What are they doing to our food?
By Carol Milano

Genetically modified corn and soy are widely available -- but are they good for you?

To explore this knotty question, AHCJ brought together three experts with different points of view during the last day of the Fifth National Conference.

The panel featured Marion Nestle, a professor of food studies at New York University and author of Food Politics: How the Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, David Schmidt, executive vice president of the International Food Information Council, an industry trade group, and Charles Muscoplat, dean of the University of Minnesota College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences and a nationally recognized expert in the impact of agricultural practices on t he food supply.

Muscoplat explained how genes in foods affect genes in humans. "Food genomics offers the possibility of a paradigm shift in agriculture," said Muscoplat. And, the science is moving fast.

Already, a Nobel Prize has been awarded for crossbreeding a shorter, stronger wheat plant that is 50 percent more productive than its predecessors. Grains are remarkably similar genetically, so understanding one will de-mystify all of them, he said.

By changing diet and health, a "green revolution" will eventually alter our DNA, he said. For instance, nutrigenomics may help scientists regulate our 417 fat genes - 305 of which keep us thin. The audience laughed at a 1940s ad, depicting a smiling family and proclaiming, "They're happy because they eat lard."

Then the journalists gasped at a series of maps showing the nationwide spread of obesity over 16 years. "Is it the amount we eat? Altering micronutrients and foods may be able to make a difference in this epidemic," Muscoplat said.

But are genetically modified foods harmful?

Nestle, a well-known critic of such foods, noted: "No case of illness or death from a genetically modified food has been reported. But just because a food is safe doesn't mean it's acceptable."

And, though the risks are unproven, genetically modified foods stir public concern.

An online movement to keep genetically modified food from "organic" crops generated 275,000 messages to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Genetically modified foods generate dread and outrage. They're hidden, not labeled, no one asked for them, and their safety is largely unprovable," Nestle said.

"The most hostile protests are on the Internet. Hundreds of sites are devoted to anti-GM activities, said Nestle. At the same time, Oregon voters defeated a proposed ban on genetically modified food in 2002, she said.

Even retailers and industry associations are concerned that genetically modified food containing drugs may enter the main food supply.

The Food Information Council's Schmidt said consumer attitudes toward biotechnology were initially influenced by Dolly, the cloned sheep. Surveys from 1997 to 2004 showed that nearly 80 percent of respondents were likely to purchase genetically modified foods if they tasted better or fresher; about 50 percent would buy them if the foods were not modified by pesticides. For 59 percent, FDA approval was the determining factor.

Questions from the large, attentive audience included concern about the Food Information Council's funding. In response, Schmidt said that less than 20 percent comes from companies involved in genetically modified foods. Another journalist, still stunned by Muscoplat's maps, asked whether the increased power of grain contributes to the obesity epidemic.

"The new grains make up 50 percent of the average diet, and we've added 30 percent more calories since 1970," the biotechnologist replied.

The final question was: Can reporters stir public interest in genetically modified food-related issues? Nestle responded: "The consumer reigns. If they don't like it, they don't have to buy it."

Carol Milano is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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