Published on Thursday, April 6, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Report on Genetically Altered Foods Hit as Pro-Agribusiness
by Tom Abate
A scientific panel that waded into the debate over
genetically engineered foods yesterday drew fire from environmental
opponents for taking a narrow, pro-industry view of the possible
human and environmental risks posed by gene-splicing technology.
In a 261-page report issued yesterday, a 12-person National Research Council panel said it ``was not aware of any evidence suggesting foods on the market today are unsafe to eat as a result of genetic modification.''
Genetic engineering involves the transfer in a laboratory of genes from one plant or animal into a crop. Traditional plant breeding tries to introduce new genes through pollen transfer, or sexual reproduction, from one plant to another.
The panelists, who spent a year hammering out a consensus report, said the Environmental Protection Agency should revise, and then implement, a genetic plant review process that it proposed in 1994 but has not completed.
The suggested revision involves EPA's proposed exemption of plant breeders who use sexual reproduction to introduce alien genes into a crop. The panel questioned why the review process focused solely on gene-splicing.
The panel also said the EPA needed to work more closely with the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, two other agencies involved in the review process, to improve safety testing and alleviate concerns that genetically modified foods might pose health or environmental risks.
The scientists acknowledged that their report focused on only gene modifications that make plants resistant to pests and diseases. It did not study other common types of alterations, such as adding genes to make plants herbicide-resistant or to improve their vitamin content.
Nor did the report discuss whether genetically modified foods should be labeled, a move opponents have demanded to alert people who may be afraid of allergic reactions to new genes or who simply do not like the technology.
Even before the report was issued, environmentalists complained that the committee was stacked to favor agribusiness. The committee's original staff director, for example, is now a lobbyist for the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D.C.
``Given the conflicts of this study, this is not credible as an independent scientific report,'' said Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. His group has filed federal lawsuits challenging the FDA and other regulatory agencies.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and Rep. Jack Metcalf, R-Wash., co-authors of bills to force the labeling of genetically modified foods, also accused the panel of pro-industry ``bias.''
At the news conference where the report was released, panel Chairman Perry Adkisson, an entomologist and chancellor emeritus at Texas A&M University, stressed that the report reflects a consensus view that included the opinions of Rebecca Goldburg, a scientist with Environmental Defense in New York.
``Given the extraordinarily strong feelings on all sides . . . it's not surprising that our work has come under such strong scrutiny,'' he said.
But while Goldburg acknowledged that ``the committee members worked hard to get out a consensus recommendation,'' she declined to give the report a ringing endorsement.
``People should look at the criticisms and look at the report and draw their own conclusions,'' she said.
The report is available at www.nas.edu.
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle