Harvest of Fear (home)NOVA

should we grow them?
engineer a crop
what's for dinner?
interview: dan glickman

photo of dan glickman
What's new about genetically modified (GM) foods and crops?

We've been doing a lot of breeding and crossbreeding for a very long period of time. Most of the wheats and corn and soybeans that are used today are not what nature provided a long time ago. They've been crossbred to make them hardier and stronger. So we've been modifying nature for a very long time. These new technologies, in some cases, allow us to take genes out of one crop or one species, that have certain traits--let's say, maybe can grow with less water, or maybe can resist certain kinds of bugs or pests--and put them into another species.

He was U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Secretary in the Clinton administration. Glickman discusses the number of GM crops so far approved, the lessons of StarLink (when animal feed corn containing a potential allergen was found in taco shells), his concerns about intellectual property law issues surrounding GM crops and how it effects farmers, and why he believes GM food labelling is coming. (Interview conducted October 2000.)
They offer a lot of interesting promise in the modern world of agriculture, by reducing costs for farmers, as well as by increasing yields and reducing the need for pesticides and for other environmental degrading types of things that are often applied in agriculture.

What are some of the potential upsides and potential downsides?

Certainly, the potential upsides are increasing productivity for farmers, reducing costs, and reducing the need for uses of water and pesticides. For consumers, the benefits are producing a crop that has certain attributes to it--more vitamins, more nutrients--and is also less degrading on the environment. Those are all very great upsides.

The potential downsides are, what does it do to the environment? How does it affect other species that are out there, other plant species? Will it, in fact, make modifications that could be harmful? That's one of the reasons why you really do have to have exceedingly good science and a terrifically sophisticated regulatory system.

Why should people in the U.S. care about biotech?

First of all, agriculture has always been based upon improving productivity, and science and agriculture have been friends for a very long time. We grow enough food today because of advances in technology. We will not be able to stop this technology. Science will march forward. If we say we can't do it, that we won't do any more research, that we'll tear up all the fields, the human being would not accept that. They will continue to do the research.

What we have to do is to make sure that good science dominates, sound science--not political science, but good, sound science--and that we have an effective regulatory system that's arm's length from industry, so that it is not just merely to advocate the interests of some company that wants to promote a product. I think if we do that, we will continue moving down the road to producing better crops, greater yields, more nutritious food, and at the same time, maybe make life easier on our farmers and ranchers, as well.

right now we're not quite there yet, in terms of evaluating the thresholds or genetic composition well enough to determine how much would you label.. . . Is this a storm in a teacup, or is there a lot at stake here?

I don't think we're going to have the same problems here that they have in Europe. The simple reason is because our food safety regulatory system is head and shoulders above anybody else's in the world. Our FDA is unequaled in its power and ability to protect the consumer from unsafe food. The USDA is also head and shoulders above most other agricultural agencies in the world in doing the research that's necessary to protect farmers and ranchers.

Now, that doesn't mean that there aren't legitimate questions being asked right now about these newly engineered crops, and whether they're safe for human consumption, and what their effect is on the environment. I happen to believe that we will ultimately produce a better agriculture using this technology. But I don't think all the questions have been answered yet.

Do you think the public really believes that they have a well-regulated food supply?

Yes, I think that the people in this country, by and large, feel that the agencies that regulate food safety are doing a good job. But that doesn't mean we can rest on our laurels. For example, the White House has asked the agencies involved in biotechnology to basically get together to further improve the way we regulate genetically engineered crops, the way these crops are labeled, the kind of trials out there in the countryside that are done, etc. We've got to stay ahead of this game all the time. The technology marches forward, and so the regulatory system has to also march forward with it.

If a new crop comes to market, is it the same whether it's genetically modified or produced by other means?

Essentially it's the same, although because of what's happening now, we are doing basically extra work in terms of the trials out there in the countryside to deal with issues of safety, and what its effect is on the release into the environment. That's primarily our role at USDA, whereas FDA deals more with the food safety side of the picture, and EPA deals more with the pesticide areas that are involved with it. In order to get something approved, it's got to go through a rigorous set of field trials. We've asked the National Academy of Sciences, for example, to examine our processes, to make sure that they're kept as modern as possible.

How many crops have been approved? What's in the pipeline?

. . . About 50 crops have been approved. Mostly they have been in the row crops--corn, soybeans--although you have other crops. Perhaps one of the more well-known is the papaya in Hawaii, where the papaya was being wiped out because of a virus. We did genetic engineering on that, and it basically saved the papaya crop in that state.

Some people say the process has been rushed, and that the agencies are cheerleaders for the technology.

I think there might have been some of that, early on. I felt that

myself--that the companies were pushing the technologies ahead, and maybe the government wasn't as arm's length in its approach as the regulatory system as it should be. I even made a speech at the National Press Club last year where I said, "We cannot let that happen."

The main thing that has made people trust our food safety system in America is that we call them as we see them. That means we must be independent and at arm's length from the companies. I'm convinced that that is in fact the case, and the administration's efforts to modernize our regulatory system will make that more so in the future. But it's always something you've got to be vigilant about.

Is part of the problem that consumers haven't perceived the benefit to them?

To a large extent, that's correct. I've made the joke a little bit, that if we could find a tomato that has the Viagra gene in it, it would be very well accepted among, certainly, the male population of the United States. That's half-facetious, but I guess my point is, that sooner rather than later, hopefully, these technologies will make themselves felt by consumers, so that they will have anywhere from more nutritious food; to pharmaceuticals or drugs in food; to food that has a much longer shelf life; or food that's produced using far less water or far less pesticide, so it has a perceived environmental benefit. I think those things will happen.

With a crop like cotton, this technology hasn't won over converts because of reduction of pesticides. Does that surprise you?

The BT cotton has had quite a bit of success out there in cotton country. I'm not sure of the total percentage of farmers that use it. It is not a miracle, however. There are additional costs associated with it that aren't with the more traditional cottons, although you do reduce pesticide use rather significantly.

I'm talking about the environmental issue. Is that pretty clear-cut?

I think so. Over the years, we have tried to encourage the reduction in the use of pesticides. That is a public benefit, to get less chemicals used out there on the land. Right now, for example, we're seeing that vast areas in the downstream part of the Mississippi River are not capable of producing as much plant life as they used to be. Some of that has been traced to pesticide runoff in the Great Plains area that comes down the Mississippi River. It's just one example of why sometimes I get confused by some of the environmental opposition to these new technologies, because, in fact, the public is much more at risk through the excessive application of pesticides than it would be as a result of genetically engineered crops that produce their own anti-pest activities.

There is food safety data that got no publicity, saying that BT corn resists infestation. . . .

It's probably too early to make any long-term assessments. But again, my guess is that we've got a lot of diseases out there, naturally occurring diseases, fungal diseases, that affect human health with the existing technologies, the non-exotic or the non-new technologies. In fact, if we can reduce those funguses like aflatoxin, we can reduce a lot of human disease as well.

Again, that's why we've got to have an open mind about this. America, particularly, has always had a love affair with technology. Certainly, in agriculture, we've had that love affair. But we also have a love affair with good regulation as well. That's what is hard for the rest of the world to understand--that you can have the development of technologies that is not inconsistent with an independent regulatory system.

What about the issue of labeling? People say, "I don't believe it's unsafe, but I still want to know what I'm eating."

I generally agree with that. I think labeling is coming. I spoke last year about the fact that those companies that did not begin to go down the road of labeling were making a very bad marketing decision. Now, some people say, "You shouldn't label, because the information on the label isn't useful," or, "You label only for health reasons." But we label for nutrition reasons now. When you buy your food, it tells you how much fat, how much carbohydrate, what the calories are, that kind of thing.

I don't have any problem with labeling, as long as it's done sensibly. I haven't advocated mandatory labeling by the government. The White House has put together a team to try to encourage companies to do voluntary labeling. We don't really have modern testing equipment out there. We can't really determine the thresholds to great precision. So it's too premature to require mandatory labeling. But I predict that, within five years or so, these things will all be labeled.

With labeling, would you would have ways of evaluating whether they're followed?

That's right. Right now we're not quite there yet, in terms of evaluating the thresholds or the genetic composition well enough to determine how much you would label. Would you label the crop as 0.0001 percent genetically engineered? Five percent? Ten percent? We haven't really made those decisions yet. Those are the things we're looking at now.

I happen to believe that this technology can produce a much healthier food supply than we have right now. I believe that, as long as the public knows that the government is out watching for their health interests, labeling is just one more consumer item. It gives them some information, and people will accept it. I think the food companies have been a little too reluctant to go down that road, or at least some of them have been.

Why hasn't this technology been embraced within organic farming?

There is great opposition to this in organic farming. I've faced this myself, because we issued a set of organic farming rules at USDA, and we had about 250,000 comments on those rules. And 249,999 were against using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in organic farming. I think that's just because they've made the decision that GMOs and pesticides and other things ought not to be in foods that are certified organic.

But I've repeatedly made this point: this is not a food safety issue. This is a marketing issue. If the organic farming industry wants to market their crops as organic that doesn't have GMOs, that's fine. But we're going to make it clear that it is not a food safety issue. It's strictly a marketing issue and an issue of choice.

What do you mean when you say, "We've got to be fair to farmers"?

I happen to believe that we will ultimately produce a better agriculture using this technology, but i don't think all the questions have been answered yet.Farming is extraordinarily difficult under the best of circumstances. We have seen rapid consolidation in agriculture. It's very hard for mid-sized farmers to stay in business, largely from coping with low prices and terrible natural disaster and weather-related conditions. This year is no exception. Farmers' costs are going up. Fuel costs this year have doubled, maybe tripled in some cases, because of the price of gasoline.

So you try to do several things in agriculture. You try to increase the price or the income that they get. You try to reduce their costs. Clearly that's part of it. Then you try to provide them fairness, so that they don't get victimized by an anti-competitive system that doesn't allow them fair pricing. Those are all things that the government needs to do.

In this whole GMO issue, one of the things we need to make sure of is that farmers are treated fairly. We had this problem originally with the terminator gene. The implication was that, since the gene would basically be self-extinguishing, the farmers would have to come back every year and buy the seed again--pay a new royalty fee or essentially a copyright fee to the companies--and that they'd be victimized by a system where you'd have a few very large companies basically running the show.

One of the things government can do is to give farmers bargaining power in that kind of situation to ensure that they're treated fairly, whether it's by USDA or the Federal Trade Commission or the Justice Department or some other unit of government. These issues will continue to evolve. But we have a much more centralized agriculture than we used to have, and this is something we have to watch very closely--the power of a few companies to basically fix prices for farmers.

Was the papaya story a perfect example of how technology can solve an otherwise insoluble problem?

It was a good place to solve the problem, because you were not dealing with a widely grown row crop. It did not have the implications that, let's say, corn or wheat or cotton would have in the international marketplace. It was a problem that was reaching catastrophic proportions in terms of one area of the country. Scientists-- both with us, as well as in the private sector and university community--were able to solve the problem.

That's what I don't want to see retarded in the future. We've got all sorts of problems now out there in agriculture. We got a scab that's affecting, let's say, the wheat industry. We've got corn borer. We got soybean diseases. Some of these have the potential of being catastrophic. Historically, if you look back at the history of plant species in this world, you've wiped out entire species in a one-to-two-year period of time. Maybe it hasn't happened recently, but certainly it happened a long time ago.

So genetic engineering offers an opportunity to turn off or on a switch, and stop that disease from affecting other crops. We've just got to keep the science research moving ahead. Then we've also got to make sure that, again, the compensation arrangements for the people who develop the patents aren't so exclusive that the country as a whole, or the world as a whole, can't get hold of these things.

Some people find it harder to accept the idea of intellectual property in the life sciences than they do in software. But presumably, you wouldn't get any investment if you didn't have that?

It's a complicated issue, and it requires a balance there. There are a lot of parallels to the software and the computer industry. But the growing of food takes on a different psychological and public policy impact than, let's say, the development of a home computer or even larger telecommunication systems. That's why I think Congress is going to be more likely to want to continue to intervene on these agriculture intellectual property issues, more so than they might on the Microsoft issue, the Intels, the Ciscos, or those kinds of issues.

Under our intellectual property law in the U.S., a person doesn't have to give a license. It's not compulsory.

That's correct.

So, in a worst-case scenario, you could have Hawaiian papaya wiped out because somebody didn't want to give the license. That would seem immoral to most people.

And Congress would step in and prevent that from happening. I can tell you, just as the sun comes up in the morning and goes down at night, the legislators would work out a system to avoid that.

What about corporate citizenship? Microsoft isn't expected to feed the poor. May we expect Monsanto to do something because we're talking about food?

They already have begun to do things. Some of these larger companies in the seed and agriculture business have begun to enter into, I'd say, more sensitive arrangements, in terms of some of the ownership issues already. Since we're talking about food production, the issue is, what are they really going to do with respect to these developing areas of the world that are a total food-insecure situation? What about areas like sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, where in fact they probably need those technologies more than we do right now?

I was in East Africa earlier this summer, and some areas haven't had rain for five or six years, in Kenya and Tanzania and Sudan and Ethiopia. We've got to figure out a way where the companies can make these technologies available at affordable rates. In some sense, this is not too different from the AIDS issue, where the companies making anti-AIDS drugs make them available in large quantities and at sensible prices. Still, these are not charities, either. You're right that companies have to get their investment back. There's going to be a lot of continuing pressure on these companies to balance this. It's not going to be easy for them.

Is this a quid pro quo for globalization, for the companies to stay in business?

I think that you're going to find that they're going to have to modify some of their historic privacy practices and intellectual property practices in order to continue to do business down the road. I'm not saying that this is the heavy hand of government for me going to do that, because I'm going to be out of here before this starts. I think they do great work, and the technologies wouldn't develop without their help. But in a globalized world, every region of the world is different. They can't do business the same way everywhere.

In terms of trade issues, it looks like the U.S. is a bit isolated.

In some sense, it may be a resentment, because a lot of the technology is being developed here. So I think the feeling is, "The hegemony of the United States is going to try to take us over like they did with McDonald's. They're going to do it here." And you know, there's probably a little bit of jealousy there.

But the main thing we've got to do is to lower the rhetoric. These issues are very important to the future of the world, to feeding the world in a sustainable way. We've got to lower the rhetoric level, try to get it out of the halls of every parliament in the world, at least for a time being, and try to get a dispassionate review, a public policy review involving the private sector and the public sector. I think it can be done.

I've been to Europe several times, and I'm aware of the sensitivity--and, in some cases, the hysteria--of these issues. I've been pelted by protestors in Rome. I was in Seattle when we were locked up in a hotel room, because I couldn't get out during the recent WTO conference. There are legitimate interests to be raised.

It is also incumbent on policy makers in the corporations in America not to say, "These are a bunch of crazies, there's nothing we can do about it, and they're stupid and they're wrong." Because that begs the question. They may be foolish in their opposition to the technologies. But we also have to deal with the realities that reflect a very large perspective and point of view around the world.

The other side of this coin is going back to the issue that we have also got to develop the technologies, so that average people around the world can see that they benefit from them. That hasn't been done yet. That's the best thing that can be done to change people's perspectives. If you can develop a food that has an anti-cancer agent in it, or one that can cause people to live longer, that will change people's attitudes more than about anything else in the world. We're not there yet. We're going to get there.

At the same time, I think that the rest of the world needs to adopt regulatory systems--not identical to what the United States has--but parallel to what we have. That way, people have confidence that we'll call them as we see them. If something is bad for you, we're not going to let it out there in the marketplace. They don't have systems in Europe. They don't have any regulatory systems. They're developing them, but they haven't had them for a long time.

The final thing is that this whole issue of genetic modification or manipulation kind of scares some people into believing that we're monkeying around with the laws of nature. I went to see Prince Charles last year. He was a very fine man, and we talked a lot about this issue. I think his perspective, if I'm characterizing it correctly, is that it is not for a human being to modify the basic laws of nature. To which I replied, "We do that every day. We put roads down. We drive cars. We build buildings. We wear clothes. We do everything that God didn't have maybe in mind when he put us on this earth 5,000 or 6,000 years ago." I mean, that's why we have a brain.

In fact, I believe that that's the reason that the whole human race was created--to improve itself. But at the same time, we've got to make sure that people believe that we're doing it in the right way, in the sound science way, in a sensible way, and in a way that protects the public interest. We're just going to have a long road to go before we get this done.

Are the Europeans taking a risk? If this technology is as powerful as you think, you don't want to fall behind.

No. I think they're taking some risks there of falling behind, and I think that most of their high tech companies are pushing their governments in this regard, because they don't want to be behind in some of these new technologies. I think European agriculture will follow suit, too, because they don't want to be in a non-competitive situation. If they say, "No, no, no," they will be in a tremendous non-competitive situation.

China has embraced this technology.

The Chinese have a serious food production problem over the long term. Right now, they're the largest producers of food in the world. But they're rapidly industrializing. They're going down the same road that we went down, that the Europeans went down. They may have 700 million peasant farmers in China, and that's going to change in 10 or 15 or 20 years. I think the Chinese recognize that they want to be as self-sufficient in food as they can. They will not be 100 percent self-sufficient. But in order to do that, they're going to have to use technologies that allow them to be competitive, and that requires genetic engineering and biotechnology.

But there are different degrees of genetic engineering and different degrees of biotechnology. There is no one technology here. There are a multiple number of technologies. The Chinese, I think, will aggressively utilize them.

Do you think the Taco Bell situation shows a flaw in the system, or does it show that the system works?

I think it shows a couple things. Without knowing all the facts here, my guess is that we'll find that the company involved probably didn't do as much as they probably needed to do in the area of segregation and their communication techniques. I think they have pretty much acknowledged that. They are working with us now to try to get this product off the market, and I think they're acting in good faith to do that kind of thing.

This is a very interesting issue--a genetically engineered item that has been approved for animal consumption, but not for human consumption, and how you segregate those commodities. At some point, it may be that if something is going to be approved, it's got to be approved for animals and humans both in order to get out into the marketplace, because it may be a logistic impossibility to do the segregation that people are asking us to do.

I think the system's responding pretty well to it. But I think we should recognize that this is a rapidly evolving area. It's a complicated area, and it is not something that we have all the answers to right now; not yet. I happen to believe that there is no serious food safety problem out there. But on the other hand, just me saying that isn't good enough. I'm not a scientist. I'm not a regulator in that sense. And that's why you have to have the sound science to govern these decisions.

But in a highly charged area, you can't afford to make many mistakes. If you had a child with an allergenic response, a story like this might be worse.

It might have been worse, even though 1,000 times more people probably get sick every day because of excessive use of pesticides, which is legal under conventional agriculture practices.

Is there anything you want people to pay attention to about this issue?

I think that people need to understand the complexity of it, and that's tough. The main thing we can do is to convince people that the food safety regulatory system is on the level, and it's safe. Because if they have confidence in the system, then I think we can get through all of these problems. If they think the system is rigged against them, or that it's biased, then they will get upset. Then people in America will start acting a little bit more like people have acted in Europe. I don't want to see that happen.

home + should we grow them? + engineer a crop + what's for dinner? + viewpoints
links + interviews + what about this fish? + discussion
synopsis + tapes & transcripts + press + credits
frontline + nova + wgbh + pbs online

wheat photograph ©h. david sewell/corbis
new content copyright ©2001 pbs online and wgbh/frontline/nova

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site