Cornucopia of Biotech Food
The international trade agreement reached this weekend to require labeling of genetically modified agricultural commodities is a boost to activists who are calling for an even more extensive scheme to slap labels on all food products that contain any trace of a biotech engineered ingredient.
Yet, carried to that extreme, few foods on U.S. supermarket shelves would escape labeling.
That's because genetic engineering, far more than most consumers realize, has transformed the nation's food supply over the last decade, changing the way a host of products are made, from bread to cheese, soft drinks to vitamins, and even some kinds of beer.
The international debate over genetically modified foods has generally focused on the crops themselves--grains, fruits and vegetables that have been transformed by splicing genes from one species into another, such as corn with built-in insecticides or soybeans that resist weedkillers.
But even if the plants were banished from the fields, it would be almost impossible to avoid foods produced with the help of genetic engineering, some of which have been on the market for 10 years.
Under the "biosafety protocol" agreement reached at a U.N.-sponsored meeting in Montreal, importers would have to be warned of grains and seeds that "may contain living modified organisms."
The treaty, however, does not resolve growing demands by critics of biotechnology, who are calling for labeling of any food if genetic engineering is used at any stage of its processing--whether it be an egg laid by a chicken fed biotech corn or a block of cheddar made with a milk-clotting protein from a genetically altered bacterium.
And the kind of labeling now being considered by Congress and the California Legislature and in a state ballot initiative now in circulation could cover any ingredient, whether the traces of the genetically modified organism that produced it can be detected in the final product.
"Labeling will empower consumers to make some choice," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who has introduced legislation that would require labeling "without regard to whether the altered material or cellular characteristics of the organism are detectable in the material."
Kucinich and other critics of biotech foods raise two sorts of health and safety questions. Environmentalists worry that crops equipped with genes >from other species to produce their own insecticides or to resist weedkiller will prove harmful to beneficial insects while creating super bugs and super weeds that will be very difficult to control.
The Montreal agreement is intended to address this issue by notifying countries when genetically modified grains and seeds are part of a shipment and giving the importing countries the choice to accept them.
But opponents of biotech food crops also raise concerns about potential health problems--unknown toxins and allergens that might inadvertently be introduced into foods--and they want labeling at the consumer level.
Public support for a labeling requirement has been building, first in Europe and Japan, and now in the United States.
With the help of health food stores across the country, the Natural Law Party last June delivered to Congress 500,000 signatures on a petition for labeling.
The political party's proposal would cover "all products prepared or processed using genetically engineered enzymes or other processing agents, whether those agents are present in the final product or not."
The measure would require labels on dairy and meat products from livestock that have been fed genetically engineered feed or treated with genetically engineered hormones, although the end product has no detectable level of the ingredient. "These experimental techniques are rather crude and can create unforeseen mutations in the food itself, and those mutations can create allergens or toxins in food," said the party's press secretary, Robert Roth, voicing concerns shared by a number of environmental activists. Without labeling, however, it is almost impossible to know which foods are processed with ingredients from bacteria or yeasts that have been transformed with a gene, a piece of DNA, transferred from another species. U.S. officials and industry executives insist there is no danger. And a decade-long history of safety, they argue, backs up their contention that there is no difference in the safety of biotech foods from the traditional products they have replaced.
"We have no evidence of food safety issues here," said Laura Tarantino, deputy director of the FDA's office of premarket approval.
Firms Consult With FDA About Safety
Many companies consult with the FDA about health and safety issues raised by the use of food ingredients produced by genetically engineered organisms, but there is no requirement to do so for compounds that have a history of use in food processing or are similar to food additives that are regarded as safe. The chemicals made through biotechnology, including widely used enzymes that convert starch into sugars, "are not in the food," said Michael J. Phillips, executive director for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which opposes labeling. "They're used in the process to derivethe food. Try to put that information on a label." Requiring such labels would result in "an encyclopedia" of fine print about intermediate steps in food production that have no impact on health and safety, he said. Such labeling would be so extensive that it would be like wallpapering the supermarket, agreed Martina McLouglin, director of the biotechnology program at UC Davis. "It is everywhere," she said, arguing that there is no need to label products that have proven both safe and beneficial.
Labeling proponents, however, worry about unexpected contamination showing up in foods under a regulatory system that is largely voluntary and relies on manufacturers to ensure the safety of their products.
And many activists cite what they see as an example of biotech gone wrong: A 1989 epidemic of a potentially fatal illness--called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome--that was linked to high doses of a popular nutritional supplement, L-tryptophan, a seemingly harmless amino acid that was touted for a varietyof minor human ills.
The Food and Drug Administration ordered its manufacturer, Showa Denko of Japan, to pull the product from the market. Just before the epidemic, which affected at least 1,500 consumers, thecompany altered the way it purified the product, said James H. Maryanski, the FDA's biotechnology coordinator. Some batches were produced bygenetically engineered organisms. "We cannot say definitely that genetic engineering was not somehow involved," Maryanski said. "But there is evidence to suggest other causes."
Both sides in the labeling debate agree on one point: Biotechnology has brought about a quiet revolution in food processing--using chemicals that are mass-produced in yeast or bacteria.
Chemicals from biotech organisms are used to keep bread from going stale and to shorten the brewing time for beers. And biotechnology is used to manufacture nutritional supplements, such as vitamin B12.
In England, Monsanto has assured consumers of NutraSweet that its artificial sweetener is made without genetically modified materials. But in the United States, the company uses a different process that may include biotech, said a spokesperson, who said there are no traces of biotech ingredients in the final product. The first of the biotech ingredients was the enzyme "chymosin," an animal protein produced in a variety of genetically engineered microbes and used to coagulate milk proteins, an early step in the production of cheese.
Traditionally, cheese makers used a mix of enzymes called "rennet," typically extracted from the fourth stomach of a suckling calf.
But, as might be expected given the source, the enzymes were expensive to produce; supplies were unreliable and quality varied from one batch to the next.
There are other enzymes that can coagulate milk but none did the job quite as well, until scientists spliced an enzyme-producing gene from the calf stomach and got it to produce in a common strain of bacteria, which could be grown in a fermentation vat.
In 1990, after an extensive review, biotech chymosin became the first FDA-approved genetically modified food ingredient.
Today, more than 80% of cheese consumed in the United States is produced >from a process using one of two major brands of the biotech enzyme, estimated officials at Chr. Hansen Inc., a Danish company that supplies enzymes, coloring agents and other supplies to the food industry.
"In many countries around the world, it is not considered a genetically modified product," said the company's North American vice president for dairy systems, David Carpenter. "It's favored over the animal product. It's purer."
One result of the switch: Religious Jews now are able to enjoy traditional cheeses that once mixed meat--the calf enzyme--and milk and, therefore, could not qualify as kosher. Rabbis from the Orthodox Union, one of the most influential of the groups that certify foods as kosher, concluded that the genetically engineered enzyme could be used in processing of kosher cheddarsand other fine cheeses.
Other biotech enzymes are used in processing flour and in reducing corn to high fructose corn syrup, said Soren Carlsen, vice president of enzyme research at Novo Nordisk, an international company also based in Denmark that is the world's largest producer of industrial enzymes.
The resulting flour "gives a better dough quality," Carlsen said. "It keeps its humidity and freshness."
Another Novo enzyme breaks down an unwanted byproduct in the fermentation of beer called diacetyl, which has a butter-like flavor. Other enzymes allow brewers to produce more alcohol from a fixed amount of starch, one of the techniques used in producing low-calorie or light beers. Labels for Foods Sought in State
Why is it necessary to produce such enzymes from genetically engineered organisms? Two reasons: The natural microbes that produce them "are unsuited for fermentation," Carlsen said. "What you want is a very clean and pure compound." And genetic engineering improves efficiency of production.
Genetic engineering has also changed production of nutritional supplements. Roche Vitamins, for example, markets vitamin B12 produced by a genetically modified organism. "It's been manufactured that way for at least five years, maybe longer," said Ian Newton, director of regulatory affairs for the company.
In California, state Sens. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) and Byron Sher (D-Stanford) say they will introduce labeling requirements for food sold in California.
And an organic farmer from Sonoma, Robert Cannard, is trying to gather the more than 400,000 signatures needed to put a labeling initiative on the California ballot in November. The measure calls for labels on food grown "with genetically engineered influences," a broad term intended to include eggs from chickens fed biotech corn or dairy products from cattle treated with a genetically engineered growth hormone used to increase milk production.
Without a requirement, Cannard said, he and other organic food producers will no longer be able to find reliable sources of non-GMO ingredients and "there will be no more organic industry.".
The FDA has taken the position that it's the end product that counts, and not the way it is produced, whether the ingredients are genetically engineered or not.
Tom Zinnen of the University of Wisconsin points out, however, that there are a variety of reasons for labeling food products. The FDA approach, he said, is based on the "wholesomeness" of the food--a scientific question about the safety to the consumer. But there are other reasons for labeling foods, he said. Some consumers take a "holistic" approach, thinking about the consequences to the environment--worried, for example, that genetically modified corn could pose a threat to monarch butterflies. Others have what Zinnen calls "holy" or religious reasons for wanting to know how their food is produced. Vegetarians might object to animal proteins added to fruits and vegetables. People feel they have a right to know about the food they eat, Zinnen said, and may be willing to pay more for that information.
Pact shows there's biosafety in numbers
News Analysis By Francesca Lyman, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR http://www.msnbc.com/news/364027.asp
Jan. 31: Some observers expected another Battle of Seattle, with angry protests and collapsed talks on the controversial issue of genetically engineered foods. But no "Brawl in Montreal" materialized. Except for an incident in which a protester threw a pie in the face of an industry lobbyist on the first day of the talks, the demonstrations were peaceful.
PROGRESS WAS PAINFULLY slow when more than 130 countries sat down last week to discuss ways to prevent biotechnology from adversely affecting the world‚ s biodiversity.
That‚s because positions diverged widely at the U.N.-sponsored talks on a proposed biosafety protocol that would set rules governing the movement of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, across borders. The European Union wanted to address the growing consumer backlash against genetically engineered foods, while U.S. officials instead trumpeted the benefits of these new crop strains. Developing countries wanted the right to block these products at their borders and a labeling regime to segregate these seeds, foodstuffs and commodities.
However, after a week of intense negotiations, delegates on Saturday produced an agreement all sides could favor. In the end, the United States‚ Frank Loy, undersecretary of state for global affairs, declared that the resulting treaty was one that protects the Earth's biological diversity without disrupting world trade. Margot Wallstron, the European Commission's environment minister, said the agreement eases public concern and creates predictability for industry
According to the final agreement, countries can stop or restrict imports of genetically engineered products if they fear that these could harm human health or damage the environment. The products covered include food, as well as farmers‚ seeds and animal feed. Whereas the United States, Canada and other grain producers had argued that such restrictions would conflict with the World Trade Organization‚s rules on free trade, the pact states that the WTO could not have precedence over environmental rules.
Perhaps most significantly, the agreement sets a historic precedent: It is the first time that the European-born concept of "precautionary principle" has been explicitly invoked in an international agreement. Thus, countries can block imports of GMOs as a precautionary measure, without having to first prove scientific evidence of their lack of safety.
FROM FAILURE TO SUCCESS
Why did this pact succeed when the last round of talks, held last February in Cartagena, Colombia, ended in stalemate?
There, the main grain exporting countries, led by the United States, balked at signing environmental rules dealing with exports of genetically engineered crops.
In Montreal, the agreement won praise from the biotechnology industry and environmentalists, both of whom battled for greater influence over the final language of the accord.
Environment ministers from about 50 countries were on hand, among them Canada‚s David Anderson, who was originally not planning to attend. To these ministers, the stakes were so high that all the parties felt compelled to emerge with something.
"The world is watching us, and history will certainly judge us," said Anderson. "We cannot afford to start off this new millennium without a biosafety protocol. This is the most important attempt by the global community to genuinely reconcile environmental and trade interests and run the risk of undermining the integrity of the (U.N.) Convention on Biological Diversity."
The United States, and other exporters calling for relatively free trade in genetically engineered crops, found themselves increasingly isolated. Surrounded by developing nations demanding a bulk shipment notification system and the right to block shipments, they were under tremendous pressure to come up with an agreeable framework. Loy said that "failure to reach agreement would have exacerbated tensions over the issue."
According to anti-GMO activists, the United States faced a changed climate of public opinion toward genetically modified foods. "What happened in Seattle made a big difference because it exposed the public‚s opposition," said Kristin Dawkins, an observer from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, based in Minneapolis. "And here in Montreal, protesters were camped out for two days, bearing candles and butterfly wings on the coldest day of the year. It showed that if enough people care, the public‚s voice can be heard."
As in Seattle, among the protesters were small-scale farmers from around the world concerned about "genetic pollution" genetically modified crops spreading altered genes into the surrounding environment through drift or cross pollination. Last year, a Cornell University study found that monarch butterflies are poisoned by corn that is genetically modified to produce Bt toxin, a natural pesticide.
Dawkins also notes that there were three or four times as many non-governmental observers in Montreal as there were in Cartagena and 10 times as many members of the press. According to a Montreal Gazette article, "The activists won the propaganda war with clever words and images. The serious-looking guys in suits never stood a chance."
SCIENTISTS IN BOTH CAMPS
Meanwhile, the scientific debate over the safety and intelligence of genetically engineering the food supply continued unabated, as scientists on both sides issued petitions. Anti-GMO scientists called for "for the immediate suspension of all environmental releases of GM crops and products; for patents on life forms and living processes to be revoked and banned; and for a comprehensive public enquiry into the future of agriculture and food security for all." Scientists in the pro-biotech camp released a declaration stating that "recombinant DNA techniques" would improve "agriculture, health care and the environment."
The pact strikes a delicate balance between the needs of trade and environmental and health concerns. However, negotiators tabled many issues, such as reckoning liability for damages in the event genetically engineered life forms are shown to wreak havoc on natural systems.
And the agreement left vague its exact relationship to the WTO, striking language that would have made the protocol‚s rules equal in power to those of the trade organization but implying that it was not subordinate to it either.
This vagueness is still unnerving to activists like Dawkins. "Depending on the skill of the lawyers and the political integrity or lack thereof of the countries disputing, the WTO could still do damage to these international environmental rules," she says. "There"s all kinds of plotting going on by interests with a lot at stake in this technology who are looking for every loophole to promote their interests."
"But," she added, "having a new treaty with a strong precautionary principle is helpful to narrowing those loopholes."
What's in the 'Biosafety Protocol'
Key provisions of the U.N.-sponsored Biosafety Protocol approved by representatives of more than 130 countries in Montreal: - Preamble recognizes risks/benefits of biotechnology and the need to protect biological diversity. - Preamble emphasizes protocol "shall not be interpreted" as changing the rights and obligations of countries under other international pacts, such as the World Trade Organization. - Preamble asserts trade and environmental accords should be mutually supportive and the protocol is not subordinate to other international pacts. - Establishes a Biosafety Clearinghouse to share information about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Countries must inform the body within 15 days of the approval of any crop varieties that could be used in food, animal feed and processing. - Exporters must obtain an importing country‚s approval, through a procedure known as advance informed agreement (AIA), for initial shipments of GMOs, such as seeds and trees, intended for release into the environment. - GMOs intended for food, feed and processing -- in other words, commodities -- are exempt from the AIA.
But they must be labeled "may contain" GMOs and countries can decide whether or not to import them based on a scientific risk assessment. - Countries also may consider "socioeconomic factors," such as the impact on local farmers, consistent with their other international obligations when making import decisions. - Negotiations on more detailed labeling requirements will proceed, with the requirement they be completed no later than two years after the protocol takes effect. - New talks will be held on the issue of liability for any damage resulting >from the crossborder movements of GMOs.
The goal is to finish in four years. - If illegal shipments occur, the affected party can request the shipper to retrieve or destroy the GMO at its own expense. - The protocol will go into effect after ratification by the 50th country or regional economic integration organization that is a party to the 1992 U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity. It will be subject to review at least every five years.
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