We Can Engineer Nature. But Should We?

Andrew Pollack
February 6, 2000
New York Times

Just as 130 nations were meeting in Montreal recently to forge the first global treaty regulating genetically modified crops, Frito-Lay Inc. was telling its farmers in the United States not to grow genetically engineered corn for use in Doritos chips and other snacks.

The problem, the company said, was not a risk to health from the corn but a risk that consumers wouldnÕt want it.

These two events reflect the unease with which genetically engineered foods have been received. Science has reached what might be the takeoff stage for a new green revolution. But it may instead go the way of nuclear power-a once-promising technology largely rejected by society.

The potential benefits of genetic engineering are huge. The use of cotton with a gene allowing it to make its own pesticide has already led to a reduction in the amount of chemical pesticides being sprayed in fields.

Bio-engineered plants might soon be used to produce plastics and other substances now made using diminishing supplies of petroleum in dangerous, polluting petrochemical plants.

For consumers, biotechnology could also make food healthier-think tomatoes with cancer-fighting substances and cooking oils lower in fats.

And for the developing world it could offer the promise of increased food output and of vaccines incorporated into bananas rather than syringes, making them cheaper and easier to deliver. Swiss researchers have already used genetic engineering to develop a strain of rice with vitamin A, a lack of which now causes millions of cases of blindness.

So far, there is no evidence that any of the genetically engineered foods now on the market have harmed anyone, or have much of an impact on the environment. But such engineering seems to conjure up images of mad scientists playing God. Opponents have been quick to use the label "Frankenfoods."

Proponents of biotechnology argue that mankind has long been manipulating genes through conventional plant and animal breeding. If anything, they say, genetic engineering is more precise because it introduces just one or two known genes into a plant. With conventional breeding, thousands of unknown genes are transferred in order to get the one with the desired trait.

But cross-breeding works only between plants or animals of the same or closely related species. Genetic engineering allows species barriers to be crossed in a new way-to put bacterial genes in corn or fish genes in tomatoes. Even biotechnology supporters concede that genetic tinkering can have unanticipated results. It is possible that unexpected toxins or allergens can be introduced into crops through genetic engineering, though the Food and Drug Administration insists all modified crops are now screened for adequately.

There is more evidence to support the possibility of negative effects on the environment. A plant with a gene to fight off insects might spread that gene through pollination, creating, say, weeds that can no longer be controlled. Genetically improved fish might drive native species to extinction. And a study has shown that genetically altered corn plants can harm monarch butterflies.

What is particularly worrisome is that because biological systems reproduce, such genetic pollution cannot be cleaned up like a chemical spill or recalled like a defective automobile. Once the gene is out of the bottle, so to speak, it cannot be put back in.

In Europe, where opposition to genetically modified foods has been strongest, other factors are also at play. There have been food scares unconnected with genetic engineering, such as mad cow disease and dioxin-contaminated chickens, which have contributed to unease. It is also true that consumers do not yet see the benefits of genetic modification.

The products now out, such as insect-resistant corn and Roundup Ready soybeans, which are impervious to MonsantoÕs Roundup herbicide, are meant to help farmers.

Similarly, while the developing world could benefit greatly from a vitamin-A rice or plants that can tolerate drought, the current products are seen as aimed mainly at wealthy farmers in developed countries.

"Roundup Ready-that doesnÕt solve any problems except for the shareholders of Monsanto," said Dr. Ossama El-Tayeb, a delegate from Egypt at the Montreal treaty talks.

Some executives at bio-engineered seed companies say their mistake was to regard the farmer and not the consumer as the customer. With no apparent benefit, it is easy to shun even a minuscule risk, just to be safe.

That puts the industry in a position of having to prove absolute safety, which is impossible. For the moment, some food and beverage companies like Frito-Lay, Seagram and Gerber are forgoing genetically modified crops so as not to scare off consumers. So what started as protests from a tiny group of activists has become a trend that is forcing farmers and grain processors to segregate non-modified from modified grains. This could ease the way toward labeling foods containing genetically modified organisms, something the food industry fears would be tantamount to a skull and crossbones.

Still, it is very early days in the bio-engineering era, and genetically altered foods may well succeed. After all, society accepts drugs made by putting human genes in hamster cells, even though this crosses species barriers as much as agricultural biotechnology does. The analogy is not perfect; drugs are targeted to particular people who are willing to bear the risks, and indeed may have no choice. Food, on the other hand, is sold to the whole populations, which have alternatives.

Moreover, drugs are tested in advance for safety and efficacy more thoroughly than food is. Nonetheless, it seems clear that the way to acceptance of genetically engineered foods lies through the creation of regulations that the public trusts and the delivery of benefits the consumer sees and tastes.


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