- 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
- 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
- ''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
- 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
- ''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,
- 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
- 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
- This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 07/11/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.