A nonprofit worker and political activist is taking a stand against regulations governing the genetically engineered foods industry.
Biotechnology Project Director Gregory Jaffe, a worker at the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, spoke to roughly 50 members of the Yale community Thursday as part of Yale Biotechnology in Agriculture, a series of lectures on the science behind farming and food production. Though Jaffe said genetically engineered products are beneficial on the whole, he said the regulations governing these products are outdated and have hindered new developments in the technology behind genetically engineered crops.
Genetic engineering is already widely used in America and other nations worldwide, Jaffe said, with 29 countries currently growing genetically engineered crops totaling 365 million acres in 2010. The United States is the international leader in acres of genetically engineered crops, he added, with 165 million acres of genetically modified corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, squash and papaya.
But the full potential of genetic engineering is currently hampered by the system’s regulations, Jaffe said.
“Is [genetically engineered food] really as big a problem as it has been portrayed?” Jaffe asked. “I’m not so sure. Is it being adequately regulated? I don’t think so.”
When the genetically-engineered food industry first emerged in the 1980s, industry leaders requested that the Ronald Reagan administration develop regulations that would ensure the safety of the new products and help the industry spread. But then-President Ronald Reagan’s opposition to big government caused him to support laws that severely limited the federal government’s ability to regulate genetically engineered crops, Jaffe said.
Reagan issued an executive order in 1982 that prevented the U.S. government from creating new laws to regulate the food industry, Jaffe said. This meant that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and other related organizations had to govern a brand new industry with unprecedented technologies under laws that already existed, Jaffe said, a problem that has not been resolved nearly 30 years later.
“This is solely a matter of the fact that we are using old legislation, and that old legislation only gives the agencies so much that they can do,” Jaffe said.
One such hole in the current regulations is that the FDA only oversees foods that are “intended to be eaten,” Jaffe said, meaning that products such as the corn used for ethanol and other non-edible purposes are difficult to regulate.
Despite the flaws in government regulations for genetically engineered crops, Jaffe said the industry has succeeded in improving many food products so far. Biotechnology, for example, can be used to help plants develop their own pesticides, and better resist herbicides and viruses, he said.
Three students interviewed at the event offered varied reactions to Jaffe’s talk.
Jessica Hahne ’15 said the event deepened her understanding of how biotechnology functions in the food industry.
“The talk definitely gave me some new insights into the whole issue of biotechnology,” Hahne said.
But Ken Gunasakara ’15 said he thought Jaffe avoided major issues in genetic technology, such as health concerns often raised about genetically engineered foods.
Genetic technology currently accounts for about 88 percent of corn and 90 percent of cotton produced in the U.S.