While some American consumers are raising concerns about genetically modified foods, they are ignoring the safety risks of organically grown corn, soybeans and other grains, the chairman of Cargill Inc said on Monday.
Cargill, the world' biggest grain exporter, said gene-spliced food is crucial to feed a fast-growing population in the developing world and that the debate over the safety of biofoods has been dominated by "anti-science" activists in wealthy nations.
Organic farming, which some environmental groups have suggested as an alternative to biofoods, is not a "panacea" to solve the world's hunger, Ernest Micek said in a speech at a globalization conference sponsored by the Economic Strategy Institute.
"There is some evidence that food grown organically is not as healthy as food grown using conventional, high-yield agriculture, including biotechnology," he said.
"Organic fields suffer higher levels of rodent and pest damage, which create openings for fungi to attack the grains," Micek said. "Fungi produce toxins, including aflatoxin, one of the most potent of carcinogens."
Organic farmers typically shun most chemicals, preferring to use animal manure for fertilizer and insect predators to control pests. They contend their methods are safer, more natural and preserve the fertility of the land.
At most, organically-grown crops can feed 4 billion people, or two-thirds of the current global population, Micek said.
"There is nothing romantic about keeping people poor and undernourished," he said. "An anti-science sentiment has been allowed to dominate the (biofoods) debate."
While Micek defended biofoods as necessary to help feed poor nations, other countries have made it clear that gene-altered crops are not welcome in their ports or food plants.
The European Union banned some genetically modified varieties of grains, responding to consumers who are worried about long-term effects on human health and the environment.
Many Japanese foodmakers have refused to buy biotech varieties since the government said it would require labels next year on foods containing genetically altered ingredients. South Korea also plans to begin labelling biofoods in 2001.
Micek said there was no need for U.S. regulators to require labels on snack foods, puddings, salad dressings, and other foods made with gene-spliced ingredients. Labels already carry more information than consumers can digest, he said.
"I don't see where that's going to help," Micek told reporters after his speech. "We support the action the Food and Drug Administration has taken."
The FDA recently said it planned to make some changes in the approval procedures for new biofoods, but declined requests from green groups to require safety testing or labels.
Linda Horton, the FDA's director of international agreements, said the agency based its actions on science.
"What we try to do is have requirements for scientific assessments that are rigorous and transparent," Horton told the conference. "It's going to be very important for consumers to see the benefits of genetically modified foods."
Rebecca Goldburg, senior scientist with Environmental Defense, said agribusinesses' rush to embrace biotechnology as a way to feed the developing world ignored other, complicated issues.
Biofoods "might be some small part of the solution," she told the conference, but nations must still address food distribution systems, water scarcity, population growth and infrastructure. "Many of the benefits of the technology -- while they may be there -- are often overblown, Goldburg said.
Copyright Reuters Limited 2000.