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Frankenstein’s Soybeans

Kris Schnee

This month, a showdown was held in London over food. Bob Shapiro, CEO of the biotech company Monsanto, spoke via satellite from Chicago to debate Peter Melchett, executive director of Greenpeace UK. The British arm of Greenpeace organized the event to talk about the future of genetically modified (GM) foods, a hot topic in Europe.

For years now, companies like Monsanto have been designing and selling plant seeds with genes from other plants and even some animal species. In Europe, where consumers are still wary from recent events like the “mad cow disease” outbreak, there has been much opposition to the production and sale of GM food. And leading the opposition are groups like Greenpeace, whose members often resort to vandalism to gain publicity. Environmental activists have attacked and destroyed several “test fields” of modified crops in the UK, aiming to protect the world from genetic “pollution.” These acts of sabotage have justifiably made biotech businessmen hesitant to build facilities in such hostile territory.

Nor is the UK the only region where debate has turned to destructive action. On August 25, Greenpeace International’s own Web site proclaims, its members visited a test field in the Netherlands and wrapped it in plastic “to isolate it from the environment” -- potentially fatal for any plant. The field was marked with a banner reading, “Pack in and go.” Go where, a biotech firm might wonder. Says Greenpeace: “[We] will oppose the release of genetic pollution anywhere in the world.”

What could possibly make people behave so strangely? What sort of war is going on across the Atlantic? There are two main issues cited by GM opponents about the new altered crops: individuals’ safety and environmental dangers. It has been demonstrated, as reported in a recent Technology Review article, that the genes for pesticide resistance may have the ability to cross over into nearby weeds, enhancing them as well and threatening farmers. The way to assess the danger of this phenomenon is to try actually growing the new crops.

But environmentalists criticize the small-scale trials, saying that they are too small and short to accurately gauge the risks. Large-scale tests are needed, then. But it is hard to get sound scientific data when there are people trying to shrink-wrap your laboratory. The environmental protection argument is that GM crops must not be grown until they are proved safe, they cannot be proved safe until they are tested, and no one can be allowed to test them.

The current policy in the United States and the UK towards the safety of eating GM foods is that of “substantial equivalence”: GM plants are considered safe in the UK if, when they are compared with their non-modified cousins, no chemical difference between them is found. The FDA considers most modified crops safe if they use only genes from existing foods. But several British science policy advisors have lately attacked the system, saying instead that all GM foods should be treated as drugs -- i.e., subjected to years of expensive clinical trials to determine whether, for instance, a potato is actually a potato. This concern is based partly on the work of Scotland’s Dr. Pusztai, who seemed to prove that GM potatoes damaged rats’ organs and immune systems. Serious problems with the study have led his critics to conclude instead that “rats hate potatoes.” Still, the science advisors say, “substantial equivalence” should be entirely abandoned, despite a lack of evidence that chemical similarity is unreliable.

Public debate over GM continues to rage. Will GM crops help to feed the world’s six billion people, or threaten to starve them with superweeds, or poison them? The only consensus among biotech backers and Greenpeace fans seems to be that the stakes are high.

So, how should Americans treat the new technology of genetically modified food, especially given that we are already eating transgenic soy and corn products? Unfortunately, our policy may be dictated somewhat by Europeans’ fears; some international food companies like Gerber and Heinz are planning to avoid using GM ingredients in order to avoid the controversy altogether. Some, like Nestle, are labeling products which use GM ingredients (in European stores). This may be the best strategy for companies to take in America, as well. A recent Gallup poll shows that about two-thirds of Americans support the required labeling of GM food, even if it means increased food prices due to the cost of separating GM and non-GM crops which are normally stored together after harvest. It seems that Americans are, in general, treating this biotechnology issue reasonably, asking only to be able to know what they are eating.

Companies operating in America will probably have the choice of voluntarily choosing to label their GM-based foods, or having labeling forced on them by law. Either way, we can reasonably hope that this country, at least, will take full advantage of a technology with as much potential as biotech agriculture.