April 4, 2000
A group of leading biotechnology companies launched an effort to convince consumers genetically engineered food is safe. That comes amid much fear and opposition to the new high-tech products. Business correspondent Paul Solman, of WGBH-Boston, has been looking into the subject.
SOLMAN: In Iowa, a grain train lugs corn and soybeans to market. It looks
innocent enough, but riding in those cars is the stuff of controversy,
because nearly half of America's corn and soybeans are now genetically
modified organisms-- GMOs. The GMO controversy pits Europe against the
U.S., activists against agribusiness, skeptics like Greenpeace against
corporations like Monsanto. And the controversy raises key questions as
to how we as a society weigh the risks and benefits of new technology
in general. Now, when you look back in history, it turns out we've been
toying with plant genetics for quite a while.
SPOKESMAN: In Adair County, Iowa, an energetic young high school student named Henry Agard Wallace accepts a challenge.
PAUL SOLMAN: Already by the 1920s, budding agronomist Henry Wallace was mating different strains of corn to produce the best traits of both, crossing a high-yield plant with one that didn't need much water, say, to create a new high-yield breed for dry climates. Wallace himself went on to become secretary of agriculture, then FDR's vice president. Hybridization, rejected at first as a risky and radical agri-technology, became "the" standard way to improve crops.
SPOKESMAN: Don't get poked in the eye.
|Plant breeding is unpredicatable|
PAUL SOLMAN: Even today, though, plant breeding retains a certain sex appeal. At Pioneer Hi-Bred, the now-giant seed company that Wallace himself started, corn is still often created intimately. Pioneer's Andrew Waber showed us. That's the male part?
ANDREW WABER: That's the male. We call it the tassel.
PAUL SOLMAN: Tassel.
ANDREW WABER: Within the tassel, it will actually shed pollen. This is what blows around in corn fields in Iowa. This is your female. This is the female receptacle, or as we call it, the silk. You simply just pour the pollen directly on that silk, and now you've created the pollination.
PAUL SOLMAN: When different corn plants mate, the results are as unpredictable as with humans. Traits from each parent will pass to the offspring, but you never know which. The breakthrough of genetic modification is that the plant's DNA can now be manipulated in the lab, a huge leap forward, according to the company.
PEG ARMONSTRONG-GUSTAFSON, Pioneer Hi-Bred: Instead of hoping that the random combination of all of the genes brings forth what you want, you can specifically go in and say, 'This is the part of the plant that I want to change,' and go in and specifically do that.
|Gene alteration worries some farmers, others|
PAUL SOLMAN: So where's the controversy? Well, for certain traits, genes from entirely different types of organisms are put into the plant's DNA. America's most common seed corn now boasts bacteria genes which trigger a toxin against corn's archenemy, the corn borer. It seems to work, looks just like the old corn, may even mean farmers can use less pesticide, but it's arguably a brand-new entity, a genetically modified organism, or GMO; and that has some folks worried.
Nutrition consultant Sue Roberts:
SUE ROBERTS, Dietician: The new genetic engineering is crossing species lines, and that is a completely different process than what we've been doing.
PAUL SOLMAN: With GMOs, says Roberts, come unknowable dangers to our food.
SUE ROBERTS: One is toxins that the food might potentially produce; one is allergens that the food might potentially have; another issue is antibiotic resistance. Another one is just are there other potential viruses that could be harmful that can be formed from this process?
PAUL SOLMAN: To skeptics, the key is not that GMOs have been proved to cause these dangers, but haven't been proved not to. They point to the fact that GMOs were fast-tracked by the Food & Drug Administration despite the misgivings of some FDA -- scientists. So the manufacturers do all the testing-- tests which may be rigorous, but not at the level required for new drugs or food additives.
SUE ROBERTS: There haven't been enough studies done in humans; there haven't been enough done in animals, or whatever the progression should be to test these products like we would with a food additive or with a drug.
PAUL SOLMAN: Farmer George Naylor is similarly skeptical about genetically modified organisms-- GMOs.
GEORGE NAYLOR, Farmer: We live in a sea of corn and soybeans out here in Iowa, and we don't know what we're producing and we don't know the effects on the land, we don't know the effects on human health or the health of the animals that eat this feed.
PAUL SOLMAN: In this age of agribusiness, Naylor's trying to maintain, with his wife and two boys, a family farm with family values. He raises non-GMO grain, and hopes to sell it at a premium to those who share his antipathy to agri-tech. But Naylor feels that farmers like himself are isolated, up against a corporate GMO juggernaut that threatens to lay waste to their plans. One of his fears: Contamination from GMO corn the next field over.
GEORGE NAYLOR: As the pollen drifts from his field to my field, it's going to pollinate some of my corn, so that the genes from his crop will be transferred into my crop.
PAUL SOLMAN: The point is, if a non-GMO were impregnated by a GMO, its purity, says Naylor, would be compromised.
PAUL SOLMAN: So this is non-GMO corn?
GEORGE NAYLOR: I hope it is. The only reason that it wouldn't be is because either the seed was contaminated when I bought it, or my neighbor's pollen has pollinated some of my corn.
PAUL SOLMAN: Even if he could vouch for his grain, however, Naylor would have another problem. He'd be hard-pressed to keep his corn separate from its GMO look-alikes.
GEORGE NAYLOR: Now, this is where farmers bring their grain to store, and it was impossible to really segregate the GMO from the non-GMO grain this last year, so now it's just all blended together in here.
PAUL SOLMAN: So you mean even though you're doing non-GMO grain, by the time it goes to market from here --
GEORGE NAYLOR: Right, it's the same. No, it's all the same. The consumer's going to get GMO grain whether they want it or not.
PAUL SOLMAN: It's this lack of choice that's helped fuel the anti-GMO movement, especially in Europe and the UK, where there's widespread objection to America's so-called Frankenfoods, and Prime Minister Tony Blair's unwillingness to oppose them. Perhaps fearing similar protests at home, companies like Heinz, Frito-Lay, and Gerber have now promised they won't use GMOs to make their products.
Agricultural Law Professor Neil Hamilton:
NEIL HAMILTON, Drake University: Frito-Lay and Gerber and other people that may have made those same decisions are consumer companies, and they have made some type of calculation of two things: One, that there may be some concern on the part of consumers, or alternatively that the benefits of whatever this technology is don't inure it enough to them to take a bullet for it.
|Some say gene-altered foods have great benefits|
PAUL SOLMAN: So what are the benefits of genetically modified organisms? Some say they're enormous: Cheap rice with enough Vitamin A built into it to cure blindness in the Third World; crops so productive we can feed millions more people without leveling the rain forest. Promises like these are what led Monsanto Chemical to transform itself into a life sciences agri-tech company in the early '90s.
To investors, GMOs and agri-tech promised huge future returns, not unlike the Internet. Monsanto's stock soared. Money to nurture the new technology poured in. But then came the protest movement, charging that GMO corn, for instance, would lead to super weeds; would kill monarch butterflies. Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro responded, as here to a Greenpeace conference in the late '90s.
ROBERT SHAPIRO, Monsanto CEO (film): Now, we continue to believe in this technology. We think it can bring important benefits to people around the world, and we remain committed to developing good, safe, useful products. But we are no longer going to be engaged in a debate.
PAUL SOLMAN: But opposition to Monsanto only grew. The company's stock sank. Agri-tech research and development slowed. To economist Dermot Hayes, it was an outrage.
DERMOT HAYES, Iowa State University: Can you imagine how Bill Gates would feel if somebody had said that microchips cause cancer? And then the argument was we can't prove they don't cause cancer, so the stock of Microsoft collapses. Imagine how you would feel, especially if it wasn't true.
PAUL SOLMAN: And you think that's how Bob Shapiro feels.
DERMOT HAYES: I think that's how he should feel. He was doing something that was potentially of great advantage to the human race. Some arguments were made against the technologies; they were not based on science. The technology is now stalled, and the company, as a result, has fallen in value.
|Risks are easier to sell than benefits|
PAUL SOLMAN: So if genetic technology is so promising, why are opponents making as much headway as they are? Perhaps because the first GMO products don't benefit the public so much as the industry itself. Take GMO soybeans called Roundup Ready, the patent for which is owned by Monsanto. They're designed to be used exclusively with the popular herbicide Roundup, also made by Monsanto. The company, says Neil Hamilton, went first for quick returns.
NEIL HAMILTON: It shouldn't be any surprise that one of the main reasons that you would develop Roundup Ready technology for soybeans is so that you can sell more Roundup.
PAUL SOLMAN: So when the industry promises higher-yielding plants that will feed the world's poor, critics respond, 'That's not what you're using GMOs for now.' Moreover, American farmers already produce more food than they can sell, as evidenced by this corn overflow we happened on in Beaver, Iowa.
And GMOs are now actually hurting sales of American grain because Europeans don't want them. So to many consumers, the benefits of GMOs seem remote, while the risks of this unknown technology can be made to seem threatening. 'Remember nuclear power,' say critics. In the '50s, we were told that it was cheap and safe, the answer to our energy future. But today, we know how much we didn't know then.
SUE ROBERTS: There's a quote that really captures my feeling about the issue of genetically engineered food, and that quote is, 'Nature is not only more complicated than we think, it is more complicated than we can think.' And we should err on the side of precaution rather than plowing ahead and putting those foods into our food supply until definitely the safety is proven.
PAUL SOLMAN: Caution sounds reasonable. But years of study, say GMO proponents, will stall a technology that promises to feed the world. To Dermot Hayes, the benefits of GMOs dwarf the risks, but the risks are a lot easier to sell.
DERMOT HAYES: The consumer in a store will give you about a second to make your case. And if somebody says, 'We can't prove that this food does not cause cancer,' you will not consume that food. And that's essentially what's happened in Ireland and the UK. People just won't -- they don't want this food, not because they've looked into the science, but because they have heard something on the TV from some source that may or may not be good that there's something wrong with this food.
PAUL SOLMAN: In other words, until the public can be persuaded of the benefits and safety of GMOs, this latest in a long line of new technologies may continue to meet resistance in the streets, on the stock market and on the shelves.
RAY SUAREZ: On another front in the GMO controversy, a much- anticipated report on the adequacy of government regulation of genetically modified crops is due to be released tomorrow by a National Academies of Science committee.