Genetically modified foods becoming staple in America's diet

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

(KRT) - Once a tiny kink in the food chain, genetically modified foods have become a staple in America's diet.

Almost one-third of all corn planted in Wisconsin this spring will come from genetically altered varieties. Among soybeans, nearly 80 percent of the crop will be genetically modified.

Nationwide, some 40 different crops are approved for commercial use, according to the Council for Biotechnology Information.

These crops are increasingly becoming ingredients in everything from soups to pizzas to soft drinks.

"We eat genetically modified foods every day," said C. Neal Stewart, a plant geneticist at the University of Tennessee. "If you have any romantic notions about natural foods, lose them."

Fifty years ago, it was unlikely that scientists James Watson and Francis Crick were thinking about bio-engineered food when they discovered the structure of DNA, and in so doing, unleashed generations of scientific discovery.

By helping to unravel the mysteries of DNA, Watson's and Crick's work has wended its way through science. In agriculture, it allowed scientists to alter genes - adding a trait here, eliminating a trait there - so the raw product in some foods was suddenly different.

With their ability to fight pests and weeds, biotech advocates say, the new genetically altered crops have helped farmers increase productivity and cut the use of farm chemicals. As an alternative to laboratories, newer generations of genetically engineered crops are being used in outdoor experiments to harness the powers of Mother Nature to mass-produce drugs.

But as much as the technology creates a ray of sunshine for its advocates, clouds continue to hang over it.

Some opponents are dead-set against it on principle and believe that dickering with genes is wrong. Others say that the technology is another way of exacerbating a trend toward large-scale farming.

Others worry about food safety and the long-term effects. What happens to both animals and humans over a lifetime of eating gene-tweaked food? Will insects become resistant to these brave new crops?

Another issue is how the integrity of organic food can be protected as wind-blown seeds move from one field to another.

"My own personal feeling is that if scientists can create miracle drugs, that is one thing, we can't pooh-pooh that," said Theresa Marquez, chief of marketing and sales at Organic Valley, a co-op in La Farge in western Wisconsin.

"But to focus on food, it's not necessary. We're producing a glut of food. Farmers are going out of business."

Advocates are quick to note that three federal agencies are required to approve the sale of genetically engineered crops. They point to reports by both the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded that the differences between genetically modified foods and conventional foods are negligible.

But those two scientific groups also raised questions about the long-term effects of the technology. The National Academy panel said regulators should more closely scrutinize the environmental impact of genetically altered plants and should monitor fields after approval for unforeseen problems.

"Is it safe?" asked Brent McCown, a horticulturist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who uses the technology.

"I believe it is. This is an incredibly powerful science, and it is so powerful that we will never put it back in the box. We have to accept that it is here to stay."

Stewart, author of "Living on a Genetically Modified Planet," said that genetic engineering only allows plant breeders to do more quickly what they have always done: breed crops for desired characteristics.

"You are under much more risk from food-borne pathogens," such as salmonella and E. coli, than from genetically modified organisms, Stewart said.

Jim Lange's 2,000 acres of farmland in the Town of Norway in northern Racine County is increasingly being encroached on by urbanization. He uses two gene-altered varieties of corn and soybeans that allow him to cut down his use of pesticides - something he said that many of his neighbors appreciate.

All of the soybeans he plants are so-called Roundup Ready - the trade name for seeds that contain a gene that is resistant to the herbicide Roundup. About 60 percent of his corn has a toxin-producing gene that protects against the infestation of the European corn borer.

Roundup Ready soybeans let farmers spray the powerful herbicide on soybeans without harming them. The result: He saves money, has fewer weed problems and spends less time tilling the soil.

"They are a good risk-management tool for farmers," Lange said.

But even some advocates have concerns.

McCown believes farmers are planting too much corn that has been engineered to kill the corn borer.

"What that leads to is all kinds of things down the road," he said. "Insects will develop resistance. Ecologically that is stupid."

Others worry about inadequate controls.

In February, a Kraft Foods executive said the company would like to see the practice of using food crops to make pharmaceuticals stopped for fear they will get into the food supply.

That happened last year in Nebraska when the U.S. Department of Agriculture pulled 500,000 bushels of soybeans off the market. The soybeans had been engineered to produce an enzyme used in laboratories to speed the production of insulin. The company, ProdiGene of College Station, Texas, was involved in another case in Iowa, and last month agreed to pay $250,000 and cleanup costs that could total more than $3 million in the two states.

Kraft supports the use of genetically modified crops approved by regulators.

"Right now public acceptance of biotechnology in America is relatively high," Betsy Holden, Kraft's co-chief executive officer, told an agriculture group in suburban Washington, D.C.

"But how many more times can we test the public's trust before we begin to lose it?"


Europeans are already mistrustful of the technology. The European Union bars genetically modified foods and seeds - costing U.S. biotech firms about $200 million a year in lost corn exports alone.

While an outright ban on the technology seems unlikely in the U.S., consumer unease is evident.

Last fall, Oregon voters defeated a measure requiring the labeling of genetically engineered foods - but only after support dwindled from two-thirds of the voters to less than than 30 percent in the final three weeks. Opponents spent $4.5 million on a last-minute ad blitz, according to the Portland Oregonian.

Labeling measures have surfaced in Congress since 1999, and several state legislatures are now mulling mandatory labeling laws. A poll conducted in 2001 for the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found that 75 percent of people wanted to know whether their food contained products that were genetically altered.

"I think a lot of our customers want a better connection with their food," said Lisa Malmarowski, marketing manager for Outpost Natural Foods, which operates stores in Milwaukee and Wauwatosa, Wis.

"We are not anti-tech, we are not a lot of Luddites here. We just want to know more about where our food comes from."

A worldwide poll commissioned by the Discovery Channel for a program titled "DNA: The Promise and the Price," which aired last month, showed that 62 percent of people in eight countries think that rules and regulations are not keeping pace with genetic research. In the United States, 70 percent held that sentiment.

This wariness shows up in the marketplace as well.

Organic farming and organic foods have been a hit with consumers.

While still a tiny percentage of overall farmland, crops planted on certified organic land rose 74 percent to 2.3 million acres between 1995 and 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By law, organic crops can't use genetically modified organisms.

Sales at Organic Valley in La Farge have jumped from $99.5 million in 2001 to a projected $155 million this year.

Organic Valley cannot attribute the growth directly to concerns about genetically modified food, but customer surveys regularly point to worries over the "Big Three," said Marquez.

They are: antibiotics, pesticides and bovine growth hormones - a genetically engineered product injected into dairy cattle for higher milk production.

"Three years ago, we were 75 percent in small stores and whole foods stores, and 25 percent in some of the select upscale stores," Marquez said. "Today we sell to Wal-Mart, and 70 percent of dairy is in the grocery mass market channel."


When it hit the market in 1994, Monsanto's Posilac - a bovine growth hormone - was hailed as a way for farmers to get more milk out of their cows. But it also riled consumer groups that were concerned about its safety.

An estimated 17 percent of the nation's dairy cattle in 2002 were being treated with the product, also known as recombinant bovine somatotropin, according to a new report by a team of UW researchers.

"It seems safe to say now that (the product) will be remembered in the historical annals of agricultural biotechnologies as the juggernaut that was not," the report said.

Lee Quarles, a Monsanto spokesman, said 13,000 dairy farmers use Posilac and "are able to reduce their input costs because their cows are producing more."

Two other genetically altered foods that have taken a hit are potatoes and cranberries.

Genetically altered potatoes, which were once raised in Wisconsin, are no longer grown here because major buyers such as McDonald's are steering clear of them, said McCown, the UW horticulturist.

Even in his own lab, he has felt the effects of a consumer backlash. McCown used genetic engineering to develop cranberries that produce a deeper, redder color in Wisconsin's short growing season. But he balked at conducting field trials after growers expressed concerns. Growers were worried about public acceptance.

"The juice business is enormously competitive," McCown said. "No one wants to take the risk."

McCown, however, remains optimistic.

He believes the next generation of genetically modified foods will have qualities that consumers want - rather than having attributes, such as insect resistance, that appeal mostly to farmers.

"You'll see quality traits so food will store longer and taste better," he said. "These are things that the consumer can buy into."


_ Nearly 80 percent of soybeans and one-third of corn in Wisconsin have been genetically modified.

_ Scientists inserted flounder genes into a strain of strawberries to keep them from freezing.

_ Since 1994, farmers in this country have grown 3.5 trillion genetically manipulated plants.

_ In 2002, an Israeli researcher announced that he had produced a featherless chicken; no need for plucking or ventilation.

(Marilynn Marchione of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.)


© 2003, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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