CHICAGO consumers are tasting tomatoes this week that are the first genetically engineered whole food approved by the federal government for marketing in the United States.
Crates of the deep red tomatoes, developed by Calgene Inc. of Davis Calif., arrived at a Chicago grocery chain last Friday as part of a marketing trial at 70 stores here and in northern California. Named Flavr Savrs, the tomatoes are genetically altered to resist rot so they can ripen longer on the vine and still remain firm enough for transport to markets. They are the first of dozens of genetically engineered food products - from apples to zucchini -
expected to go on sale in coming years, say scientists and agriculture officials.
Corn, potatoes, cucumbers, soybeans, and cotton are just a few of the common crops being tested for genetic modification.
``In three to five years I expect dozens on the market,'' says John Payne, director of biotechnology, biologics, and environmental protection at the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
Dr. Payne is overseeing a flood of requests from companies for authorization to conduct field trials on genetically engineered crops. In the first four months of this year alone, the service authorized 223 such field trials. That figure represents more than a quarter of the 880 trials approved since 1987. ``The applications are pouring in now. It's hard to keep up,'' Payne says.
While many scientists believe the genetically engineered crops are being adequately tested for safety, critics argue that potential health and environmental dangers remain and could spawn new crop diseases that could greatly damage agricultural harvests.
The debate is timely. Only last week government inspectors at APHIS issued a draft decision on approving the first widespread cultivation of a crop genetically altered to resist viruses. A hearing is scheduled for June 21 to discuss comments on the crop, a yellow squash developed by Asgrow Seed Company, a subsidiary of the Upjohn Company.
A critical study published in March by Michigan State University scientists Richard Allison and Ann Greene shows how genes of plants injected with viruses to help them resist disease can recombine with other naturally occuring viruses to create new, fast-growing strains.
``The Clinton administration has devoted very few resources to assessing this kind of risk,'' says Gus de Zoeten, chairman of the department of botany and plant pathology at Michigan State University. Professor de Zoeten asserts that the current, isolated field trials are inadequate to fully gauge the consequences of the altered genes ``escaping'' into the environment, creating new viruses, and contaminating wild plant species.
``It is only a matter of time before these genes escape, but we don't know which ones to look out for,'' De Zoeten says.
Other scientists contend, however, that new viruses are much more likely to occur naturally in the environment. Naturally infected crops contain complete copies of the viral genes in higher numbers than in genetically engineered crops, which are injected with partial copies, they say.
ANOTHER complex debate involves when consumer labeling should be required for genetically altered crops, and what information the labels should provide.
Consumer groups such as the Washington-based Pure Food Campaign have called for labeling to warn buyers of the antibiotic-resistant genes in the Flavr Savr tomatoes.
Calgene does not inform the public that the genes are resistant to the drug kanamycin, saying only that the tomatoes are ``grown from genetically modified seeds.'' They contend that such information is not necessary because the genes are broken down during digestion.
Ultimately, however, the success or failure of genetically engineered products will depend on the marketplace. Shoppers at Jewel Food Stores in Chicago, for instance, can choose between Flavr Savr tomatoes at $2.59 a pound and a regular bargain variety at 59 cents a pound.
Both Jewel and Calgene declined to reveal figures on sales of the tomato so far in Chicago.
``It's too early to say,'' says Jewel spokeswoman Dianne Maffia. ``But we think there is demand for this.''