November 16, 2000

Ithacans Voice Concern on GMOs

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Experts gathered yesterday to discuss the effects of genetic engineering in agriculture as part of a two-day conference titled “Informing the Dialogue About Agricultural Biotechnology.”

Fourteen speakers debated how genetic engineering affects such issues as consumer safety, production costs, and public information. A total of 34 leading experts from various government, commercial, and nonprofit sectors will offer their perspectives on the debate during the course of the two-day forum.

“We’re trying to present as many views as possible,” said Esther M. Baker, director of public relations in the college of agriculture and life sciences (CALS).

Yesterday’s 250-member audience included organic farmers, beekeepers and journalists, who traveled from Canada, Europe and the United States.

Representatives from such organizations as the FDA, the Safe Food Campaign and several universities spoke on the topic of “Foods and Food Safety,” addressing issues relating to the possible presence of toxins and allergens in genetically engineered food.

During panel sessions, audience members had the opportunity to ask questions and raise concerns about consumer information, such as the labeling of genetically altered foods.

Michael Jacobson from the Center for Science in the Public Interest stressed the basic importance of food safety.

“We can’t use labeling as a surrogate for safety,” Jacobson said. “The food [itself] has to be safe,” he stressed.

“The food industry could put ‘genetically modified’ on 70 percent of labels,” Jacobson said. However, he argued, if every product was labeled, people would come to overlook it.

“It would cost a lot of money to segregate [genetically engineered foods] and to label them,” said Dr. Bruce Chassy, from the department of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

An organic farmer in the audience stepped to the microphone and elaborated.

“I think the issue is a matter of consumer choice and consumer information,” he said, explaining that the issue is “people wanting to know what they’re eating.”

Tony Del Plato of the Safe Food Campaign brought up the economic and social implications of genetically engineered food, arguing that biotechnology in agriculture is destroying small farms and presenting a risk to the environment.

The afternoon session yesterday discussed “Environmental Issues,” such as the effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on insects. Several speakers described the effects of the gene Bt that prompts the carrier plant to produce its own pesticide, which eventually becomes less and less effective as insects evolve a resistance to it.

The cost of producing crops with and without genetic engineering was one major concern.

A farmer from Long Island argued that using Bt increases crop yield and lowers cost of production, because it substitutes for costly and time-consuming sprays.

In an increasingly competitive market, “farmers are getting less and less [money] for each bushel of crop they’re growing over time,” said Dr. Doreen Stabinsky, science advisor to the Greenpeace Genetic Engineering Campaign.

Another main concern was that scientists and the public need to reach a consensus in the GMO debate through open channels of communication and dialogue between the separate groups.

Speaker Dr. Shanthu Shantharam of the International Food Policy Institute said that yesterday’s forum lacked dialogue.

“The level of participation from the audience leaves much to be desired,” he said. “There are too many people on the panel,” Shantharam added.

One student disagreed.

“I think these town discussions are probably the most purposeful part of [the forum],” said Elisia Klinka ’01.

“I wish there were more students here, because I know students probably care about these issues,” Klinka added.

“Part of our job as a University is to discuss complicated issues in an educational fashion,” said conference organizer Tony Shelton, Ph. D., associate director of research for the CALS.

Speakers today will discuss the issues of food systems, agricultural biotechnology in the developing world, and communicating information on agricultural biotechnology.

The conference continues from 8:15 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. in the Biotechnology building, Room G10.

A simulcast of the conference can be viewed in the ILR Conference Center Room 105 or on the internet at informingthedialogue.

Archived article by Heather Schroeder