DURHAM — Farmers have been cross-pollinating plants to make slow and natural improvements for centuries. Now scientists are using shortcuts to make bigger changes faster. But do consumers know which foods are genetically altered? And are they safe?
Wednesday, aseries of stepsintended to assure the public of the safety ofbiotech foodswere announced by the Clinton administration.
TheFood and Drug Administrationalso plans to set standards for labels certifying which foods are not genetically altered.
Durham shopper Angela Williams says she would rather pay more for organic foods than save money on conventional foods that might have been genetically engineered.
"I would like my foods to be as whole and as natural as possible," she says.
The government says genetically engineered food is safe, but owners of the Durham Co-op Grocery are not so sure. They say it has not been sufficiently tested, and have labeled some items as non-genetically engineered.
"There seems to be too many unknowns about it," says the co-op's Michael Steinberg. "It is a very new thing and it doesn't seem to have been much of a democratic process in deciding if it's safe or not before it was rushed into the marketplace."
"The FDA,National Institutes of Healthand Academy of Sciences and others have all come out firmly in support of biotechnology by saying it's as safe -- or in some cases even safer than -- the food that is already in the grocery store," says Dr. Thomas Hoban.
Hoban, a food expert at N.C. State University, says humans have been improving fruits and vegetables for centuries. He says genetic engineering is just the latest step that makes our food better and safer.
That is because crops can be engineered to resist viruses. Hoban says it also leads to foods that need fewer pesticides.
"They've incorporated insect resistance right into the plant itself. As a result, farmers in North Carolina and elsewhere have reduced their use of chemical pesticides by a very significant number," says Hoban.
Both sides agree that standards for voluntary labels should be set. Governor Hunt is working with 11 other governors to see that the technology and its development continue.
Biotech crops have been sold in the United States since 1996 and are already planted on millions of acres. The crops account for about half of the nation's soybeans and cotton, one-third of all corn, and smaller proportions of canola, potatoes and squash.
Government scientists say the foods are safe. But environmental groups prompted Frito-Lay, McDonald's and Kellogg's to stop using some gene-altered ingredients.