Genetically modified foods transform food production, but critics worry about safety

mlocke@newsobserver.comDecember 28, 2013 

— With many scientific breakthroughs come products and profits. Some, such as genetically modified foods, can be controversial.

Mary-Dell Chilton had no idea what, if anything, would become of her pioneering discovery that plants could take on genetic traits transported through the DNA of bacteria. Soon, she learned just how much appetite the agricultural industry had for her research.

Genetically modified foods are heralded as the salvation of the world’s hungry. Companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta can manipulate seeds to withstand some of nature’s predators and uncontrollable weather patterns.

For farmers trying to increase yield or minimize losses during monsoons or drought, the benefits are obvious. But the risks, critics say, are unknown.

Critics want more testing of the foods to be assured they are safe and say consumers ought to be warned when products they buy contain modified foods. Some of the companies’ agreements with farmers – forcing them to sign contracts to not use seeds from their current crop and buy again the following season – is considered morally reprehensible by some.

Anger in Iowa

The animosity toward the industry was palpable last October when, according to the Des Moines Register, about 50 critics protested the World Food Prize being awarded to Chilton and other pioneers of genetically modified foods. The fierceness of the criticism was so threatening that Chilton said she and event organizers worried for her safety.

“Some people feel strongly that the technology ought to be shelved,” said Timothy Wise, director of the research and policy program with the Global Development and Environmental Institute at Tufts University, who studies genetically modified foods. “They want publicly controlled research that solves problems and they don’t want the agenda to be driven by private interests and profit motive.”

Chilton, along with many of her peers in the biotech field, dismisses any claims regarding the safety of the products and says anyone who is worried ought to buy organic products. They say they have no control over what becomes of the products developed from their technology.

“I can’t help it that we are a large company that makes money, but we can’t give away our technology,” Chilton said. “It’s the nature of the beast.”

Not in Europe

In Europe, genetically modified foods and ingredients generally aren’t allowed to be sold to humans. In the U.S., states such as Washington have tried and failed to force food companies to label products that contain genetically modified foods. Whole Foods, a major grocery chain, has vowed to label genetically modified foods at its American stores by 2018.

In any grocery store in America, you’ll find genetically modified foods in an array of products. About 70 percent of the processed foods on the shelves of American grocery stores contain genetically modified ingredients.

Oils from modified soy and corn (high fructose corn syrup) are used in many processed foods, and livestock and poultry have feasted on this manipulated soy. Modified corn is also fed to animals, which is passed directly to consumers.

Research Triangle Park is on the leading edge of genetically modified foods. Fifty agricultural biotech firms have operations in the Triangle region, employing 7,700, according to the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

The companies are pouring money into the park. This summer, BASF opened a $33 million biotechnology complex, and Bayer CropScience completed a $2.2 million bee center this year. Syngenta, which employs about 500 people in RTP, is growing, too; this fall, it broke ground on a $94 million laboratory expansion.

Chilton said she is not willing to sit idle and do nothing about the growing imbalance between people and food production. She’s confident the foods she is helping develop will help feed some of the 9 billion people expected to inhabit the world by 2050. And, in case her research and the industry’s products alone can’t solve the gap, she is investing heavily in organizations that help women control their family size.

She gave her $183,000 share of the World Food Prize to the global Planned Parenthood organization, which operates in some of the developing nations where food scarcity is leading to starvation.

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