Monsanto Corp.'s decision to sue Oakhurst Dairy this week highlights an emerging battle over the widespread use of genetically altered food.
So far, consumers seem to be moving to the side that favors "food that has not been modified by somebody going in and monkeying about with the genes," said Kevin Coupe, a retail analyst who produces the Web site morningnewsbeat.com.
"One of the biggest (food) categories right now is natural and organic foods," Coupe said. "There's a reason why it's growing."
Still, Coupe said consumers in the United States are generally less concerned by genetic modifications to foods than those in Europe, where many countries have banned the import of food that's been altered by biotechnology.
Food is genetically altered for a number of reasons, such as improving yields, extending shelf lives or increasing resistance to insects or plant diseases.
Most of the modifications produce benefits beyond greater yields, including reduced use of pesticides, less waste or less need for irrigation.
In many ways, genetic engineering resembles the process of cross-breeding plants that agriculture has perfected for years as a way to create improve crops. In the case of genetic modifications, however, the work is done in the laboratory, not the field, and can involve moving genes from one species to another.
Monsanto, one of the country's largest biotechnology firms, announced this week that it is suing Oakhurst Dairy of Portland because the dairy markets the fact that its milk comes from farmers who pledge not to give artificial growth hormones to their cows.
Monsanto said the hormones, which it manufactures, don't produce milk any different from milk produced by cows that aren't fed the hormones. Oakhurst's marketing pitch, Monsanto claims, suggests otherwise and deceives consumers.
Douglas Johnson, (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org) executive director of the Stonington-based Maine Biotechnology Information Bureau, said much of the opposition to genetically altered foods is based on "junk science."
"As long as the plants have been through the (testing) process and are demonstrated to be safe for human consumption and benign to the environment, it should be allowed to be sold," Johnson said. "This argument is more about philosophy than science, and if its a philosophical one, the government ought to stay out of it."
Both Coupe and Johnson agree that labeling food with more information about how it was produced would be beneficial.
"People ought to be free to eat whatever they want - and they ought to know what it is," Johnson said.
Coupe said Monsanto's lawsuit suggests that there's something wrong with using hormones that the company doesn't want consumers to know about.
"The last thing we need as consumers in this country is companies that don't want to tell us something," he said. "They're saying, 'Do it our way, or we'll sue you.' "
Coupe said consumers want to know where their food comes from, whether it's been genetically altered in any way and how it was grown. Fears of bioterrorism are also on people's minds.
"People are very concerned about what they put in their mouths and what they feed their kids," he said. "Part of it, you could trace back to Sept. 11, but it also predates that."
He said much of that concern comes about because people can learn about the arguments over genetic alterations quickly, on the Internet, and they may be worried about the long-term implications.
Other consumers, he said, don't want to do the research, but they also don't want to take chances with the food they eat and opt for organic brands.
Chains such as Wild Oats appeal to both groups by saying, " 'We have food that hasn't been messed with and therefore it's better for you.' Because it's such an unambiguous message, you don't have to figure it out," Coupe said. "There's something to be said for simplicity."
But Johnson said that attitude is simplistic in a world where there's not enough food.
"It's really becoming a question of whether we can feed the 9 billion people that are going to be here by 2050, and the answer is, without this technology, we can't," he said.
Johnson said most genetically altered foods end up in processed foods, such as those containing soy-based oils or some corn products. He said there are some estimates that 60 percent of the food sold in the United States contains ingredients that have been genetically modified.
"You find that, certainly, there are unknowns, but the risk-assessment system has found that the benefits outweigh the risks," Johnson said. "When you talk about feeding the world, organic doesn't even fit it. There are too many people who don't have any food at all."
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