WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 (RNS)--Some call it Frankenfood. Others claim it could dramatically reduce if not end world hunger.

To date, Americans have paid relatively little attention to the revolution in growing and producing what is known as biotech food. But, the recall of 300 varieties of taco shells containing StarLink, a variety of biotech corn, has put genetically engineered food on America's ethical and consumer-conscious radar screen.

It's also becoming a burning issue for faith groups.

Earlier this month, both the Reform movement of Judaism and Pope John Paul II spoke out on genetically altered food.

"It's the hottest issue to hit the religious community since divestment and South Africa," said Ariane van Buren, environmental director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.

In the last five years, churches have begun to think about the theological and environmental issues posed by genetically engineered food, said Roger Willer, an executive with the Division for Church in Society of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. "The StarLink situation has put this issue on the front burner," he added.

StarLink was genetically modified with a gene from a bacteria that kills worms that eat corn. The Environmental Protection Agency, concerned that StarLink could cause allergic reactions, approved the corn for animal feed, but not human consumption. When StarLink was discovered in taco shells in October, there was a nationwide recall of tacos and other products containing the corn.

The recall, costing millions of dollars, has affected farmers, grain elevators and businesses from Wendy's to Safeway.

Despite this massive recall, biotech companies and some religious leaders cite the potential benefits of genetically modified food.

According to van Buren, 40 percent of the corn and 60 percent of the soy beans planted in the United States are genetically engineered. Since this food is not labeled as being genetically altered, she said, "people are unknowingly eating genetically engineered food."

Food is genetically modified when genes are inserted into its DNA to give it such characteristics as flavor, resistance to pests or nutritional value.

On Nov. 14, the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, adopted a resolution on labeling of genetically engineered food. The statement calls for "governmental regulatory measures" requiring the labeling of biotech food products. People, the commission said, may need to know if food is genetically modified because of the possible risks of allergic reactions, increased antibiotic resistance or decreased nutritional 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 engineered food because of the possible animal sources of genetic materials inserted into plant genes. For them, the consumption of unlabelled genetically altered foods raises matters of ... religious observance."

Pope John Paul II has also urged caution concerning genetically engineered food. On Nov. 11 and 12, at Holy Year celebrations marking the Jubilee of Agricultural Workers and the church's Day of Thanksgiving for the Gifts of Creation, the Roman Catholic pontiff called world hunger "a scandal." But, the pope said, Genesis "consigns the earth to the use, not the abuse of man."

John Paul said the use of biotechnology in agriculture, "cannot be evaluated only on the basis of immediate economic interests. It is necessary to subject it in advance to rigorous scientific and ethical checking to prevent it ending up in disaster for ... the future of the earth."

During the past year, the religious community began to express its concern about genetically altered food with action designed to impact the business interests of the biotech industry.

During the year, 33 institutional investors filed shareholder resolutions with 21 companies who market genetically engineered food products, said van Buren of the Interfaith Center. In 2001, she added, shareholder resolutions will be filed with 30 or 40 biotech companies.

"We're asking that genetically engineered food products be removed from the markets until long-term testing has proven their safety for people and the environment. Until then, we want genetically modified food to be labelled," she said.

Biotech companies argue the benefits outweigh the risks of genetic engineering.

"Genetically engineered food has reduced the amount of pesticide sprayed on to the land and water. It reduces disease, " said Bryan Hurley, a spokesman for Monsanto. According to Hurley, a variety of rice -- Golden Rice -- genetically modified with vitamin A, now in development, will prevent a type of blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency. Monsanto, he said, is not involved in developing Golden Rice.

Jaydee Hansen, an executive with the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, disputes Hurley's argument.

"You don't fix a deficient diet with rice. Even if it is rice with vitamin A. You decrease world hunger by helping people grow a diverse, healthy diet that includes yellow and green vegetables. Like carrots. These veggies have vitamin A."

Despite environment and health concerns, Hansen said, the United Methodist Church doesn't have a "`thou shalt not' against genetically engineered food." There could be some benefits to genetically altering certain foods, he added.

"People in Africa get many of their calories from (the plant) cassava. Before it can be eaten, cassava has to have a toxin removed from it. If cassava could be genetically modified so that it would not have this toxin, it would be ready to eat in much less time. This would be less work for the women preparing the food."

But Hansen warned that the potential benefits do not mitigate the potential downside of genetic engineering.

Last May, the denomination's General Conference, its highest legislative body, added a statement on genetically engineered food to the Social Principles section of its Book of Discipline, the church's rule book.

"We call for clear labeling of all ... altered foods, with premarket safety testing required. We call for policies that encourage ... gradual transition to sustainable and organic agriculture."

Biotech food isn't a "black or white" issue, said Sandra A. LaBlanc, director of rural ministries resources and networking for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

"It's a source of acute tension for farmers. Say two brothers farm together. One feels genetically engineered food is the way to go because it reduces the cost of input by using less herbicides (which kill weeds). The other brother doesn't want to genetically alter crops because of environmental concerns. It's a terrible conflict."

She said the denomination is ministering to farm families by providing them with educational resources and people to help them make an informed decision on genetically engineered food.

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