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Published: Thursday, 7/17/2003

The genetics of food

IF EUROPEANS, instead of us, had first developed and marketed genetically modified foods, would we be as resistant to accepting them as they are? Depends.

So Americans shouldn't take the Bush Administration's World Trade Organization suit against the European Union - which won't let our genetically modified products into Europe's stores - as an attack on those nations that produced most of our ancestors.

President Bush isn't helping balanced discussion. He claimed recently that the EU's rejection of genetically modified foods aggravated the risk of famine in Africa. This remark seems out of synch for a leader who won't give the Third World proper family planning materials.

Last year some nations in Africa rejected our food aid because it contained genetically modified grain which might be used as seed, and, if so, would threaten African nations' exports to Europe. But there was more at stake than that.

Africans worry that genetically modified crops will wreck the diversity African agriculture relies on to sustain itself and undermine the continent's ability to feed itself. How wise is any nation to accept dependence of foreign nationals for seeds its people now take from each year's crop?

A better way to assure the feeding of starving Africans, they say, would be for North America and Europe to stop the farm subsidies that keep Africans from competing, Inter Press Service reports. Some view this push from the west of genetically modified products as neutral on humanitarianism and heavy on opening markets to solve an over-production problem.

Something is not right with the scenario; otherwise producers would not be so resistant to listing genetically modified components on labels of foods on supermarket shelves in this country.

Foods genetically re-engineered to resist pests and drought deserve special consideration. There has been no long-term study of the effects of pest-toxic foods on human beings, on birds and bees, and flora and fauna.

These are serious questions. They deserve more than the muscle President Bush used in California recently to try to force genetically modified food on Europe and Africa to buck up American business.

Americans should have a choice on the food they buy, but don't have it because too little pressure has been visited upon the FDA to order notices on food labels.

Government has moved to require that labels indicate the amount of trans-fat content in food products; the same should hold for genetically modified content.

Regardless of one's view on genetically modified foods, the issues merit a full national discussion.

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