WASHINGTON, Nov 23, 2004 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- This Thursday an estimated 40 million turkeys will adorn dinner tables across the United States as families gather for the traditional Thanksgiving Day feast. Most Americans will be thinking about how long the in-laws will be staying, what the football scores are, and how to avoid the crowds at the malls the next day -- not whether their turkey was fed insect-resistant corn, or if their mashed potatoes were made from fungal-resistant spuds.
But some scientists and consumers are still skeptical of the long-term safety and sustainability of genetically engineered crops, and some companies, especially in Europe, are finding increasing resistance to GM foods from consumers.
Traditional methods of genetic modification by plant breeding have been used by scientists and botanists for hundreds of years. An example of this traditional modification is the tangelo (hybrid of a tangerine and grapefruit). But the newer process genetically engineers foods by gene splicing, where the genetic makeup of the plant is altered to create a desired trait in the crop.
The first genetically engineered whole-food product introduced to the market in the United States was the tomato in 1994, whereby consumers' mouths were opened to a whole new eating and shopping experience. This "new" vine-ripened tomato was genetically modified to withstand the bumps and bruises of shipping without rotting rapidly.
The first biologically engineered plant, a petunia engineered to resist certain antibiotics, was created at St. Louis, Mo.-based seed and herbicide manufacturer Monsanto in 1985, Richard J. Mahoney, former chairman and CEO of Monsanto Company, told UPI.
"At the time, they were simply trying to demonstrate that it could be done," he said. The first GM crop to be commercialized, in 1996, were soybeans that resist Roundup, an agricultural herbicide which Monsanto also produces, Mahoney said.
There was "great optimism around what might be possible by using these technological tools to enhance productivity and sustainability of crops around the world," said Lori Fisher, spokesperson and director of external affairs at Monsanto.
GM crops have big benefits for farmers and the environment. A recent study done by the National Center For Food And Agricultural Policy found that biotech crops in the United States increased farmers' incomes and encouraged environmentally friendly farming, compared to conventional crops.
"Plant biotechnology continues to produce real gains for growers and promotes sustainable agriculture in the United States," said Sujatha Sankula, a NCFAP researcher and the lead author of the study.
In a 2003 study on nine biotech crops introduced in Europe, including insect-resistant maize, herbicide tolerant rice and wheat, virus-resistant tomatoes, and fungal-resistant potatoes, NCFAP found that farmers could use 32 million fewer pounds (14.4 million kilograms) of pesticides, yields increased by 19 billion pounds (8.5 billion kilograms), and farm income increased by nearly $2.1 billion (1.6 billion euros).
More GM crops are also being planted around the world. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications reported in January 2004 that acreage planted with genetically modified crops increased by 15 percent worldwide in 2003.
Monsanto said that in 2003, farmers in 18 countries planted 167.2 million acres of GM crops, so that 25 percent of the world's canola, cotton, maize, and soybean crops were GM crops. Moreover, the company said, 7 million farmers grew biotech crops in 2003.
But some companies are finding that GMOs aren't so good for business. Unilever, a global food and household-products company with brands including Wish-Bone, Dove, Lipton's, Hellmann's, and Ben and Jerry's, suspended the use of GMOs in its British food products in April 1999 due to rising concerns from British consumers.
However, Unilever is still a proponent of biotech crops. In a statement on its Web site relating to the GM technology debate in Europe, Unilever said, "In the long run, where the safety of GM crops to humans and the environment has been established and there are clear benefits to consumers, the development of GMOs could bring major benefits to society as a whole."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also lauds genetically engineered foods, but recommends stringent testing as it does for all foods, drugs, and cosmetic items.
"The Food and Drug Administration is confident that the genetically engineered food products on the market today are as safe as their conventionally bred counterparts," said Commissioner of Food and Drugs Mark B. McClellan, M.D.
Indeed, according to the Grocery Manufacturers of America, between 70 percent and 75 percent of all processed foods on the shelves of U.S. supermarkets contain genetically modified ingredients.
The FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency work independently, but closely, to regulate and determine the safety of genetically engineered crops.
Despite the positive findings of these U.S. government agencies, some scientists and consumers are still not sure that GM foods are safe.
Mahoney said that in Europe, genetically engineered products were accepted in the 1990s, but mad cow disease, Prince Charles' denouncement of GMOs, and other trade and safety issues changed this.
"A number of things are different in Europe," Mahoney said, "There is a general mistrust in the regulatory process in Europe, where there is a general trust in the regulatory process in the United States."
Besides, Monsanto spokeswoman Fisher said, "(Monsanto) would only put a product on the market if it passed our tests, as well as the testing required for bringing a new product on the market," Fisher said.
But Jeffrey M. Smith, author of "Seeds of Deception," (Yes! Books, September 2003) is staunchly opposed to GMOs.
"When you take DNA and insert it into another species, it can dramatically change the organism," Smith said. "The mantra from the biotech engineers for years was that the genes are destroyed by digestion, and therefore transfer couldn't occur," Smith said.
However, a study published in February of seven human volunteers who were fed soy burgers and soy milkshakes made from GM soy showed that the genes do survive in much larger numbers than expected.
In Europe, it seems, consumers are highly concerned about the effects of genetically engineered foods in humans.
For example, Agenzia Giornalistica Italia reported, "According to EU norms ... it is already possible to process and sell foods containing GMOs, but the diffidence shown by Italian consumers towards biotech foods has discouraged food industries from producing them and from distribution chains from selling them, because they would not have a market in Italy." In 2004, 12 percent more Italians buy foods labeled as "GMO free" compared to last year.
"There's a labeling scheme in Europe," Smith said. "If any product contains more than 0.9 percent (genetically engineered products), it has to be labeled as containing GMO. Manufacturers see that as a kiss of death, equating it with a skull and cross bones, so they try hard to avoid that."
Although there have been some smaller protests in the United States, as in the "milk dump" at the University of Wisconsin in November 2001 protesting improperly labeled GMO milk, across Europe protests are popping up at larger institutions.
Reacting to a protest earlier this year at a Sainsbury's (a British supermarket chain) calling for GM-free milk and fair prices for milk producers, the company introduced a new line of milk from cows fed on non-GM feed.
"I anticipate much greater public concern in the U.S. over the next two years," Smith said. "I'm confident that the increased awareness and public concern based on buying habits, the industries will turn over to non-GMO."
Smith said a skeptical British press and more coverage in the papers have led to European consumers being more informed about GMOs and the potential dangers.
"You know there's a saying, 'The food you eat sticks with you,'" Smith said. "Well, with genetically modified foods, it can stick with you for a long, long time."
Copyright 2004 by United Press International.