WASHINGTON — Genetically modified plants grown from seeds engineered in laboratories now provide much of the food Americans eat. Most corn, soybean and cotton crops grown in the United States have been genetically modified to resist pesticides or insects, and corn and soy are common food ingredients.
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The Agriculture Department has approved three more genetically engineered crops in the past month, and the Food and Drug Administration could approve fast-growing genetically modified salmon for human consumption this year.
Agribusiness and the seed companies say their products help boost crop production, lower prices at the grocery store and feed the world, particularly in developing countries. The FDA and USDA say the engineered foods they have approved are safe — so safe, they do not even need to be labeled as such — and cannot be significantly distinguished from conventional varieties.
Organic food companies, chefs and consumer groups have stepped up their efforts — so far, unsuccessfully — to get the government to exercise more oversight of engineered foods, arguing the seeds are floating from field to field and contaminating pure crops. The groups have been bolstered by a growing network of consumers who are wary of processed and modified foods.
Many of these opponents acknowledge that there is not much solid evidence showing genetically modified foods are somehow dangerous or unhealthy. It just doesn't seem right, they say. It's an ethical issue.
"If you mess with nature there's a side effect somewhere," says George Siemon, chief executive of Organic Valley, the largest U.S. organic farming cooperative, which had more than $600 million in sales last year. "There is a growing awareness that our system makes us all guinea pigs of sorts."
The U.S. government has insisted there is not enough difference between the genetically modified seeds its agencies have approved and natural seeds to cause concern. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, more so than his predecessors in previous administrations, has acknowledged the debate over the issue and a growing chorus of consumers concerned about what they are eating.
"The rapid adoption of GE crops has clashed with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other non-GE products," Vilsack said in December as he considered whether to approve genetically modified alfalfa. "This clash led to litigation and uncertainty . . . Surely, there is a better way, a solution that acknowledges agriculture's complexity, while celebrating and promoting its diversity."
Vilsack later approved the engineered alfalfa for use — along with sugar beets and a type of corn used in ethanol — to the disappointment of the organic industry, but he said the department would do additional research on ways to prevent contamination of natural seeds and improve detection of contamination.
Organic companies have praised Vilsack for even acknowledging the issue, as large seed companies like Monsanto and the substantial chunk of agribusiness that use their seeds have long held sway at USDA. The organic industry fears contamination could hurt sales of its products, especially in Europe, where consumers have been extremely hesitant about biotech foods.
While opponents of engineered foods have not found federal agencies overly receptive to their concerns, they have been able to delay some USDA approvals with lawsuits. The alfalfa decision followed a lengthy court battle that was closely watched not only by the organic industry, but by consumers — a development opponents believe will help their cause.
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"We're seeing a level of reaction that is unprecedented," says Jeffrey Smith, an activist who has fought the expansion of genetically engineered foods since they were first introduced 15 years ago and written two books on the subject. "I personally think we are going to hit the tipping point of consumer rejection very soon."
Many consumers also have followed the Food and Drug Administration's consideration of an engineered salmon that grows twice as fast as the conventional variety. If the FDA approves the fish for sale, it will be the first time the government has allowed genetically modified animals to be marketed for humans to eat.
Consumer interest in the issue has magnified in the past five years, along with interest in eating locally grown and organic foods, said Organic Valley's Siemon. Young, educated consumers who are driving much of the organic market have no interest in eating crops derived from a laboratory, he said.
Genetically modified crops were introduced to the market in 1996. That year, engineered corn accounted for less than 5 percent of the total crop. Last year, the USDA estimated that 70 percent of U.S. corn acreage was planted with herbicide-tolerant corn and 63 percent had been planted with insect-resistant seeds. Rates for soybeans and cotton are even higher.
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