Q: Is there a law in the US that requires manufacturers to label food products made with genetically modified material?
A: No, there isn't. For biotech crops that have the same composition as the conventional varieties and are shown to be just as safe as them we do not require a label because it would provide no meaningful information to consumers. We allow voluntary labeling of biotech-free products so that consumers have a choice. In countries that require labels, it is often the case that biotech ingredients are not found in food products. US law does not require labels unless the composition or nutrient value of the product is significantly changed.
Q: It seems that more Americans than Europeans support biotech. What would you say is the main reason for that?
A: I'm not sure that the difference is as big as it is often claimed. Surveys show that a majority of consumers support biotechnology in most EU countries. The major difference is that a very active and vocal minority has convinced the majority that biotech foods should be more carefully regulated and that a more cautious approach should be taken to their use. Scientists, agriculture and food policymakers and regulators in the EU view biotechnology quite favorably. They are working hard to set up a system that will allow biotechnology to be used in the EU in a manner that assures safety and consumer confidence. I would add that the propaganda campaign that spreads fear about biotech foods is based in the EU and as a result EU consumers have heard a lot of very frightening stories about biotechnology.
Q: People who oppose biotechnology say that scientists are creating new species through induced genetic mutations, which is unnatural. What is your response to such assertions?
A: First of all, I do not agree that an organism to which one or two new genes have been added is a new species. The changes made through biotechnology do not violate the classification of a species. It's a favorite charge that the anti-biotechnology people make, but then they appear not to have studied biology very carefully. I can give you many examples in which one member of a species has different genes than does another. What you get when you insert a gene is an organism that has one new trait.
I would also point out that humans are a part of the natural universe. One could reasonably argue that everything and anything that we do is "natural". In biotechnology we use enzymes that we isolate from nature to link together pieces of DNA in the same manner that occurs in nature. We even use a bacterium that is a natural genetic engineer to introduce the new genes (traits)sintosthe plant. Is this really "unnatural"? And if it is, why isn't plant breeding of any sort unnatural? Shouldn't we view all technology as unnatural by this standard?
Q: Chinese scientists have used biotechnology to create a new type of tomato, which contains the vaccine against hepatitis B. What's your take on this?
A: It's a great example of how this technology can be used to save lives, relieve pain and suffering and improve the human condition. How can anyone be opposed to that? My only hope is that the clinical trials of this new tomato go well and that it is quickly delivered to health care providers who will use it to vaccinate people against hepatitis. By the way, please note that I do think that such new pharmaceutical foods need to be handled as medicines by professionals and not as conventional foods. You will never see these tomatoes in the supermarket. In a sense, the tomato plant is just being used to manufacture a vaccine in a very safe and economical manner.