By Julia Moskin,
SILENT in flannel shirts and ponytails, farmers from Saskatchewan and South Dakota, Mississippi and Massachusetts lined the walls of a packed federal courtroom in Manhattan last week, as their lawyers told a judge that they were no longer able to keep genetically modified crops from their fields.
The hearing is part of a debate that is coming to life around the country, in courtrooms and Occupy sites, in boardrooms and online, with new petitions, ballot initiatives and lawsuits from California to Maine.
Last year, according to the Department of Agriculture, about 90 percent of all soybeans, corn, canola and sugar beets raised in the United States were grown from what scientists now call transgenic seed. Most processed foods (staples like breakfast cereal, granola bars, chicken nuggets and salad dressing) contain one or more transgenic ingredients, according to estimates from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, though the labels don’t reveal that. (Some, like tortilla chips, can contain dozens.)
Common ingredients like corn, vegetable oil, maltodextrin, soy protein, lecithin, monosodium glutamate, cornstarch, yeast extract, sugar and corn syrup are almost always produced from transgenic crops.
No known health risks are associated with eating transgenic foods (though many scientists say it is too soon to assess the effects), and the Food and Drug Administration classifies them as safe.
But consumer resistance to transgenic food remains high. In a nationwide telephone poll conducted in October 2010 by Thomson Reuters and National Public Radio, 93 percent said if a food has been genetically engineered or has genetically engineered ingredients, it should say so on its label — a number that has been consistent since genetically modified crops were introduced. F.D.A. guidelines say that food that contains genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.’s, don’t have to say so and can still be labeled “all natural.”
In California, voters in November will decide on a ballot initiative requiring the labeling of such foods. In October, an online campaign called Just Label It began collecting signatures and comments on a petition to the F.D.A., requesting rules similar to those in the European Union, Japan, China, India and Australia, stating what transgenic food is in the package. (For example, an ingredients list might say “genetically engineered corn” instead of just “corn.”) Six hundred thousand Americans have commented, according to the group.
“You don’t have to be a technophobe or think corporations are evil to not want G.M.O.’s in your food,” said Ashley Russell, a college student who attended a rally sponsored by Food Democracy Now after the Manhattan court hearing.
In traditional plant breeding, plants are bred with related organisms to encourage certain naturally occurring traits. In transgenic breeding, genetic material from unrelated organisms can be introduced to create new traits, like resistance to drought, herbicides or pests. For the most part, the spread of transgenic seeds into the American food supply has been purposeful, carried out by farmers and scientists who see enormous advantages in hardier plants.
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