Brave New Foods
rcjohnsen at aol.com
Wed Mar 22 19:18:18 EST 2000
What follows is an Article in Mother Earth news not yet available
electronically. I believe both sides are well represented and the comments by
Verakis resemble my own somewhat closely. To begin a discussion/dialogue
because if one is closed to either side and begins name calling, then it can
never start. Simply stated, there would be no basis for discussion.
BRAVE NEW F00D
Will genetically modified crops save us or sink us?
by Marguerite Lamb, Sam Martin, Mort Mather, Matt Scanlon and Michael Seeber
Mother Earth News Apr/May 2000 pgs. 54-
article may be available later from http://www.motherearthnews.com/
When members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) met in Seattle last fall to
discuss global trade issues, negotiations were unexpectedly shut down by the
shattering of shop windows and police in body armor. Nearly 35,000
demonstrators from around the world clogged the cities streets to protest what
many saw as the closed-door politics of global food corporatism. Meanwhile, the
137 WTO delegates were there rather skeptically by all accounts to iron out
labor issues, decision-making policy and to discuss what to do about a tense
and growing international food scare: the potential dangers of genetically
modified (GM) food. Instead, tear gas canisters and rubber' bullets littered
the streets, 400 protesters went to jail and the WTO went home stunned and
empty-handed. Why? While the immediate reasons involve an arguably overzealous
response to recent headlines, the root causes can be traced back to a small
seacoast lab, more than a century ago.
In 1874, Luther Burbank, a 26-yearold farmer's son from Lancaster,
Massachusetts, with an elementary school education, had the unprecedented idea
of taking the pollen from one plant and fertilizing the fruit of anotherthus
creating a hybrid. He didn't know if the qualities of the male or the female
would dominate, but the experiment was an interesting gamble. In his 55 years
of working with plant species, Burbank produced over 800 strains and varieties.
Among these was the Burbank potato, developed to combat the devastating potato
blight affecting Ireland's crop. He sold the rights to his life-saving potato
In the 1950s, scientists began exposing seeds to X-rays, hoping to jostle
the genes inside. It worked, and mutant varieties were the result. They
selected from these and were able to develop some new varieties that were
worthwhile, but the process was largely hit or-miss and no less time-consuming
The science took a giant leap forward when the first gene was transferred
between plant organisms in 1973. Such engineering involves the splicing of a
gene from one organism into another. Every genewhether of bacteria, plant or
animalcodes for a specific protein. Thus, when you insert a foreign gene into
an organism, you prompt that organism to produce a non-native protein, changing
its basic structure at the cellular level.
Just 14 years after the initial experiment, the first genetically
engineered plants were grown outdoors. By 1995, these plants were growing on
commercial acreage. Today, more than half the nation's soybean crop is
genetically engineered. Modified soya is now in so many foods that it is very
difficult to keep it out of your shopping cart, try though you might. There is
no labeling requirement. The only way you can be assured that what you eat has
not been genetically engineered is to grow it yourself or to buy food that has
been certified organic.
So what? Is there any reason someone should not want to eat genetically altered
food? To date, nobody knows for certain, and that lack of certainty has thrown
thousands of jobs, untold fortunes and the general health of billions of people
into a blind trust. And trust may never again come so easily to the dinner
tables of the world.
Stirring the Pot
The current wave of anxiety concerning engineered food began in early 1999,
when a biologist named Arpad Pusztai fed potatoes to rats in Aberdeen,
The experiment Pusztai performed at the Rowett Research Institute was meant to
test whether GM crops designed to produce an insecticidein this case potatoes
patented by the Swiss company Novartiscould be harmful or toxic to animals. He
found that rats fed the GM potatoes for ten days developed intestinal
deformities and seemed to have weakened immune systems compared to rats that
were fed natural potatoes Even before the experiment could be properly
checked, Pusztai appeared on national television pillorying GM food,
consequently handing radical environmental groups and already panicky consumers
a reason to fear GM crops as a health hazard.
-In retrospect it's no coincidence that the public outcry over food safety
began in Britain. It was the English, after all, who discovered BSE, or mad cow
disease, in their livestock, an epidemic that has killed (or was a material
reason for the killing of) more than a million head of cattle since 1991. Some
1,500 cows were destroyed because of BSE as recently as last year. Needless to
say, the European public was already on edge about the safety of its food. That
fear was exacerbated last year, when Belgium removed chicken from grocery store
shelves after some of the meat was found to have a high content of toxic
dioxin. And as if that wasn't enough, Coca Cola was forced to recall $103
million worth of Coke in Belgium after consumers complained of nausea,
dizziness and headaches. Small wonder GM foods were met with resistance.
And yet what do the facts of Pusztai's experiment really show? Is ten days
of feeding potatoes to rats enough evidence to condemn biotechnology
altogether? Scientists in Britain point out that any normal potatoes fed to a
rat for ten days would stress both its digestive and immune systems. Pusztai's
study was discredited as "dubious science" by Britain's Royal Society and no
other evidence has since been found to suggest that GM food is harmful to human
health. Likewise, studies at Cornell University, lowa State University and in
Switzerland have come up empty on forays into the possibility that GM crops may
be harmful to the environment.
Nevertheless, the European public has not wavered. By the time the WTO met
in Seattle last November, the United States and the European Union were in a
trade war. The EU had banned American beef treated with growth hormones, while
the U.S., in retaliation, imposed 100% tariffs on certain EU foods like French
truffles and British pork. Meanwhile, McDonald's restaurants in France and
Belgium were vandalized and fields of modified crops in Germany were trampled.
Bowing under public pressure, the EU refused to import any more GM crops
from the U.S. and Canada, thereby setting the stage for the debacle in Seattle
and the latest round of talks in Montreal this past winter (see "The Biosafety
Protocol," page 62). In the space of a few months, much of the world had seen
the promise and perceived danger of GM food...and opted out.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
With merger mania sweeping the seed and agrochemical industry, and large
corporations gobbling up smaller interests, the worlds food supply is quickly
falling under the control of a very few large international companies. In
fact, according to the non-profit Rural Advancement International (RAFI), you
can count the key remaining players on one hand.
AgBiotechs Five Jumbo Gene Giants(Xtra-large)*
[Ranlings are global, by sector; dollar amounts are in US dollars (millions)
based on 1998 revenues]
Syngenta AG: Novartis and AstraZeneca(pending)
Agrochemical rating: 1 Revenue: $7,050
Seed Ranking: 3 Revenue: $1,000
Aventis: Hoechst and Rhone Poulenc
Agrochemical Ranking: 2 Revenue $4,675
Seed Ranking: not ranked Revenue: $ 134
Monsanto: Monsanto & Pharmacea/Upjohn(pending)
Agrochemical ranking: 3 Revenue: $4,030
Seed ranking: 2 Revenue: $1,800
Dupont (pioneer Hi Bred)
Agrochemical ranking: 4 Revenue: $3,155
Seed ranking: 1 Revenue: $1,835
Agrochemical ranking: 7 Revenue $2,130
Seed ranking: not ranked Revenue: $ 162
Governing Business and Safety
Globally, sales of genetically modified seed grew 20-fold between 1995 and
1998, a remarkable start out of the gate for a relatively new technology.
During that time, the GM food corporations' promise of safety went unquestioned
both at home and abroad. And the seed corporations enjoyed what can only be
described as a cozy relationship with the U.S. governmental bodies responsible
for overseeing product safety.
With the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) overseeing the nation's food
supply, pesticides have to be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) and new plant species come under the review of the Department of
Agriculture (USDA). However, when genetic engineering involves breeding plants
that actually kill pest insects, the line between food and insecticide is
blurred. Responsibility quickly becomes confused. The regulatory response to
that conundrum leaves large holes through which GM seed corporations have been
jumping for years.
Consider the FDA decision in 1992: The agency would not recognize the
process by which a food was developed, only its character. It said, in effect,
that if a new strain of GM potato looks, smells and tastes like an ordinary
potato, then its review is concluded. Any nonaesthetic modificationsthe
transfer into a potato of a gene from the soil bacterium, Bacillus
thuringiensis (Bt), for examplewould not be considered in food analyses. Bt, a
natural insecticide used by many organic farmers, is already a registered
pesticide in the U.S., excusing the EPA of any further obligation to review Bt
crops. The USDA's responsibility is to make sure that new plant varieties pose
no threat to production agriculture or to the environment during cultivation.
It is enthusiastic in its support of GM plants and has said as much in numerous
statements, including the following from its Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Over the past year, there has been a continuous flow of requests for
determinations by APHIS that particular field-tested organisms have no
potential for...risk and should no longer be regulated. These requests, from
developers of new products produced through biotechnology, facilitate the entry
of the products into the marketplace. Sixteen new products in seven crop plants
were the subject of such determinations in the past 28 months.
Small wonder, then, that the first four years of GM seed sales were
But increasing concern among consumersin Europe, Asia and more
recently the U.S.over the unknown health and environmental hazards of
genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has suddenly got the biotech seed
industry scrambling to assure governments, growers, food processors and the
public of the safety of their products.
They look to be losing ground: Among the companies that have announced
they will refuse GM crops are Cadbury and Nestle (in Europe); the Japanese
brewers, Kirin and Sapporo; Mexico's largest tortilla maker, Grupo Maseca; and
baby food manufacturers Gerber (which, incidentally, is owned by biotech seed
giant Novartis) and HJ. Heinz. Add these to the dozens of high profile
companies that have refused GM crops from the beginning, including Eden Foods,
Barbara's Bakery, Newman's Own, Bird's Eye, Ben & Jerry's, Stonyfield Farm and
Horizon Organic Dairy, and the sum is a public relations nightmare. Even the
U.S. pet food company lams has said it will reject GM maize for its dog chow.
But the latest blow may sting the most: In January, Frito-Lay Inc., the
enormous snack food division of PepsiCo, announced that it was jumping on the
Monsanto spokesman Dan Verakis was quick to note that even Frito-Lay
admitted its decision was driven not by any proven health threats, but rather
by consumer attitudes. He dismissed the move as evidence of what he sees as a
potential "niche market for non-biotech grain, similar to the market that
exists for organics" (this, despite Frito-Lay's status as mainstream snack
In the midst of this turmoil, the world's largest seed and agrochemical
companies are pooling war chests, as mergers sweep the industry, leaving just a
handful of megacorporations in charge of much of the planet's food supply (see
"Follow the Money,".
While clearly the motive is profit (business is business, after all), these
industry giants also claim more beneficent aims. This technology, say its
proponents, will help to feed the world, while reducing the use of chemical
pesticides. And, in the very near future, it could produce foods that are
tastier, more nutritious and even therapeutic.
Feeding People or Pockets?
According to the United Nation's Food A and Agricultural Organization
(FAO), nearly 800 million people worldwide do not have enough to eat.
Moreover, the global population is expected to double in the next 40 yearswith
the vast majority of this explosion occurring in underdeveloped, underfed
"We know this means that agricultural output and production needs to
increase by 70%," says Monsanto's Verakis. "And so how do we do that? Clearly,
dumping more chemicals on the ground isn't the answer. I don't think many
people would agree that slashing and burning the remaining rain forests is a
very good approach. Frankly, biotech is not the Holy Grail either, but it has
demonstrated its ability to increase yield and reduce chemicals."
But hunger, at least in today's world, seems to have little to do with
food. Global production systems currently produce the equivalent of roughly
four pounds of food daily for every man, woman and child on the planet. So why
are so many starving?
The FAO identifies poverty and marginalization as the root causes of hunger
in nations at peace, while, predictably, physical destruction and displacement
of people perpetuate hunger in nations at war.
"Feeding the world is not a technology-related problem," says Jane Rissler,
senior staff scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a 50,000
member, nonprofit watchdog group concerned with the misuse of science and
technology. "It is a problem of wealth and distribution of wealth. It is a
problem of politics. Having a new technology guarantees very little in the face
Rissler suggests that the industry is not just misguided, but duplicitous:
"If these companies do want to feed the world, then why are they trying to sell
genetically engineered crops in the U.S. and Europe? That is not feeding the
world. These companies are trying to play on our guilt feelings by convincing
us that if we don't buy this technology and make it a success, somehow the
world will not get fed. It's a public relations ploy."
As evidence, Rissler points to the fact that,-with the exception of rice,
the inexpensive staple and subsistence crops so important to Third World
farmers are hardly on the minds of the megacorporations. "There is not," she
observes, "a great rush to develop products for the developing world."
To be fair, Monsanto for one did open its St. Louis laboratories to two
Kenyan researchers, whose efforts there produced a genetically modified sweet
potato resistant to the feathery mottle virus. (Sweet potatoes are among the
world's most important subsistence crops.) According to Verakis, Monsanto "gave
away the technology" and has "no commercial interest" in the product.
Monsanto and the other biotech giants do, however, maintain a very definite
commercial interest in the world's major cash cropscotton, corn, wheat,
soyto the extent that they've made seed-saving criminal, compelling farmers
to purchase a supply annually. Critics worry that the high cost of biotech
seed, combined with shrinking alternatives, may force poor farmers worldwide
out of business.
Environmental Boon or Bust?
Even as Greenpeace and other environmental groups continue to ,staunchly
oppose 'GMOs, the industry holds fast to its claim of a "green" agenda.
Bioengineered seed, say its boosters, will decrease the use of herbicides and
pesticides,while increasing per-acre yields. Monsanto's Verakis points for
example to cotton farmers, who he says can substantially reduce their pesticide
use by switching to Bt cotton, which protects against the bollworm. "Instead of
spraying ten or 12 times, farmers who plant our Bt cotton are now spraying only
once or twice, depending on the size of the infestation," says Verakis. "In
much the same way a silicon chip in a computer is replacing huge roomfuls of
information, we are putting information in a seed, and that gene, that DNA,
replaces tankers full of pesticides and other chemicals."
But are bioengineered seeds living up to their promise? In 1999,
genetically modified crops were grown on some 73 million acres in the U.S.,
roughly a fifth of the nation's total cropland. Yet definitive evidence of
corresponding pesticide reductions is hard to come by.
The USDA compared GM to non-GM plantings in terms of both pesticide use and
crop yields (using 1997 figures), but cautions that its results are imperfect,
since differences may be attributable to such factors as weather, soil
conditions, irrigation, pest pressures and production practices. Nevertheless,
the department was able to draw some general conclusionschiefly that the
impact of GMOs varies considerably depending on the crop and the technology. In
some cases, yields increased while pesticide use decreased (where, for example,
farmers planted Bt cotton or herbicide-tolerant soy), but there is also
evidence that herbicide use may have increased in some areas planted with
herbicide-tolerant seed. (Such seed enables farmers plagued by weeds to spray
with abandon, without endangering their crops.) "This is not a slam dunk,"
says the UCS's Rissler. "One cannot conclude that this technology has been
proven to increase yield or to substantially reduce pesticide use across the
board. So our question is: With so little benefit, why are farmers and
consumers being asked to take any risk?"
Congress Steps In
Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has introduced the "Genetically
Engineered Food Right to Know Act~ ~House Resolution 3377. The law would
require the labeling of any food that either contains "genetically engineered
material, or was produced wrth a genetically engineered material" and would
therefore be an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the
Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act
It was brought to the House in November, and has a bipartisan co|lection of 20
co-sponsors. However, due to some recent lobbying, 27 representatives who had
previously signed a letter supporting labeling
backed down when it came time to sponsor the bill. With hundreds of millions
of dollars at stake, the forces marshaled by the biotech industry against
labeling legislation are growing. Monsanto has found a point person with
strong ties to the pertinent regulatory agencies in Michael R. Taylor, former
deputy commissioner for policy at the FDA and former top official at the
Agricultural Department. And, on the money side, the alliance for Better Foods,
a coalrtion of 38 trade associations, has already contributed more than
$676,000 to the coffers of important lawmakers. with public skepticism about
genetically engineered food growing and the biotech business getting more
nervous about their research and development investments, the fight on Caprtol
Hill this year should be a fierce one.
Are there Human Health Risks?
While so far no human health scare has been linked to GMOs, concerns that
"Frankenfood" could harm life or limb have consumers worldwide worried.
Fueling the frenzy are misleading accounts of cross-species experiments
(see "Fish Stories" on page 113) and at least one highly publicized near-miss
involving a Brazil nut gene spliced into a soybean; researchers discovered
that people allergic to Brazil nuts would also be allergic to the modified
soy and the product was pulled from development before it went commercialbut
not before it raised real doubts about the safety of bioengineered foods.
Critics further worry about the introduction into our food supply of genes and
thus proteins from bacteria and other nonfood organisms. The fear is that
these novel proteins could prove allergenic or even toxic.
But biotech proponents argue that the Brazil nut incident actually
bolsters industry safety claims, since the danger was identified and the
project killed well before it might have become a public health risk.
Monsanto spokesman Verakis says his company tests its products ad nauseam:
"The director of our regulatory and safety division has calculated that the
number of person hours his team has devoted to safety testing of biotech
crops...together adds up to more than 400 years."
But critics caution that laboratory results cannot predict every
eventuality (witness the number of prescription drugs that pass 12 years of
clinical trials only to later be pulled from the shelves).
"There hasn't been enough research done," says the UCS's Rissler. "We are
not building a database of information; this food is not labeled so we can't
follow its effects. We may have already had people who have gotten sick from
it, and we just don't know about it.... If you don't look, you don't see
risk. And that's pretty much where we have been in this country. We don't
look and so therefore we have not found."
The Next Wave
Already complicated, the debate over genetically modified food is about to
get more difficult. While both sides may convincingly argue over herbicide
tolerant or pest-resistant crops, it gets tougher to oppose foods that may
improve nutrition or medicine for millions.
Globally, health-care delivery systems are overtaxed, and advanced
practices and pharmaceuticals remain beyond the reach of much of the world.
Verakis suggests that foods bioengineered to deliver important nutrients or
drugs could prove a significantly less expensive, more practical way to fight
malnutrition and disease on a global scale. His company is working to engineer
healthier cooking oils that will help to lower cholesterol, as well as a
canola oil high in beta carotene (the precursor to vitamin A).
And Monsanto is not alone: Earlier this year, "golden rice"a product
engineered by Swiss researchers to contain high levels of beta carotenemade
headlines as the next best hope for the 124 million children in Southeast
Asia and elsewhere who are deficient in vitamin A, a quarter million of whom
go blind annually.
But despite its seeming promise, UCS's Rissler isn't sold on the rice: It
hasn't been proven outside of the laboratory, in the fields. It's not clear
that people will buy yellow rice ~golden rice has a decidedly unnatural hue].
It's not clear what will happen when people cook the rice. There are a lot of
unknowns, yet the industry just jumped right on that golden rice, hoping to
ride that little board through some pretty big waves, because they really
needed some good news.
'The industry," she adds, is always criticizing people who talk about risk,
saying it is all conjectural, hut many of their benefit .statements are also
For his part, Verakis would like to see an end to the criticisms from both
.side.s, and the beginning of real discussion: "What we are pushing for is a
proper dialogue" about GMOs, he says. "But if, at the end of the day, you
can't acknowledge the benefits of biotechnology, there is no room for
dialogue. And likewise, if you can't acknowledge that people have concerns
about biotech, there is also no room for dialogue."
The Hardest Hit: Family farms
As with many controversies surrounding food production in the last
l~century (the first plant hybrids commercially introduced in the 1930s and
the Alar apple scandal spring to mind), the biggest burdens of the GMO battle
will fall upon farmers. Combines and trucks are running on fuel that continues
to skyrocket in price, food surpluses have been driving crop values lower, and
now farmers are forced to contend with an increasingly unpredictable
marketplace. In the short-term, nearly all that GM crops have accomplished on
the farm is to make planting a juggling act, with a family's security hanging
in the balance. Gary Goldberg, president of the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based
American Corn Growers Association (ACGA), has been fielding reports from
farmers and comparing GM crop yield results since the plants first appeared in
the fields of North America.
"If the promise of GM plants, in our instance corn, is that they will
boost yields for the farmer, then we can do without them. We already have
lost $20(million in sales last year because the European Community and others
have refused our corn. And this happened when we already had a corn surplus.
We can't afford to see prices drop any further...but they might."
Goldberg goes on to say that even well-intentioned move away from GM
crops carries its own risks.
"The biggest threat facing farmers right now," he reports, "is the market
place. Every farmer growing corn has to wonder if his crop will be sellable by
the end of the year. In this kind ofincredibly volatile market...in which
Seagram's suddenly refuses to accept GM crops, in which Heinz and Gerber baby,
foods, lams and Frito-Lay do the same...well, there's no way for a farmer to
really plan. It's making a difficult business much more so."
And as if the threat of a continually dwindling national and international
marketplace isn't enough, Goldberg sees a legal battle looming on the horizon.
"Say an organic farmer's land is next to that of a farmer who plants GM crops,
and GM pollen drifts onto the neighbor's land. Well, now that organic farmer
is out of business because he can no longer guarantee pure food. We will have
farmer suing farmer, neighbor suing neighbor."
As for the safety and reliability of the GM seed and finished crops, the
ACGA is more pragmatic than fearful. Goldberg explains: "Genetic modification
of crops is a tool, nothing more. If it can boost nutrition and help grow
better crops, then full-speed. Of course we want complete safety assurances,
but our primary job is to get better food on the table. If GM helps...great."
Bob Cannard of Cannard Farms in Sonoma, California, a longtime proponent of
sustainable agriculture and an outspoken critic of GMOs, sees repercussions in
"enhanced" food more serious than even bankrupt farmers.
"In a few years," Cannard warns, "all the food varieties and all the plant
varieties we have selected and bred for thousands of years, lovingly,
scientifically, will be thrown away if the current trend continues. And for
what? For plants that resist pests they'd be able to resist already if we grew
Cannard sees GM proliferation as both a complex and dangerous solution to a
simple problem. "Healthy plants grow well, grow in abundance and largely don't
need pesticides...something that every sustainable farmer and organic grower
will tell you. Take corn for instance. It honestly isn't one of my big crops
here, but as an experiment, I planted two pounds of Iroquois white corn seed,
which produced about 4,000 ears. The corn grew beautifully with minimai
attention, and when I picked through the ears, I found not one corn borer [the
pests that genetically modified Bt corn is designed to fighd. It's not a
scientifically complete test," allows Cannard, "but it helps prove that
well-fed and healthily maintained plants require few pesticidesmuch less
genetic engineering, which warps their structure forever."
When asked what he makes of the GM seed corporations' assertions that
billions of dollars have been devoted to ensuring that modified seed is
perfectly safe, Mr. Cannard counters: "Any scientist will tell you that
mammalian testing requires at least three generations of observation and study.
Which means that any allergies or other physiological problems will manifest
themselves most probably in the third generation from ours...our grandchildren.
But there won't be any non-GM seed to revert to by then. Farmers are having a
tough time getting hold of traditional hybrids even now."
Most voices in the community of food producers are not as strident as
Cannard's, but the majority of farmers seem to be concerned equally about the
quality, safety and sellability of the food they grow. Mort Mather, a longtime
MOTHER contributor and organic grower, sees profitable possibilities in this
concern and hopes for an increasingly robust non-GM marketplace. "These seed
corporations leave behind many niche markets where farmers can sell directly or
nearly directly to consumers. As consumers learn more about genetic
engineering and some of the problems that come with globalization of the food
industry, the demand for locally grown food increases. More and more people
want to have a face attached to their food or to see some label indicating the
food is certified to meet some strict standard."
But at the same time that GM crops may ease open new markets for organic
products, they could also make life much more difficult for organic growers,
warns Mather. "Now that Bt is in a very large proportion of corn, potatoes and
cotton, it is a certainty that pest insects will build up a tolerance," he
predicts. "Even the scientists who did the genetic engineering agree that this
will happen! They have said that these crops should be planted with a buffer [a
border of non-GM crops around the much larger GM field] so that insects that
get a nonlethal dose will mate with insects from the buffer and somehow this
will delay the inevitable a few years. Well, the farmers aren't leaving the
buffers and the seed companies don't care. The USDA doesn't care. The EPA
doesnt care. And the gene companies are telling us not to worry, that they
will find something to replace Bt once it becomes ineffective.
"Which is more troubling," wonders Mather, "what they come up with next or
the possibility that they will destroy a safe insecticide and not find a
replacement? Either way they will make organic farming more difficult and
expensive. That's one way to hurt the competition.'
Perhaps no GMO story has raised more eyebrows than the fish gene in the
tomato story. Who hasn't been warned of and repulsed at the thought of fruit
that will stare up at us from our plates? Yet Dan Verakis, spokesman for seed
giant Monsanto, calls the story a "myth," insisting that "fish genes in
tomatoes just don't exist."
It is these kinds of fish stories, says Verakis, that "fuel the
uncertainty" surrounding GMOs. The fact, he says, is that all of Monsanto's
productson the market and in development use "naturally occurring genes from
other plants or, in the case of the insect-resistant products, a gene from Bt."
Verakis also says that he knows of no other companies currently working to
move animal genes into produce.
But Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists says otherwise: "The
fact is, it has been done...DNAP [DNA PlantTechnology of Oakland, California]
was the company that put the fish gene in a tomato." Rissler acknowledges that
the experiment was halted before any products were brought to market, but, she
insists, "that is because of the uproar. Believe me, they would be doing it if
people were not objecting to it."
The truth, it seems, lies somewhere in between. According to Scott Thenell,
director of regulatory affairs for DNAP, there was an experiment, begun and
finished four years ago, that involved an attempt to insert a flounder gene
into a tomato to increase the fruit's frosttolerance. But the results were so
pitiful, the experiment was scrapped in the earliest phases. "The initial
experiments showed insufficient technical effect to proceed with further
experimentation and development," says Thenell.
Thenell acknowledges that the fish experiment is often raised by opponents
of biotechnology in an attempt to shock consumers. But he assures, "This was a
product concept that was dropped four years ago, is not under development, nor
is it likely to be under development in the future, since it showed so little
promise. It simply was not worth pursuing."
The Last analysis: Do We Care?
Even the most impassioned pleas for more caution in the proliferation of GM
seed may fall on deaf ears here at home, according to Thomas Hoban, a professor
of sociology at North Carolina State University and a longtime tracker
of,social awareness of food issues. "About one in three people in the U.S. are
aware of the GM food controversy. This compared to, say, the U.K., where 90% or
better of the general public is aware." The discrepancy is attributable to a
variety of factors according to Hoban, chief among them a generally
enthusiastic European press corps, keen to report on every turn in the
The second factor is faith. "The public trusts the USDA and the FDA to care
for the food supply, period. There is no single regulatory voice in Europe
anything like those two organizations, and so, for better or worse, it leaves
each country to come to its own conclusion."
In the final analysis, Hoban suggests that we might simply be too busy to
worry about possibly imaginary food dangers. "To Americans, taste comes first
on a wish list, then nutrition; the mechanics of food production are a distant
To Boldly Go...
Until we can make our own decisions on GM crops and products by reading
labels on tomato sauce cans and bread bags, genetic experiment.s will continue
to either the benefit or the detriment of ourselves and our ecosystems. As a
result, there will almost certainly be more genetic changes in the next
millennium than there have been in the previous twenty. Some will be intended,
others not. Will any be catacly.smic? Will these changes put our species at
risk or will they herald a new age of boundless agricultural productivity? At
the very least, it's worth more than just a few moments of this kind of
consideration hefore we meddle with the genetic blueprints holding our planet
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