January 2000

Biotechnology and Agriculture: Scourge or Revolution?

At moments, the incendiary protests that greeted World Trade Organization
representatives last fall in Seattle resembled a riot on Halloween eve. Among the more vocal factions, the demonstrators were a potpourri of protestors from a range of groups including protectionist trade unionists and avowed anarchists. Among other things, the environmental groups were riled about the use of gene modification in agriculture.

Dotted amongst a hundred chanting demonstrators was a woman dressed in a strawberry costume topped with a fish head. Fishberry, she called herself, as she peddled T-shirts warning of the weird and horrid new creatures that would be created if the "multi-nationals" got their way and genetic engineering was unleashed on the farms of the world. She was part of a contingent that included an assortment of human-cum-vegetables, a man dressed as a bunch of purple grapes, and a teenager with a Friends of the Earth sign outfitted as an endangered monarch butterfly replete with wings.

It was all very entertaining. The question remains: Was this mere street theatre or should serious people take notice?

The ethics and environmental impact of genetic engineering is of the more explosive issues of the day, and one which could have tremendous impact on California with its vast agricultural industry. More than half the soybeans planted in the U.S. this year and 30 percent of the corn are from biotech seeds. Oils and sweeteners derived from these crops are ingredients in a host of processed foods such as soft drinks, tortilla chips and French fries.

Anti-biotech ringleaders like Greenpeace and the Loka Institute casually throw around words such as "polluted" and "tainted" in their broadside. They raise a host of issues:

--biotechnology is inherently dangerous and can lead to "disastrous consequences," such as the creation of mutant and uncontrollable superweeds;

-- the long-term environmental and health effects of GMOs remains cloudy, suggesting a moratorium;

--GMOs now being used should be labeled so consumers could make an informed choice.

Such demands, particularly the call for labeling, have resonated in Europe, which is prone to hysteria on science-related issues. Supermarket chains have yanked genetically modified products off shelves. Gerber and  Heinz both announced they would try to ensure that none of their baby foods contain gene-altered products.

But the scientific and ethical issues are not nearly as clear cut as some activists would make them out to be. There has been no credible  scientific evidence that GMOs pose any more health or environmental risks than traditional cross-breeding, gene-splicing, or cloning that has been going on for decades and given us such products as the tangelo and seedless grapes.

"Plant breeders bombard crops with radiation to create mutations in the hope that some might prove beneficial," notes Willard Thompson, publisher
of California Grower and California Vegetables Journal in Carpinteria.  "That creates more environmental questions and is a lot less precise than modifying genes in the lab."

Bio-tech is actually the low-risk alternative in agriculture. Moreover, engineered microbes and enzymes produced using recombinant DNA methods are used to make cheese, bread and household detergents, and have been since the early part of this decade. Farmers and consumers have already reaped huge benefits from corn and soybeans that are genetically modified to include a natural insecticide, dramatically cutting spraying of dangerous chemicals. Some two million fewer pounds of insecticide were used in 1998 to control disease worms than were used in 1995, before "Bt" cotton was introduced.

Conventional and biotech breeding are not qualitatively different but part of a continuum. That's a key reason why President Clinton and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman are resisting the anti-technology frenzy, taking the position that severe restrictions on gene modification could hamper ground-breaking research.

And the research is promising. For instance, the Rockefeller Foundation has funded studies on so-called golden rice, a crop designed to build in nutritional supplements to counteract the epidemic of vitamin A deficiency in the developing world. The product could be on the market in a few years. Among other developments:

--Monsanto is developing conventional and cherry tomatoes with a built in resistance to insects and disease, in much the way that its patented soy seeds, now widely used in the Midwest, dramatically reduces the use of some deadly chemical insecticides;

--Tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, and raspberries could have a longer shelf life and disease resistance with the introduction of modified genes;

-- Genes are expected to be developed that would increase the sweetness of many crops, such as sweet peppers.

Nevertheless, the scorched-earth tactics of some activists seems focused on scuttling the good and the bad of the biotech revolution. Their argument purports to cite science but is essentially religious -- don't tamper with nature. More thoughtful activists, such as Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, have attempted to distinguish between the use of biotechnology in agriculture and its application to medicine. But that distinction is lost in the hysteria, and as a result, a toxic cloud hovers over all genetic research. Yet the benefits and dangers in medicine and agriculture are the same.

There are, of course, reasons to be cautious. Prickly issues remain about to what degree corporations should be allowed to patent, and therefore control, the use of beneficial seeds or products they might develop. Monsanto and Novartis, among agricultural concerns, have taken the position that they need to recoup their investment costs.

Southern California growers have avoided the controversy only because pests such as the corner borer are not a problem here. Approximately 100,000 acres in the southern portion of Ventura County alone are devoted to agricultural production with an annual gross dollar value of more than  $800 million. Although county farmers mostly grow fruits, nuts and vegetables -- which have, as yet, not been the major focus of companies developing genetically modified organisms -- the potential use of GMOs is definitely on the horizon.

Davis-based Calgene -- which pioneered the long shelf life Flavr Savr tomato in1994 that flopped in the marketplace -- may return to the fray. And Asgrow, based in Saticoy, has already received FDA approval to grow virus-resistant squash, which should be a hit in the northeast and southeast. Assuming the hysteria doesn't kill the market, scientists are certain to address nutritional and insecticide use in strawberries and other local crops.

Manipulating genes carries some risk, as does any promising new research. But the potential rewards for all of society, especially for the poor, is too encouraging to allow disinformation to rule.

"The agricultural industry made a huge mistake in allowing critics to make it seem that the benefits of biotech accrue to the producer, not the consumer," says Willard. But the genetic revolution can bring enormous benefits. It's not farfetched to discuss genetically imbedding vaccines in bananas. There is research on this going on. Let's hope reason prevails.