Tinkering With The DNA
On Your Dinner Plate
By Scott Allen
Staff Writer
The Boston Globe
SLAND FALLS, Maine - They look like all the other potatoes that blanket the farms in northern Maine: knee-high green plants with white flowers, stretching out in neat rows across the rust-colored soil.
But Arthur Shur's potatoes are in the vanguard of one of the fastest and most controversial transformations of American agriculture since the rise of pesticides after World War II. Depending on whom you believe, they offer either the best hope ever to feed the world or the danger of a new era of biological pollution, threatening the health of anyone who ingests them.
They may well spark a trade war with Europe, too.
Unlike ordinary potatoes, Shur's crops contain something extra, extra genes borrowed from bacteria and viruses in an effort to build a better potato, one more resistant to bugs, disease, even droughts. Created in a specially constructed laboratory behind Shur's storehouse, these potatoes even secrete a substance to kill beetles that munch on their leaves.
When Monsanto Co. approached him five years ago, ''I said, `This is unbelievable.' The new technology is just mind boggling,'' said Shur, 60, who built the lab for Monsanto to do potato experiments on his land. ''I thought it was the future, and I still think it's the future.''
Just five years after US approval of the first genetically modified food - a tomato - that future is rushing to supermarket shelves, though not all consumers realize it. Fifty-six genetically modified farm products are on the market, most developed by a few corporations such as Monsanto and DuPont, and hundreds more are under development.
Already, some ice cream and cookies contain soybeans injected with a gene from petunias to help make them resistant to herbicides. Certain brands of vegetable oils and baking powder contain corn treated with a bacteria gene to resist pests. Potato chips and French fries contain Monsanto's beetle-resistant potatoes.
Add the 15 percent of the US milk supply that comes from cows injected with Monsanto's synthetic hormone to increase output, and you have the makings of a revolution in the food supply. By some estimates, up to 60 percent of the foods in the grocery store contain an ingredient made by the booming food biotechnology industry.
Yet, even though US regulators insist that these new foods are as safe and wholesome as conventional products, a growing number of people fear that the manipulation of food's genetic structure has opened a Pandora's box.
European nations, especially Great Britain, have balked at the new foods, fearing that all the gene crossing will produce unpredictable results, such as foods that are toxic to people or dangerous to the environment. A recent Cornell University study, for example, shows that pollen from a genetically modified product called Bt corn is toxic to monarch butterflies.
''Genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God and God alone,'' Prince Charles, perhaps the most famous critic of genetically modified food, declared last year.
Supporters of genetically modified foods, including former president Jimmy Carter, a soybean grower, believe the Europeans are caught up in hysteria that blinds them to the advantages of the new products, such as lower production costs and fewer pesticides needed.
''The Europeans have an absolute fear, unfounded by any scientific basis, of accepting these products,'' said Stuart Eizenstat, President Clinton's nominee for deputy treasury secretary, at his confirmation hearing last month.
Eizenstat predicted that within five years, nearly 100 percent of American agricultural exports will be either genetically modified or mingled with genetically modified products. He said efforts to block those exports are ''the single greatest trade threat that we face systemically with the European Union.''
But others say the US government is such a booster of the new technology that it can't be trusted. President Clinton's former trade advisor, Mickey Kantor, sits on Monsanto's board of directors, while two key Food and Drug Administration officials hold senior positions at Monsanto.
''The US Food and Drug Administration ... has a policy to facilitate the biotech industry,'' said Steven Druker of the Iowa-based Alliance for Bio-Integrity. All the while, he argues, the agency has gone out of its way to keep consumers in the dark.
Under a 1992 FDA policy, genetically modified foods generally don't even have to be labeled, and farmers don't have to segregate them from conventional products. As a result, consumers cannot easily avoid genetically altered foods, or know for sure that they're present.
Federal regulators say they rigorously review new products, requiring field tests and long lists of safety checks before anything wins approval. ''We believe our science and the science at large confirms that we provide complete public protection,'' said Stephen Johnson of the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates plants engineered to secrete their own pesticides.
However, Johnson acknowledges that the new industry has grown much faster than his agency expected, making some concerns more pressing. The EPA worries that the popularity of plants, such as Shur's potatoes, that secrete Bt to kill pests could inadvertently create insects immune to the toxin.
Meanwhile, academic analysts are increasingly concerned that the boom has overwhelmed government's ability to regulate or even understand it. The number of field tests went from 58 in 1990 to 1,082 last year, while the number of requests for patents on genes has skyrocketed even faster.
''I don't think we are doing anywhere near as good a job as we could'' at regulating the food biotechnology industry, said Juan Enriquez, a researcher at Harvard University's David Rockefeller Center. ''It's hard to have an educated debate because it is happening so quickly ... that it is overwhelming even scientists.''
The rising backlash has prompted some food processors, who buy most of the genetically modified crops, to distance themselves from the new products. McCain Foods USA, the world's biggest buyer of potatoes, requires growers to declare if they are using genetically modified potatoes, effectively discouraging them from using Monsanto's products.
''It's not clear at all where this will shake out in terms of consumer reaction, so, from a business perspective, you have to be able to respond,'' said Frank Van Schaayck, head of the potato group at McCain Foods USA.
In the middle are farmers who flocked to the new seeds in the first place. ''We're getting beaten to death on this,'' said Shur, who grows almost exclusively for Monsanto's potato-growing subsidiary, NatureMark.
In a way, the rise of genetically modified foods simply applies the tools of modern genetics to something farmers have done for centuries: cross-breeding produce and animals to create better products. Centuries of cross-breeding have turned the pint-sized, coarse Mexican wild corn into the big, juicy ears popular at cookouts.
But the high-powered computers and other tools that allow geneticists to move genes from one organism to another speed the process ten-fold or more. They also dramatically enlarge breeding possibilities by allowing technicians to ''cross'' almost any species. Scientists have even inserted flounder genes into tomatoes to prevent freezing.
The initial search for commercially viable foods was frustrating and costly. The first effort, Calgene's Flavr Savr tomato, flopped, largely because consumers were unwilling to pay more for it. And the overwhelming majority of experiments never got to the commercial stage; Shur grew thousands of lines of potatoes on his Maine farm for Monsanto to develop a handful of promising varieties.
''As precise as the science sounds, a lot of what gets produced ... is not of the right quality. It's junk,'' said Robert Bernatzky, plant geneticist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
But researchers finally came up with two hit genes, both taken from bacteria. One caused plants to secrete the natural pesticide Bt. The other made plants immune to products such as Monsanto's Round Up herbicide, allowing farmers to spray for weeds without killing their crop.
These two genes, inserted into corn and soybeans, triggered what Clive James, head of the nonprofit International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications, calls ''one of the fastest adoptions of technology I've ever seen.'' An estimated 60 percent of the soy acres, 50 percent of the cotton, and 35 percent of the corn are planted in genetically altered seeds.
The breakthrough encouraged authorities in developing nations, who see the crops as a way to feed a world population expected to top 6 billion this year. Former president Carter, whose foundation helps small farmers in Africa, was especially pleased at the Round Up-resistant soy and cotton.
''Isn't it nice to have a broad leaf plant ... that you can put in a row, and after it comes up, spray the field and kill the weeds, but not the plants?'' he asked in a 1998 speech.
But Europeans, whose faith in food safety was shaken by the ''mad cow disease'' outbreak in 1997 and other scandals, never went along with the euphoria. Many perceived the new crops as dangerous and unnecessary, and the British tabloid press took to calling them ''Frankenfoods.''
The issue burst into the American conscience in a big way this spring when the science journal Nature published a Cornell University study showing that almost half the monarch butterflies who fed on the pollen from Bt corn died. Monsanto criticized the study as unrealistic, but researchers at Iowa State University got similar results using different methods.
''The fact that Bt crops kill monarch butterflies is an unintended consequence,'' Iowa State bioethicist Gary Comstock told a local newspaper. ''People want to know what the full consequences to the environment will be.''
Since then, reports have increasingly focused on scientific misgivings about genetically engineered crops. For example:
University of Chicago researchers are concerned that genetically engineered crops could cross-breed with weeds, creating ''super weeds'' that have genes making them immune to Round Up or other chemicals.
The EPA is hosting workshops around the United States on how to prevent the Bt crops from creating strains of insects that are immune to the toxic effects of Bt. Such mutants would then be free to munch on any crops that count on Bt for protection.
Surprisingly, researchers have found that key genetically altered crops do not increase yields. Round Up-resistant soybeans may reduce chemical use, costs, and difficulties to the farmers, but Edward Oplinger of the University of Wisconsin at Madison found that they produced 4 percent smaller yields than conventional seeds.
Industry defenders say the concerns are legitimate, but not cause for alarm. They represent problems of the early days of an industry that is refining its products. Potato farmer Shur admits that the genetically altered potatoes sold now are only modest improvements, but he hopes that some experimental crops on his land may represent a bigger breakthrough.
''I'm just hopeful that we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater,'' said Everett Thomas, director of the New York-based Miner Institute, which field tests genetically altered products.
But critics say the 1990s may be remembered as the start of something terrible. Said Ellen Taggart of the grass-roots group Rural Vermont, ''We're manipulating the basis for life and creating a new form of pollution, biological pollution.''
Tomorrow in Health/Science:
How much should consumers worry about genetically altered food?
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 07/11/99. © Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.