NY Times July 20, 1998

Bucking U.S. Trend, Europe Blocks Gene-Altered Food

Shoppers Unaware of Genetically Altered Food


D ALLIKON, Switzerland Like his father and grandfather before him,
Kaspar Gunthardt is a man of the soil. He lives in the solid old
farmhouse where he was born and he has worked the rich earth around
it for most of his 52 years.

He is a traditionalist who has nevertheless embraced the future.
Gunthardt owns a sophisticated cooling system for storing dairy
products. He recycles waste to fuel his farm, and cameras strapped
to beams in his barn are connected to the Internet, putting the
personal habits of his cattle on worldwide display

But when it comes to playing with the rules of nature Gunthardt
draws a line that he says he will never cross.

"There is some sickness spreading across Europe right now," he
said, striding quickly through a 20-acre patch of organic potatoes
on his farm just south of Zurich. "A bunch of people are trying to
get rich by telling us that nature isn't good enough and that we
will have to take genes out of a fish and put them in a strawberry
if we want to survive. They are changing the basic rules of life
and they want to try it all out on us."

"Maybe they will get their way," he said, referring to the failure
of a recent national referendum here on curtailing genetic
engineering. "It happened in America. But it won't happen on this
farm. Here we are going to live like God intended."

If Gunthardt seems inflexible on the issue he certainly has
company. From one end of Europe to the other consumers are in open
revolt over the prospect of a future in which nature has somehow
been altered by people holding test tubes.

Throughout the world last year more than 30 million acres of
commercial farmland were planted with genetically modified seeds --
10 times as much as the year before. But not one of those acres was
in the 15 countries of the European Union.

Prince Charles recently voiced a common sentiment when he announced
that no genetically altered food would ever pass his lips. "That
takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone," he

The debate here about how and whether to unleash the most powerful
tools of modern biology says much about the cultural and
philosophical differences between pragmatic and risk-ready America,
where genetic technology that focuses on food has largely been
accepted, and the far more reticent people of Europe.

But it says more than that, because what happens to crops from
Bialystok to Bruges will have major consequences not just for
farmers, but also for industrial policy and for fields like
medicine, agriculture and pharmaceutical research.

Europeans do make distinctions. They see genetic engineering in the
pursuit of better medicine as worth a few moral doubts, and like
many Americans they are profoundly unsettled about the prospect of
such research involving humans.

Fears of Drastic Change and Memories of Abuse

Yet often the differences between research in plants and animals
are completely blurred by sensational events. The cloning of an
adult lamb in Scotland two years ago only deepened fears people
already had.

There are many ways to explain the European conservatism, a strong
environmental movement rooted in the 19th-century philosophy that
nature is as wise as man, a fear of drastic change and the
unusually large number of small farms still run by families who are
reluctant to end practices that have been honed over centuries.

Recent history also plays a role, for in this part of the world the
uses of genetics have not always been benign. In almost any
discussion the dark but recent past also comes up.

"The shadow of the Holocaust is dense and incredibly powerful
still," Arthur Caplan, the ethicist who is at the University of
Pennsylvania, said. "It leaves Europe terrified about the abuse of
genetics. To them the potential to abuse genetics is no theory. It
is a historical fact."

Despite the victory for researchers in Switzerland, the battle for
Europe continues to rage. Norway no longer accepts U.S. soybean
imports because more than one-third are genetically modified to
ward off pests. Austria and Luxembourg have totally banned
genetically modified food.

In France where food is never just food the issue was recently put
before the nation by a "citizens conference" that produced an
ambiguous statement of "cautious" support for such crops. In
Britain vandalism has become so common at sites where genetically
modified crops are tested that the government is now considering
concealing their locations.

An Old Challenge Met in New Ways

"These people who say they are defending nature simply harm the
countries they pretend to protect," said Daniel Vasella, president
and chief executive officer of Novartis AG, the pharmaceutical
giant that has energetically begun to move into food production.
"We have enough food in Europe. So that's not really an issue. That
lets them fight to keep everything forever the way it is now. They
move ahead by looking backward. It is so very egotistical."

All farmers try to grow crops that resist disease and last long
enough to arrive safely at the market. The task is obvious but not
simple. Officials at the United Nations World Food Program estimate
that up to 40 percent of the world's crops are destroyed as they
grow or before they leave the field. Attempts to find a way to
protect them have therefore been intense.

Scientists can now tell with precision which of 50,000 genes in a
plant governs a particular trait. If it is beneficial, they can
take that gene out of one species something that wards off a common
insect, for instance copy it and stick it into another organism, to
protect it. That organism, and its offspring, will then have a
genetic structure that lets them resist such pests.

In a way that is nothing new. For centuries farmers have been
trying to breed crops to make sure that the biggest and best

It has been more than 500 years since people realized that rennet
from calves' stomachs turned milk into cheese. At the time nobody
knew why exactly. An enzyme called chymosin does the job.

Nevertheless it was a use of biotechnology that prevails today in
modern form, an enzyme made through genetic engineering that has
replaced the rennet from calves' stomachs.

"What is this 'mad' science?" asked Joseph Zak, who is paid by the
American Soybean Association to try to calm European fears about
how soy products are grown. "It is just another step in the history
of agricultural technology. It falls in the same line as when
tractors replaced the horse. It's like when fertilizers came into
the picture and when we moved to breeding to make a better

But consumers often see it as tampering with their food. And in
Europe, where regulatory bodies are not nearly as powerful or as
respected as the Food and Drug Administration is in the United
States, the fact of manipulation drives people crazy. In addition,
Mad Cow Disease, which exposed fundamental flaws in food-safety
regulation, reminded people that science is never infallible.

"I am sure all this food is safe and that there might be some
promise to it," Lianne Wilier, 31, an accountant in Zurich, said.
"If it helps poor people somehow, I'm all for it. But I would never
feed something to my children that is not natural. It feels wrong
to me I guess because if we make a mistake on this level there is
no going back. Saying we were wrong isn't going to be good enough."

What the Vanille Gene Might Do to Madagascar

Despite enormous experience that shows the crops are safe to grow
and eat, fundamental questions do exist about the possible uses of
such technology. It is now simple, for example, to put the taste of
vanilla in almost any food by inserting the right gene into that
food. It seems harmless, and physically it is.

"We looked into this carefully," said Maria Zimmerman, who is in
charge of agricultural research for the sustainable development
department of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
"If we start making fake vanilla we will destroy the lives of
thousands of farmers in Madagascar," the African island-nation that
is home to most of the world's vanilla crop. "We would ruin the
island's economy. So we aren't moving forward with that."

Others would argue that farmers in Madagascar need to find new
crops to grow, and that could force them to do it. But it is a
difficult issue for Ms. Zimmerman, because her job is to push
genetically modified research toward its greatest goal, more and
more effective food at lower cost for millions of people.

"It takes one hectare," or two and a half acres, "of land to feed
four people," she said. "But as a result of population growth,
drought and the rise of a middle class that eats better food and
more food in many countries, that same amount of land is going to
have to feed six people in about 20 years. That means we need 50
percent more food. And this technology can help. It must help."

Science's Promise of Abundance

She and other researchers say biotechnology can provide more
nutritious rice, as well as cotton that requires less water to grow
and fewer pesticides. She wants to find genes that will preserve
crops, enrich their protein content and make them easier to grow.
All that, theoretically at least, is possible.

There are dozens of varieties of genetically modified seeds corn,
soybean, potatoes and cotton are examples that have been planted in
the United States. Many more are on the way.

Soybeans that have been modified to tolerate an herbicide have
revolutionized one of the world's most important crops. And, yes,
it is now possible to take a gene from certain fish, which permits
it to tolerate the extreme cold of the deep ocean, and insert it
into a strawberry.

"Who wouldn't feel a little strange about all of this?" asked
Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, president of the Vatican Bioethics
Institute, which follows closely debates about genetic technology.
"It is a troubling aspect of a world that seems to be moving too
fast, one in which people often make terrible mistakes in the name
of progress."

"Europeans are particularly aware of that problem," Sgreccia said.
"Still, there are genes and there are genes. From the Catholic
point of view we are open to the use of genetic technology in
agriculture and with animals, as long as we don't do it with man.
We believe that man has a primacy on this planet and that as long
as he uses it wisely nature is here for him."

At first glance Florianne Koechlin might seem an unlikely advocate
in the struggle to ban the use of genetically modified organisms.
She lives near Basel, the home of the Swiss pharmaceutical
industry, and she is a member of the Geigy family, which started
the company that has become part of Novartis.

Shorter Research Cycles and Swift Actions

Ms. Koechlin said she was convinced that humans were racing to put
themselves in a position that they will ultimately regret.

"I am not saying genetic research should disappear," she said,
sitting in the bright kitchen of her unassuming suburban house.
"This pervades all areas of life on earth, food, seed, the cells of
human beings. I know that. But why can't we slow down and think
about it all?"

That may no longer be possible, not even in Europe. Research and
development cycles shorten every year. International competition
demands swift action to remain competitive.

"We have eaten the apple and now we will have to live with the
knowledge it gives us," said Gian Reto Plattner, a professor of
physics at the University of Basel. He is also a Socialist member
of the Swiss Parliament who broke with his own party to oppose the

But he did not do that lightly.

"If you look at this as a question of risks it's pretty clear that
these crops are safe," Plattner said. "Explosions and fire are far
more dangerous, and we use them every day. But nobody is looking at
the use of genetics that way. This is a religious discussion we are
having. Many people feel nature is immutable. This work tells them
they are wrong, and then they are being told to forget about their
basic beliefs. It's really asking a lot."

** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material
is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest
in receiving the included information for research and educational
purposes. **

NY Times July 20, 1998

Shoppers Unaware of Genetically Altered Food

A merican shoppers would be surprised to know that much of the food
they buy has genetically engineered ingredients. But they cannot
tell just how much, because the United States, unlike many other
countries, does not require the labeling of gene-modified food.

Most consumers are unaware of the amount of genetically engineered
food that is available, making it difficult to judge their
resistance to such products.

When the government granted Monsanto Co. permission to sell rBGH,
recombinant bovine growth hormone, which increases cows' milk
production, and milk containing a gene-altered hormone went on
sale, some states and several dairies tried to label their products
as free of the hormone.

Monsanto threatened to take them to court. Some capitulated. But a
number of dairy products are now labeled to show that they do not
contain rBGH.

With only a few consumer groups seeking wider labeling, the
greatest awareness of genetically engineered food comes from the
organic-food industry.

Whole Foods Market Inc. of Austin, Texas, which has 91 supermarkets
in 18 states, requires its suppliers to guarantee that none of the
products they sell to the company have gene-altered ingredients.

Last year, when the Agriculture Department proposed national
standards for organic food that included genetically altered food,
more than 200,000 comments were received protesting the proposed
regulations. The inclusion of genetically modified food was one of
the reasons most often cited, and the proposal was withdrawn.

On Jan. 1 the government gave the green light to genetically
modified soybeans, cotton, corn, summer squash, potatoes, canola
oil, radicchio, papayas and tomatoes.

The amount of genetically modified soybeans, cotton and corn on the
market is significant. According to one study, the gene-altered
corn crop in the United States this summer is estimated to be 32
percent of the total, for soybeans 38 percent and for canola oil,
from Canada, 58 percent. There is no estimate for cotton.

There are no figures for the smaller crops like papaya and
radicchio, and just because a crop has approval does not mean that
it is being sold. But within a year or two such crops are quite
likely to be available.

The Consumers Union, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Center
for Science in the Public Interest are among those pushing for

Norway and India are leading the fight to require the strictest
labeling on all foods. And virtually all European Union countries
want some labeling for gene-altered food.

A senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, Rebecca
Goldberg, said the United States might be forced to require some
labeling because of international trade. "Many products made
abroad," Ms. Goldberg said, "will be labeled, and in order for the
United States to sell food products abroad we may have to label

** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material
is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest
in receiving the included information for research and educational
purposes. **

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