Killer Tomatoes? No, Just Bioengineered Food

By Michael Hurst
May 14, 2000
The Watertown Daily Times (NY)

Men, women and children race through the streets clambering to save their lives from an invasion of killer red tomatoes. Suddenly a man trips over the curb and bangs his knee. As he lies on the ground, writhing in pain, the killer tomato descends upon him and his horror-filled screams gradually drown into nothingness.

A scene from a classic 20-year old cult film or our future if we continue to develop bioengineered food?

Donít be fooled by the imagined threat of these fantastic scenarios. Bioengineered foods have the ability to improve quality of life around the globe. Both environmentally and economically, genetically modified crops are a great prospect for the future of agriculture worldwide.

Genetically modified foods are crops injected with specific genes in order to improve the quality of the product. Gene modification can result in longer shelf lives, greater disease or insect resistance and even improved size and taste.

The most popular genetically modified crops are corn, maize and soybeans. For many North American farmers, biotech crops have helped increase yields and reduce costs.

However, skeptics around the world have condemned these crops as "Frankenfoods" that will drastically affect the fragile environments to which they are exposed. Debunkers point to the rapid evolution, widespread use, and corporate control of such products as a dangerous mix for the health and security of both people and ecology.

Recently, Frito-Lay succumbed to public pressure and discontinued use of bioengineered soybeans and corn. The decision came on the heels of similar policy reversals at Gerber baby foods, Japanís Asahi Breweries and the British supermarket chain Tesco Pic.

Many have tried to turn the recent debate over genetically modified foods into a classic battle of capitalism vs. environment. However, economic fulfillment and environmental preservation do not necessarily conflict. Genetically modified foods have great value, both environmentally and economically. Bioengineering can save the environment and lives while bringing the world as a whole to a greater level of prosperity.

Economically, genetically modified foods create higher yields and longer shelf lives, which improves farm productivity. Farmers are much better off because they donít lose produce in transport or have to spend nearly as much time planting and harvesting. Consumers will also be rewarded with lower prices at the cash register.

Crops eventually may be modified to survive harsher conditions such as heat, cold, wind or rain damage. Potentially, this could bode well for poorer countries that have been economically ravaged for centuries because of poor growing conditions for crops. Countries in the Sahara and Southwest Asia may eventually be able to feed their own people with grains and corn grown on their own land, becoming more self-reliant as technology advances.

Environmentally, genetically modified foods allow agricultural businesses to maintain a high level of production while using fewer resources, such as land and water. As farmers use less acreage, current plots could be allowed to rejuvenate, increasing the quality of the land and preventing soil erosion.

Massive irrigation projects would no longer be necessary as crops improved their survivability during drought. The use of herbicides and pesticides that currently contaminate our drinking water and food would be drastically curtailed as insect- and disease-resistant crops became the norm.

Although environmentalists do have a valid point with regard to the need for government regulation, they would do well to consider the economic, social and environmental benefits of bioengineering techniques.

Bioengineered products, because of their remarkable resistance to weeds and insects, can actually reduce the need for unsafe herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, thereby reducing the prevalence of the harmful agricultural practices of the 20th century.

In "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes," the renegade tomatoes are eventually destroyed by a constant bombardment of ear-piercing music. Today, the doubters among us run the risk of killing perfectly innocent tomatoes with an equally disturbing barrage of rhetoric and half-truths. Genetically modified foods have the potential to improve quality of life around the globe. To squander that potential because of misplaced fears would be a regrettable mistake.

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