By Dennis Clemente
Last March 5, food experts from various fields speaking at the “Future of Food” talk hosted by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) all agreed to have genetically modified foods labeled–if they had their way. Three days later, Whole Foods Market, the grocery chain, had its way. It became the first retailer in the United States to require labeling of all genetically modified foods sold in its stores. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/09/business/grocery-chain-to-require-labels-for-genetically-modified-food.html?_r=0
The experts at the AMNH consisted of plant geneticist Paul Gepts, ethicist Paul Wolpe and intellectual property lawyer Rochelle Dreyfuss with Frederick Kaufman, author of “Bet the Farm,” as moderator. The talk was in conjunction with the museum’s one-of-a-kind exhibition, “Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture.” (http://www.amnh.org/learn-teach/adults/exhibition-related-programs/the-future-of-food)
Gene-modified food has become one of the most hotly contested issues of our time. There are so many gray areas that everyone in the panel also think there should be further evaluation–not just about the genetic engineering of crops, but also of animals using “modern biotechnology” and “gene technology”.
Gepts leads the way in saying, “Current genetically engineered crops could be improved by a stronger regulatory process based on improved testing protocols.”
Trying to cover as much ground in one hour, the talk veered in many overlapping directions. The speakers took turns answering questions about the hidden forces that shape what we eat; the legal and ethic implications at play; how biotechnology could affect our food systems; “patenting” nature, and if genetically modified foods are the answer or the problem.
In differentiating our food sources, Gepts points out how meats may be derived from animals that were fed genetically engineered crops, such as corn, but the animals themselves may not be genetically engineered.
Dairy products, on the other hand, may reportedly use bovine growth hormone to increase lactation dairy cows or use genetically engineered rennet to produce cheese. There are snack foods that are said to contain or are derived from corn, cotton, soybean or canola.
Gepts says most fruits and vegetables are not genetically engineered, except for papayas where production in Hawaii is said to be partly genetically engineered to resist a plant virus.
Gene-modified food may cause some health issues, if “diseases are created” as a result of it, not to mention how modification can introduce allergies. Combining peanuts with tomatoes can cause a problem if one is, Wolpe says, allergic to one or the other.
The talk certainly presented itself as a prelude to a wide-ranging issue that could bring in more personalities to the table–more food experts, lawyers, ethicists, environmentalists, foodies and various food companies, all seemingly headed for a serious collision.
It’s what Kaufman called the “wall” between food activists and scientists and what Dreyfuss thinks will make her a mediator to an issue that is going to breed all sorts of reactions and intense debates for sometime to come, especially when other First World countries already have gene-modified food labeled.