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2000-2001

Is Fear of Frankenfood Holding Back Progress for the World's Food Supply?

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE/Oct. 6, 2000
Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

WORCESTER, Mass. - Genetic engineering is among the most complex and contested topics in today's world. In addition to questions about the human genome, other ethical concerns have arisen, especially regarding genetically modified foods.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute's Thomas A. Shannon, professor of religion and social ethics, recently spoke on "Genetically Engineered Agricultural Products and International Regulations" at the Evangelishce Akademie Loccum in Hanover, Germany. The late September presentation was part of EXPO 2000.

Shannon points to wide differences between the United States and Europe when it comes to genetic modification.

"Generally in the U.S.A., genetically modified foods have been introduced rather widely and until very recently the public has been rather silent," he says. "Even now the protests seems to be restricted to a small number of vocal groups who show up at international conferences. In Europe, however, the introduction has been very slow and the public rather vocal in its concerns and objections."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves genetically modified foods the same way it gives approval to any other food or drug. The FDA recognizes any additive as safe if it already exists in the natural food supply - even if it is inserted into unrelated plants through genetic modification.

"Because most genetic modification is done by transplanting genes from one plant or animal already used in the food supply to another, most genetically modified foods are not subject to safety approval under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1992," Shannon points out.

In Europe, it's a different story. Any company that manufactures or imports a genetically modified food must request approval from the food safety authority in the European Union membership. That means a case-by-case risk assessment. Final judgment is left to a European Union Commission.

Ten years ago, an international report by the Organization for Economic Coordination and Development looked at the safety of genetically modified, or what it called "novel" foods. Sixty experts from 19 countries found that new varieties of whole foods coming to market don't undergo extensive toxicological testing, and yet whole foods often contain natural toxins and non-nutritional substances. Based on their long-term use, however, whole foods are considered safe. So, the experts asked, why hold "novel" foods to a higher standard?

Obviously, the United States has adopted that philosophy more freely than Europe, where products from genetically engineered sources must be identified before coming to the market.

So what is the answer for the manufacture of genetically modified foods ?

Some legislators and scientists have suggested using the "precautionary principle," which states that if any scientific objective raises concerns about possible dangers to the environment or human, animal or plant health, then it should not proceed. In February 2000, the Commission of the European Communities suggested that the precautionary principle should apply if a potentially negative effect may result from a product or procedure, or when scientific evaluation of the risk is impossible to determine.

But other experts ask, when has such a standard of confidence ever been part of scientific study?

"One can think of hardly any technology or cultural practice for that matter that could pass that standard," Shannon says. Is it fair to hold genetically modified foods to higher standards than earlier efforts, such as hybridization or crossbreeding, to improve the food supply?

"We have been violating such a standard for a long time," Shannon says. "Plant and animal breeding technologies of the past had as their goal the development of new and heartier plants and animals that reproduced at a greater rate. Most of these foods were introduced without the kinds of safety standards now being required of genetically modified foods."

Without a resolution to this question, farmers and scientists will be stymied, Shannon says. While scientists have found no human health problems thus far with genetically modified crops, can the world live without a firm guarantee against future adverse effects?

"A general framework needs to be established to monitor safety and health issues as well as environmental issues," Shannon suggests. "The sooner this is begun, the sooner the issues can be addressed, and policies put in place that will respond to national issues as well as international marketing programs."

Hanging in the balance is the need to increase and improve the food supply for a growing world, as well as the possible development of crops such as beta-carotene enhanced rice that would deliver vitamin A to large populations.

For more information, contact Shannon at 508-831-5468 or e-mail tshannon@wpi.edu, or Arlie Corday, WPI assistant director of media relations, at 508-831-6085 or e-mail acorday@wpi.edu.