Less than a decade after it became widely available, genetically engineered food has stirred up one of the most contentious and polarizing debates ever about technology in the food supply.
Proponents argue that GE foods herald an era of more bountiful harvests for an increasingly hungry world, more nutritious fruits and vegetables, and less dependence on toxic herbicides and pesticides. They credit bioengineering for saving Hawaii?s papaya industry, which had been devastated by a virus.
Opponents claim that genetic engineering, in which DNA from one living organism is transplanted into another to endow it with favorable traits that it wouldn?t naturally have (like drought tolerance), is risky. They say it carries with it the potential to contaminate conventional and organic crops, introduce allergies and antibiotic-resistant diseases, and harm the environment. They cite studies regarding a pesticide-resistant corn that is lethal to Monarch butterflies. Despite these warnings, GE foods are becoming more ubiquitous worldwide. They are primarily limited to four cropsâcotton, corn, canola and soybeansâand the modification most frequently involves embedding a natural pesticide or herbicide into the plant?s genome.
Many farmers are impressed so far with higher seasonal yields and greater resistance to pests and weeds. Acreage devoted to GE crops rose for the seventh year in a row (by 15 percent last year) to a total of 167 million acres worldwide.
At the top of the list of producer nations is the United States, with 63 percent of the global total. The domestic adoption of pesticide- and herbicide-laced crops over the last eight years has been staggering: 40 percent of all corn planted in 2003 was GE; for cotton, the figure was 73 percent; and for soybeans, it?s a whopping 81 percent.
Because corn and soy are used in so many foods, some estimate that GE ingredients are present in nearly 70 percent of all processed foods in this country. Opponents say they will fight to make sure this doesn?t happen with other crops.
?The first generation of GE crops are here and have contaminated the food supply, but we still have a chance to protect and defend the next generation of crops,? says Ryan Zinn, campaign coordinator for the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association.
Against the grain
One of the opposition?s biggest victories in protecting next-generation crops came in May, when Monsanto Co., the world?s largest manufacturer of genetically altered seeds, decided to delay the introduction of a GE wheat plant. The company claims it did so because of a decline in wheat acreage and lack of grower buy-in, but GE opponents suspect that consumer opposition in the United States, Europe and Japan was the real cause.
And the Monsanto wheat decision was by no means the only notable development in 2004. Bayer CropScience abandoned plans in March to grow herbicide-tolerant corn in the United Kingdom because of governmental regulatory challenges. Around the same time, an Australian state banned the production of GE crops altogether.
Stateside, Mendocino County, Calif., became the first county in the United States to ban the growing and raising of GE plants and animals, while Vermont became the first state to require the labeling of genetically modified seeds. In April, the California Department of Food and Agriculture denied a biotech company?s petition to grow GE rice for pharmaceutical use.
Not all decisions, however, have gone against the biotech industry. In May, the European Union ended its six-year moratorium on biotech crops when it approved the importation of GE corn for human consumption. A few days later, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization tentatively endorsed biotechnology as a safe, effective way to feed the world.
Lisa Dry, communications director for the Washington, D.C., trade group Biotechnology Industry Organization, says much of the opposition to GE products is rooted in a lack of scientific understanding. She says farmers have always crossbred plants and animals to produce specimens with favorable characteristics. Genetic engineering is simply a more accurate and powerful method. ?Biotechnology can accelerate the process of improving food, which is a process that has been going on for thousands of years,? Dry says. ?Genetic engineering condenses the time factor in coming up with that high-yielding crop.?
But Jeffrey Smith, author of Seeds of Deception (Chelsea Green, 2003), says traditional crossbreeding through trial and error is a far cry from the deliberate transference of genes from one species to another. He says when plants are injected with foreign genes, they can create toxins, react to weather differently, create an imbalance of nutrients and, ultimately, become diseased and die. As far as the effect on consumers goes, he says GE foods can increase the number of allergy sufferers worldwide, lead to a re-emergence of dormant viruses, and potentially create superdiseases resistant to present-day medicine. Worst of all, he claims the industry and government have not been forthcoming about the dangers of genetically modified products.
?It?s not responsible to release the food products of this infant science to millions of people,? he says. ?There?s all sorts of rigged research that serves as the basis for safety claims. It?s possible that the health of the United States has been compromised by GE foods without knowing it because no monitoring is in place.?
Ostensibly, three government agencies have authority over various aspects of the GE foods industry, but many industry opponents argue that regulation is lax and spotty. Craig Winters, executive director of The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, argues that at the very least, consumers should be informed about which foods contain GE ingredients. ?Consumers are currently being used as human guinea pigs in this massive feeding experiment. And because there are no labels on genetically engineered foods, people do not even know they are participating in this feeding experiment,? he says. Winters says 70 percent of the American public favors mandatory labeling of GE foods.
Other GE opponents, like Smith, claim that ?political collusion? with the few big agribusiness corporations that hold most of the patents on GE technology is a big part of the problem. Kent Bradford, director of the seed biotechnology center at the University of California, Davis, thinks that all the protesting and bellyaching about GE foods has had the unintended effect of propping up the very industry giants that opponents decry. Smaller labs might introduce a GE food in a far less threatening manner than, say, Monsantoâone that would be subject to more public scrutiny and testingâwere it not for the expense, both in the lab and in the court of public opinion.
?They?ve created a level of playing field where no one can put something out there unless they have enormous financial means,? he says.
Embracing the inevitable
While some of the criticism of the biotech industry is valid, the hope that genetic engineering will just go away is fanciful, says the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology?s Director of Science Michael Fernandez. Even if the opposition manages to stymie genetic engineering here, he says, other countries like China will have no reservations about filling the void.
?The days of just crossing a couple of plants and planting a bunch of seeds and seeing what happens are gone,? he says. ?The technology is here to stay.?
Biotech industry spokeswoman Dry says companies are working on a wide variety of foods that will have more of a tangible effect on consumers: tomatoes with extra lycopene to combat prostate cancer, cooking oils with fewer trans fats, and apples packed with extra nutrients. She says most initiatives are at least five years out.
But prospective inventions like ?cry-free? onions and allergy-free shellfish will not likely sway ardent opponents of GE food technology. For them, ?smart breeding? may be the answer. Smart breeding taps into the power of genomic knowledge, but avoids the transgenic procedure of obtaining a segment of DNA from another species. Instead, smart breeding works with the genes the plant has naturally, activating and deactivating them to achieve the desired results.
?We think it?s a terrific idea and is the future of food,? says Winters. ?The only concern we have is that there should be a National Academy of Sciences review that makes sure there are no side effects.?
John Aguilar is a free-lance business reporter in Denver.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 7/p. 22