Geneticists are on the verge of revolutionizing agriculture and medicine in much the same way computers have transformed business. Labs around the world are working on crops that could feed a growing planet, plants that could clean up contaminated soils, and pigs whose organs may one day get trans-planted into people.
But to do these things, scientists are fooling with nature's basic building blocks. As they do, they are kicking up dissent around the world as one nation tries to sell its genetically altered foods to another's grocers.
The current food fight between the United States and Europe - over hormone-treated beef and genetically altered soy beans - could be just a prelude of arguments to come. That's because the greatest risks probably don't lie with today's simple genetic alterations. Future rounds of exotic agriculture pose bigger threats because they will put organisms to completely new uses. The fundamental question: How much should science manipulate nature to care for mankind?
And there's no going back, scientists say. Consider the US experience. While Europeans debate how far to proceed with the new technology, Americans are quietly ingesting the new foods, often without knowing it.
"The genie can't be put back," says Marshall Martin, an agricultural economist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "Anyone who eats pizza or cheese on their hamburger has consumed genetically modified food.... We pulled the cork out of the bottle in a sense with the discovery of DNA."
For example, three-quarters of America's cheese gets its start with a bioengineered enzyme. Nearly 1 out of 6 dairy farmers injects his cows with a genetically engineered growth hormone to boost milk production. And genetically modified crops are increasingly taking over farmlands - with some 70 million acres planted worldwide, 60 million of it in North America.
This planting season promises more inroads. For example, half of America's soybeans, perhaps more of its cotton, and a third of its corn could be genetically modified - a remarkable adoption rate in the four years since the new seeds were introduced.
Other countries are also moving rapidly to incorporate the technology. Last year, some 650,000 farmers in China planted genetically modified cotton. And this year Monsanto, which produces the cotton seed, expects to double that number.
Even the European Union has approved bioengineered soybeans and corn. Small quantities of corn, genetically modified to resist pests, are being grown in Spain and, if approved by France's high court, could start showing up in the fields of Europe's largest corn producer.
Biotech companies such as Monsanto hope that resistance to the technology will crumble once European farmers begin to adopt the new strains. That move is likely, companies say, because the new-fangled crops typically improve yields and cut costs.
"It's likely to be adopted because the value of the benefits will be recognized," says Philip Angell, a Monsanto spokesman.
Take cotton, one of the world's most pest-prone crops. By incorporating the genes of a natural insecticide, scientists have created a pest-resistant strain that requires fewer chemicals. It "has been massively beneficial," says Val Giddings, a vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington.
In the three years since they began using it, US farmers have saved the equivalent of 850,000 gallons of pesticides - the equivalent of 48 railroad tank cars of chemicals.
Cutting pesticide use saves money. According to newly released figures by one of Britain's leading plant-research centers, bioengineered soybeans saved farmers an average $30 a hectare because they used 40 percent less herbicide. Pest-resistant corn saved $42 per hectare. (A hectare represents some 2-1/2 acres.)
Despite these benefits, environmentalists worry the new crops pose a bigger hazard to human health and the environment. They've caught the ear of many Europeans.
The environmental group Greenpeace, for example, has mounted an effective campaign across Europe to block the sale of genetically modified food. In February, it persuaded biotech giant AgrEvo (Hoechst) not to conduct field trials of such crops in Austria.
In January, it organized anti-bioengineering protests at the national offices of three European food companies in nine countries. Thanks to a Greenpeace suit, France's highest administrative court in December upheld its preliminary ban on genetically modified corn from a Swiss firm.
The debate rings loudest in Britain, where memories of the government's mishandling of "mad-cow" disease remain fresh. The issue has gone all the way to the top: Prime Minister Tony Blair is risking his popularity to support genetically modified foods, while Prince Charles says he will never eat any of them.
Further confounding the issue have been the findings of Arpad Pusztai, a Scottish researcher who ignited the whole controversy. Last summer he was quietly feeding potatoes to rats. Then he went public with concerns about the genetically modified rations he was using.
On one hand, the researcher claims he's enthusiastic about bioengineering's potential; but he warns that it has to be done right because genetically modified potatoes stunted the growth of rats and depressed their immune system.
Mr. Pusztai has not released his full results for review by other scientists - a traditional practice. And when an internal audit committee evaluated his study, it disputed the findings. But 20 scientists have come forward since, saying Pusztai may have a point.
Whatever the outcome, even biotech executives acknowledge the controversy is likely to continue. "I think we have to be very, very careful about how these technologies are applied," says Richard Gill, senior vice president and general manger of BTG International Inc., a tech-transfer company with offices in the US, Britain, and Japan. "There needs to be ... more information shared with people in a form that can be understood."
Even in the United States, activists remain hopeful they can slow down the technology. Dairy farmer associations and consumer groups, for example, continue to battle the milk-boosting growth hormone.
"Americans are expressing their concern with genetic engineering and agribusiness in general, not in a political way but in the marketplace," says Ben Lilliston of the Center for Food Safety.
That's why organic products are growing so rapidly, he says, and why some 200,000 citizens complained when US agricultural officials proposed including bioengineered food as organic.
Concern is justified, scientists say, because no one can predict how nature will react when new organisms appear. "We're not talking about killer tomatoes. We're talking about plants that will pick up genes," says Norm Ellstrand, a geneticist at the University of California at Riverside.
Genes can only transfer to relatives. So genetically modified corn in Iowa doesn't pose much danger because it has no wild relatives there. But planted in central America, it could create super-weeds that could out-compete the corn. And the risks increase as more of these genetically modified plants get released into the wild and interact.
The biggest question hangs over plants containing many new genes so they can take lead out of contaminated soil or create ingredients for medicines. "The next generation of crops is going to be engineered for truly novel traits.... And we don't know how those combinations are going to play out," says Louis Myers, a biotech specialist at Fish & Richardson, a law firm.