US poised for a biotech food fight

Europe's suspicion of genetically altered foods crosses the Atlantic.

Eldon Gould can't "for the life of me" understand why anyone would object to the genetically modified corn and soybeans he grows on his farm in Maple Park, Ill., about an hour's drive from downtown Chicago.

He now uses fewer pesticides, and weed control on his soybean acreage has become "a breeze."

Mr. Gould is also confident government regulators wouldn't let anything on the market unless it was safe. "I have no reason to think that they haven't tested this beyond question, as they would with any other new product," he says.

But biologist Lincoln Brower isn't so sure. In the new high-tech farming, he sees a potential for unexpected threats to the world's rich biodiversity. That's best reflected in the monarch butterfly, which can die from contact with pollen from the genetically engineered corn.

"I see the monarch as the canary in the coal mine, warning us that there's a bigger problem," says Professor Brower of Sweet Briar College in Virginia.

Those are two sides of the debate over genetically modified foods, which is gaining ground on American soil as environmentalists and the biotech industry begin a pitched battle to win over public opinion.

Polls show most Americans share Mr. Gould's overall confidence in the country's food- and environmental-safety regimen. But only 10 percent are fully aware that genetically modified foods have become a staple in the country's daily diet just in the past three years.

But that awareness is now growing as the European uproar over the biotech revolution - and its unknown consequences - crosses the Atlantic. The battle here is expected to center on whether the US government's regulatory safeguards are tough enough to keep people's trust. At stake is the future of the billion-dollar biotechnology industry and, in the eyes of some, nature's natural order.

Major American environmental and consumer groups have started sounding alarms about what they contend is a lax regulatory process and the potential for unintended consequences, like damage to the monarch butterfly. Several major international food companies such as Unilever, H.J. Heinz Co., and Gerber have also pledged not to use GM foods in their products.

Pushing back

To fend off what they say is unjustified hysteria, the US government and the industry are trying to buttress American confidence in the food regulatory system.

Biotech companies are mounting a major public-relations push to defend their products. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has called for an independent scientific review of the USDA's biotech-approval process to ensure it is thorough. And Nov. 18 in Chicago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will hold the first of three public hearings to explain its increasingly controversial policy governing GM foods.

"The FDA is in a listening mode," says Laura Tarantino of the FDA's office of pre-market approval. "We'll use these open meetings to share our experience over the past five years ... and solicit views from all interested parties."

The FDA requires stringent testing and review procedures for other new foods or additives, but recommends only that companies consult it when they bring new biotech products to market, as long as the additional genes do not substantially change the nature of the foods.

Environmentalists and consumer activists say that's a recipe for disaster.

"When you have a technology that is utterly novel and is being pushed into the food supply at an unprecedented rate, then there's a responsibility on the part of the regulatory agencies and purveyors of the technology to take some extraordinary steps to assure its safety," says Margaret Mellon, director of the agriculture and biotechnology program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

The biotech industry insists it has taken those extraordinary steps and that its products are some of the most tested, studied, and analyzed in US history.

Before a product like genetically modified corn, known commonly as Bt corn, can end up in Gould's fields and on supermarket shelves, it must win approval from three Cabinet departments.

The USDA has to approve the field trials to ensure that the new crops will not disrupt current agricultural practices by, say, unintentionally creating out-of-control superweeds. Then the Environmental Protection Agency studies the impact of the modified plant on the overall environment. Then the crops' creators must prove to the FDA that the molecularly altered corn or soybean or canola is "substantially equivalent" to the regular crops.

"It's safe to say that the Roundup Ready Soybeans and Bt corn were probably the most extensively studied products that have ever been introduced to the marketplace," says Roy Fuchs, director of regulatory science at Monsanto Co. in St. Louis, which developed the crops.

History of tinkering

Plant breeding is nothing new. For generations, scientists and farmers worldwide have selected the best varieties of plants and bred them to make plumper tomatoes, sweeter peaches, and seedless grapes. But about 25 years ago, advances in genetic engineering allowed scientists to take traditional methods to the molecular level. They found they could add new properties to foods by lifting a gene from one species and inserting it in another.

"The beauty of the molecular level is that it lets us identify genes that have the desired traits that we want to add," says Ralph Hardy, president of the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council in Ithaca, N.Y.

Take Bt corn, which was bred to protect against corn borers. The pesky insects, which bore into the plant, are difficult eradicate with traditional pesticides. The "Bt" stands for bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria that occurs naturally in the soil and has been used for years by organic farmers to beat back pests. Monsanto scientists were able to isolate the Bt protein and breed it into the corn, leaving behind all other genes in the bacteria.

"You know what the gene is you add, you know what the protein is that it produces, and you know what the function is of that protein," says Dr. Hardy. "I suggest that this process is inherently less risky ... than the traditional methods that we've used for genetic improvement."

Supporters of biotech believe the revolutionary technology not only will allow farmers to produce more crops using fewer pesticides, but will also address significant threats to world health. For instance, scientists are now working to devise a variety of rice with enhanced levels of beta-carotene, which produces vitamin A. Scientists say a deficiency in that vitamin is why several hundred thousand people in the developing world lose their eyesight each year.

Even the industry's harshest critics applaud the idealism of some biotech scientists. But they are also less sanguine about the potential of GM foods, particularly in the developing world, and far more skeptical about the studies done by the companies.

Dr. Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists acknowledges there is no documented instance in which an approved, genetically modified food has caused an individual direct harm. Obviously, she says, it wouldn't be in any company's best interest to make such a product.

"I do believe that they believe these products are safe," she says, "but the question is whether it's in their business interests to do the kinds of tests that encompass questions about chronic, long-term, and not-well-understood risks. That's precisely why the FDA should be more aggressive."

She and other scientists worry about unforeseen allergic reactions and the potential for the new genes to jump to other crops, species, or even people.

In 1996, a Nebraska researcher was studying a soybean that had been genetically modified to produce higher levels of protein. The company, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, had genetically engineered into the bean a gene from a Brazil nut. As it turned out, that gene produced in the soybean the same allergic reaction it did in the nut. The project was abandoned.

"That's not proof that the system works, because it was not the FDA that required the test. By happenstance, serendipity, chance, the researchers decided to test this. That's not the hallmark of a successful regulatory system," says Philip Bereano of the Council for Responsible Genetics in Cambridge, Mass.

He and other critics note the FDA doesn't even review the data generated by industry tests, just the summaries and conclusions. At one time, they point out, the pesticide DDT and chlorofluorocarbons were thought to be safe.

Which brings Lincoln Brower back to butterflies and Eldon Gould's Bt corn. For Professor Brower, just the fact that studies have shown pollen from the corn can kill or stunt the monarch is enough to abandon the crops.

But other researchers are questioning whether the butterflies will ever even come into contact with the pollen in the country's Corn Belt. And for Gould, such arguments miss the larger point - that the GM plants allow him to use less pesticide, which is better for the environment.

"To me, there's a whole lot more risk in using an insecticide on a plant than there is in having a naturally occurring gene bacteria in the product," he says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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