BIOTECH INITIATIVES

BIOTECH INITIATIVES

he biggest potential criticism of the new initiatives the Clinton administration announced this week on bio-engineered foods is about timing, not substance.

The administration is taking a responsible, science-based and open approach to an issue that can provoke responses that are based on fear rather than fact. That's commendable. The question is whether it has embarked on this course in time. Fortunately, the answer seems to be yes. But the administration has cut it very close.The issue is one that combines agriculture, cutting-edge science and that most basic of human needs: food.

For untold centuries, farmers have engaged in genetic manipulation at a rudimentary level, prizing the seeds of their best crops and cross-breeding plants for bigger, better, hardier harvests.

Modern technology has sharply accelerated that process. It enables genes to be isolated and transferred from one plant species to another to achieve a desired attribute. Depending on what the producer wants, the genetically modified crop might be designed merely to taste better. Or it might be designed to last longer, effectively increasing food supply. Or it might help reduce the need for dangerous pesticides by being able to resist insects.

Modern genetic engineering was developed successfully in the 1980s and blossomed commercially in the mid-1990s. It caught on rapidly in the United States, where it has become common in the production of such crops as soybeans and corn, which are used in a variety of other food products.

But the mix of technology, farming and food can produce an intense emotional response, too. Nowhere has that been as true on a widespread basis as in Europe. Suspicion of change, fear of science, distrust of government agencies - and plain, old-fashioned dread of increased agricultural competition from abroad - have combined into a politically powerful wave of opposition to genetically modified food products.

The reaction ranges from gut-level fright to concern among some environmentalists about unintended consequences. It's a particularly potent trade issue. It's all concisely summed up in a pejorative term bandied about in the British press: Frankenfoods, a verbal hybrid rooted, of course, in the image of Frankenstein's monster.

For whatever reason, there has been no similarly broad public outcry in the United States. And the White House's announcement this week was clearly aimed at preventing one.

The initiatives are grounded on a basic fact. As Joe Levitt, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, told reporters about genetically modified foods: ''The scientific evidence does not show that these products are any different from a health and safety standpoint.''

Acknowledging the need to build consumer confidence, however, the White House took steps to consolidate and formalize its regulations and procedures on genetically modified food, including making mandatory a now-voluntary review process. It also ordered a six-month assessment of all regulations on the issue and promised support for an expanded program of research.

The White House assured the public that ''science remains the cornerstone of our nation's regulatory system'' and that federal oversight of the issue will be strong and tireless. It underlined the need for openness in the system and public access to information. While it declined to order product labeling, it moved to encourage accurate labeling by producers on a voluntary basis. It promised a vigorous federal education effort at home and abroad ''to improve understanding of the nature and strength of our regulatory process.''

In short, the White House is taking a rational, open approach that's both consistent with the evidence and watchful for new evidence as it pursues a promising technology. The course is, as the White House stresses, based on science. And that's a sound policy.

Can it undo by example the damage that's already been done in Europe? That's an open question. Will it prevent a destructive wave of emotion and fear in the United States? Given that there's already solid support here for a food-safety system that is, in the main, effective, it should. The administration must now spare no effort to see that it does.