require safety testing and formally approve future crops before they are used in food for humans or animal feed. Any crop that contains a new allergen should not be approved.”

     “Biotech crops potentially could harm the environment,” said Gurian-Sherman. “The new genes could spread to other plants to create ‘superweeds.’ Plants with built-in pesticides might harm beneficial insects like ladybugs or lead to insects resistant to the pesticidal protein. In many cases, the solution is not banning those crops, but minimizing and eliminating these risks.”

     “All engineered crops should be subject to a thorough environmental review before approval, and EPA should require more field testing of those crops both before and after approval,” said Jaffe. “EPA should also ensure that the measures it requires to prevent insects from becoming resistant to Bt crops are enforced.”

     Nutrition Action Healthletter’s cover story also advocates that the U.S. government fund more research on genetic engineering and help developing nations benefit from that technology.