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November 17, 2000

The Real Risk of Genetically
Engineered Foods - Optimism

Despite fears of "frankenfoods," mutant vegetables and tainted taco shells, the biggest danger posed by genetically engineered foods may be "irrational exuberance" on the part of its supporters, says California State University, Sacramento philosophy professor Stanislaus Dundon.

Dundon, a veteran educator on ethical issues in agriculture, worries the unbridled push toward genetic engineering is drowning out any discussion of potential risks. After extensive interviews with researchers on both sides of the issue as well as industry representatives, he published his findings this summer in Inquiry in Action, the journal of the Consortium for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. The article was based on testimony he gave to the California Legislature about genetically engineered foods. He was also interviewed by National Public Radio on the topic.

"The enthusiasm has gotten to the point you can only say positive things to avoid looking hostile," he says. "There is a tendency to not want to be seen as an activist." For example, even though he is not "anti" genetic engineering, he says his calls for caution often lead people to label him that way.

Dundon says it's not that the risks are a deep secret. "Everybody knows about them and can justify them. The concern is that if that attitude is in place, and something bad happens with the bioengineered food, what happens next? What is the responsibility?" he says. "If we have publicly-funded universities in favor of genetic engineering without critical voices, we will be in major trouble."

Dundon says part of the problem lies in with the federal government. Since the late '80s, the FDA has promoted the principle of 'substantial equivalence,' which says genetic engineering is essentially the same as standard breeding. "Even though," Dundon says, "it's easy to imagine a scenario where the manipulation of the genes may make the product hazardous to humans."

An even more disturbing problem, he says, is the outcry from genetic engineering researchers that they are being held to a higher standard than standard breeders. "It's astonishing that they ask 'Is this fair?'," Dundon says. "They're talking about something they are trying to feed us."

In fact, Dundon points out, the genetically engineered food industry claims theirs are the most thoroughly tested foods. Yet there are no required tests for standard crops. "Conducting only one test makes it the most tested - because its one more than had been done before," he says.

His solution is for universities to have independent institutes conduct risk/benefit analysis. "Risk/benefit analysis is such a subjective mental exercise, it is inappropriate to have people who are enthusiastic about genetic engineering doing it alone," he says.

"Nothing is science until the scientific community says it is. They have to look at the studies and critique and repeat the experiments," he says.

"Modern science has come as far as it has because research groups have pursued both sides of a scientific paradigm by conducting experiments. If they were on the wrong track it would be obvious because the experiments would break down."


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