MOYERS:To the naked eye, this is just a small seed of corn.
At least it looks like a small seed of corn, but some people think it's a ticking time bomb.
Critics call it "Franken-food," as in Frankenstein the monster, born of good intentions and bungled science.
We're talking about food, in this case, corn that has been genetically altered, changed by human manipulation in ways nature never intended.
Supporters say the goal is to improve the food supply.
And when products made from this corn hit the shelves of America's supermarkets just six years ago, there wasn't much protest.
But elsewhere in the world, including at the recent Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, critics talk about genetically-altered food as if multinational corporations are making guinea pigs of us.
To see what the controversy is all about, correspondent Mark Schapiro and NOW'S Gail Ablow went to America's heartland by way of Mexico.
REPORTER MARK SCHAPIRO:
These quiet fields in southern Mexico are an unlikely flashpoint in a worldwide battle over the future of agriculture.
A conflict that pits developing countries against industrialized ones...traditional farming against corporate agriculture... the surprises of nature against the precision of science.
Human cultivation of corn began right here, centuries before the conquistadors arrived.
NAUN SANCHEZ, FARMER: Our ancestors left us the seed. Our land is used to it. If we plant another kind of corn it won't grow. Our land is used to our ancestor's seed.
SCHAPIRO: Corn here is about survival.
MAURICIO BELLON, PHD,
SENIOR SCIENTIST, INTERNATIONAL MAIZE AND WHEAT IMPROVEMENT CENTER (CIMMYT): You have to realize that here you don't have job insurance or health insurance but having corn is what ensures that you - your-life will keep on once you have corn you basically made it for the year.
SCHAPIRO: If it's a local insurance policy, it is also a global treasure, prized by scientists for the differences in the genetic makeup of these kernels - they call it diversity.
Here in the state of Oaxaca alone there are more than sixty varieties of corn.
Which is good. Because nature is fickle - one year it's too hot, another it's too wet. Unwelcome pests shows up.
If all your corn is the same, and equally vulnerable to any one problem your crop is doomed. If it's all a little different, some will survive.
And when disasters strike scientists can come to this gene pool to breed back resilience.
It's so critical, they save corn seed from Oaxaca in gene banks around the world.
MAURICIO BELLON: The diversity of these genes is the basis of our food supply. We need this diversity to cope with the future, with evolution, with unpredictable things.
SCHAPIRO: A crop this varied evolved over thousands of years as, season to season, individual farmers selected the seeds best suited to local conditions.
Now American corporations are going in the opposite direction.
Their goal is not diversity it is tailoring seeds with very specific traits to suit the needs of modern industrial agriculture.
These traits would never have evolved in nature. They occur when scientists take genetic information from one living thing and put it into the genes of another.
The resulting plants are called "transgenic."
The Mexican government banned planting transgenic corn amid concerns that it would threaten the diversity of their native corn.
And growing distrust of genetically modified organisms or GMOs has pushed thirty other countries to impose restrictions on these crops.
People are protesting from Europe to India to Brazil, fearful of unknown risks to human and environmental health.
TAPE OF PROTEST: This is contamination of our food...
SCHAPIRO: They don't want what American farmers produce, what American consumers are eating.
That's right we're eating transgenic ingredients.
Those genes altered through biotechnology are in 70 percent of the processed foods on our grocery shelves. In cooking oils, soda, soy products, breakfast cereals, cookies.
Transgenes are in the most widely used sweetener in America corn syrup.
There's no scientific evidence that eating these ingredients hurts our health.
But around the world critics and scientists are raising questions: are transgenic crops safe for the environment over time? Will they harm the diversity of our food supply? We don't know yet.
To try to answer that question I traveled to the American Midwest.
If Oaxaca, Mexico is the cradle of corn cultivation, this secret and isolated field in Iowa is the frontier of corn modification.
Dr. Kan Wang isn't growing corn for food. She wants corn to make medicine.
DR. KAN WANG, PHD, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, AGRONOMY
IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY: I do not understand why so much heat on the issue of biotechnology crop. I think this is a great technology, but I do agree, there's many aspect we don't understand yet.
SCHAPIRO: Dr. Wang and her students from Iowa State University made me promise not to reveal the location of this place. They fear protesters will destroy their work.
What are they hiding? You could call it "corn sex." Actually, in a way, "safe sex" for corn.
Corn is usually pollinated by the wind, randomly.
But Dr. Wang and her students are controlling pollination very carefully.
They take the pollen from the male tassels... Then sprinkle it on the female silks.
Pollen slips down each strand of corn silk passing along its genes to the next generation of seed.
They don't want the pollen to travel outside this field, because it contains experimental genes that could mix with ordinary corn.
What kind of genes? Dr. Wang has actually inserted genetic information from a pig virus into this corn.
She wants to create a vaccine for pigs.
If things go according to plan, when the pig eats this corn, the corn will immunize the pig against the virus.
It's a whole new way of using plants for human needs.
DR. WANG: Now, not only we can make medicine out of a plant, we can make plant to make medicine. So that part is really quite exciting and the potential using biotechnology is huge in this regard.
SCHAPIRO: Scientists can now take these corn embryos and insert genetic instructions from any organism from a virus, even an animal into corn; to make that corn do something new.
Dr. Mike Lee is a professor at Iowa State University. He is also working with transgenic corn; not turning corn into medicine, but into a more nutritious food for hogs.
He takes genetic information from hogs mothers' milk and puts it into corn plants.
DR. MIKE LEE, PHD, PROFESSOR, PLANT BREEDING AND GENETICS, IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY: The corn plants contain a new DNA sequence that would be producing this protein that would make that corn grain a more complete food for hogs.
SCHAPIRO: To do this, scientists copy the gene that makes hogs mothers' milk, then modify it to make it work in a plant.
DR. MIKE LEE: They'll start to form roots and shoots and a new plant emerges, hopefully a plant that carries those genes now in their chromosomes
SCHAPIRO: These genes are a totally new development in the history of life on earth.
DR. MIKE LEE: Now do we have a hog gene in there or do we have a version of a hog gene or do we have a corn gene? When does it stop becoming a hog gene? That's a tough question.
SCHAPIRO: Dr. Kan Wang knows there are risks.
A new gene makes new proteins. And new proteins in food or vaccines could provoke unforeseen reactions like severe allergic attacks.
Dr. Wang will test her corn vaccine for side effects. If the vaccine is safe for pigs. The same techniques could lead to better vaccines for people.
DR. KAN WANG: I think that the potential for plant production system for vaccine product is huge. Vaccines for HIV, for Hepatitis B, for maybe Alzheimer's in the future.
SCHAPIRO: This is the dream, designer crops: crops making medicine, crops with more nutrition, crops that thrive in any climate.
But agricultural biotechnology is not only being driven by idealism. It is also being driven by a multi billion dollar industry in search of blockbuster products.
To that end, six corporations now own 75% of the patents for the bioengineered seeds of some of America's most important crops. Not only corn - but cotton, canola, and soy.
Seeds that they can sell to farmers like Frank McLain.
FRANK MCLAIN, FARMER:
Everything's different. The way we farm is different... The perfect crop would be to control the pests, be weed-free, and yield great so that we can pay our bills. I think that's what farmers want. We want to be able to pay our bills.
SCHAPIRO: In the past growing the perfect crop required heavy doses of chemicals and lots of human labor. Biotechnology promised a different approach, just plant a new kind of seed. A transgenic seed.
The most widely used and profitable transgenic crop so far is a special kind of soy bean seed.
This seed has been given a gene, designed by Monsanto, to resist a weedkiller.
FRANK MCLAIN: When I was a kid, you'd see grass or other weeds poking up in these fields and we'd have to go through and chop them out with hoes or shovels or whatever and try to clean it up manually or mechanically as best we could. And now it's pretty easy to come in here with sprayer and accomplish the same thing.
SCHAPIRO: That's a bonus for McLain - he can now spray herbicide right on his crops without hurting them.
There is perhaps a bigger bonus for Monsanto, because the herbicide the crops resist is made by none other than Monsanto.
They call the herbicide Roundup®, and they call the seed Roundup Ready®. It's growing in fully three-quarters of the soybean fields in America.
FRANK MCLAIN: Farmers are always looking for an herbicide or an herbicide system that fits their operation the best and the Roundup Ready® system has a pretty good fit for farmers.
SCHAPIRO: It's biotech synergy. Monsanto sells its chemicals and its chemical-resistant seed in a package deal.
The problem, critics say, is that the science is being driven by the agriculture industry, that their priority is rushing products to market, not worrying about the possible long-term consequences.
DR. CHARLES BENBROOK, PHD, AGRICULTURAL ECONOMIST,
BENBROOK CONSULTING SERVICES: If you ask, well, why are these technologies the ones that are in the market? The reason that they're there is because it's what biotechnologists were able to do at the time, and the companies that had invested so heavily in the technology and in buying up the seed industry they had to have product on the market.
SCHAPIRO: Agricultural economist, Charles Benbrook
says that pests are already adapting to some of these transgenic crops. And some plants are showing subtle changes in structure. Ominous signals of a weakening system.
DR. CHARLES BENBROOK: The trends for really 30 years have been towards bigger farms, more specialized farms and similar production systems. All three of those trends go against the grain of diversity. That's really one of the fundamental lessons that's come from applying science to agriculture: diversity in tillage systems, diversity in weed management systems, diversity in the genetics of your crop that you're planting. All of those things hedge the farmers bet against serious losses to pests.
SCHAPIRO: This is exactly why critics worry that three quarters of the soybean fields in America grow those Roundup Ready® seeds.
DR. MIKE LEE: All of the pests that like soybeans have a great opportunity before them if they could adapt to that variety of soybeans. You know then they're going to rapidly spread and reproduce and maybe adversely effect the soybean crop.
SCHAPIRO: Others worry that once this new biotechnology is introduced, there's no turning back.
Take the case of Bt - Bacillus Thuringiensis - a big name for a tiny bacteria.
A gene from Bt, put into corn, is toxic to a pest called the corn borer. Every cell in this new kind of corn, called Bt corn, makes its own insecticide to kill the corn borer.
Farmers in Iowa planted thirty percent of their fields with the bug-killing corn this year.
But not Laura Krouse. She runs a small organic farm and grows her own variety of seed the old-fashioned way.
LAURA KROUSE, FARMER: Are we ok on broccoli? Is that going to work out? ...I like this corn. This is a great variety. It's been on this farm for 99 years. It's an important business for this farm. It's how I make a good portion of my farm income. And if I stop growing it - it will probably go extinct.
SCHAPIRO: Like the corn in Oaxaca, Mexico, her corn is openly pollinated. The grains of pollen travel on the wind.
LAURA KROUSE: There's 300 kernels on an ear, there could be 300 Dads involved in producing all the kernels of corn on that ear. And open pollinated means that they could have come from anywhere.
SCHAPIRO: Sure enough, pollen did blow into Laura Krouse's fields.
It carried the Bt gene and she says it contaminated her organic seed.
Because of the presence of the Bt gene, Laura Krouse could no longer certify her corn as organic. She lost half her business.
LAURA KROUSE: There's no way for me to go into that field and look for the plants that contain the Bt gene and deselect them, kill them, don't include them in next year's seed. It will always be there.
I don't know if there's room for a business like mine anymore. Biologically it doesn't seem like it's going to be possible because of this sea of genetically engineered pollen that I live in, over which I have no control.
SCHAPIRO: In the end, neither individual farmers, nor entire nations may be able to control transgenic seeds once they leave the laboratory.
Remember Oaxaca, Mexico? The cradle of corn diversity?
Surprisingly, traces of transgenic corn have shown up in the remote mountain village of Calpulalpan.
The community found out when farmers, like Olga Moldonado, brought samples of their corn to be tested in a local lab.
OLGA MOLDONADO, FARMER: When I found out that my corn was contaminated I asked for an explanation. And I thought of my children, and I felt remorse and fear it would hurt the health of my children.
DR. IGNACIO CHAPELA, PHD,
ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, ECOSYSTEM SCIENCES, UC BERKELEY:
I'm not going to die from that, you're not going to die from that. But we are thinking of intergenerational responsibility. How can we assure that our grandchildren will have a stable and reliable food source? I think we're playing with that.
SCHAPIRO: Dr. Ignacio Chapela is a professor of microbial ecology at the University of California at Berkeley.
He and his graduate student, David Quist, helped discover the transgenes in Oaxaca's corn and were the first to focus the world's attention on them.
DR. IGNACIO CHAPELA: If nothing else, this discovery really showed that transgenic organisms are really out of control. Especially something like corn that produces pollen that gets distributed very widely.
SCHAPIRO: Chapela and Quist published their findings in the journal NATURE and ignited a controversy, among scientists, about exactly how transgenes behave.
But no one disputes their assertion that transgenic corn found its way to Mexico. That was confirmed in August by a Mexican government study.
Mexico bans the planting and growing of genetically altered corn. So how did it get there?
Thanks to North American Free Trade rules, Mexico allows more than five million tons of American corn a year to be sold for human and animal consumption. And much of American corn contains transgenes.
So all that had to happen, and all that did happen, is that farmers like Olga Moldonado planted corn that they bought from the store - not knowing that there might be transgenes in the mix.
OLGA MOLDONADO: I planted this corn out of curiosity. I bought it at the government store and planted it to see if it was better than ours.
SCHAPIRO: Will it harm the environment? Will it compromise the diversity of this treasured corn? We have no choice but to wait and see.
The genie is out of the bottle.
DR. MAURICIO BELLON: And, so now you might have transgenic diversity - but is that good or bad? We cannot just say that they are good, they are marvelous or they are bad. It depends very much how they're used how they're controlled and there are still many uncertainties.
DR. MICHAEL PHILLIPS, PHD, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR FOOD AND AGRICULTURE,
BIOTECHNOLOGY INDUSTRY ORGANIZATION (BIO): If you're the government of Mexico, hopefully you've learned a lesson here and that is that it's very difficult to keep a new technology from, you know, entering your borders particularly in a biological system
SCHAPIRO: Dr. Michael Phillips directs the Food and Agriculture division of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. He says countries like Mexico should simply accept the inevitable.
DR. MICHAEL PHILLIPS: We're approving them here in the United States, to the South of Mexico, we've got Brazil, we've got Argentina, that's adopting these technologies and so it really is incumbent upon the Mexican government to step up the process and get your regulatory system in place so that you can begin accepting these new products and give your farmers the opportunity to choose.
SCHAPIRO: Frank McLain did choose. These new seeds help him manage more land with less manpower.
Laura Krouse didn't have a choice.
And there's a lot she would still like to know about what might blow in, in the future.
LAURA KROUSE: I'm very interested in finding out where the biopharmaceutical corns are being grown in Iowa. The corns that have been genetically engineered to produce, for lack of a better word, medical products. If it happens to be across the road here, I guess I'd like to know that.
SCHAPIRO: There is undeniable promise in some of these plants.
But when plants, especially food crops, are doing double-duty as pesticides, or pharmaceuticals, even genetic engineers who believe in the promise of transgenic crops think the unknowns unleashed by this technology call for research, caution, and oversight.
DR. MIKE LEE: Once its out in nature and in commerce you're not going to be able to get it back. And so that's different than cars and other products. You can have a recall. You can't have a recall with transgenic plants.
MOYERS: And here's something else to consider: right now, all this falls into a kind of regulatory limbo.
The EPA, the Department of Agriculture, and the FDA.
All have jurisdiction over different bits and pieces.
But patchwork rules make it easy for problems to slip through the cracks.
If you would like to learn more about genetically-modified foods, please visit our web site at pbs.org.
There's even a high school lesson plan there.
And correspondent Mark Schapiro will continue his reporting on these issues in next week's edition of THE NATION.
Look for it.