1 of 3

Farmers today can raise corn with a built-in pesticide, soybeans that thrive when sprayed with weed killer and squash that resist viruses.

Some say they're biotechnological wonders. Critics call them "Frankenfoods."

Should you worry if your food is swimming in the gene pool?

Opinions were mixed among a group of experts who spoke at a daylong biotechnology conference for the Association of Food Journalists last October in Puerto Rico. But most agreed that the products should be labeled so the public can decide if they want to use them or not.

Current genetically modified crops in America appear safe to eat, and their environmental risks are manageable, said Gregory Jaffe, who directs the Center for Science in the Public Interest's biotechnology project. But the products need better regulating, and future products need more safety testing before going on the market.

The CSPI is a food/nutrition watchdog group that assailed movie theater popcorn and the fake fat Olestra. So, it's a little surprising to hear the group isn't necessarily against genetically engineered foods. But it's obviously wary, considering that the group devotes part of its Web site to the topic and monitors new developments.

What's genetic engineering?

Farmers and scientists have crossbred animals and developed plant hybrids for hundreds of years. But agro-chemical companies, such as Monsanto and Dow, made the genetic mix-and-match game more specific. A copy of a gene from one organism is spliced into a different organism. The new gene becomes integrated into every cell of the organism and is inherited by the crop's offspring.

These foods can be referred to as "genetically modified" ("GM" or "GMO") or genetically engineered ("GE") foods.

GE crops include corn and cotton that contain genes from a soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis — or Bt) engineered to kill insects like the corn borer. That eliminates the need for chemical pesticides. Some soybeans, corn, canola and cotton contain a bacterial gene that protects the crop from weed killers, such as Monsanto's Roundup.

Have you eaten any GE foods?

That's hard to say because food manufacturers aren't required to label whether their products contain genetically engineered ingredients.

In 2003, about 40 percent of all field corn (mostly used for cattle feed), 80 percent of all soybeans and 73 percent of all cotton grown in the United States were genetically engineered, according to the CSPI. U.S. farmers also grew small amounts of GE papayas, summer squash and sweet corn.

GE soybeans and field corn are mainly used as livestock feed. But some are ingested by humans. As corn meal, field corn is used in muffins, corn chips and tortillas. Field corn is also used to make high-fructose corn syrup that sweetens soda pop and corn oil used for cooking or baking.

GE soybeans are processed into soybean oil and soy lecithin, an emulsifier used in many foods. GE canola and cotton are processed into canola oil or cotton-seed oil, both used in cooking. So many processed food products may have small amounts of GE ingredients.

But according to the CSPI, the processing eliminates virtually all of the engineered gene, so humans currently have limited exposure. However, a Roundup Ready wheat — which will likely be eaten more by humans — is being tested.

"Biotech products are so ubiquitous that the only way to really be sure you're not getting a biotechnology-derived product is to buy organic food," said Teresa Gruber of the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology.

Concern over genetically modified foods is one factor in the success of the Wild Oats supermarket chain, said Mary Mulry, Wild Oats senior director of product development.

"Organic agriculture doesn't allow the use of genetically modified ingredients, and there's a number of our core customers who are against the use of these foods," she said in a telephone interview. The supermarket chain insists that suppliers for Wild Oats' private-label products don't use genetically modified ingredients.

"We can't speak for a number of our other suppliers, but we ask that with products using commodity ingredients, a majority of the soy, corn and so on are not genetically modified," she added. "Most of our best suppliers share a similar policy."

What are the benefits?

Gruber pointed out with biotechnology, there's a potential for developing food that's better quality, better flavored, has a better nutrition profile or longer shelf life, greater yields in the field, a longer growing season or is more drought tolerant.

In a CSPI-sponsored conference, Jerry Steiner, Monsanto's executive vice president, said the company's Roundup Ready technology enhances the farmer's productivity, reducing farm costs by $1.6 billion in 2001. It also reduces the amount of herbicides that have to be used.

But so far, consumers haven't saved money because of GE foods, nor do these foods taste better or have more nutrition than conventional foods, said Jaffe. He pointed out that when you buy cornflakes for $3 a box, the actual cost of the corn is pennies. The rest goes to processing, packaging, advertising and transportation.

"But if you engineered something like raspberries to be more economical, say $2 a pint instead of $4, consumers might see some benefit," he added.

Proponents say the technology can help feed the world's malnourished populations — rice with a higher nutrition content or crops that give better yields for developing countries.

"Sound science has a rightful place in farming, because without it, our yields are not enough to feed all the mouths in the world," Larry Lewis, public information officer with the Utah Department of Agriculture, said in a telephone interview.

But critics point out that so far, the technology hasn't been used much for those purposes.

"So far, what's been commercialized are products that allow companies to sell more seed and more herbicide," said Mulry. "If we put the research into organics that we put into genetically modified foods, we would certainly increase yields and decrease the use of pesticides."

"There's a little bit of evidence that some people who are growing Bt cotton in places like India or China or South Africa are making a better living," acknowledged Jaffe. "But most GE products are grown in developed countries like the United States for commercial use."

He said public research institutions are working on GE crops for developing nations, such as cassava, sweet potatoes and cowpeas that aren't yet on the market.

What are the risks?

GE crops have been grown and used by Americans since 1996 with no apparent ill effects. But Jaffe pointed out that since there's no labeling, adverse effects, such as food allergies, could go undetected.

Allergies are typically caused by proteins, and since most GE crops produce new proteins, it's possible that new allergens could be added. Jaffe said several years ago an allergen was detected in some soybeans that were given a gene from a Brazil nut with the purpose of improving the protein content. Those soybeans were never commercialized.

Even in conventional cross-breeding, plants can develop toxins. Dr. Ann Yaktine of the National Academy of Sciences cited the case of the lenape potato, which was cross-bred to produce a better potato chip in the 1960s. All potatoes produce a natural low-level toxin. But the two parent potatoes produced a potato with a higher toxin level that had to be pulled from the market.

"Food in Utah and America is the most regulated and safest food in the world, and if it was discovered there was something that shouldn't be in it, it would be prohibited in Utah," said Lewis. "The system that regulates it is a good one. We spend billions of dollars a year in protecting the food supply — in monitoring the kind of fertilizer that goes into the soil, how the crops are picked, and their storage, handling and shipping to the grocery store."

But the Starlink corn fiasco of 2000 shows how hard it is to separate GE crops from regular ones. Starlink was a variety of GE corn that didn't pass the allergen testing required by EPA, so the EPA said it could be used only for animal feed. Tests done by an environmental group found that Starlink corn had gotten into Taco Bell taco shells and other corn products. That led to million-dollar product recalls. (Starlink corn is no longer grown.)

What about the environment?

"We all have to co-exist in the world, and these crops have a potential to interfere with organic farming," said Mulry of Wild Oats.

Since seeds, plant pollen, insects, birds and bees can travel from one field to another, there's the concern that GM crops could contaminate neighboring fields. Environmental groups speculate that if the genes from Roundup-tolerant soybeans mingled with weeds growing nearby, they could create "superweeds" that resist any kind of weedkiller; or that Bt corn might create insects that are immune to all pesticides.

"The companies who developed these products looked only at the farmers as the market," Jaffe said. "They didn't look at the rest of the food chain and how it would affect it."

So far the plant crops have been small ingredients in processed foods. But transgenic animals raise even more issues, said Jaffe. Aqua Bounty Farms of Massachusetts has inserted genes from other fish species into Atlantic salmon so it grows to full size in half the time. The FDA will require a food and environmental safety assessment, but it's not open to the public.

Growers and biotech companies don't always follow the rules designed to protect neighboring crops from breeding with the GE crops, according to some examples cited by the CSPI:

  • USDA data in 2003 showed that 20 percent of farms in 10 states were overplanting Bt corn. Farmers are required to plant a "refuge" of regular corn alongside the GE corn to decrease the likelihood that insects would gradually become resistant to the natural insecticide that Bt corn contains. But the USDA data shows that 42 million acres of Bt corn were planted without the required "refuge."
  • In 2002, Mycogen Seeds (a unit of Dow AgroSciences) was cited by the EPA for failing to isolate its insect-resistant corn with a border crop of hybrid corn and failed to plant trees to act as windbreaks.
  • Also in 2002, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a DuPont subsidiary, planted its experimental corn crop at an unapproved location in Hawaii too close to other crops.
  • The ProdiGene Co. was fined $225,000 for not fully containing two corn crops genetically engineered to produce an animal vaccine. The company was ordered to reimburse the government approximately $3 million to destroy soybeans that became contaminated.

  • Do consumers want GE foods?

    Generally, the Europeans have said no, and they are putting up roadblocks for anyone wanting to farm them," said Jaffe. "Here in the United States, the agriculture community has embraced them and the government has supported it."

    But 81 percent of respondents in a recent national survey said the FDA should approve the safety of GM foods before they come to market, even if it meant a substantial delay. The survey was done by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

    "If you want the public to accept it, you need to get the FDA behind it and say it's safe," said Jaffe.

    Currently, the FDA regulates GE crops through a voluntary notification process, where the company submits its own food data to the FDA. The FDA reviews the data and alerts the company if it has concerns.

    A proposed Genetically Engineered Foods Act, presented by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., would require food safety approval before a new product could go on the market. The review process would be open to public comment. Jaffe doesn't think the bill will pass, although support is growing.

    "Food manufacturers have become less enamored with GE foods because they realize they will get all the headaches if there's a problem," he said. "They are coming around to the fact that a bill would give them some protection."


    E-mail: [email protected]