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January 1, 2000
Column #957

HARD QUESTIONS ABOUT "THE BIOTECH CENTURY"

     ''You wake up one morning in 2159, and you don't feel so good. Maybe your blood pressure is high again. That's really no surprise, considering you are 101 years old practically at retirement age in an era in which we live to be 125,'' began a breathless page 1 article in ''The Washington Times'' on Tuesday.

     ''You've reached this ripe old age because your genetic map years ago showed you carried the mutations for Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, and diabetes. Gene therapy eradicated those problems for you.

     ''The risk of those diseases and a host of others isn't even there for your children. You selected their genes from a menu of options and had the embryos analyzed before they were implanted in an artificial womb,'' said the Times.

     ''As for the high blood pressure, there's no need to call the doctor. The tiny ''biomonitor'' robot floating in your bloodstream will take a reading and adjust the problem...''

     Sounds wonderful, but is it too good to be true? The article raised few hard questions.  Similarly, the news programs of ABC, CBS, and NBC have almost nightly reports about a new breakthrough of genetic research, implying there are no dangers or ethical issues to be considered.

     However, a recent ad was published in ''The New York Times'' by 60 groups such as Friends of the Earth and Center for Food Safety with this headline: ''UNLABELED, UNTESTED...AND YOU'RE EATING IT.'' Beneath it in bold type: ''In secret, genetically engineered foods are showing up on American grocery shelves. Though other countries now label biotech foods, the U.S. FDA still does not require labels or safety tests.

     ''Don't you have the right to know what's in your food? And if it is safe for your family?''

     Polls indicate that more than 90% of Americans support the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. The European Union passed a law requiring GE foods to be labeled. And a 1999 TIME poll reported that 60% of Americans would avoid such foods if they were labeled.

     No wonder the food and biotech industry doesn't want labels to go on GE products!

     Yet half of foods made with soybeans and 40 percent of corn is genetically engineered. Other GE products are Frito-Lay Fritos Corn Chips, Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Enfamil ProSobee Formula, Quaker Chewy Granola Bars, Ultra Slim Fast, Gardenburger and hamburger imitations.

     So what? Consider issues of toxicity, allergic reactions, antibiotic resistance and cancer.

  1. Toxicity: ''Genetic corn has a toxic gene, reproduced in every cell, which kills the corn bore. But it is also making ground water much more toxic. And it does kill good insects. Cornell took genetically engineered corn, exposed it to Monarch Butterflies, and 44 percent of their larva died, while none exposed to regular corn died'' says Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, the leading sponsor of the ad quoted above.

  2. Allergic reaction: Some FDA scientists warn that GE foods could spark allergic reactions. A ''New England Journal of Medicine'' study showed that when a gene from a Brazil nut was engineered into soybeans, people allergic to nuts had serious reactions. Without labeling, consumers with allergies do not know they might be harmed by eating certain GE foods.

  3. Antibiotic resistance: GE foods are often modified with antibiotic resistant genes, which could make some people more susceptible to bacterial infections. The British Medical Association says that antibiotic resistance is ''one of the major public health threats to be faced in the 21st century.''

  4. Cancer: Canada and Europe have banned the use of genetically engineered bovine growth hormone in the production of milk and dairy products because they fear it may increase the risk of breast cancer as well as prostate and colon cancer.

  5. Immuno-suppression: The NY Times ad. said ''22 leading scientists recently declared that animal test results linking genetically engineered foods to immuno-suppression are valid,''

     Most of these dangers are more suspected than proven. We simply do not know what risks lie in eating foods that have been genetically altered. That is why the FDA must assume responsibility to test these foods and why, at the minimum, all GE foods should be labeled.

     What can you, the individual reader do about this? First, become more informed by reading ''The Biotech Century,'' the most comprehensive overview of the dangers we face. It was written by Jeremy Rifkin, who wrote a book nearly 25 years ago which presciently predicted transgenic species, animal clones, test tube babies, the rental of surrogate wombs, the fabrication of human organs and human gene surgery by the year 2000. All have proven accurate.

     Second, ask candidates for public office where they stand on these issues. To date, no presidential candidate has dared do so. Third, ask your grocery store to label GE foods.

     Finally, pray that God will remain in charge of creation not man.

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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