Seeds of Discontent

Can growing protests stem the tide of genetically engineered crops?

Those who lived through the anti-nuke rallies may think all other socio-political battlegrounds easy. Think again. A mere mention of the phrase "genetic engineering" causes all kinds of intemperate behavior: setting fire to Michigan State University labs, forcing the recall of taco shells, hordes of French men and women storming McDonald's. Of course, almost anything creates unrest in France, where even students walk out on strike, but very few things rile people as much as the tedious process of scientifically changing foods by altering their genetic code.

The taco shell incident is the latest in an active war waged by a handful of activists, a group of Iowa-based transcendentalists, and most of Europe against biotechnology firms. Reports by Friends of the Earth and the Genetically Engineered Food Alert forced the recall of yellow corn products produced by Mission Foods Corp. of Irving and taco shells from Kraft Foods. Both products used a minor amount of a genetically enhanced corn called StarLink, a substance approved for animal consumption only.

Critics complain that genetically altered crops may cause unforeseen environmental damage, ranging from superweeds to superinsects, or even cause a food allergy to flare up here and there. As if the concept of indestructible giant boll weevils wasn't bad enough, Greenpeace sprinkles its Web site description of engineered foods with such phrases as "mutant" and "life form" and "Agent Orange." At the very least, they say, Congress should require the labeling of genetically engineered foods. Proponents of the so-called "Frankenfoods" argue that genetic work will increase crop yields, boost nutritional value, overcome drought and pests. They may even end the threat of blindness for hundreds of thousands of undernourished Asian children through the introduction of daffodil genes into white rice, which produces a discolored rice containing beta-carotene, which the human body converts to Vitamin A.

Basically, genetic engineering involves the transfer of isolated genes from one organism into the DNA of another organism, creating a better or more resilient product. For example, tomatoes react very poorly to frost. But a tomato enhanced by a gene taken from fish that live in cold water produces a frost resistant crop. This, of course, could mean an endless supply of ketchup for the world. When Monsanto developed glyphosate-resistant soybeans, allowing farmers to spray the otherwise lethal herbicide on their fields once a year, they cut each farm's chemical costs by about 40 percent.

Since the United States approved genetically engineered field crops for large-scale commercial use in 1996, American farmers adapted readily to Frankenfoods. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, laboratory crops take up 60 percent of all soybean acreage and 40 percent of all corn fields. Analysts at Ernst & Young claim that the agriculture biotech industry generates $2.3 billion in revenue. Consumers, however, rarely encounter genetically engineered foods--as far as they know. "I've come across some, like fruits and vegetables," says James Pitzer, sous-chef at the Green Room. Pitzer says university-produced genetically engineered foods make their way into the Austin Central Market. "There are some neat things going on--plums that taste like cherries, for example." The chef actually tried some of the Frankenfruit, with no ill effects. "Well, none that I've noticed," he adds with caution.

That little bit of caution from an imaginative chef explodes into full-blown fear by the time it reaches such distant locales as Fairfield, Iowa, or Western Europe. John Hagelin, Natural Law Party presidential candidate and professor at the Maharishi University in Fairfield, says that "when genetic engineers disregard the reproductive boundaries set in place by natural law, they run the risk of destroying our genetic encyclopedia." Hagelin mostly fears the creation of a "genetic soup," whatever that means. Another member of the Maharishi faculty, John Fagan, whose company Genetic ID blew the lid off Kraft Foods, advocates organic farming and meditation instead of science. Apparently, food grown into feces is healthier than food injected with basic genetic material.

More credible voices also join the antigenetic fray. "We're not using any of that stuff," Patrick Peeters of Chez Gerard said adamantly. Of course, the chef at Chez Gerard is French, and Europeans have been rabid in their opposition to genetically engineered foods. The United States accounts for 72 percent of all land planted with genetically engineered crops. Argentina grows 17 percent, Canada 10 percent, and nine other countries divide the remaining 1 percent. "I've never been a big fan of genetically engineered foods," Pitzer says. "Sometimes nature is just better off on its own. Anyway, I'd be afraid of creating a cancer cocktail."

Yet the Food and Drug Administration insists any genetically engineered foods reaching the shelf or kitchen will be safe, and a number of opposition scientists admit the same. "There is no evidence that genetically modified foods have harmed a single consumer or the environment," says Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, while advocating continued FDA review and product labeling.

Yet farmers, alchemists, priests, scientists, and an occasional Founding Father have been genetically modifying plants and animals for at least 10,000 years, give or take, through controlled breeding and other haphazard processes. For example, ancient farmers saved seeds from the hardiest crops, eliminating the weakest strains. Medieval tillers crossed domestic crops with wild versions more resistant to disease, creating hybrid foods. And they did it all with very little opposition from prehistoric versions of Greenpeace. Science really began intervening in the early 1970s, as it perfected the transfer of isolated genes into another organism's DNA. Large corporate investment didn't kick in until a 1980 Supreme Court ruling extended patent protection to these new products. By the mid-1990s, only 18 genetically engineered foods managed to clear FDA, USDA, and Environmental Protection Agency inspections. The FDA currently lists soybean, corn, three types of tomato, canola, squash, papaya, and a few other food items as safe. They also approved some agents that go into food items during the production process, such as chymosin, a clotting agent used in cheese.

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