[W]e've cracked the code of the universe. For the first time in history, scientists can slice open a cell and rearrange the genes that make it what it is. Transcending natural breeding patterns, they can mix gene sequences from a cauliflower mosaic virus, a petunia and a bacterium into a soybean, or a fish protein into a banana. These "transgenic" products crisscross plant and animal kingdoms so readily that it hardly makes sense to use the word "species" anymore.
Not only are U.S. designer genes transforming agriculture and altering ecology's precarious equilibrium, but they're about to reshape the world's food supply. Scores of fruits, vegetables and grains are in the pipeline, and genetically engineered corn, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, canola and soybeans are already on the market. (Soybean products alone are used in about 60 percent of all processed foods, including basics such as baby formula, cereal, margarine and salad dressing; American solaces such as corn chips, French fries and chocolate; and, ironically, health foods such as tofu.)In other words, we're about to become the first humans in history to ingest large quantities of genetically modified organisms. We won't know it, though, because the brokers won't separate them and the manufacturers won't label them. Everybody's afraid sales would drop. And the government's OK with this, because the U.S. is leading the world again, investing its research money and gambling its economic future on the miracles of biotech.
Those miracles were inspired by tax-funded discoveries in molecular biology, but they're being scripted by transnational businesses such as St. Louis' own Monsanto and the Swiss-owned Ciba-Geigy. In the corporate world, scientists play God for profit. The bottom line drives the project, sets the priorities and speeds the pace. Which is why genetically engineered products nobody needs are being rushed to market without public forums, long-term tests, consumer labels, global cooperation, social justice or even common sense.
Greed and hubris are about to get us thrown out of paradise all over again.
[B]iotechnology's a bit of a card trick, genes shuffled so fast that the onlooker's made dizzy. As with any good trick, the secret's simple: The universe is all made of the same stuff, interdependent and, to an extent, interchangeable. That's where complexity comes in: Changing one gene changes the entire map of genetic information. We cannot even predict when or how traits will express themselves, let alone how the changed organisms will interact in the biosphere.
Still, in terms of basic technique, "You could do it in your basement," promises Dr. Tuan-Hua David Ho, a Washington University biology professor who studies gene expression in plants. Ho simplifies gene splicing with three pairs of words: cut and paste; in and out; copy and translate. "Genetic information comes in the linear sequence of the DNA," he explains. "It's like a thread, with all the information chemically defined so we know exactly what molecule is in what position." You can cut a gene out and make an infinite number of copies before you paste it into another organism (or back in the same organism in a new position). But first, you have to translate the two-dimensional information into something three-dimensional (a protein or enzyme) that can express it physically at a certain time (the fourth dimension).
The advantages of genetic engineering are considerable: You can modify traits and behavior with great precision (at least until the results begin unfolding), and you can restore some of the planetary diversity we've destroyed. With a widened gene pool to draw from, there's less chance that two copies of an undesirable gene will end up in the same offspring, so there's less expression of undesirable traits.What has the U.S. done with its world leadership in agricultural biotechnology? We collaborated with the Dutch on a whiter-than-white chrysanthemum named Moneymaker. We patented an array of already-abundant crops with names like Endless Summer tomato, Freedom II squash and Maximizer corn. Did we need them? "U.S. farmers are pretty darn good at growing corn already," admits Laura Privalle, senior regulatory scientist at Ciba Seeds, which engineers a pest-resistant corn. "But we are a seed company; we want to have them buy our stuff."
But who decides what's desirable? If Ho had his way, he'd use agricultural biotechnology to protect the environment, helping plants use our scarce water supply more efficiently and cleaning up the air we've poisoned. "This kind of research is usually more long-term," he shrugs, "and it's not immediately related to profit-making."
Agricultural biotechnology is big business. And St. Louis' own Monsanto Corp. has come up with the most potentially lucrative product of all: The Roundup Ready soybean, engineered to resist Monsanto's own Roundup herbicide so farmers can pour more of it on their fields. "We will make a profit on Roundup, there is no question," says Monsanto spokesperson Karen Marshall. "The absolute rationale is that it's a good business decision for us."Monsanto's been a biotech player from the start -- according to The Gene Age by Edward J. Sylvester, company scientists were giving tutorials in the fledgling technology to venture capital investors back in 1975. Monsanto invested in biotech pioneers Genentech, Genex and Biogen, and in 1984 they built their own biotech research center -- one of the world's largest -- in Chesterfield. The next year, they paid $2.8 billion for G.D. Searle & Co. drug company as an outlet for anticipated discoveries.
This year, everything crystallized. As their biotech products raked in commercial approvals, Monsanto's stock shot up (the share price is $41.50 at this writing, up 69 percent since January). Company directors decided on Monday to spin off the chemical company, which had been lagging behind their newer "life sciences" (farm, food, drug and biotech) products. Meanwhile, Monsanto's been buying up seed and biotech companies: Asgrow Agronomics for $240 million; biotech's Agracetus for $150 million; the British manufacturer Biopol; a stake in DeKalb Genetics for $177 million; shares in Ecogen for $25 million.
Ah, but Monsanto also owns a majority share in Calgene, wizard of the Flavr-Savr tomato that's now off the market. Flavr-Savr had its "softening" gene reversed and shot back in with a gene gun to delay ripening. "Made the skin so soft you couldn't ship it," mutters Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Pure Food Campaign. "Not only did the consumers refuse to buy it, but it looked like hell and tasted like hell. When you rearrange DNA, it's not like changing a machine part; genes are embedded in their own little ecosystem."They're also part of the surrounding ecosystem. Witness Monsanto's earlier product, rBGH, the engineered growth hormone dairy farmers resisted because it pumped their cows' udders into misery, and consumers resisted because the milk from injected cows was unlabeled. Sales have gone nowhere near predictions; Wall Street analysts started predicting the synthetic hormone's demise last spring. Monsanto was already busy licensing seeds for Bollgard cotton, genetically engineered to resist the pesky bollworm. This summer, a horde of them chomped right through its expected performance.
Now it's time to see what happens to Roundup Ready soybeans.
Soybeans are also fragile, with a slim profit margin. So Monsanto found a bacterium gene whose enzyme detours around glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide. Glyphosate slowly starves a plant by inhibiting protein production. By shooting resistance into the soybeans, Monsanto created a market for both the seeds and the weed-killer.Those who most resent this strategy are U.S. farmers, global environmentalists and consumers, especially in Europe. In developing nations -- where there is little consumer awareness about biotech, high demand for nonmeat protein sources and virtually no governmental regulation -- Monsanto's discovered scant resistance. But the European Parliament debated genetically engineered foods to exhaustion, finally resolving to mandate labeling.
Early this month, they backed down.
How'd we swing a national policy strong enough to bend the Europeans? "By playing dirty pool," retorts Dr. Michael Fox, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States and author of Superpigs and Wondercorn: The Brave New World of Biotechnology. "I've been to many meetings where Monsanto representatives have been interfacing with USDA and FDA government people, and the whole game between the U.S.-based multinationals and the U.S. government has been to sidestep the entire issue of the consumer's right to know. This is the kind of pressure that's going on now with this new world order. International trade in commodities is putting the consumer right out of the loop."Cummins' Pure Food Campaign has joined 300 organizations in 40 countries to boycott genetically engineered products. But boycotts are tough without mandated labeling; corn and soybeans are used in so many processed foods, the entire industry is now suspect. "Monsanto knows that if these products are labeled, it will all come to a crashing halt," asserts Cummins. "If they can get away with this, it's not a good omen for the 21st century."
Dire prophecies notwithstanding, protesters aren't saying genetically engineered foods will destroy human health. But as genes from unrelated products mix into the food supply, physicians grow increasingly concerned about food allergies. Pioneer Hi-Bred, for example, inserted a Brazil-nut protein in a soybean to improve its nutritional makeup. Animal studies convinced them they were ready for market approval. Then scientists tested human blood serum and, according to last March's New England Journal of Medicine, found that the soybean had retained the Brazil nut's allergic properties. Oops.Labels would at least alert people with food allergies to hidden risks. But biotech boosters say it's impossible to segregate most export crops for labeling -- the facilities just aren't set up for it. "That's bullshit," responds Fred Kirschenmann, a North Dakota farmer who's president of Farm Verified Organic. "They segregate all kinds of things (different varieties, different pesticide levels, organic crops). The major grain companies are moving toward identity-preserved grain anyway. With genetic engineering, farmers will have to decide ahead of time whether they want to plant corn for fructose or chips or milling or feed, then contract with a licensee for the seed.
"It's probably true," Kirschenmann adds, "that they didn't think to segregate it. Nobody's going to take a stand on any kind of moral issue here; it's going to hinge on the market."Meanwhile, a small firm in Fairfield, Iowa, called Genetic ID says it can scan crops at the genetic level and tell brokers whether they've been genetically engineered. "We have a test running commercially for the Roundup Ready soybeans already," says company president Jeff Wells.
Monsanto insists that farmers also use their "insect-resistance management program," Marshall responds. Guidelines suggest, for example, leaving 4 percent of their acreage untreated as a "refuge," so not every insect develops resistance. "We are also looking at next-generation products," Marshall adds, "so we don't use one forever."
In other words, farmers just stepped over to a biotech treadmill. And it could also hook them on escalating amounts of Roundup. Reports from Australia indicate that ryegrass there may have developed immunity to Roundup after only 10 sprayings in 15 years. Monsanto has sent a team over to catch that ryegrass: "We get these reports periodically," comments Marshall, "and we take them very seriously. But in 20 years, not one has been verified."Meanwhile, the U.S. tolerance level for Roundup residue on soybeans has shot up from six parts per million to 20 parts per million. EPA spokesman Al Heiera says companies -- in this case, Monsanto -- apply for certain tolerance levels based on their tests. When Monsanto initially applied for Roundup approval, they asked for a tolerance (on natural soybeans) of six parts per million. When we called to ask if that tolerance had increased since the advent of Roundup Ready soybeans, Heiera said no. That afternoon, he called back and said he was mistaken. "I'm surprised at that; usually those levels don't change," he blurted. "The tolerance level now is 20 parts per million, I'm told."
Last May, the European Community issued a council directive raising their maximum tolerance to 20 parts per million, and Australia is rumored to be considering the same increase.
Monsanto blithely dismisses concerns about residue, and it also dismisses the chance that the resistance genes will "escape" to weeds, making them more resistant to the herbicides. This fear of "escape" runs through all of agricultural biotech, but the term's inaccurate: The genes remain where they are, but copy themselves and spread through cross-pollination. This March, the science journal Nature published a report from Riso National Lab in Denmark saying that genes engineered into oilseed rape (the source of canola oil) had already spread to weedy relatives.Soybeans don't have weedy relatives here, but they do have an extended family in their native China. Monsanto did its field trials in several countries -- but none there. "We just don't think it's going to be an issue," says Marshall, adding that China isn't one of their initial markets.
Dr. John Payne directs biotechnology and science services for the USDA's animal-and-plant-inspection agency. Asked whether the U.S. worries about Roundup resistance spreading in China, he replies, "Our regulatory process is focused on the U.S. But the discussions with other governments are fairly broad." So the Chinese government would know if they'd run any risk of spread? "China's not the best example," he replies, quickly switching the subject to communications with Canada and Mexico.
Protective of its golden Roundup Ready soybeans, Monsanto has greenwashed them almost beyond recognition. But if the wonderseeds can sprout among the corpses of enemy weeds, won't they be glazed with ever-more Roundup? Monsanto saw no need to spray its Roundup Ready soybeans with Roundup for testing purposes: "The change we were making was the one new protein," explains Marshall. "Glyphosate we'd studied for years."Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum weed killer that acts systemically on the entire plant. Environmentalists say it can also harm animals, fish, earthworms, beneficial soil micro-organisms and -- under the right circumstances -- humans. Monsantopoints to many years of successful toxicology and residue testing; activists point to cases of lab fraud. According to the Journal for Pesticide Reform (JPR), Craven Laboratories was convicted in 1991 on 20 felony counts after fraudulently recording test results on glyphosate. And Monsanto was one of their clients.
Glyphosate was the third most commonly reported cause of pesticide illness in farm workers in California, the only state that tracks. Marshall says, "All of those incidents were minor skin or eye irritations, totally reversible." Tell that to a baby rabbit with Roundup in his eye. In humans, JPR reported last year, "Rubbing of Roundup in an eye caused swelling of the eye and lid, rapid heartbeat, palpitations, and elevated blood pressure. Inhalation can cause fatal spasms, chemical pneumonia, and excess fluids in the lungs."JPR editor Caroline Cox says that when she researched Roundup, she found "problems in every standard toxicological category. That struck me, because the advertising gives the image of a very benign product." (After a five-year legal challenge from New York's attorney general, Monsanto recently agreed to change ads that were calling Roundup safer than table salt and "practically nontoxic" to animals, birds and fish.)
This October, a federal judge in the District of Columbia ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency must disclose information about the inert ingredients in Roundup and five other pesticides. The EPA had classified these ingredients as trade secrets. "We know there is an inert ingredient in Roundup that is more toxic than glyphosate itself," says Cox, referring to polyethoxylated tallowamines that aid penetration. Combining the inerts with glyphosate further increases the toxicity of both, she adds, but the final product is diluted with water.
So why isn't the U.S., like Austria, moving toward a goal of 50 percent organic farms by 2000? Because organic means labor-intensive, with smaller yields. Crop prices haven't exactly kept up with the cost of living, so U.S. farmers count on ever-increasing volume to compensate. "The grain cartels like giving premiums for volume, not for quality," Cummins notes. "The more toxic American crops are, the more money the cartels make -- they can penalize the farmer, take the money, and mix the grain in with all the rest. That's why they don't want anyone questioning their ability to mix grains the way they want."Bill Christison of Chillicothe, Mo., is president of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center and vice president of the National Family Farm Coalition. "For years, farmers have readily accepted technology as it came," he admits, "because state departments, extensions, all the publications were saying, `We now have something new and better and everybody needs to get with it.'" At first, Roundup Ready soybeans sounded new and better, too, he says, "but as people become more aware, they are becoming more apprehensive." Not only are the engineered seeds "a loose cannon that could go off at any time" in terms of health and the environment, but consumer fears could ruin the U.S. farmers' market.
"Monsanto's patent for Roundup expires in about three years," Christison points out. "In my opinion, what they were trying to do was hold their market through the use of patented seeds." Biotech obviously favors agribusiness, but the small farmers who've made it this far are "are pretty sharp operators," Christison notes. "We didn't ask for this, we don't want it, and we are not going to use it."Organic farmers worry that biotech will render traditional techniques useless, as inserted genes tamper with natural balance, predator-prey relationships and resistance levels. Meanwhile, supply and quality could begin fluctuating wildly, as organic farmers struggle to meet sudden bursts of demand and competition. "We don't need this kind of disruption," grumbles Kirschenmann.
Developing countries' low labor costs make them ideal for organic farming, "but they are trying to go the other way," notes Ho. In rapidly urbanizing China, there's now a shortage of labor on the farms, which are consolidating into larger operations. "If this process continues," he says, "they have no choice but to use chemicals and other U.S. techniques."
[Image] "They are playing a game of Monopoly, suing each other left, right and center," says Fox. "There is not one vestige of altruistic motive." Ho says he's not bothered by the patent issues -- they've been around forever -- but he does wonder what happens if somebody makes a dangerous mistake? "Someone could put a toxic gene in bacteria which would encounter with humans and animals," he points out. "That's very scary. There's no evidence the government is setting up a legal system to deter that. The bottom line is, we have not had enough public discussions. Laboratory information is being passed on to industrial interests at a very fast pace, and the general public has trouble catching up.
"Biotechnology has opened up a new frontier," Ho continues. "But the biosphere is limited, and overmanipulation is going to affect the balance." How do we know when we're overmanipulating? "We don't know," he says. "We need to keep monitoring."No one's sure how long to monitor, though; engineered genes could express themselves in unforeseen ways at any point. No one's sure how large the trials should be, either; some effects only surface when farmers scale up for full production. "Because we know so little, we tend to use a reductionist approach," finishes Ho. "We consider a gene as basically a large chemical, so we can use a chemical method to take the gene apart. However, a gene is much more than its chemical composition."
You wouldn't do much basic research; funds have dwindled. You wouldn't speak out, lest you lose a grant, and you wouldn't collaborate much. "Scientists are sworn to secrecy because of proprietary research," explains Fox, "so there is far less openness in the scientific community. What we finish up with is monolithic thinking." We also finish with even sharper global inequity. The developing world may be a testing ground for biotech, but it's not likely to share the rewards. Farmers in developing countries could even end up paying U.S. companies for patented seeds developed from plants native to their own countries.
"We think we can improve upon nature by manipulating genes," remarks Fox, "and yet the answers to most of our problems don't lie in the genes or in the stars. They rest upon our relationship with the live community on the planet."And it's in jeopardy.