USA Today on the New Wave of Frankenfoods

Note: Quote from Ben Lilliston which mentions our book.

USA Today
December 14, 2000, Thursday, First Edition
Section: Life; Pg. 11D

Biotechnology ready to grow But critics would shuck it all, even
the less-fatty fries
Byline: Anita Manning

With the first wave of genetically engineered foods -- crops with built-in
pesticides or herbicides -- biotech companies in the '90s focused on
farmers, promising to reduce the cost and labor of repeated applications of

With the second wave now starting, many experts say they're hoping to
appeal to the rest of us. Genetically modified crops in development promise
better tasting, more nutritious and less expensive food. The new wave also
promises to bring plants that can produce pharmaceuticals and fuels.

"We're right at the very beginning of this incredible set of scientific
advances," says Robb Fraley, chief technology officer for Monsanto, a
leader in the biotech industry.

On the drawing board are soybean oils with the taste and health benefits of
olive oil, margarine without the trans-fatty acids that raise the risk of
heart disease, and foods that are spiked with extra nutrients that help
fight cancer and other illnesses. Scientists also are working to remove the
proteins from food that commonly cause allergic reactions, such as the one
that makes some people allergic to peanuts.

And the miracle of biotechnology may one day create the dieter's dream
food: non-fattening french fries. "We're still working on that," Fraley
says. "We're changing the oil to have less fat content. The other approach
is to make a better potato so it absorbs less oil."

But not everyone sees all this as progress.

Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and
co-author of Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for
Consumers ($16.50 through IATP at is concerned about
unforeseen health or environmental fallout from genetic engineering. Of the
promised future foods, fortified with vitamins and stripped of
artery-clogging fats, he says, "I don't think any of the stuff is needed."

The next generation of genetically engineered crops "will pose a whole new
series of challenges in terms of segregating the crops in the field," he
says. A case in point is the recent controversy over StarLink corn, a
genetically engineered variety approved only for use in animal feed that
turned up in tests on grocery store taco shells and resulted in a massive

That example shows that "it's difficult to separate different types of
genetically engineered crops," Lilliston says, "and it's difficult to
control the ones that pollinate." Environmentalists worry that crops
designed to withstand herbicides will cross-pollinate with nearby weeds,
creating a breed superweed.

Such concerns and questions about possible health risks raised in
consumers' minds by groups opposed to genetic engineering may forestall
introduction of many products now in development, says Gene Grabowski of
the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade group. While scientists are
pushing their new developments, he says, food companies are putting on the

"The protests from anti-biotech groups have created a sensitive
environment, which has caused some food companies, growers and other groups
in the food supply system to ask biotech companies to go more slowly in
developing the newest varieties of crops," Grabowski says.

No new applications for biotech crops have been approved since last fall,
he says. Last year, by contrast, approvals were more common, totaling about
40 products, from sweet peppers to sunflowers. Lilliston agrees there has
been a slowdown but believes that, despite his own concerns, new biotech
foods "are going to happen, because there is a lot of money in it. There
are a lot of researchers out there trying to develop the next new product
and patent it and make a lot of money."

'Growing salmon in Kansas'

The recent announcement of the creation of a fast-growing salmon generated
criticism over fears that the bio-engineered fish would escape into the
wild and compete with natural salmon. But Elliot Entis, president of Aqua
Bounty in Waltham, Mass., says there is nothing to fear. For one thing,
like many farm-raised fish, the genetically modified salmon are sterile,
unable to reproduce. And, he says, "our fish are unlikely to be good
survivors in the wild because they want to grow in the winter. Growing uses
energy, which requires food. Fish that use too much energy in the winter
don't get enough food and die."

The high-tech fish grow to full size in about half the usual time, he says.

"All we've done is change one gene in the salmon to allow it to utilize its
own growth hormone more efficiently. It's like tuning a car. Instead of
getting 10 miles per gallon, you get 40 miles per gallon."

He and colleagues did this by taking the bit of genetic material that keeps
winter flounder from freezing, putting it with the salmon's growth hormone
gene, then inserting the whole business into the egg of a salmon. "You get
salmon growth hormone produced under the instruction set of this other
gene," Entis says. The result is "the first all-natural transgene. It
should appeal to organic farmers -- it's the marriage of biotechnology and
the principles of organic farming."

If approved by regulatory agencies, he says, the salmon could provide more
high-protein fish to feed a hungry public without requiring more ocean
space for aquaculture pens. And growth rates of other farm-raised fish
could be similarly speeded up.

Entis adds that because it's less expensive to bring each fish to market
size, entrepreneurs could make the investment needed to grow fish inland,
far from the ocean. "We're looking forward to growing salmon in Kansas," he

Another area of intense research is in producing vaccines in plants.
Scientists at Cornell University have shown that a vaccine against
hepatitis B can be grown in raw potatoes, and others are hoping to develop
a banana plant that can become a vehicle for vaccines in developing

Researchers in Pittsburgh, North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and
Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., are collaborating on a vaccine
against human papillomavirus, which causes most cases of cervical cancer,
that would grow in transgenic tobacco plants.

Researcher A. Bennett Jenson of Western Pennsylvania Hospital in Pittsburgh
says the vaccine, now being tested by a pharmaceutical company, will be
cheaper to produce than traditional vaccines, making it affordable for use
in developing countries.

Only a tiny part of the plant, a nicotine-free form of tobacco, is needed
for the vaccine, Jenson says. Other parts, including proteins, could be
extracted for use as protein supplements for humans or in animal feed.
Remaining components of the plant can be used in making dyes and perfumes,
he says.

"The value of the rest of the plant, as far as protein and other
constituents, would subsidize the (production cost of the) vaccine," Jenson
says, and would provide income for farmers squeezed by the reduced demand
for tobacco. The idea has so inspired Congress that it funded the research
with a $ 3 million grant.

Great potential to help the poor

Biotech supporters say the technology's potential to help poor people in
developing countries is hard to overstate. They point to Monsanto's new
Golden Rice, in which a gene taken from daffodils that produces vitamin A
was added to conventional rice. The resulting fortified rice could reduce
vitamin A deficiency, which leads to blindness and increased susceptibility
to disease in poor countries.

But for Americans, the idea of vitamin-fortified foods is nothing new.
Folic acid already is added to cereals, calcium to orange juice. The
difference with biotechnology, Fraley says, is that "it allows you to
create the health benefit in the crop that's being grown and harvested,"
rather than taking the extra step of adding nutrients.

"There are going to be things biotechnology will allow you to do that you
can't add to a pill," he says. "This is only the tip of the iceberg, in
terms of advances in technology that will be possible."

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