Genetically Altered Supercrops
Are Already Here
By Paul Menser
Idaho Falls Post-Register
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 say.
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 labeled."
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 french fries?
"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 used weed-killer.
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 marketable.
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.