- IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (Scripps-McClatchy Western) -- Genetically engineered
crops are no longer the stuff of science fiction. They are a fact of life.
Throughout most of the 1990s, "biotech" commodities such as corn,
soybeans, potatoes and tomatoes have been entering the world's food chain.
- Critics use emotional terms like "Frankenfood"
to describe such products as Monsanto's New Leaf Potato, which has been
grown in Idaho since 1995. Splicing DNA from one species to another could
have unexpected consequences to human health and the environment, they
- But researchers are holding the promise
of "supercrops" as the next significant improvement to the world's
agricultural production methods. Today, all the farmland in the world would
cover an area the size of North America. But the world's population is
expected to double in 50 years, and to feed 10 billion people using today's
methods it would take an area the size of North and South America.
- "We need to grow more food on less
land, using less chemicals," said Steve Love, a potato breeder for
the University of Idaho at Aberdeen, who helped develop the New Leaf. The
potato has DNA from bacteria spliced into its genetic coding to protect
against Colorado potato beetles. Simply put, when the beetles munch the
leaves, they die.
- A New Leaf can be a russet burbank, a
russet norkotah, a shepody, or any variety. "Nutritionally and compositionally,
they're the same," said Alyssa Hollier, spokeswoman for Monsanto's
Naturemark division in Boise. "If they weren't, they'd have to be
- Hollier said the New Leaf has received
the endorsement of such groups as the World Health Organization and the
American Dietetic Association.
- "We've been working with the public
for years," she said.
- But groups like the Campaign for Food
Safety in Little Marais, Minn., are calling for government regulations
that would require genetically engineered crops, or products that use them,
to be labeled.
- "Consumers have a fundamental right
to know what they're eating," said Ronnie Cummins, the group's executive
director. But unless a product has the possibility of causing an allergic
reaction, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires no labeling of
genetically engineered foodstuffs.
- What's the difference?
- A New Leaf potato is different because
it contains Bacillius thuringiensis, commonly known as Bt, a bacterial
toxin often used by organic farmers and gardeners to kill insects. Although
classified as a pesticide, Love said that term is misleading because Bt
is actually a protein. In the case of the New Leaf, the protein binds to
receptors in a beetle's stomach, inhibiting its ability to digest food.
- Should consumers worry about Bt in their
- "Not unless you've been crossbred
with a potato beetle," Love said. "Chances are we are eating
similar bacteria when we eat a lot of different foods."
- Representatives from companies like Monsanto,
DuPont and Novartis (the huge Swiss pharmaceutical conglomerate) are quick
to assure the public that their biotech products are safe and based on
sound science. Hollier said biotech crops are grown on 50 million acres
around the world.
- "The growth in the market has been
due to grower demand and consumer acceptance," she said.
- The selling point for potato farmers
is they can avoid costly pesticide applications by growing New Leafs. Suffering
through a prolonged price slump, farmers are looking for ways to cut expenses.
Another New Leaf has been developed to resist viruses, and Monsanto is
developing "Roundup ready" crops that can withstand its widely
- It remains to be seen whether bio-engineered
crops are the answer to farmers' woes, said Paul Patterson, economist for
the University of Idaho extension office in Idaho Falls.
- "Genetic engineering is being viewed
as a salvation," he said. "They're saying, 'Here's a system that
allows us to reduce those pesticides.' But what's the tradeoff? We haven't
had a rational debate about that."
- One question being asked is whether supercrops
are going to improve the small farmer's bottom line or work in favor of
mega-operators. Patterson helped Monsanto with economic analyses of farming
operations, as the company was determining what would make the New Leaf
- But he said there's a valid point to
the argument that a lot of farmers have found themselves on a treadmill,
embracing the next innovation because of the corner they've painted themselves
into with the last.
- "There's always a technological
fix. But how many more doorways are going to get us out of the corners
we paint ourselves into?"
- Not all are convinced
- One eastern Idaho producer who has already
come in contact with biotechnology - and said 'no thanks' - is Alan Reed,
of Reed's Dairy in Idaho Falls. In 1994, Reed had a chance to use Monsanto's
bovine growth hormone on his herd, but chose not to. The decision was made
with both his cows and customers in mind, he said.
- "You know that whatever goes into
the cow comes out in the milk," Reed said. "There had been no
testing of the effect of that hormone on the human system, and one of the
scientists told me, 'If it was me, I wouldn't drink it.' "
- Reed said he also was concerned about
the stress the product puts on animals. Although they give more milk, they
dry up sooner and are more susceptible to mastitis, an inflammation of
the udder. In bottom line terms, Reed figured he could have increased the
dairy's production by 2 or 3 percent by using synthetic hormones. But he
would have had to sell his cows off faster.
- In the end, Love said, the success of
genetically engineered crops depends on whether they can provide significant
advantages to growers, processors and consumers. "Considering the
technology's only a few years old, it's made pretty substantial inroads
already," he said.