The New York Times Business
October 11, 2000
By DAVID BARBOZA
FAIRFIELD, Iowa - In 1984, John B. Fagan, a molecular biologist at
the National Institutes of Health, left a promising job as a cancer
researcher in Washington to come to this sleepy farm town to practice
transcendental meditation and begin a new life as a university
He took a post at the Maharishi International University here and
became a star researcher, attracting N.I.H. research grants. But in
the early 1990's, he began to have second thoughts about gene therapy
and the genetic engineering of crops.
In 1994 he turned down a $614,000 research grant from the N.I.H. to
study gene therapy because of concerns about the "dangerous
consequences" of manipulating human genes. And two years later, he
founded a company that tests crops for genetic alterations, giving
processed-food makers the option of steering clear of biotechnology
In September, Dr. Fagan's company, Genetic ID, found that a batch of
grocery store taco shells sold by Kraft Foods, a unit of Philip
Morris, were made with a genetically engineered corn that had not
been approved for human consumption. The findings forced Kraft to
recall millions of taco shells and reignited a long-standing debate
over the safety and labeling of genetically altered foods.
The discovery also led to renewed allegations from the biotechnology
industry that Genetic ID, one of the nation's largest testing labs,
was working closely with opponents of that technology.
Genetic ID executives acknowledged Dr. Fagan's activism, but said the
company itself was neutral about genetically altered crops, and
relied on a widely accepted DNA testing technique, known as
polymerase chain reaction, or P.C.R. And, they note, the taco shell
results were independently confirmed by Kraft and the Food and Drug
The biotechnology industry, which has invested billions of dollars to
create genetically altered crops, says Genetic ID has secretly waged
war on the industry under the cloak of doing impartial testing for
food companies, many of which support biotechnology. Genetic ID, many
in the industry say, is trying to create a biotech scare to increase
demand for testing.
"They claim to be impartial but their principal scientist for the
past several years has made a name going around and raising questions
about the safety of biotechnology without any supporting scientific
data," said Val Giddings, a top official at the Biotechnology
The high-stakes debate over testing is certain to intensify as global
food companies weigh the merits of marketing genetically altered
foods to consumers, and companies exporting products to Europe and
Asia move to comply with new restrictions and labeling requirements
on genetically altered foods.
And like it or not, Dr. Fagan, the soft-spoken 52-year-old chairman
of Genetic ID, is caught in the middle of the debate over
biotechnology. The scientist-turned-activist-turned-corporate-officer
is now trying to explain the intersection of those lives.
Dr. Fagan, who was born in Michigan and raised in northern Idaho,
earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of
Washington at Seattle, where a neighbor introduced him to
transcendental meditation and the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi,
an Indian seer. Maharishi teaches that meditation and a more organic
approach to life can raise consciousness, reduce crime rates and
improve the environment, among other things.
After earning a Ph.D. at Cornell University, Dr. Fagan established
himself in the field seeking to find genetic links to cancer. But
after leaving Washington for the cornfields of southeastern Iowa -
where he could practice transcendental meditation with other
adherents who had gathered around the Maharishi International
University here - Dr. Fagan began to have doubts.
"I was seeing a lot of hype about gene therapy and how it could be
used, and it was beginning to get to me," he said. "I started to
wonder whether I was doing the right thing in my profession."
Dr. Fagan said he came to believe that scientists and biotechnology
companies were moving too aggressively to alter the genetic code of
the world's food supply, and that not enough testing had been done to
assess the risks and consequences.
And so in 1995, at the request of the Maharishi, he wrote a book
critical of genetic engineering, which he called a "grave threat."
His solution? "Vedic engineering," following the holistic principles
of the Maharishi that call for, among other things, organic farming
and transcendental meditation.
A year later, as concern over the safety of genetically altered crops
grew in Europe and Asia, Dr. Fagan and a group of local investors
founded Genetic ID to help companies determine that their products
were free of genetically altered ingredients.
Dr. Fagan served the company as scientific adviser even as he doubled
as an outspoken critic of genetic engineering. He spoke at
conferences, published articles and served as an informal adviser to
the Natural Law Party, which sought a moratorium on the
commercialization of genetically altered foods. He was even a
plaintiff in a 1998 lawsuit challenging an F.D.A. determination that
genetically altered foods were safe. The United States District Court
for the District of Columbia recently dismissed the suit.
Genetic ID executives, however, say that when Dr. Fagan took over as
chairman of the company and became a shareholder in 1998, he agreed
to cease his public criticism of genetically modified foods lest the
company be seen as taking sides.
Dr. Fagan said he now took a more moderate position. He is not
opposed to genetic engineering, he now says in softer tones; he is
simply troubled by its what he regards as its premature
commercialization. He also said that his book, "Genetic Engineering:
The Hazards; Vedic Engineering: The Solutions," might hint at a
tougher stance than he actually holds because it was written for
followers of the Maharishi, who largely accept organic or vegetarian
Still, in December 1999, when the F.D.A. was holding public hearings
on the issue of genetically modified foods, Dr. Fagan identified
himself as a Genetic ID official and raised questions about the
safety of genetically engineered foods.
Such outspokenness bothers some in the food industry. Gene Grabowski,
a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, which
represents the nation's largest food companies, said Genetic ID's
decision to hold a news conference to publicize the Kraft test raised
suspicions about the company, which had tested the taco shells for
Genetically Engineered Food Alert, a coalition of anti-biotechnology
"The fact that the company has ties to Maharishi doesn't mean they
can't do good research," Mr. Grabowski said. "But their tactics
clearly indicate that they are not neutral on the issue of
At least one major food maker that in the past used Genetic ID for
testing appears to be turning to other labs. General Mills now tests
at the United States division of Hanse Analytik, a German company.
Genetic ID executives blame the biotechnology industry, which they
say has tried to discredit the company and the transcendental
meditation movement to deflect attention from the debate over the
safety of biotechnology.
Indeed, when biotechnology industry executives were asked about
Genetic ID, they supplied The New York Times with handouts and
"backgrounders" on the company, including descriptions of Dr. Fagan's
affiliation with practitioners of Transcedental Meditation, which the
notes said had "some very peculiar quasi-religious beliefs about food
Dr. Fagan denounced the effort as "slanderous and bigoted."
Transcendental meditation, he said, is not a religion.
Despite such attacks, the privately held company said its business
was booming, though it declined to disclose a list of clients, citing
confidentiality agreements. Food and agriculture experts agreed that
Genetic ID was clearly among the biggest companies in the newly
emerging testing field, partly because it was an early entrant into
the business, whose growth has been fueled by European and Japanese
restrictions on genetically modified foods. It now competes with such
companies as Qualicon, a subsidiary of DuPont, and Strategic
Diagnostics, a Delaware company that sells test kits.
Business was not always so good, however. Dr. Fagan said a lack of
business two years ago forced him to find new investors and bring in
an old friend, an organic-fertilizer entrepreneur named Bill
Witherspoon, to reorganize the company.
Mr. Witherspoon, another transcendental meditation practitioner,
created a new kind of corporation, where decisions, he said, would be
"agreed upon" by the employees. Company offices would be devoid of
the "negative forces" often present in corporate America, he said.
"There are no Harvard M.B.A.'s, no biz school geniuses," he said.
"There's a group of people comfortable responding to the environment
rather than people who want to push the environment. We are not
hierarchical, we're a network of intelligences."
Mr. Witherspoon, who once was fined by federal officials for carving
geometric designs into an Oregon desert to "enliven human
consciousness," said he joined Genetic ID on the condition that he
could continue to work intuitively.
He personally hired nearly all of Genetic ID's employees, many of
whom are followers of the Maharishi because so many of Fairfield's
10,000 residents are transplants who practice transcendental
Still, executives say the science behind the company's testing is
divorced from the Maharishi's "vedic" principles, based on the sacred
writings of the Hindus. At Genetic ID labs, biologists grind and
homogenize samples of, say, corn, then extract the DNA and use the
polymerase chain reaction process to detect and amplify the presence
of genetically modified DNA. The company said it could detect
genetically altered DNA content as low as one part in 10,000.
Industry experts say P.C.R. tests are not entirely reliable, and are
susceptible to falsely indicating the presence of genetically
modified material even when it is not actually present. But Genetic
ID executives said it triple-tests each sample to narrow the chances
of a false result. And, the company noted, the United Kingdom
Accreditation Service has certified Genetic ID as qualified to find
genetically modified DNA in food. It is seeking similar accreditation
from a new F.D.A. program.
After Genetically Engineered Food Alert brought grocery store taco
shell samples to the company for testing, scientists were able to
detect the presence of StarLink, a strain of biotechnology corn that
was approved only for animal feed. Kraft announced a recall four days
later, saying it had confirmed the result.
Critics questioned Genetic ID's methods, citing a test of corn snacks
for a consumer group in Japan this year in which the company said it
found an unapproved variety of bioengineered corn in some samples.
The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture said its own tests on a similar
batch were negative.
Genetic ID executives countered that the ministry's failure to
confirm the result did not mean the company was wrong.
"You cannot disprove one sample with another sample that may have not
come from the same lot," said Jeffrey Smith, a spokesman at Genetic
ID. "We still stand behind our methods."
The company, which licenses its methods to other labs in Europe and
Asia, said that it was likely to face continued hostility from major
biotechnology companies. Dr. Fagan said the campaign against Genetic
ID might drive him out of the company he created.
"I don't know what's going to happen," he said, noting that he has
tried to keep his own views separate from company policies. "Maybe
they're going to have to get rid of me."
Copyright 2000 The New York Times