In the second edition of his new op-ed column, Mark Bittman examines the regulations behind genetically modified foods. In short, the USDA now allows three types of genetically engineered foods to be used in food production and none of these will be mentioned on the label of the final product sold on grocery shelves.
While Europe is so horrified by genetically engineered products that they are largely banned, the U.S. now allows G.E. alfalfa (for hay to feed animals), corn (for ethanol), and sugar beets. And let’s not forget that “super-fast-growing salmon” that made headlines last fall. Bittman writes:
To be fair, two of the biggest fears about G.E. crops and animals — their potential to provoke allergic reactions and the transfer to humans of antibiotic-resistant properties of G.M.O.’s — have not come to pass. (As far as I can tell, though, they remain real dangers.) But there has been cross-breeding of natural crops and species with those that have been genetically engineered, and when ethanol corn cross-pollinates feed corn, the results could degrade the feed corn; when G.E. alfalfa cross-pollinates organic alfalfa, that alfalfa is no longer organic; if a G.E. salmon egg is fertilized by a wild salmon, or a transgenic fish escapes into the wild and breeds with a wild fish … it’s not clear what will happen.
He goes on to attack not so much the use of G.M.O.’s — in fact, he comes across as resigned to the increased presence of them in our food — but instead condemns the lack of transparency, calling for G.M. labels so that we can at least know what we’re eating. Proponents of G.M. foods say that there is little difference between them and unmodified foods so there is no need to emphasize their use in food production. But, honestly, is there ever a good reason for withholding information? Bittman has one:
[T]he real reason is clear: producers and producer-friendly agencies correctly suspect that consumers will steer clear of G.E. products if they can identify them. Which may make them unprofitable. Where is the free market when we need it?
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