"Frankenfoods" or Brave New World?
The genetically engineered foods question
Skeptics claim that the so-called "Frankenstein foods" pose an insidious threat to the environment and to the world's food supply. Proponents envision a future in which the wonders of biogenetics benefit humankind. Consumers worldwide fear yet-to-be-determined health risks.
The debate surrounding the genetic engineering of food has escalated in the past six months. Citing conflicting research, opposing camps trade accusations of hysteria and corporate greed.
So which is it? Here's how the sides line up.
Benefit or threat to farmers?
Genetically modified (GM) plant technologies, say biotech companies, free farmers of problems that have plagued crops for years. Already, plants that better withstand weed killers and ones that produce their own insecticides are growing successfully in this country. The new crops, proponents say, lower costs, increase yields, and require less chemical spraying.
Opponents argue a serious threat to the small farmer. Biotech companies patent their altered seeds, making it illegal for farmers to save and reuse seed for future planting without paying royalties. Small farmers who go the genetically modified route will be forced to buy new plants annually. And as biotech giants buy up small seed companies, seed options dwindle. The courts will weigh in as the National Family Farm Coalition presses its antitrust suit against Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM).
Feeding the world or fattening coffers?
Genetically modified foods provide no direct benefit to consumers; the food is not noticeably better or cheaper. The greater benefit, proponents argue, is that that genetic engineering will play a crucial role in feeding the world's burgeoning population.
Opponents disagree. Food First/Institute for Food & Development Policy asserts that the world already grows more food per person than ever before-more, even, than we can consume. Such critics say the profit motive is primary. They point to the development of "suicide plants," genetically engineered to produce a sterile seed, as evidence of biotech's self-interest. Some contend that the herbicide-resistant crops actually encourage greater use of weed killers that are made by the same biotech companies.
Biotech's brave new world
Supporters say the first wave of any new technology is flawed. And the research suggests staggering potential: the development of crops that thrive under less-than-ideal conditions, resist pests and disease, combat malnutrition, and even fight disease.
For example, The Rockefeller Foundation is funding a "golden rice" project designed to improve nutrition in the developing world. It seeks to genetically encode a readily absorbable form of vitamin A into the rice to combat this common deficiency. In a later stage of the project, researchers hope to boost iron content in the rice to alleviate anemia.
At Cornell University, researchers are working to develop a banana that carries the hepatitis B vaccine. If successful, someday a genetically modified banana could deliver an extremely low-cost, easy-to-administer vaccine to places like Africa where it is sorely needed.
Frankenfoods let loose on the environment
For many, fears for the environment make the potential of these miracle crops not worth the risk. These individuals, scientists, and activists see the new technology as one giant experiment that could go dangerously wrong should genetically modified crops cross-pollinate, migrate, or mutate in nature.
Should a pesticide- or herbicide-resistant strain spread from crops to weeds, they say, it could produce a "superweed" nearly impossible to stop. A worst-case scenario might threaten the world's food supply. Or, what if genes being developed for the new "suicide plants" contaminate other local crops, in effect sterilizing them. The results could be catastrophic, especially for farmers in the Third World who depend upon their own saved seeds.
Enter the global economy
Ultimately, the marketplace may resolve this one. While the biotech industry estimates that 60 percent of processed foods in this country already contain genetically modified ingredients, consumers in England and France refuse to eat the stuff.
Opposition that first caused food processors in Europe to remove genetically modified ingredients has rippled worldwide. Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia have enacted labeling laws. In July, Heinz and Gerber bowed to consumer pressure and pledged to remove these ingredients from their baby foods. In September, ADM told suppliers to segregate their genetically modified crops from conventional ones in deference to their overseas buyers.
American exporters are finding markets for genetically altered corn and soy shrinking dramatically. The Boston Globe reported recently that sales of US corn to Spain and Portugal dropped from 1.8 million tons to 133,000 "based on concerns about the genetically modified adulteration of US grains."
Will labeling be next?
Though the FDA decided in 1992 not to require labeling genetically altered foods, polls suggest that Americans support it. Last fall, a bill was introduced to Congress that would require labeling of these foods. But market forces may beat Congress to the punch. As Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman told Newsweek: "I'm not going to mandate [food labeling] from a national governmental level, but I believe that more and more companies are going to find that some sort of labeling is in their own best interest."