WASHINGTON (AP)--From a taco shell controversy to caterpillar experiments, genetically altered crops are under fire.
The government, meanwhile, is increasing its spending on biotechnology--not for food on American grocery store shelves or crops in American fields, but for battling hunger in developing nations.
President Clinton recently signed a foreign aid spending bill that contains $30 million for the effort. It is more than triple the level for the U.S. Agency for International Development since the agency first incorporated biotechnology into its hunger-fighting campaign.
"This money will help liberate millions the world over from the tyranny of hunger and malnutrition," said Sen. Kit Bond, R-MO who sought the money.
Bond is a major supporter of biotechnology; his state is home to several industry and research leaders, including St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.
Biotechnology's goal, through introduction of a gene from one species to another, is the creation of crops that are more tolerant of drought and resistant to pests and disease.
Crops can even be fortified with vitamins or vaccines. "Golden rice," for example, was engineered to elevate levels of vitamin A to improve the health of an estimated 250 children worldwide with vitamin A deficiency.
Rice is a food staple for half the world, but it loses its natural vitamin A in the milling process. Also called beta carotene, vitamin A gives genetically engineered varieties a yellow or golden hue. In August, Monsanto announced it would grant free licenses to use its patented technology for its golden rice varieties.
Critics worry that unforeseen dangers are posed to people and the environment by splicing genes from one organism to another.
In widely publicized Cornell University laboratory experiments, Monarch butterfly caterpillars died after eating milkweed, which grows in and around Midwestern corn fields, coated with genetically modified corn pollen. In its own studies, the Environmental Protection Agency said there probably is little risk to butterflies.
More recently, discovery of unapproved biotech corn in the nation's food supply created a furor that has shut down processors and blocked shipments of grain across the United States. The EPA has promised a thorough review.
"Before we start promoting biotechnology overseas, let's make sure that it's safe, and get the regulations in place to make sure that it's tested here," said Andrew Kimbrell, director of the nonprofit Washington-based Center for Food Safety.
"There is more than enough food in the world to feed everybody adequately," he added. "The problem is access to that food. What we need is more affordable food.
The aid agency has laid groundwork already for adapting "golden rice" into seed varieties that can be grown by poor farmers in developing countries, as well as another Monsanto-donated technology that will be used to add beta carotene to mustard oil, which is commonly used for cooking in Northern India and Bangladesh, agency official Robert Bertram said.
He estimated that the agency has spent $7 million to $9 million on researching genetically engineered crops over the past several years.
Overall, the agency will spend more than $300 million in fiscal 2001 on fighting hunger, Bertram said, and he cautioned that his agency will work to ensure safety testing and follow each country's regulations governing modified crops.