U.S. Needs To Allay Biotech Food Fears

By David Longtin and David Lineback
January 26, 2000
USA Today

Here's a story right down the alley of biotech critics: A few years ago, celery growers introduced what they thought was a wonderful new strain. Highly resistant to insects, it promised to boost yields dramatically. There was just one problem: People who handled the celery developed a serious rash. Dermatologists learned that the celery was shedding psoralens, natural chemicals that irritate the skin when exposed to sunlight.

The story is true, but here's another fact for those fearful of biotechnology: Traditional breeding techniques, not biotech wizardry, created that creepy celery back in the mid-1980s.

This month, government representatives from around the world are in Montreal to set the rules under which genetically engineered foods are to be tested and traded internationally. Whi1e these U.N.-sponsored talks are meant to focus on the environmental effects of cultivating biotech crops, larger issues of consumer safety inevitably will creep into the discussions.agricultural biotechnology. See how even potentially revolutionary change seems manageable when the precautionary principle isn't being used to batter the ignorant.

Global tension

Many experts believe that if these problems are not resolved, they could exacerbate global-trade tensions. The European Union argues that genetic engineering represents a major departure from conventional breeding techniques. It claims that by transferring small bits of DNA from widely different plants and animals, we may expose people to unknowable health risks. It wants imported biotech crops and most products derived from them to be labeled as such.

But the United States and its allies say that any labeling plan would cost too much and mislead consumers about the safety of various foods. While the European view has great popular appeal, scientists largely back the U.S. position. Since the first genetically engineered crops went to market in 1994 -- mainly corn, soybeans and potatoes with enhanced resistance to herbicides or parasites -- millions have eaten them with no trouble. And traditional breeding practices have never been as safe as most people believe. Over the past few decades, several conventionally derived varieties of crops have been pulled off the U.S. market because they possessed dangerous genetic defects.

In 1981 and 1982, new types of squash were taken out of production in Alabama and California when tests showed that these crops contained abnormally high levels of cucurbitacin, a substance that attacks cells. During the same period, 22 people in Queensland, Australia, contracted severe food poisoning after eating zucchini that possessed huge quantities of cucurbitacin. Many of the victims developed agonizing cramps and persistent diarrhea, and collapsed an hour or two after ingesting about 3 grams of zucchini. Like that irritating celery, these vegetables were not genetically engineered.

Potato making a comeback

Ironically, one of the most notorious crops ever produced might be on the verge of a comeback, thanks to biotechnology.

When it was commercially introduced in 1967, the Lenape potato seemed to have much to recommend it as a potato chip: less sugar, more solids and better chipping qualities than other varieties. But soon after its public debut, researchers found that the Lenape also contained slightly higher levels of toxic glycoalkaloids than allowed under federal regulations. While it is unlikely that this product would have killed anyone, many scientists believe there is a link between glycoalkaloids and spina bifida, a serious birth defect.

The Lenape had not been created by any high-tech wizardry, but through a time-honored breeding method. Scientists merely hybridized two distantly related potato varieties, then painstakingly tried to sort out the good characteristics from the bad.

In 1997, a team led by William Belknap, a plant physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Albany, Calif., identified a gene required for this potato to produce those large amounts of glycoalkaloids, and partially neutralized it. Since this procedure seems to ensure that the enhanced crop will be harmless to people, Belknap and his colleagues hope to put the Lenape back on the market after a few more years of tests.

In many ways, biotechnology is nothing more than a labor-saving device. It complements traditional breeding techniques, allowing scientists to establish select traits within a group of plants or animals more safely and precisely than they might do by conventional means alone.

But popular anxiety in Europe over these new foods already seems beyond the reach of science and logic. Our trade representatives will have to be exceedingly patient and clever to achieve anything like a viable compromise.


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