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Gene-Altered Food: Farmers Love It, Public Deeply Suspicious

A federal advisory panel is expected to weigh in this week on whether to tolerate traces of StarLink corn in our food--even though it is not approved as safe for human consumption.

But as CBS's Wyatt Andrews reports tonight in part of an ongoing Eye on America CBS News investigation of genetically modified foods, StarLink is just one ingredient in a much bigger field of debate.

After all the fuss surrounding StarLink corn, all the recalls, all the lost exports, farmers this season planted more approved genetic crops than ever before. Genetically modified soybeans now make up two-thirds of all soy acreage, the most ever. Genetically modified corn hit 26%, also the most ever.

There's even strong demand for the first gene-altered animal. Elliot Entis's company is developing salmon and trout that grow twice as fast as normal.

"We've had requests for upwards of 15 million eggs at one time or another," says Entis, of Aqua Bounty Farms.

That's millions of orders when government approval is at least a year away.

Entis says, "I cannot see how this won't be accepted in the world."

But despite all that demand, the biotech food industry still has a problem. Biotech food is more popular with farmers than with consumers. And when it comes to exports, the industry is in even bigger trouble.

Biotech wheat faces rejection in Japan, where label-reading consumers are so anti-biotech, they've told US farmers they won't import it.

Gene-altered potatoes face rejection in Europe, and that's caused the makers of french fries--including the suppliers for McDonald's--to stop buying.

"It didn't make sense to me to lose this technology," says Michael Jacobson. He's one of Washington's toughest food safety critics, and Jacobson calls consumer rejection of biotech ill informed. He points out the technology sharply cuts the use of crop chemicals.

"You can have genetically modified sweet corn that would result in greatly reduced use of insecticides," says Jacobson, who works at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "And instead they grow conventional sweet corn and spray the heck out of it."

So why don't the biotech companies brag about the reduction in pesticides? Simple, says Jacobson: Their corporate partners make the pesticides.

"You have this gentlemen's agreement among the companies not to say anything bad about pesticides," says Jacobson. "They can't imply that pesticides cause any problem at all."

Out at the fish farm, Elliot Entis says he learning from the industry's mistakes. He plans a campaign to win over the public with open taste tests and labels on his fish.

"I'm proud of our fish and believe labels help us, not hurt us," says Entis. "I don't expect anything that we say to be taken for granted by the American public or any other consumer."

This summer, in the sixth year of biotech crops, it's still true that not one case of illness has been officially traced to gene-altered foo. This is an industry winning in the fields of science but losing ground with public trust.
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