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3-Food: Biotech foods face new obstacles



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TITLE:  Biotech Foods Face New Obstacles
SOURCE: Food Technology, USA, Vol. 56 (12): 20, by Pierce Hollingsworth
DATE:   Dec 2002

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Biotech Foods Face New Obstacles

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    The looming debate in North Dakota isn't more than a blip for the
    biotech bandwagon, but it does represent a prototype for future
    opposition on a more massive scale.
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Will biotech foods become the next target for trial lawyers? Not likely, 
but proposed legislation announced by a North Dakota state senator could 
open the door a crack. If passed, the law would give wheat farmers there 
the ability to sue nearby biotech grain producers for contamination.

Sen. Bill Bowman said he plans to introduce the legislation next year to 
protect farmers from potential dangers from emerging transgenic wheat 
technology. "There is no question that this is going to cross-pollinate 
with our varieties of spring wheat," he said. "The company that makes the 
money off this should have some liability."

The action applies only to biotech wheat, a grain that is not yet 
commercially established in a state where genetically modified (GM) corn, 
canola, and soybeans are widely grown and processed. More than half the 
corn and soybean crops in North Dakota have transgenic traits, according to 
state seed commissioner Ken Bertsch in recent testimony to the state 
legislature.

Monsanto Co., the leading producer of experimental GM wheat in North 
Dakota, naturally opposes the actions, and stated that such legislation 
could keep biotech companies out of the state and its farmers out of an 
important emerging technology.

The looming debate in North Dakota isn't more than a blip for the biotech 
bandwagon, but it does represent a prototype for future opposition on a 
more massive scale. If the prolitigation and moratorium initiatives are 
successful in North Dakota, they could provide a model for legislation 
aimed at other crops in other states where GM agriculture is gaining 
traction.

The stakes are high. Three-quarters of soybeans and more than a third of 
the corn crop in the United States this year will be grown with 
bioengineered seeds, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, compared 
to 54% of soybeans and 25% of corn two years ago. This rapid growth is 
buttressed by considerable research affirming the safety of GM corn and 
soybeans and by lower seed costs resulting from higher production volumes. 
Any serious challenge or disruption to the production of GM grains would 
have a major economic impact.

Consumer acceptance is a major factor. A key barometer of public sentiment 
took place during the November elections in Oregon. By a margin of nearly 
three to one, voters rejected an initiative that would have required 
mandatory labeling for all foods and ingredients resulting from 
biotechnology, superseding federal regulations. The Food and Drug 
Administration considers such foods safe and requires no special labeling. 
The Grocery Manufacturers of America actively opposed the measure and cited 
its defeat as a major consumer endorsement of current regulations.

Public sentiment is considerably different in the rest of the world. Food 
exports are critical to farmers and processors, and essential to many 
countries that rely on food and feed from the U.S. However, public policy 
and consumer perception continue to resist U.S. efforts to expand exports. 
The European Union is considering even tighter regulations not only to 
label foods that have even traces of biotech ingredients, but also to 
expand trade restrictions to keep them out. The rules would tighten 
requirements for tracing the genetic origin of all food ingredients and 
placing this information on the label. Trade representatives for the U.S. 
equate these restrictions to trade barriers, citing international studies 
substantiating the safety of such foods.

European consumers are actively opposed to foods with biotech ingredients. 
Similar sentiment is growing in Asia, Australia, and Africa. In October, 
Zambia refused a shipment of food aid despite the fact that many of its 
people are on the verge of starvation. Zambia's rejection was based, in 
part, on political pressure from the EU, which indicated that it would 
reject exports from Zambia if GM grains were allowed into the country.

New domestic concerns have also emerged. A growing organic foods industry, 
in which GM foods have no place, is now armed with new federal regulations 
establishing standards of identity and is attracting the interest of major 
food companies. And a looming battle is shaping up between drug companies 
that use bioengineered crops to produce pharmaceuticals and the food 
industry, which is leery of these products' entering the food supply 
through inadvertent commingling or cross-pollination.

GM foods may be here to stay, but their role in the global diet is still 
handwritten on the menu.



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