Playing God in the Garden: New York Times Magazine on GE Crops
The New York Times Sunday Magazine
October 25, 1998
"Playing God in the Garden"
by Michael Pollan
Today I planted something new in my vegetable garden -- something very
new, as a matter of fact. It's a potato called the New Leaf Superior,
which has been genetically engineered -- by Monsanto, the chemical giant
recently turned "life sciences" giant -- to produce its own insecticide.
This it can do in every cell of every leaf, stem, flower, root and
(here's the creepy part) spud. The scourge of potatoes has always been
the Colorado potato beetle, a handsome and voracious insect that can pick
a plant clean of its leaves virtually overnight. Any Colorado potato
beetle that takes so much as a nibble of my New Leafs will supposedly
keel over and die, its digestive tract pulped, in effect, by the
bacterial toxin manufactured in the leaves of these otherwise ordinary
Superiors. (Superiors are the thin-skinned white spuds sold fresh in the
supermarket.) You're probably wondering if I plan to eat these potatoes,
or serve them to my family. That's still up in the air; it's only the
first week of May, and harvest is a few months off.
Certainly my New Leafs are aptly named. They're part of a new class of
crop plants that is rapidly changing the American food chain. This year,
the fourth year that genetically altered seed has been on the market,
some 45 million acres of American farmland have been planted with
biotech crops, most of it corn, soybeans, cotton and potatoes that have
been engineered to either produce their own pesticides or withstand
herbicides. Though Americans have already begun to eat genetically
engineered potatoes, corn and soybeans, industry research confirms what
my own informal surveys suggest: hardly any of us knows it. The reason is
not hard to find. The biotech industry, with the concurrence of the Food
and Drug Administration, has decided we don't need to know it, so biotech
foods carry no identifying labels. In a dazzling feat of positioning, the
industry has succeeded in depicting these plants simultaneously as the
linchpins of a biological revolution -- part of a "new agricultural
paradigm" that will make farming more sustainable, feed the world and
improve health and nutrition -- and, oddly enough, as the same old stuff,
at least so far as those of us at the eating end of the food chain should
This convenient version of reality has been roundly rejected by both
consumers and farmers across the Atlantic. Last summer, biotech food
emerged as the most explosive environmental issue in Europe. Protesters
have destroyed dozens of field trials of the very same "frankenplants"
(as they are sometimes called) that we Americans are already serving for
dinner, and throughout Europe the public has demanded that biotech food
be labeled in the market.
By growing my own transgenic crop -- and talking with scientists and
farmers involved with biotech -- I hoped to discover which of us was
crazy. Are the Europeans overreacting, or is it possible that we've been
underreacting to genetically engineered food?
After digging two shallow trenches in my garden and lining them with
compost, I untied the purple mesh bag of seed potatoes that Monsanto had
sent and opened up the Grower Guide tied around its neck. (Potatoes, you
may recall from kindergarten experiments, are grown not from seed but
from the eyes of other potatoes.) The guide put me in mind not so much of
planting potatoes as booting up a new software release. By "opening and
using this product," the card stated, I was now "licensed" to grow these
potatoes, but only for a single generation; the crop I would water and
tend and harvest was mine, yet also not mine. That is, the potatoes I
will harvest come August are mine to eat or sell, but their genes remain
the intellectual property of Monsanto, protected under numerous United
States patents, including Nos. 5,196,525, 5,164,316, 5,322,938 and
5,352,605. Were I to save even one of them to plant next year --something
I've routinely done with potatoes in the past -- I would be breaking
Federal law. The small print in the Grower Guide also brought the news
that my potato plants were themselves a pesticide, registered with the
Environmental Protection Agency.
If proof were needed that the intricate industrial food chain that begins
with seeds and ends on our dinner plates is in the throes of profound
change, the small print that accompanied my New Leaf will do. That food
chain has been unrivaled for its productivity -- on average, a single
American farmer today grows enough food each year to feed 100 people. But
this accomplishment has come at a price. The modern industrial farmer
cannot achieve such yields without enormous amounts of chemical
fertilizer, pesticide, machinery and fuel, a set of capital-intensive
inputs, as they're called, that saddle the farmer with debt, threaten his
health, erode his soil and destroy its fertility, pollute the ground
water and compromise the safety of the food we eat.
We've heard all this before, of course, but usually from
environmentalists and organic farmers; what is new is to hear the same
critique from conventional farmers, government officials and even many
agribusiness corporations, all of whom now acknowledge that our food
chain stands in need of reform. Sounding more like Wendell Berry than the
agribusiness giant it is, Monsanto declared in its most recent annual
report that "current agricultural technology is not sustainable."
What is supposed to rescue the American food chain is biotechnology --
the replacement of expensive and toxic chemical inputs with expensive but
apparently benign genetic information: crops that, like my New Leafs, can
protect themselves from insects and disease without being sprayed with
pesticides. With the advent of biotechnology, agriculture is entering the
information age, and more than any other company, Monsanto is positioning
itself to become its Microsoft, supplying the proprietary "operating
systems" -- the metaphor is theirs -- to run this new generation of
There is, of course, a second food chain in America: organic agriculture.
And while it is still only a fraction of the size of the conventional
food chain, it has been growing in leaps and bounds -- in large part
because of concerns over the safety of conventional agriculture. Organic
farmers have been among biotechnology's fiercest critics, regarding crops
like my New Leafs as inimical to their principles and, potentially, a
threat to their survival. That's because Bt, the bacterial toxin produced
in my New Leafs (and in many other biotech plants) happens to be the same
insecticide organic growers have relied on for decades. Instead of being
flattered by the imitation, however, organic farmers are up in arms: the
widespread use of Bt in biotech crops is likely to lead to insect
resistance, thus robbing organic growers of one of their most critical
tools; that is, Monsanto's version of sustainable agriculture may
threaten precisely those farmers who pioneered sustainable farming.
After several days of drenching rain, the sun appeared on May 15, and so
did my New Leafs. A dozen deep-green shoots pushed up out of the soil and
commenced to grow -- faster and more robustly than any of the other
potatoes in my garden. Apart from their vigor, though, my New Leafs
looked perfectly normal. And yet as I watched them multiply their
lustrous dark-green leaves those first few days, eagerly awaiting the
arrival of the first doomed beetle, I couldn't help thinking of them as
existentially different from the rest of my plants.
All domesticated plants are in some sense artificial -- living archives
of both cultural and natural information that we in some sense "design."
A given type of potato reflects the values we've bred into it -- one
that has been selected to yield long, handsome french fries or
unblemished round potato chips is the expression of a national food
chain that likes its potatoes highly processed. At the same time, some
of the more delicate European fingerlings I'm growing alongside my New
Leafs imply an economy of small market growers and a taste for eating
potatoes fresh. Yet all these qualities already existed in the potato,
somewhere within the range of genetic possibilities presented by Solanum
tuberosum. Since distant species in nature cannot be crossed, the
breeder's art has always run up against a natural limit of what a potato
is willing, or able, to do. Nature, in effect, has exercised a kind of
veto on what culture can do with a potato.
My New Leafs are different. Although Monsanto likes to depict
biotechnology as just another in an ancient line of human modifications
of nature going back to fermentation, in fact genetic engineering
overthrows the old rules governing the relationship of nature and culture
in a plant. For the first time, breeders can bring qualities from
anywhere in nature into the genome of a plant -- from flounders (frost
tolerance), from viruses (disease resistance) and, in the case of my
potatoes, from Bacillus thuringiensis, the soil bacterium that produces
the organic insecticide known as Bt. The introduction into a plant of
genes transported not only across species but whole phyla means that the
wall of that plant's essential identity -- its irreducible wildness, you
might say -- has been breached.
But what is perhaps most astonishing about the New Leafs coming up in my
garden is the human intelligence that the inclusion of the Bt gene
represents. In the past, that intelligence resided outside the plant, in
the mind of the organic farmers who deployed Bt (in the form of a spray)
to manipulate the ecological relationship of certain insects and a
certain bacterium as a way to foil those insects. The irony about the New
Leafs is that the cultural information they encode happens to be
knowledge that resides in the heads of the very sort of people -- that
is, organic growers -- who most distrust high technology.
One way to look at biotechnology is that it allows a larger portion of
human intelligence to be incorporated into the plant itself. In this
sense, my New Leafs are just plain smarter than the rest of my potatoes.
The others will depend on my knowledge and experience when the Colorado
potato beetles strike; the New Leafs, knowing what I know about bugs and
Bt, will take care of themselves. So while my biotech plants might seem
like alien beings, that's not quite right. They're more like us than like
other plants because there's more of us in them.
To find out how my potatoes got that way, I traveled to suburban St.
Louis in early June. My New Leafs are clones of clones of plants that
were first engineered seven years ago in Monsanto's $150 million research
facility, a long, low-slung brick building on the banks of the Missouri
that would look like any other corporate complex were it not for the 26
greenhouses that crown its roof like shimmering crenellations of glass.
Dave Stark, a molecular biologist and co-director of Naturemark,
Monsanto's potato subsidiary, escorted me through the clean rooms where
potatoes are genetically engineered. Technicians sat at lab benches
before petri dishes in which fingernail-size sections of potato stem had
been placed in a nutrient mixture. To this the technicians added a
solution of agrobacterium, a disease bacterium whose modus operandi is to
break into a plant cell's nucleus and insert some of its own DNA.
Essentially, scientists smuggle the Bt gene into the agrobacterium's
payload, and then the bacterium splices it into the potato's DNA. The
technicians also add a "marker" gene, a kind of universal product code
that allows Monsanto to identify its plants after they leave the lab.
A few days later, once the slips of potato stem have put down roots,
they're moved to the potato greenhouse up on the roof. Here, Glenda
DeBrecht, a horticulturist, invited me to don latex gloves and help her
transplant pinky-size plantlets from their petri dish to small pots. The
whole operation is performed thousands of times, largely because there is
so much uncertainty about the outcome. There's no way of telling where in
the genome the new DNA will land, and if it winds up in the wrong place,
the new gene won't be expressed (or it will be poorly expressed) or the
plant may be a freak. I was struck by how the technology could at once be
astoundingly sophisticated and yet also a shot in the genetic dark.
"There's still a lot we don't understand about gene expression," Stark
acknowledged. A great many factors influence whether, or to what extent,
a new gene will do what it's supposed to, including the environment. In
one early German experiment, scientists succeeded in splicing the gene
for redness into petunias. All went as planned until the weather turned
hot and an entire field of red petunias suddenly and inexplicably lost
their pigment. The process didn't seem nearly as simple as Monsanto's
cherished software metaphor would suggest.
When I got home from St. Louis, I phoned Richard Lewontin, the Harvard
geneticist, to ask him what he thought of the software metaphor. "From an
intellectual-property standpoint, it's exactly right," he said. "But it's
a bad one in terms of biology. It implies you feed a program into a
machine and get predictable results. But the genome is very noisy. If my
computer made as many mistakes as an organism does" -- in interpreting
its DNA, he meant -- "I'd throw it out."
I asked him for a better metaphor. "An ecosystem," he offered. "You can
always intervene and change something in it, but there's no way of
knowing what all the downstream effects will be or how it might affect
the environment. We have such a miserably poor understanding of how the
organism develops from its DNA that I would be surprised if we don't get
one rude shock after another."
My own crop was thriving when I got home from St. Louis; the New Leafs
were as big as bushes, crowned with slender flower stalks. Potato flowers
are actually quite pretty, at least by vegetable standards --
five-petaled pink stars with yellow centers that give off a faint rose
perfume. One sultry afternoon I watched the bumblebees making their lazy
rounds of my potato blossoms, thoughtlessly powdering their thighs with
yellow pollen grains before lumbering off to appointments with other
blossoms, others species.
Uncertainty is the theme that unifies much of the criticism leveled
against biotech agriculture by scientists and environmentalists. By
planting millions of acres of genetically altered plants, we have
introduced something novel into the environment and the food chain, the
consequences of which are not -- and at this point, cannot be --
completely understood. One of the uncertainties has to do with those
grains of pollen bumblebees are carting off from my potatoes. That pollen
contains Bt genes that may wind up in some other, related plant, possibly
conferring a new evolutionary advantage on that species. "Gene flow," the
scientific term for this phenomenon, occurs only between closely related
species, and since the potato evolved in South America, the chances are
slim that my Bt potato genes will escape into the wilds of Connecticut.
(It's interesting to note that while biotechnology depends for its power
on the ability to move genes freely among species and even phyla, its
environmental safety depends on the very opposite phenomenon: on the
integrity of species in nature and their rejection of foreign genetic
Yet what happens if and when Peruvian farmers plant Bt potatoes? Or when
I plant a biotech crop that does have local relatives? A study reported
in Nature last month found that plant traits introduced by genetic
engineering were more likely to escape into the wild than the same traits
Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Technology Assessment in
Washington, told me he believes such escapes are inevitable. "Biological
pollution will be the environmental nightmare of the 21st century," he
said when I reached him by phone. "This is not like chemical pollution --
an oil spill -- that eventually disperses. Biological pollution is an
entirely different model, more like a disease. Is Monsanto going to be
held legally responsible when one of its transgenes creates a superweed
or resistant insect?"
Kimbrell maintains that because our pollution laws were written before
the advent of biotechnology, the new industry is being regulated under an
ill-fitting regime designed for the chemical age. Congress has so far
passed no environmental law dealing specifically with biotech. Monsanto,
for its part, claims that it has thoroughly examined all the potential
environmental and health risks of its biotech plants, and points out that
three regulatory agencies -- the U.S.D.A., the E.P.A. and the F.D.A. --
have signed off on its products. Speaking of the New Leaf, Dave Stark
told me, "This is the most intensively studied potato in history."
Significant uncertainties remain, however. Take the case of insect
resistance to Bt, a potential form of "biological pollution" that could
end the effectiveness of one of the safest insecticides we have -- and
cripple the organic farmers who depend on it. The theory, which is now
accepted by most entomologists, is that Bt crops will add so much of the
toxin to the environment that insects will develop resistance to it.
Until now, resistance hasn't been a worry because the Bt sprays break
down quickly in sunlight and organic farmers use them only sparingly.
Resistance is essentially a form of co-evolution that seems to occur only
when a given pest population is threatened with extinction; under that
pressure, natural selection favors whatever chance mutations will allow
the species to change and survive.
Working with the E.P.A., Monsanto has developed a "resistance-management
plan" to postpone that eventuality. Under the plan, farmers who plant Bt
crops must leave a certain portion of their land in non-Bt crops to
create "refuges" for the targeted insects. The goal is to prevent the
first Bt-resistant Colorado potato beetle from mating with a second
resistant bug, unleashing a new race of superbeetles. The theory is that
when a Bt-resistant bug does show up, it can be induced to mate with a
susceptible bug from the refuge, thus diluting the new gene for
But a lot has to go right for Mr. Wrong to meet Miss Right. No one is
sure how big the refuges need to be, where they should be situated or
whether the farmers will cooperate (creating havens for a detested pest
is counter-intuitive, after all), not to mention the bugs. In the case of
potatoes, the E.P.A. has made the plan voluntary and lets the companies
themselves implement it; there are no E.P.A. enforcement mechanisms.
Which is why most of the organic farmers I spoke to dismissed the
regulatory scheme as window dressing.
Monsanto executives offer two basic responses to criticism of their Bt
crops. The first is that their voluntary resistance-management plans will
work, though the company's definition of success will come as small
consolation to an organic farmer: Monsanto scientists told me that if all
goes well, resistance can be postponed for 30 years. (Some scientists
believe it will come in three to five years.) The second response is more
troubling. In St. Louis, I met with Jerry Hjelle, Monsanto's vice
president for regulatory affairs. Hjelle told me that resistance should
not unduly concern us since "there are a thousand other Bt's out there"
-- other insecticidal proteins. "We can handle this problem with new
products," he said. "The critics don't know what we have in the
And then Hjelle uttered two words that I thought had been expunged from
the corporate vocabulary a long time ago: "Trust us."
Trust" is a key to the success of biotechnology in the marketplace, and
while I was in St. Louis, I asked Hjelle and several of his colleagues
why they thought the Europeans were resisting biotech food. Austria,
Luxembourg and Norway, risking trade war with the United States, have
refused to accept imports of genetically altered crops. Activists in
England have been staging sit-ins and "decontaminations" in biotech test
fields. A group of French farmers broke into a warehouse and ruined a
shipment of biotech corn seed by urinating on it. The Prince of Wales,
who is an ardent organic gardener, waded into the biotech debate last
June, vowing in a column in The Daily Telegraph that he would never eat,
or serve to his guests, the fruits of a technology that "takes mankind
into realms that belong to God and to God alone."
Monsanto executives are quick to point out that mad cow disease has made
Europeans extremely sensitive about the safety of their food chain and
has undermined confidence in their regulators. "They don't have a trusted
agency like the F.D.A. looking after the safety of their food supply,"
said Phil Angell, Monsanto's director of corporate communications. Over
the summer, Angell was dispatched repeatedly to Europe to put out the
P.R. fires; some at Monsanto worry these could spread to the United
I checked with the F.D.A. to find out exactly what had been done to
insure the safety of this potato. I was mystified by the fact that the Bt
toxin was not being treated as a "food additive" subject to labeling,
even though the new protein is expressed in the potato itself. The label
on a bag of biotech potatoes in the supermarket will tell a consumer all
about the nutrients they contain, even the trace amounts of copper. Yet
it is silent not only about the fact that those potatoes are the product
of genetic engineering but also about their containing an insecticide.
At the F.D.A., I was referred to James Maryanski, who oversees biotech
food at the agency. I began by asking him why the F.D.A. didn't consider
Bt a food additive. Under F.D.A. law, any novel substance added to a food
must -- unless it is "generally regarded as safe" ("GRAS," in F.D.A.
parlance) -- be thoroughly tested and if it changes the product in any
way, must be labeled.
"That's easy," Maryanski said. "Bt is a pesticide, so it's exempt" from
F.D.A. regulation. That is, even though a Bt potato is plainly a food,
for the purposes of Federal regulation it is not a food but a pesticide
and therefore falls under the jurisdiction of the E.P.A.
Yet even in the case of those biotech crops over which the F.D.A. does
have jurisdiction, I learned that F.D.A. regulation of biotech food has
been largely voluntary since 1992, when Vice President Dan Quayle issued
regulatory guidelines for the industry as part of the Bush
Administration's campaign for "regulatory relief." Under the guidelines,
new proteins engineered into foods are regarded as additives (unless
they're pesticides), but as Maryanski explained, "the determination
whether a new protein is GRAS can be made by the company." Companies with
a new biotech food decide for themselves whether they need to consult
with the F.D.A. by following a series of "decision trees" that pose yes
or no questions like this one: "Does ... the introduced protein raise any
Since my Bt potatoes were being regulated as a pesticide by the E.P.A.
rather than as a food by the F.D.A., I wondered if the safety standards
are the same. "Not exactly," Maryanski explained. The F.D.A. requires "a
reasonable certainty of no harm" in a food additive, a standard most
pesticides could not meet. After all, "pesticides are toxic to
something," Maryanski pointed out, so the E.P.A. instead establishes
human "tolerances" for each chemical and then subjects it to a
When I called the E.P.A. and asked if the agency had tested my Bt
potatoes for safety as a human food, the answer was ... not exactly. It
seems the E.P.A. works from the assumption that if the original potato is
safe and the Bt protein added to it is safe, then the whole New Leaf
package is presumed to be safe. Some geneticists believe this reasoning
is flawed, contending that the process of genetic engineering itself may
cause subtle, as yet unrecognized changes in a food.
The original Superior potato is safe, obviously enough, so that left the
Bt toxin, which was fed to mice, and they "did fine, had no side
effects," I was told. I always feel better knowing that my food has been
poison-tested by mice, though in this case there was a small catch: the
mice weren't actually eating the potatoes, not even an extract from the
potatoes, but rather straight Bt produced in a bacterial culture.
So are my New Leafs safe to eat? Probably, assuming that a New Leaf is
nothing more than the sum of a safe potato and a safe pesticide, and
further assuming that the E.P.A.'s idea of a safe pesticide is tantamount
to a safe food. Yet I still had a question. Let us assume that my
potatoes are a pesticide -- a very safe pesticide. Every pesticide in my
garden shed -- including the Bt sprays -- carries a lengthy warning
label. The label on my bottle of Bt says, among other things, that I
should avoid inhaling the spray or getting it in an open wound. So if my
New Leaf potatoes contain an E.P.A.-registered pesticide, why don't they
carry some such label?
Maryanski had the answer. At least for the purposes of labeling, my New
Leafs have morphed yet again, back into a food: the Food, Drug and
Cosmetic Act gives the F.D.A. sole jurisdiction over the labeling of
plant foods, and the F.D.A. has ruled that biotech foods need be labeled
only if they contain known allergens or have otherwise been "materially"
But isn't turning a potato into a pesticide a material change?
It doesn't matter. The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act specifically bars the
F.D.A. from including any information about pesticides on its food
I thought about Maryanski's candid and wondrous explanations the next
time I met Phil Angell, who again cited the critical role of the F.D.A.
in assuring Americans that biotech food is safe. But this time he went
even further. "Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of
biotech food," he said. "Our interest is in selling as much of it as
possible. Assuring its safety is the F.D.A.'s job."
Meeting the Beetles
My Colorado potato beetle vigil came to an end the first week of July,
shortly before I went to Idaho to visit potato growers. I spied a single
mature beetle sitting on a New Leaf leaf; when I reached to pick it up,
the beetle fell drunkenly to the ground. It had been sickened by the
plant and would soon be dead. My New Leafs were working.
From where a typical American potato grower stands, the New Leaf looks
very much like a godsend. That's because where the typical potato grower
stands is in the middle of a bright green field that has been doused with
so much pesticide that the leaves of his plants wear a dull white
chemical bloom that troubles him as much as it does the rest of us. Out
there, at least, the calculation is not complex: a product that promises
to eliminate the need for even a single spraying of pesticide is, very
simply, an economic and environmental boon.
No one can make a better case for a biotech crop than a potato farmer,
which is why Monsanto was eager to introduce me to several large growers.
Like many farmers today, the ones I met feel trapped by the chemical
inputs required to extract the high yields they must achieve in order to
pay for the chemical inputs they need. The economics are daunting: a
potato farmer in south-central Idaho will spend roughly $1,965 an acre
(mainly on chemicals, electricity, water and seed) to grow a crop that,
in a good year, will earn him maybe $1,980. That's how much a french-fry
processor will pay for the 20 tons of potatoes a single Idaho acre can
yield. (The real money in agriculture -- 90 percent of the value added to
the food we eat -- is in selling inputs to farmers and then processing
Danny Forsyth laid out the dismal economics of potato farming for me one
sweltering morning at the coffee shop in downtown Jerome, Idaho. Forsyth,
60, is a slight blue-eyed man with a small gray ponytail; he farms 3,000
acres of potatoes, corn and wheat, and he spoke about agricultural
chemicals like a man desperate to kick a bad habit. "None of us would use
them if we had any choice," he said glumly.
I asked him to walk me through a season's regimen. It typically begins
early in the spring with a soil fumigant; to control nematodes, many
potato farmers douse their fields with a chemical toxic enough to kill
every trace of microbial life in the soil. Then, at planting, a systemic
insecticide (like Thimet) is applied to the soil; this will be absorbed
by the young seedlings and, for several weeks, will kill any insect that
eats their leaves. After planting, Forsyth puts down an herbicide --
Sencor or Eptam -- to "clean" his field of all weeds. When the potato
seedlings are six inches tall, an herbicide may be sprayed a second time
to control weeds.
Idaho farmers like Forsyth farm in vast circles defined by the rotation
of a pivot irrigation system, typically 135 acres to a circle; I'd seen
them from 30,000 feet flying in, a grid of verdant green coins pressed
into a desert of scrubby brown. Pesticides and fertilizers are simply
added to the irrigation system, which on Forsyth's farm draws most of its
water from the nearby Snake River. Along with their water, Forsyth's
potatoes may receive 10 applications of chemical fertilizer during the
growing season. Just before the rows close -- when the leaves of one row
of plants meet those of the next -- he begins spraying Bravo, a
fungicide, to control late blight, one of the biggest threats to the
potato crop. (Late blight, which caused the Irish potato famine, is an
airborne fungus that turns stored potatoes into rotting mush.) Blight is
such a serious problem that the E.P.A. currently allows farmers to spray
powerful fungicides that haven't passed the usual approval process.
Forsyth's potatoes will receive eight applications of fungicide.
Twice each summer, Forsyth hires a crop duster to spray for aphids.
Aphids are harmless in themselves, but they transmit the leafroll virus,
which in Russet Burbank potatoes causes net necrosis, a brown spotting
that will cause a processor to reject a whole crop. It happened to
Forsyth last year. "I lost 80,000 bags" -- they're a hundred pounds each
-- "to net necrosis," he said. "Instead of getting $4.95 a bag, I had to
take $2 a bag from the dehydrator, and I was lucky to get that." Net
necrosis is a purely cosmetic defect; yet because big buyers like
McDonald's believe (with good reason) that we don't like to see brown
spots in our fries, farmers like Danny Forsyth must spray their fields
with some of the most toxic chemicals in use, including an
organophosphate called Monitor.
"Monitor is a deadly chemical," Forsyth said. "I won't go into a field
for four or five days after it's been sprayed -- even to fix a broken
pivot." That is, he would sooner lose a whole circle to drought than
expose himself or an employee to Monitor, which has been found to cause
It's not hard to see why a farmer like Forsyth, struggling against tight
margins and heartsick over chemicals, would leap at a New Leaf -- or, in
his case, a New Leaf Plus, which is protected from leafroll virus as well
as beetles. "The New Leaf means I can skip a couple of sprayings,
including the Monitor," he said. "I save money, and I sleep better. It
also happens to be a nice-looking spud." The New Leafs don't come
cheaply, however. They cost between $20 and $30 extra per acre in
"technology fees" to Monsanto.
Forsyth and I discussed organic agriculture, about which he had the usual
things to say ("That's all fine on a small scale, but they don't have to
feed the world"), as well as a few things I'd never heard from a
conventional farmer: "I like to eat organic food, and in fact I raise a
lot of it at the house. The vegetables we buy at the market we just wash
and wash and wash. I'm not sure I should be saying this, but I always
plant a small area of potatoes without any chemicals. By the end of the
season, my field potatoes are fine to eat, but any potatoes I pulled
today are probably still full of systemics. I don't eat them."
Forsyth's words came back to me a few hours later, during lunch at the
home of another potato farmer. Steve Young is a progressive and
prosperous potato farmer -- he calls himself an agribusinessman. In
addition to his 10,000 acres -- the picture window in his family room
gazes out on 85 circles, all computer-controlled -- Young owns a share in
a successful fertilizer distributorship. His wife prepared a lavish feast
for us, and after Dave, their 18-year-old, said grace, adding a special
prayer for me (the Youngs are devout Mormons), she passed around a big
bowl of homemade potato salad. As I helped myself, my Monsanto escort
asked what was in the salad, flashing me a smile that suggested she might
already know. "It's a combination of New Leafs and some of our regular
Russets," our hostess said proudly. "Dug this very morning."
After talking to farmers like Steve Young and Danny Forsyth, and walking
fields made virtually sterile by a drenching season-long rain of
chemicals, you could understand how Monsanto's New Leaf potato does
indeed look like an environmental boon. Set against current practices,
growing New Leafs represents a more sustainable way of potato farming.
This advance must be weighed, of course, against everything we don't yet
know about New Leafs -- and a few things we do: like the problem of Bt
resistance I had heard so much about back East. While I was in Idaho and
Washington State, I asked potato farmers to show me their refuges. This
proved to be a joke.
"I guess that's a refuge over there," one Washington farmer told me,
pointing to a cornfield.
Monsanto's grower contract never mentions the word "refuge" and only
requires that farmers plant no more than 80 percent of their fields in
New Leaf. Basically, any field not planted in New Leaf is considered a
refuge, even if that field has been sprayed to kill every bug in it.
Farmers call such acreage a clean field; calling it a refuge is a stretch
It probably shouldn't come as a big surprise that conventional farmers
would have trouble embracing the notion of an insect refuge. To insist on
real and substantial refuges is to ask them to start thinking of their
fields in an entirely new way, less as a factory than as an ecosystem. In
the factory, Bt is another in a long line of "silver bullets" that work
for a while and then get replaced; in the ecosystem, all bugs are not
necessarily bad, and the relationships between various species can be
manipulated to achieve desired ends -- like the long-term sustainability
This is, of course, precisely the approach organic farmers have always
taken to their fields, and after my lunch with the Youngs that afternoon,
I paid a brief visit to an organic potato grower. Mike Heath is a rugged,
laconic man in his mid-50's; like most of the organic farmers I've met,
he looks as though he spends a lot more time out of doors than a
conventional farmer, and he probably does: chemicals are, among other
things, labor-saving devices. While we drove around his 500 acres in a
battered old pickup, I asked him about biotechnology. He voiced many
reservations -- it was synthetic, there were too many unknowns -- but his
main objection to planting a biotech potato was simply that "it's not
what my customers want."
That point was driven home last December when the Department of
Agriculture proposed a new "organic standards" rule that, among other
things, would have allowed biotech crops to carry an organic label. After
receiving a flood of outraged cards and letters, the agency backed off.
(As did Monsanto, which asked the U.S.D.A. to shelve the issue for three
years.) Heath suggested that biotech may actually help organic farmers by
driving worried consumers to the organic label.
I asked Heath about the New Leaf. He had no doubt resistance would come
-- "the bugs are always going to be smarter than we are" -- and said it
was unjust that Monsanto was profiting from the ruin of Bt, something he
regarded as a "public good."
None of this particularly surprised me; what did was that Heath himself
resorted to Bt sprays only once or twice in the last 10 years. I had
assumed that organic farmers used Bt or other approved pesticides in much
the same way conventional farmers use theirs, but as Heath showed me
around his farm, I began to understand that organic farming was a lot
more complicated than substituting good inputs for bad. Instead of buying
many inputs at all, Heath relied on long and complex crop rotations to
prevent a buildup of crop-specific pests -- he has found, for example,
that planting wheat after spuds "confuses" the potato beetles.
He also plants strips of flowering crops on the margins of his potato
fields -- peas or alfalfa, usually -- to attract the beneficial insects
that eat beetle larvae and aphids. If there aren't enough beneficials to
do the job, he'll introduce ladybugs. Heath also grows eight varieties of
potatoes, on the theory that biodiversity in a field, as in the wild, is
the best defense against any imbalances in the system. A bad year with
one variety will probably be offset by a good year with the others.
"I can eat any potato in this field right now," he said, digging Yukon
Golds for me to take home. "Most farmers can't eat their spuds out of the
field. But you don't want to start talking about safe food in Idaho."
Heath's were the antithesis of "clean" fields, and, frankly, their weedy
margins and overall patchiness made them much less pretty to look at. Yet
it was the very complexity of these fields -- the sheer diversity of
species, both in space and time -- that made them productive year after
year without many inputs. The system provided for most of its needs.
All told, Heath's annual inputs consisted of natural fertilizers (compost
and fish powder), ladybugs and a copper spray (for blight) -- a few
hundred dollars an acre. Of course, before you can compare Heath's
operation with a conventional farm, you've got to add in the extra labor
(lots of smaller crops means more work; organic fields must also be
cultivated for weeds) and time -- the typical organic rotation calls for
potatoes every fifth year, in contrast to every third on a conventional
farm. I asked Heath about his yields. To my astonishment, he was digging
between 300 and 400 bags per acre -- just as many as Danny Forsyth and
only slightly fewer than Steve Young. Heath was also getting almost twice
the price for his spuds: $8 a bag from an organic processor who was
shipping frozen french fries to Japan.
On the drive back to Boise, I thought about why Heath's farm
remained the exception, both in Idaho and elsewhere. Here was a genuinely
new paradigm that seemed to work. But while it's true that organic
agriculture is gaining ground (I met a big grower in Washington who had
just added several organic circles), few of the mainstream farmers I met
considered organic a "realistic" alternative. For one thing, it's
expensive to convert: organic certifiers require a field to go without
chemicals for three years before it can be called organic. For another,
the U.S.D.A., which sets the course of American agriculture, has long
been hostile to organic methods.
But I suspect the real reasons run deeper, and have more to do with the
fact that in a dozen ways a farm like Heath's simply doesn't conform to
the requirements of a corporate food chain. Heath's type of agriculture
doesn't leave much room for the Monsantos of this world: organic farmers
buy remarkably little -- some seed, a few tons of compost, maybe a few
gallons of ladybugs. That's because the organic farmer's focus is on a
process, rather than on products. Nor is that process readily
systematized, reduced to, say, a prescribed regime of sprayings like the
one Forsyth outlined for me -- regimes that are often designed by
companies selling chemicals.
Most of the intelligence and local knowledge needed to run Mike Heath's
farm resides in the head of Mike Heath. Growing potatoes conventionally
requires intelligence, too, but a large portion of it resides in
laboratories in distant places like St. Louis, where it is employed in
developing sophisticated chemical inputs. That sort of centralization of
agriculture is unlikely to be reversed, if only because there's so much
money in it; besides, it's much easier for the farmer to buy prepackaged
solutions from big companies. "Whose Head Is the Farmer Using? Whose Head
Is Using the Farmer?" goes the title of a Wendell Berry essay.
Organic farmers like Heath have also rejected what is perhaps the
cornerstone of industrial agriculture: the economies of scale that only a
monoculture can achieve. Monoculture -- growing vast fields of the same
crop year after year -- is probably the single most powerful
simplification of modern agriculture. But monoculture is poorly fitted to
the way nature seems to work. Very simply, a field of identical plants
will be exquisitely vulnerable to insects, weeds and disease. Monoculture
is at the root of virtually every problem that bedevils the modern
farmer, and that virtually every input has been designed to solve.
To put the matter baldly, a farmer like Heath is working very hard to
adjust his fields and his crops to the nature of nature, while farmers
like Forsyth are working equally hard to adjust nature in their fields to
the requirement of monoculture and, beyond that, to the needs of the
industrial food chain. I remember asking Heath what he did about net
necrosis, the bane of Forsyth's existence. "That's only really a problem
with Russet Burbanks," he said. "So I plant other kinds." Forsyth can't
do that. He's part of a food chain -- at the far end of which stands a
long, perfectly golden McDonald's fry -- that demands he grow Russet
Burbanks and little else.
This is where biotechnology comes in, to the rescue of Forsyth's Russet
Burbanks and, if Monsanto is right, to the whole food chain of which they
form a part. Monoculture is in trouble -- the pesticides that make it
possible are rapidly being lost, either to resistance or to heightened
concerns about their danger. Biotechnology is the new silver bullet that
will save monoculture. But a new silver bullet is not a new paradigm --
rather, it's something that will allow the old paradigm to survive. That
paradigm will always construe the problem in Forsyth's fields as a
Colorado potato beetle problem, rather than as a problem of potato
Like the silver bullets that preceded them -- the modern hybrids, the
pesticides and the chemical fertilizers -- the new biotech crops will
probably, as advertised, increase yields. But equally important, they
will also speed the process by which agriculture is being concentrated in
a shrinking number of corporate hands. If that process has advanced more
slowly in farming than in other sectors of the economy, it is only
because nature herself -- her complexity, diversity and sheer
intractability in the face of our best efforts at control -- has acted as
a check on it. But biotechnology promises to remedy this "problem," too.
Consider, for example, the seed, perhaps the ultimate "means of
production" in any agriculture. It is only in the last few decades that
farmers have begun buying their seed from big companies, and even today
many farmers still save some seed every fall to replant in the spring.
Brown-bagging, as it is called, allows farmers to select strains
particularly well adapted to their needs; since these seeds are often
traded, the practice advances the state of the genetic art -- indeed, has
given us most of our crop plants. Seeds by their very nature don't lend
themselves to commodification: they produce more of themselves ad
infinitum (with the exception of certain modern hybrids), and for that
reason the genetics of most major crop plants have traditionally been
regarded as a common heritage. In the case of the potato, the genetics of
most important varieties -- the Burbanks, the Superiors, the Atlantics --
have always been in the public domain. Before Monsanto released the New
Leaf, there had never been a multinational seed corporation in the
potato-seed business -- there was no money in it.
Biotechnology changes all that. By adding a new gene or two to a Russet
Burbank or Superior, Monsanto can now patent the improved variety.
Legally, it has been possible to patent a plant for many years, but
biologically, these patents have been almost impossible to enforce.
Biotechnology partly solves that problem. A Monsanto agent can perform a
simple test in my garden and prove that my plants are the company's
intellectual property. The contract farmers sign with Monsanto allows
company representatives to perform such tests in their fields at will.
According to Progressive Farmer, a trade journal, Monsanto is using
informants and hiring Pinkertons to enforce its patent rights; it has
already brought legal action against hundreds of farmers for patent
Soon the company may not have to go to the trouble. It is expected to
acquire the patent to a powerful new biotechnology called the Terminator,
which will, in effect, allow the company to enforce its patents
biologically. Developed by the U.S.D.A. in partnership with Delta and
Pine Land, a seed company in the process of being purchased by Monsanto,
the Terminator is a complex of genes that, theoretically, can be spliced
into any crop plant, where it will cause every seed produced by that
plant to be sterile. Once the Terminator becomes the industry standard,
control over the genetics of crop plants will complete its move from the
farmer's field to the seed company -- to which the farmer will have no
choice but to return year after year. The Terminator will allow companies
like Monsanto to privatize one of the last great commons in nature -- the
genetics of the crop plants that civilization has developed over the past
At lunch on his farm in Idaho, I had asked Steve Young what he thought
about all this, especially about the contract Monsanto made him sign. I
wondered how the American farmer, the putative heir to a long tradition
of agrarian independence, was adjusting to the idea of field men snooping
around his farm, and patented seed he couldn't replant. Young said he had
made his peace with corporate agriculture, and with biotechnology in
particular: "It's here to stay. It's necessary if we're going to feed the
world, and it's going to take us forward."
Then I asked him if he saw any downside to biotechnology, and he paused
for what seemed a very long time. What he then said silenced the table.
"There is a cost," he said. "It gives corporate America one more noose
around my neck."
A few weeks after I returned home from Idaho, I dug my New Leafs,
harvesting a gorgeous-looking pile of white spuds, including some real
lunkers. The plants had performed brilliantly, though so had all my other
potatoes. The beetle problem never got serious, probably because the
diversity of species in my (otherwise organic) garden had attracted
enough beneficial insects to keep the beetles in check. By the time I
harvested my crop, the question of eating the New Leafs was moot.
Whatever I thought about the soundness of the process that had declared
these potatoes safe didn't matter. Not just because I'd already had a few
bites of New Leaf potato salad at the Youngs but also because Monsanto
and the F.D.A. and the E.P.A. had long ago taken the decision of whether
or not to eat a biotech potato out of my -- out of all of our -- hands.
Chances are, I've eaten New Leafs already, at McDonald's or in a bag of
Frito-Lay chips, though without a label there can be no way of knowing
So if I've probably eaten New Leafs already, why was it that I kept
putting off eating mine? Maybe because it was August, and there were so
many more-interesting fresh potatoes around -- fingerlings with dense,
luscious flesh, Yukon Golds that tasted as though they had been
pre-buttered -- that the idea of cooking with a bland commercial variety
like the Superior seemed beside the point.
There was this, too: I had called Margaret Mellon at the Union of
Concerned Scientists to ask her advice. Mellon is a molecular biologist
and lawyer and a leading critic of biotech agriculture. She couldn't
offer any hard scientific evidence that my New Leafs were unsafe, though
she emphasized how little we know about the effects of Bt in the human
diet. "That research simply hasn't been done," she said.
I pressed. Is there any reason I shouldn't eat these spuds?
"Let me turn that around. Why would you want to?"
It was a good question. So for a while I kept my New Leafs in a bag on
the porch. Then I took the bag with me on vacation, thinking maybe I'd
sample them there, but the bag came home untouched.
The bag sat on my porch till the other day, when I was invited to an
end-of-summer potluck supper at the town beach. Perfect. I signed up to
make a potato salad. I brought the bag into the kitchen and set a pot of
water on the stove. But before it boiled I was stricken by this thought:
I'd have to tell people at the picnic what they were eating. I'm sure
(well, almost sure) the potatoes are safe, but if the idea of eating
biotech food without knowing it bothered me, how could I possibly ask my
neighbors to? So I'd tell them about the New Leafs -- and then, no doubt,
lug home a big bowl of untouched potato salad. For surely there would be
other potato salads at the potluck and who, given the choice, was ever
going to opt for the bowl with the biotech spuds?
So there they sit, a bag of biotech spuds on my porch. I'm sure they're
absolutely fine. I pass the bag every day, thinking I really should try
one, but I'm beginning to think that what I like best about these
particular biotech potatoes -- what makes them different -- is that I
have this choice. And until I know more, I choose not.
Sunday, October 25, 1998
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company