New York Times December 9, 1998


Chefs Join Effort to Label Engineered Food


On the belief that chefs have a vested interest in potential
hazards in the food supply, Greenpeace has joined forces with Chefs
Collaborative 2000 in an effort to persuade consumers to fight for the
labeling of genetically engineered food. Their first move is a campaign to
collect 10,000 signatures to petition the Food and Drug Administration.

The issue is the insertion of genes from one species of
animal or vegetable into another, permanently altering its
genetic code. Many Europeans are furious about the
technology, but most Americans have only the vaguest idea of
what it is.

Both industry and government continue to assure consumers
that genetic engineering, like the use of rBGH, or bovine
growth hormone, in cows is not only safe but will also
increase the food supply and reduce the need for pesticides.

Earlier this year, a coalition of consumer groups, chefs and
scientists filed a lawsuit against the FDA demanding
labeling and safety testing. Now the 1,000-member Chefs
Collaborative, which was founded in 1993 to support organic
farming and sustainable agriculture, is getting involved.

"The chefs are interested in environmental sustainability,"
said Charles Margulis, a genetic engineering issues
specialist with Greenpeace, an environmental group, "and I
think they are the people who would be able to convince
Americans that there is an intimate connection between what
we eat and how we choose to grow the food that we eat."

New York restaurateurs who are in the collaborative and have
signed the petition include chefs at Le Bernardin, Daniel,
Chanterelle, Union Square Cafe, Aureole, March and Savoy.
Chefs at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., Frontera Grill in
Chicago and Olives in Boston are also among the 140
signatories in the drive to get names on the petition.

Many chefs instinctively mistrust the genetic engineering of
food. Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin said: "I don't want a cow
gene in my cabbage. It's like Frankenstein. I don't know
exactly what they are doing but at least everyone has the
right to know and then they can decide if they want to eat
the food." He is passing out brochures to customers, along
with a form letter to the FDA.

Other chefs, like Peter Hoffman at Savoy, worry about
unintended consequences. "Biotechnology is like DDT was," he
said. "Everyone thought it was a miracle. No one ever
thought what it would do to birds and fish. It took 20 years
to see that Rachel Carson was right: DDT was not a cost-free
miracle. And neither is biotech."

Already 40 percent of the soybeans and 20 percent of the
corn in this country and 60 percent of the canola oil from
Canada have been engineered either to produce their own
pesticides or to withstand herbicides.

Some scientists worry about the effects of bioengineering
not only on human health, but also on the environment. There
have been no long-term studies but some consequences are
already showing up.

Genes inserted in seeds to make them resistant to herbicides
can transfer from crops to weeds through pollen, creating
superweeds. Insects feeding on crops implanted with
insecticide genes can eventually become resistant to those
insecticides, creating superbugs.

In Scotland in 1995, pollen from genetically engineered
herbicide-resistant rape-oil seed fertilized untreated
plants one and a half miles away. A similar case affected
corn in Germany this fall. And in laboratory work, some
insects have already shown resistance to plants containing
insecticide genes.

But Margulis said that in the long run, the biggest worry is
about biodiversity. A crop grown from several varieties of
seeds is a protection against disease and pests that may
attack one variety but are unlikely to attack all the
varieties at one time.

If a farm relies on only one variety, as genetic engineering
would promote, one pest or disease could wipe out an entire
crop. "This is a way of getting diversity out of the hands
of farmers and into the hands of a few companies who control
these seeds, and that makes me nervous," Michael Romano, the
chef at Union Square Cafe, said. "Our history has been that
when we turned over crops to the agricultural industry, it
leads to overdevelopment of one crop and that leads to
depletion of soil and increase in certain pests that leads
to using more pesticides just to keep the crop going. This
doesn't happen with diversity and rotation."

The genetic engineerying industry thinks differently. Val
Giddings, vice president for food and agriculture of the
Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade association,
said the use of biotechnology to create herbicide-tolerant
crops offers "enviromental benefits that are dramatic and of
global significance," reducing the use of pesticides and
increasing efficiency.

He said that his membership supports FDA policy, which
requires labeling if a bioengineered food presents a
potential health impact. "It is good policy based on sound
science and enjoys the support of people who understand it,"
Giddings said.

In Europe, protests have included destruction of fields
where bioengineered crops have been planted, rallies,
petitions, referendums and protest marches. Americans have
limited their activism to telling polltakers they support
labeling: one biotech industry survey showed that 93 percent
agreed that genetically engineered food should be labeled.

"All issues of actual scientific safety aside," Romano said,
"I just think the public has a right to know."

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company