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Religious Leaders Finally Questioning Gene-Altered Foods

Biotech food slowly coming under ethical, religious scrutiny
By Kathi Wolfe
2000 Religion News Service
Nov. 30, 2000

WASHINGTON -- Some call it Frankenfood. Others claim it could dramatically
reduce if not end world hunger.

To date, Americans have paid little attention to the revolution in growing
and producing what is known as biotech food. But, the recall of 300
varieties of taco shells containing StarLink, a variety of biotech corn,
has put genetically engineered food on America's ethical and
consumer-conscious radar screen.

And it has become a burning issue for faith groups.

Earlier this month, both the Reform movement of Judaism and Pope John Paul
II spoke out on genetically altered food.

"It's the hottest issue to hit the religious community since divestment and
South Africa," said Ariane van Buren, environmental director of the
Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.

In the last five years, churches have begun to think about the theological
and environmental issues posed by genetically engineered food, said Roger
Willer, an executive with the Division for Church in Society of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. "The StarLink situation has put
this issue on the front burner," he added.

StarLink was genetically modified with a gene from a bacteria that kills
worms that eat corn. The Environmental Protection Agency, concerned that
StarLink could cause allergic reactions, approved the corn for animal feed,
but not human consumption. When StarLink was discovered in taco shells in
October, there was a nationwide recall of tacos and other products
containing the corn. The recall, costing millions of dollars, has affected
farmers, grain elevators and businesses from Wendy's to Safeway.

Despite this massive recall, biotech companies and some religious leaders
cite the potential benefits of genetically modified food.

According to van Buren, 40 percent of the corn and 60 percent of the soy
beans planted in the United States are genetically engineered. Since this
food is not labeled as being genetically altered, she said, "people are
unknowingly eating genetically engineered food."

Food is genetically modified when genes are inserted into its DNA to give
it such characteristics as flavor, resistance to pests or nutritional value.

On Nov. 14, the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, adopted a
resolution on labeling of genetically engineered food. The statement calls
for "governmental regulatory measures" requiring the labeling of biotech
food products. People, the commission said, may need to know if food is
genetically modified because of the possible risks of allergic reactions,
increased antibiotic resistance or decreased nutritional value.

The group called on the government to "monitor the health, ecological and
religious liberty implications of genetic engineering."

In addition, the Reform Jewish panel said "many religious . . . individuals
have . . . reservations about consuming genetically engineered food because
of the possible animal sources of genetic materials inserted into plant
genes. For them, the consumption of unlabelled genetically altered foods
raises matters of . . . religious observance."

Pope John Paul II has also urged caution concerning genetically engineered
food. On Nov. 11 and 12, at Holy Year celebrations marking the Jubilee of
Agricultural Workers and the church's Day of Thanksgiving for the Gifts of
Creation, the Roman Catholic pontiff called world hunger "a scandal." But,
the pope said, Genesis "consigns the earth to the use, not the abuse of man."

John Paul said the use of biotechnology in agriculture, "cannot be
evaluated only on the basis of immediate economic interests. It is
necessary to subject it in advance to rigorous scientific and ethical
checking to prevent it ending up in disaster for . . . the future of the
earth."

During the past year, the religious community began to express its concern
about genetically altered food with action designed to impact the business
interests of the biotech industry.

This year, 33 institutional investors filed shareholder resolutions with 21
companies who market genetically engineered food products, said van Buren
of the Interfaith Center. In 2001, she added, shareholder resolutions will
be filed with 30 or 40 biotech companies.

"We're asking that genetically engineered food products be removed from the
markets until long-term testing has proven their safety for people and the
environment. Until then, we want genetically modified food to be labelled,"
she said.

Biotech companies argue the benefits outweigh the risks of genetic engineering.

"Genetically engineered food has reduced the amount of pesticide sprayed on
to the land and water. It reduces disease, " said Bryan Hurley, a spokesman
for Monsanto. According to Hurley, a variety of rice -- Golden Rice --
genetically modified with vitamin A, now in development, will prevent a
type of blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency.

Jaydee Hansen, an executive with the United Methodist General Board of
Church and Society, disputes Hurley's argument.

"You don't fix a deficient diet with rice. Even if it is rice with vitamin
A. You decrease world hunger by helping people grow a diverse, healthy diet
that includes yellow and green vegetables. Like carrots. These veggies have
vitamin A."

Despite environment and health concerns, Hansen said, the United Methodist
Church doesn't have a "`thou shalt not' against genetically engineered
food." There could be some benefits to genetically altering certain foods,
he added.

"People in Africa get many of their calories from (the plant) cassava.
Before it can be eaten, cassava has to have a toxin removed from it. If
cassava could be genetically modified so that it would not have this toxin,
it would be ready to eat in much less time. This would be less work for the
women preparing the food."

But Hansen warned that the potential benefits do not mitigate the potential
downside of genetic engineering.

Last May, the denomination's General Conference, its highest legislative
body, added a statement on genetically engineered food to the Social
Principles section of its Book of Discipline, the church's rule book.

"We call for clear labeling of all . . . altered foods, with premarket
safety testing required. We call for policies that encourage . . . gradual
transition to sustainable and organic agriculture."

Biotech food isn't a "black or white" issue, said Sandra A. LaBlanc,
director of rural ministries resources and networking for the Evangelical
Lutheran Church of America.

"It's a source of acute tension for farmers. Say two brothers farm
together. One feels genetically engineered food is the way to go because it
reduces the cost of input by using less herbicides (which kill weeds). The
other brother doesn't want to genetically alter crops because of
environmental concerns. It's a terrible conflict."

She said the denomination is ministering to farm families by providing them
with educational resources and people to help them make an informed
decision on genetically engineered food.

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