Let's face it. The holiday season would be just about perfect, except for one little thing: those extra pounds many of us gain because we overindulge.
What if someone could engineer food so it would be less fattening and more nutritious?
Happily, that's exactly what is happening - except some activists and special interest groups are trying to stop this progress.
The issue is biotechnology, otherwise known as genetically-modified (GM) food.
Though controversial in some quarters, GM food has some major benefits.
* Elimination of starvation: Biotechnology can increase agricultural productivity in the developing world. For instance, the 1997 World Bank and Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research estimates that biotechnology will increase food production in the developing world by 25%.
* Health: Bioengineering can reduce the amount of saturated fats in foods, and increase nutrients. According to U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) in Senate testimony, 500,000 children in developing nations go blind as a result of Vitamin A deficiency. 250 million children currently suffer from Vitamin A deficiency worldwide, which can cause learning disabilities and - for girls - childbearing problems once they become adults. Biotechnology can fortify rice, wheat and corn with extra Vitamin A to end this suffering.
Biotechnology can also reduce allergens in foods. Presently, food allergies are the cause of 2,500 emergency room visits and 135 deaths annually in the U.S. One to three percent of older children and adults suffer from food allergies, as do five to eight percent of infants and toddlers.
* Environment: Biotechnology has already led to an 80% reduction in insecticide use in U.S. cotton crops and U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show a 30 to 40% reduction in herbicide use. Biotechnology can reduce the amount of water needed to grow foods and reduce soil erosion caused by agriculture.
* Family economy: Bioengineered baked goods, fruits and vegetables can have a longer shelf life, reducing waste and spoilage.
Despite these benefits, a number of activists (often associated with leading environmental groups, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth1), a few dozen Members of Congress and quite a few very vocal Europeans want to slow down or stop genetic modification of food. Activists are protesting at Food and Drug Administration (FDA) meetings this November and December, where the FDA is reviewing calls for more restrictive labeling on GM food products. Led by Minority Whip David Bonior (D-MI), 50 Members of Congress have sent a letter to the FDA calling for more restrictions on biotechnology. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) has announced a bill calling for mandatory labeling of GM foods. Also, anti-GM activists were present in force at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle November 30-December 3, where pro-technology U.S. farm groups pushed for clear rules on biotechnology to stop European nations from halting imports of bioengineered U.S. crops.2
Despite all this hubbub, the fact is that GM food products are widespread. Half of the American soybean crop and a third of the corn crop has been altered with biotechnology.3 Common consumer foods with these GM ingredients include Coca-Cola, McDonald's hamburger buns, Heinz ketchup and Betty Crocker cake mixes.4 Other GM products now on the market include tomotatoes, peas, peppers, tropical fruit, broccoli, raspberries and melons (altered to control ripening), potatoes, tomatoes, cantaloupe, squash, cucumbers, canola, grapes (viral resistance), apples, cabbage, coffee, lettuce (insect resistance), sunflowers, corn, soybeans, canola, palm oil (improved nutrition), coffee (reduced caffeine), and peas and corn (controlled starch), among others.5
Currently, all U.S. food improved by biotechnology must pass stringent FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture safety tests, while the federal Environmental Protection Agency and state governments regulate other aspects of bioengineered agricultural products. FDA regulations require that all GM products contain labels identifying them as such under two conditions: if a portion of a known allergen has been introduced into a product, and/or if biotechnology has made a "material difference" in the food product.
Currently, the U.S. approval process for bioengineered foods is so stringent, it takes eight to ten years for a new product to be developed and approved. It is estimated that the average company spends half a billion dollars per product on this process alone.6
So what about the delicious but fattening food at those holiday
parties? The future looks bright. Assuming scientists are allowed
to continue their bioengineering work, and companies are allowed
to produce it, look for snack treats of the future to be just
as tasty, but they'll last longer, be easier to prepare, and have
less fat and more vitamins.
1 Scott Kilman, "Food Fright: Biotech
Scare Sweeps Europe, and Companies Womder if U.S. is Next,"
Wall Street Journal, October 17, 1999.
2 Matthew Green, "WTO Urged to Adopt Clear Rules on GM Food," Reuters, November 20, 1999.
3 Julie Ingwersen, "FDA Mulls Labels for Biotech Foods," UPI, November 18, 1999.
4 Kilman, October 17, 1999.
5 Food Marketing Institute Backgrounder: Technology and Food, downloaded November 22, 1999 from the Food Marketing Institute, http://www.fmi.org/media/bg/biotech.html.
6 Sheryl Hohle, consultant for the University of Utah's Office of Technology Transfer, as quoted in "The Bucks Behind Biotech," by Jenifer K. Nii, Deseret News, November 21, 1999.
Amy Ridenour is president of The National Center for Public Policy Research. Comments may be sent to [email protected]