Food Engineering

It's About Choice

March 22, 2003
In this month's Food Safety column , Contributing Editor Douglas Powell asks the question: Should politicians be making marketing decisions?

It's a timely question for the food industry. As Powell goes on to explain, the Canadian Wheat Board has petitioned the Canadian Government to ban genetically engineered wheat due to problems with export marketing and with segregating the crop from conventional and organic varieties. The European Union brought the issue to a head this past summer when it proposed regulations requiring all products made from engineered material to carry a label indicating they contain "genetically modified organisms." Furthermore, producers would be required to document the source of their ingredients.

As many of you know, Europe is a heavy importer of North American wheat. So are other countries that are taking a hard line on the biocrop issue. Tsutomu Shigota, senior managing director of the Japan Flour Millers Association, recently told the Dow Jones, "World wheat supply has been abundant in recent years, and I don't see why we have to deal with modified wheat¿ believe the production of modified wheat at this time will be a very risky challenge for U.S. producers." Meanwhile, Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have all indicated they will not import genetically engineered wheat.

So it's no surprise that earlier this year the legislatures of North Dakota and Montana likewise debated whether to set moratoriums on genetically engineered wheat. Cooler heads prevailed when manufacturer Monsanto, which plans to commercialize its genetically engineered Roundup Wheat between 2003 and 2005, promised to work with the National Wheat Growers and U.S. Wheat Associates to develop a means of segregating genetically engineered wheat from its conventional counterparts.

The question is whether they can do it. According to Cropchoice.com, Iowa farmers planted 1 percent of their 2000 corn crop as StarLink. By the time the corn was harvested, nearly 50 percent of the crop tested positive for StarLink. And we all know how that fiasco played out.

Like it or not, consumers and yes, even countries, have a right to decide what they will or won't eat. If Algeria, Egypt and Japan aren't convinced that genetically engineered food is safe or nutritious, then they should be allowed to say, "No, thank you." As for Europe, the spread of mad cow disease and other health crises have only served to fuel public concern about food safety. Simply put, the vast majority of European consumers do not believe that genetically engineered food is safe. And it is up to Monsanto and other biocrop manufacturers to build acceptance of their products in those markets.

But the flip side of the argument is that countries and consumers who do want genetically engineered products should have access to them. As Powell points out in his column, genetically engineered sweet corn and potatoes have actually outsold their conventional counterparts in some marketplaces. And, yes, there was labeling in place so that consumers could clearly distinguish between the two product types.

Which brings us back to the issue of product segregation. If business, industry and agriculture can't find a means to separate conventional and genetically engineered consumer products, then sooner or later politicians may, indeed, be put in the position of making our marketing decisions for us.

Equally clear is that any effective method of segregating genetically engineered and conventional crops will necessarily involve processors, particularly those involved in producing conventional and genetically engineered versions of a given food product.

It may be a costly proposition, but no more so than when the government steps in and removes choice from the equation.