TR: Can you give an example of how that might work?
CONKO: Say you had a product like canola, which, if grown in North America, has a lot of close relatives that are wild or weedy and that grow in close proximity to cultivated plants. You might want to treat a new canola variety that has a particular type of characteristic that you dont want to get into the weedy population much more stringently that you would, say, genetically engineered soybeans grown in North America, which has no local relatives at all.
Similarly where youre looking at food safety, if youre introducing a gene that produces a protein that is already a known part of the food supply and known to be safe, introducing it into wheat or corn or rice is not likely to make the wheat or the corn or the rice dangerous. On the other hand, if its a novel gene about which very little is known, then that might require considerably more regulatory scrutiny. You want to set up an apparatus that is going to catch the potentially dangerous plants but that will also free up the system so that the low-risk plants can get through quickly.
TR: How can you guarantee consumer acceptance of genetically engineered foods with a system like that? Theres a fair bit of resistance to such foods right now.
CONKO: One thing that is going to be important in promoting consumer acceptance is showing consumers that these products can be useful to them. There are already some wonderful products on the market that are made with high-tech marker-assisted genetic breeding techniques, things that you couldnt have done 25 years ago, that are not considered recombinant. Theyre going to have added nutrient levels, or in the case of oilseeds, produce cooking oils that have a healthier mix of fatty acids. When things like that can be put on the market made with recombinant DNA technology, and especially in circumstances where a particular attribute cannot be introduced into a crop plant with conventional technology, consumers are going to start to say, Hey, this really is a beneficial technology.
Another thing we recommend is for university scientists who have no direct financial interest in the introduction of genetically engineered food technologyas opposed to scientists who work for Monsanto or DuPont or whereverto start talking to reporters, to the public, and to policymakers about the technology. These researchers could provide important context for how recombinant DNA fits into the overall scheme of crop improvement over the millennia.
TR: Why not use food labels to show consumers what benefits theyre getting from a recombinant crop?
CONKO: That is already possible. If you alter a crop plant such that the food thats derived from it is materially different, then current Food and Drug Administration guidelines require that this information be put on the label. So if the engineered crop has either better or worse nutrition, or you are potentially introducing a new allergensay introducing a nut allergen into wheat or soybeansall these things have to be labeled now. We wholeheartedly support that. On the other hand, we dont believe there ought to be a legal requirement to say this product was changed using a particular technology if the change in the plant has no material impact on the consumer.
TR: Why not label genetically engineered foods as such? It seems like useful information for a consumer to have.
CONKO: As long as you have a vocal opposition to recombinant DNA technology, youre going to have people out there saying, This is bad; look for this label and avoid it. And it sends the signal to the consumer that maybe there is something different about this product that we ought to be concerned about. In the United States, we have mandatory labeling for one purpose only: to alert consumers to important health or nutrition or safety information about a food product. So if you mandate labeling of biotech food products, the consumer has every reason to believe that there is some specific reason why that label is mandatory. As long as you have a system where only material differences must be labeled, but other kinds of attributessuch as This food is not genetically engineeredmay be labeled voluntarily, then producers of nonbiotech products will be able to target the market of people who want to avoid biotech products.
Its not as though we just want to open up the floodgates for every new plant variety. What we want to do is create a system that regulates real risks and doesnt regulate nonexistent ones. I think that wil lead to a much better atmosphere for research and the introduction of beneficial products.