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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Update on the GM Food Debate

Air Date: Week of

Guest host Laura Knoy speaks with Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard about the latest news on genetically modified foods.


KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. Questions about the safety of genetically-modified foods continue to grow in the U.S. In response, the federal government recently came out with a plan to address some of the concerns being raised. Living on Earth's political observer Mark Hertsgaard joins us to discuss this and the latest on the biotech front. Hi, Mark.


KNOY: The new plan would require the producers of genetically-modified foods to tell the government about it four months before they bring a new product to market. Now, what's the goal here?

HERTSGAARD: The goal, essentially, is to quiet public concern about genetically-modified foods. The Clinton administration has been a big backer of genetically-modified foods for quite a while, now, and this represents something of a shift for them. They've realized that there is a firestorm of protest out there in the United States, coming in on the heels of widespread protests overseas, especially in Europe. And indeed, industry representatives have admitted that they went to the government and specifically asked for these regulatory changes in order to calm public concern about potential food safety and environmental risks associated with biotech food.

KNOY: So, the producers have to tell the government. Do they have to tell anyone else, like the consumer?

HERTSGAARD: No, they don't. This stopped short of labeling, which is obviously a key demand on the part of the activists. And, indeed, labeling is now the common policy in Europe and in Japan. So, no, there's no labeling required. Essentially, the producers will go to the FDA and say: Here's our product, we want to bring it to market. Here's our data showing that it's safe. The only labeling that this administration regulation foresees is labeling on the part, ironically enough, of the firms who do not produce genetically-modified foods. But the producers who are putting the biotech food on the market, they will not be required to label.

KNOY: What's been the response from consumer groups and environmental groups? What do they think?

HERTSGAARD: They think that this is inadequate. They say, quite directly, talking is not testing, in the words of the Center for Food Safety. They've got a lawsuit against the government saying that, look, these things are food additives, and therefore by law, you, the federal government, are required to test these things. They're not happy with the regulations, but I think that they see this as the first front in a larger war and that they have at least gotten the government to respond to them.

KNOY: What about the biotech food industry? How does it feel?

HERTSGAARD: That's been remarkable to watch, actually, because they are saying that they're pleased with these regulations. And that's quite a turnaround from just a few months ago, when they were saying that no regulations are required, these foods are entirely safe. So, they see this as a step forward, and they think that this is going to help calm consumer fears of these products.

KNOY: What about the rest of the American food industry, Mark? We've been talking about the biotech food industry, but what about the restaurants? What about the food producers? How do they feel?

HERTSGAARD: Good question. They are customers, in other words. And their customers are running scared on this. Recently, McDonald's, Frito-Lay, two of the biggest food retailers in America, have said that they are not going to use biotech foods, precisely because they are afraid of the consumer backlash that comes on the heels of Gerber Baby Foods last summer announcing that they wouldn't use this. And, indeed, all over the world you're seeing big food customers back away from this. In Japan, the second-largest tofu maker and one of the big breweries have said they're not going to use this. In Mexico, the second-biggest tortilla maker. Many firms in Europe are not using this. So, I think that's the real concern for the biotech industry, is that their major industrial customers like McDonald's and Frito-Lay have closed the door on them.

KNOY: You mention Japan, which is certainly a major market for U.S. exports of corn and soybeans. And Japan recently came out with even more stringent regulations.

HERTSGAARD: Yes, they did. This is a development that got no attention in the American press, but Japan has announced that they are going to demand testing of biotech foods. That is an important step beyond their current policy, which is to require labeling. It is unclear exactly what they mean by tested, who will do the testing, what the standards will be. But the potential impact of this is major, because Japan is such a huge market for U.S. exports, and, you know, $10 billion a year. So, this is why the Financial Times newspaper of Europe put this on their very front page, because they can see that the potential impact on the world biotech industry of Japan demanding testing could be very extensive.

KNOY: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Laura.



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