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Tuskegee Geneticist's Study of Gene-Altered Food Carries on Carver's Tradition

Newhouse News
March 3, 2000
By Michael Brumas

"[GMO's] haven't been tested or proven safe in the environment or health stream," said Charles Margulis, genetic-engineering specialist for the environmental group Greenpeace, which has led the opposition to gene-altered food in Europe. "There are doctors and scientists around the world raising warnings about the ecological and human health effects of GMOs."

Prakash, who is 42, said the opposition to gene-altered ingredients is "out of control and irrational." "I come from India, the Third World," he said. "We can't take food for granted, as it's done in the United States. Any solution to help us produce more food, I think we need to go for. Biotechnology provides a very powerful set of solutions."

Last month, United Nations negotiators meeting in Montreal developed a set of trade rules concerning gene-altered foods. The rules allow a country to ban imports of a genetically modified product if it believes there's not enough scientific evidence to demonstrate the product is safe. Under the accord, exporters also must label shipments that contain gene-altered commodities such as corn and soybeans.

The United States fought the labeling provision as well as the import bans except in cases where scientific evidence backed up safety concerns. As a result, farmers around the nation are watching to see whether the new rules will affect exports or require grain elevators to segregate the biotech varieties. Several major U.S. food producers, such as Archer Daniels Midland, Gerber and the Iams pet food company, are demanding that genetically modified foods be segregated or are refusing to use them.

In the latest development, giant snack maker Frito-Lay announced last month that it will not use genetically altered corn. A company spokeswoman said Frito-Lay was responding to consumers' worries. "It's another milepost and an example of another major food company being proactive," said Greenpeace's Margulis. "It should be a warning call to farmers that there are going to be more and more companies taking this step." Keith Gray, the Washington representative of the Alabama Farmers Association, agreed that American farmers are the ones caught in the middle of the biotech controversy.

In 1999, genetically engineered varieties accounted for about 37 percent of corn, 47 percent of soybeans and 48 percent of cotton grown in the United States. "The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ruled that bioengineered foods are safe to eat, and I think what Frito-Lay did was a knee-jerk reaction," Gray said. "If these companies are telling us genetically modified foods are safe but on the other hand are segregating the commodities or refusing to use them, that's not the right signal to be sending." Gray said that the benefits of genetically modified crops far outweigh any potential hazards. "It means you're using less pesticides and reducing the amount of runoff that might get into the ground water," he said. "It means you're using less fuel and there are fewer emissions into the air."

But Margulis said some laboratory and field evidence has shown the ecological risk to be real. He pointed to a Cornell University study last year that showed pollen from gene-altered corn was toxic to the monarch butterfly. To create genetically modified crops, scientists inject DNA from bacteria and other organisms into plants, making them more resistant to pests or impervious to certain weedkillers.

But critics say weeds and pests will eventually adapt, requiring more environmentally dangerous means to kill them. "That's a valid concern," said Prakash. "Theoretically, that could happen if you're not responsible in how you grow these crops." Farmers have been genetically modifying crop plants for centuries with more traditional methods of hybridization and selection. Using biotechnology to modify plants today "doesn't pose any new or greater risks than those more traditional methods posed," Prakash said.

Research at his center is funded primarily by federal grants and has no industry support, although he said he consults for a small biotechnology company, Demegen Inc., in Pittsburgh.

"Because the newer genetic tools are more precise, they may even be safer," he added. "But their greater productivity allows farmers to grow more food on less land with less synthetic pesticides and herbicides, ultimately protecting wildlife and habitat."