Worries about genetically modified foods are on the rise. Consumers around the world are increasingly concerned about the effects such organisms have on human health and the environment. Just as troubling is their suspicion of the companies and regulatory authorities who assure the public that those fears are unfounded. Some skepticism is in order, but last week’s announcement that researchers had developed a rice strain that would fight Vitamin A deficiency is a warning that the issue of genetically modified organisms is far more complicated than partisans want us to believe.
Consumer groups and opponents of the strains have been on the offensive against genetically modified foods since the first outbreaks of “mad cow disease.” Horrific photos of victims of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, as it is more properly known, raised public consciousness about the risks of disease being passed through foods. The term “Frankenfoods” was conjured up to remind consumers of the potential dangers involved and the need for biosafety.
The campaign seems to be working. A recent survey shows that more than 80 percent of Germans, 78 percent of French and 70 percent of Japanese are less likely to buy genetically modified foods. On average, 68 percent of people in the eight countries surveyed said they would be less likely to purchase foods that had been tinkered with. Even Americans, supposedly more sensible about such matters — and already fed a substantial diet of such foods — voiced concern: Some 63 percent of them said they would be less likely to buy the stuff.
Later this month, world attention will focus on Montreal, where an international conference on biosafety will be held. Some worry that the chaos of Seattle will resurface there. Yet even if violence is avoided, this issue will take on increasing importance. Genetically modified food is big business: It is estimated that about 27 percent of total U.S. soybean acreage was planted with genetically modified strains of the crop, and 23 percent to 34 percent of corn-planted acreage produced modified varieties. Japan is one of the world’s largest importers of genetically modified foods, and the disputes that have accompanied debate over mandatory labeling of such foods are proof of the issue’s volatility.
The furor over Frankenfoods has obscured the original point of such modifications: creating better foods. Last week’s announcement that researchers have developed ways to enhance the Vitamin A content of rice was a timely reminder of the stakes involved in this debate. The international team reported that three genes necessary for the production and incorporation of beta carotene into rice seeds were inserted into rice plants. After three years of research, they finally succeeded in developing a strain that worked. They hope to develop a rice variety that contains a full day’s value of vitamin A in an average day’s intake. If they succeed, the International Rice Research Institute will offer it free to all nations.
About 125 million children around the world have Vitamin A deficiencies, which makes them vulnerable to diseases such as measles and diarrhea. Between 1 million and 2 million children die each year because of inadequate nutrition. In Southeast Asia, about a quarter of a million children under the age of five go blind each year because of this nutritional deficiency.
Since half of the world’s population eats rice every day and depends on it as a staple food, altering its nutritional content is an effective way of tackling these health problems. One of the researchers is also developing another rice strain with increased iron content, which will help fight iron-deficiency anemia affecting nearly 2 billion people.
Last week’s breakthrough marks the first time that a new strain has been developed that makes food better to eat. Previous modifications have made them easier, cheaper or more efficient to grow.
Development of this new strain shifts the terrain of the biotechnology debate. It does not cancel out concerns over effects on human health effects and the prospect of ecological damage, but it allows advocates of genetically modified foods to reclaim the moral high ground. It is a reminder that science is not just the handmaiden of producer interests; its practitioners address real-world issues that transcend the pocketbook. That is not to say that scientists have simply trumped the consumer groups. But it does mean that the debate over genetically modified foods has far more dimensions and nuances than are usually apparent. More important, it means that the impassioned debaters must redouble their efforts to find common ground. The Montreal conference is the best place to begin what promises to be a long and difficult discussion.
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