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Unit 13: Genetically Modified Organisms
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Marion Nestle, PhD

Marion Nestle is Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. Her research focuses on analysis of the scientific, social, cultural, and economic factors that influence dietary recommendations and practices. She is the author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health and Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism.

Do you think that Golden rice is a technological solution to a cultural problem?

Golden rice is a technological solution for a really complex social issue, which is Vitamin A deficiency. Vitamin A deficiency isn't a simple matter of just not having enough Vitamin A. It's a matter of not having an adequate water supply, of not having enough food, of not having enough money to buy food, maybe of having bad living conditions, maybe of having a complicated cultural situation in which foods that contain beta-carotene aren't available or aren't supposed to be eaten by the people who most need them.

So to try to come in with a little technological fix in the middle of all of that is a very simplistic way of approaching it. It might work, it might help, but lots of other things need to be done also.

Do you feel that it is detrimental to do this?

Well, the first thing to understand about Golden rice is that it's not available. It's not for sale. It isn't ready to come on to the market for years-you know maybe three years, maybe four years, maybe five. We don't even know if Golden rice can grow under field conditions, in the real world. So it's a delayed solution. While we're waiting to see whether something like that works, why aren't we in there trying to do something about the living conditions of people who are suffering from a completely preventable vitamin deficiency disease?

Should the research on Golden rice stop or go forward, then?

I don't know the answer to the question about whether the research should continue or not. I mean I'm not a researcher myself and I'm in favor of research. I think the research itself is brilliant and an absolutely extraordinary technological achievement. Will it solve the problem of vitamin deficiency? I strongly doubt it.

Will Golden rice be acceptable culturally?

We don't know whether yellow rice will be accepted. I hear rumors, and I do not know whether they are true, that early tests of the Golden rice in populations that have Vitamin A deficiency show that people were very suspicious of the yellow color and thought that somebody had urinated on it.

Overall, do you think that genetically modified organisms good or bad?

Genetic modification is a complicated issue. It's a technological miracle from the standpoint of what it can do, but it raises all kinds of social questions. It raises scientific questions but it also raises social questions. And those social questions are important ones, and they deserve a great deal of attention, and they have to do with who controls the food supply, whether the foods are labeled so that people know and can make a choice about genetically modified foods, what the issues are in intellectual property rights, whether native plants are going to be taken over for corporate profit.

Those kinds of questions that advocates and consumers have raised about genetic modification, it seems to me are social issues that are very important for us as a society to discuss and to debate, before we just assume that just because these things are scientific miracles they're okay.

Are Americans too lackadaisical concerning approval, safety and labeling of GMO's?

I think the approval of genetically modified foods without a requirement that they be labeled as genetically modified is something that came as a result of intense industry lobbying.

And of course the lobbying is for one purpose: if the foods are labeled, the companies are terrified that people won't buy them. That's a commercial decision. It seems to me that the social questions are still there, and I think it would be quite unwise to underestimate public concern about this issue. Just because people aren't taking to the streets every day about it doesn't mean that there isn't plenty of activity on the Internet raising these kinds of social questions every day and on many, many, many different websites.

What would you want students to ask about Golden rice?

Well, I think nutrition students and in general nutritionists have tended to think, "Gee, putting beta-carotene into rice is a really great idea." I like people to really think about the social questions, because I think ultimately whether this succeeds or fails isn't going to be a scientific question. It's going to be a social question, and it's going to have to do with whether the companies that are manufacturing these genetically modified products are using them for public good and public welfare, are really producing products that will benefit humanity and will really solve third world nutritional problems.

I think if you want to solve third world nutritional problems, we have to look at a lot of different strategies. This is just one strategy. Is it the best? We really don't know that but we know that there are other strategies that also deserve a great deal of attention and the kind of money that's being poured into genetic modification.

Do you advocate an educational campaign?

Well, I'm a nutrition educator. I always think that education is a great approach. I think in countries where fruits and vegetables that contain beta-carotene, and all the other nutrients that fruits and vegetables contain, if they're not being consumed by the population then maybe an educational campaign is necessary. Maybe some kind of campaign is necessary to try to do price adjustments, so it'll be less expensive for people to buy those foods. Maybe there needs to be education to explain to people that feeding those kinds of foods to infants and toddlers is really okay once they're a year or so old.

And it seems to me those kinds of things could also address issues of Vitamin A deficiency maybe in a way that would be better than this very complicated uncertain technological solution to a very complicated social problem.

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