To date, Americans have paid relatively little attention to the revolution in growing and producing what is known as biotech food. But, the recall of300 varieties of taco shells containing StarLink, a variety of biotechcorn, has put genetically engineered food on America's ethical andconsumer-conscious radar screen.
It's also becoming a burning issue for faith groups.
Earlier this month, both the Reform movement of Judaism and PopeJohn Paul II spoke out on genetically altered food.
"It's the hottest issue to hit the religious community sincedivestment and South Africa," said Ariane van Buren, environmentaldirector of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.
In the last five years, churches have begun to think about thetheological and environmental issues posed by genetically engineeredfood, said Roger Willer, an executive with the Division for Church inSociety of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. "The StarLinksituation has put this issue on the front burner," he added.
StarLink was genetically modified with a gene from a bacteria thatkills worms that eat corn. The Environmental Protection Agency,concerned that StarLink could cause allergic reactions, approved thecorn for animal feed, but not human consumption. When StarLink wasdiscovered in taco shells in October, there was a nationwide recall oftacos and other products containing the corn.
Despite this massive recall, biotech companies and some religiousleaders cite the potential benefits of genetically modified food.
According to van Buren, 40 percent of the corn and 60 percent of thesoy beans planted in the United States are genetically engineered. Sincethis food is not labeled as being genetically altered, she said, "peopleare unknowingly eating genetically engineered food."
Food is genetically modified when genes are inserted into its DNA togive it such characteristics as flavor, resistance to pests ornutritional value.
On Nov. 14, the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism,adopted a resolution on labeling of genetically engineered food. Thestatement calls for "governmental regulatory measures" requiring thelabeling of biotech food products. People, the commission said, may needto know if food is genetically modified because of the possible risks ofallergic reactions, increased antibiotic resistance or decreasednutritional value.
The group called on the government to "monitor the health,ecological and religious liberty implications of genetic engineering."
In addition, the Reform Jewish panel said "many religious ...individuals have ... reservations about consuming genetically engineeredfood because of the possible animal sources of genetic materialsinserted into plant genes. For them, the consumption of unlabelledgenetically altered foods raises matters of ... religious observance."
Pope John Paul II has also urged caution concerning geneticallyengineered food. On Nov. 11 and 12, at Holy Year celebrations markingthe Jubilee of Agricultural Workers and the church's Day of Thanksgivingfor the Gifts of Creation, the Roman Catholic pontiff called worldhunger "a scandal." But, the pope said, Genesis "consigns the earth tothe use, not the abuse of man."
John Paul said the use of biotechnology in agriculture, "cannot beevaluated only on the basis of immediate economic interests. It isnecessary to subject it in advance to rigorous scientific and ethicalchecking to prevent it ending up in disaster for ... the future of theearth."
During the past year, the religious community began to express itsconcern about genetically altered food with action designed to impactthe business interests of the biotech industry.
"We're asking that genetically engineered food products be removedfrom the markets until long-term testing has proven their safety forpeople and the environment. Until then, we want genetically modifiedfood to be labelled," she said.
Biotech companies argue the benefits outweigh the risks of geneticengineering.
"Genetically engineered food has reduced the amount of pesticidesprayed on to the land and water. It reduces disease, " said BryanHurley, a spokesman for Monsanto. According to Hurley, a variety of rice-- Golden Rice -- genetically modified with vitamin A, now indevelopment, will prevent a type of blindness caused by vitamin Adeficiency. Monsanto, he said, is not involved in developing Golden Rice.