Following is an outstanding (and extermely well placed) article in the
September edition of Gourmet Magazine outlining the basics issues of food
biotech. Roger Beachy did a great job and the reporter deserves real
credit for presenting this issue as responsibly as is done here. The
reporter indicates this will be an ongoing series. May I encourage our
AgBioView readers to contact Gourmet Magazine and reporter Trish Hall if
you wish to comment on this article at:
4 Times Square, 5th Floor
New York, New York 10036
Please support their ongoing responsible and balanced coverage of
biotechnology-improved agriculture and food issues. Letters to the editor
from the science community are encouraged, as anti-biotechnology activists
will likely be upset with this well-written and thoughtful article and
engage in their usual tactics flooding the publication and author with
complaints. (text below is scanned and may contain some errors, an edited
version will follow).
Friend Or Foe - By Trish Hall (page 131) Genetic engineering is allowing
farmers to grow a whole new kind of crop. But is it nice to mess with
Through genetic engineering, plant biologist Roger Beachy is growing a
whole new kind of crop. Is he messing with Mother Nature or is he helping
ot feed the world?
Long before I began writing about food, I lived in a rural corner of
Pennsylvania and grew up seeing farmers selling out to developers. Even at
an early age, I understood why they gave up. Farming was a tough way to
make a living. And even as I knew by heart, and still do, the smell of a
ripe tomato on a hot August day, or the feel of cornstalks on my bare legs
during games of hide-and-seek, I've always found the country -- the real
country, not the one that city dwellers drive to on weekends -- filled
with people who've been battered by its demands. I am not automatically
opposed to something that might make farmers' lives easier.
So when news stories started appearing about a little-known technology
called genetic engineering, and we discovered, seemingly overnight, that
some 60 percent of our processed foods contain genetically engineered
ingredients, I didn't know what to think. In food circles it is taken for
granted that one would oppose genetic engineering. Chefs like Alice
Waters, who have fought hard to use locally grown produce in their
restaurants, argue that tampering with our crops is dangerous and
Other opponents of the techniques have become more visible in the past two
years, on occasion breaking into laboratories and ripping out plants.
Existing regulations, they say, are inadequate to protect people and
plants from the potentially harmful consequences of this new science. Even
those who haven't assaulted the genetically modified flora find the idea
of designing plants to suit human needs godlike, aggressive, or just
frightening. But most of us have no idea what genetic engineering means.
Unfortunately, there are no simple answers to the many questions I have:
Are the scare stories true? Will genetically modified crops really lead to
the extermination of the monarch butterfly? Did rats really become sick
when they ate genetically engineered potatoes?
In search of answers, which I'll be presenting in a series of stories for
GOURMET, I'll be interviewing farmers, both organic and "traditional," as
well as food companies and passionate opponents of genetic modification.
But first I needed to know how this technique actually worked, and I
needed someone to give me a rationale for using it. l needed a scientist
I quickly found myself concentrating an Dr. Roger Beachy, who not only had
pioneered the technology of genetic engineering plants but considers
ignoring its benefits morally wrong. While there are others like him, as
director of the new Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis,
which is being developed with initial funding of $146 million, he is
Besides, Beachy actually grew on a farm. A fit-looking man in his
mid-fifties, he spent his childhood going to 4-H meetings, raising
animals, and planting gardens, first on a farm in Ohio and later in
Fifteen years ago, Beachy made history. He was on the warn that developed
the first genetically engineered food crop. They injected a tomato plant
with genes that gave it the capacity to fight off the tomato mosaic virus,
much like immunization. Since then, there have been rapid advances in the
technology and quick (some say too quick) implementation of new techniques
in farming crops like - soy, corn, and cotton, As many as half of these
crops in the United States are now planted using seeds that have been
altered to give them genetic traits that make them easier to grow.
This was a big moment in agriculture, one that was expected to change the
world. But then politics - and the opinions of both ordinary and
celebrated citizens worldwide - intervened. Many large companies, even
while insisting that the foods so many people have rejected are safe, have
decided not to use any ingredients from so-called GM crops in some of
their bestknown brands. McDonald's won't use GM potatoes for its French
fries (but will use modified oil for cooking), Frito Lay won't put altered
corn in its corn chips (but its parent company. Pepsi-Cola, uses syrup
made with GM corn in its soft drinks).
This posturing perplexes Beachy. Virtually none of our food as we know it
name from Mother Nature without some intervention by man, he says. What
really stumps him is Seagram's decision not to use generically modified
corn for its whiskey. "Can you imagine a guy at a bar ordering a 7 and 7,
and saying, 'But not with genetically modified corn ?' he asks, with a
As irrationally as these companies seem to be behaving. I can understand
their dilemma. They stand, simultaneously for and against the technology,
reflects the confusion that consumers feel.
"Talk about the tomato," Beachy says. Through manipulation by man over
hundreds of years, the tomato, he says, has evolved from a plant riddled
with a toxin called tomatine into the essential ingredient in our pasta
sauces and salsas. And the plump yellow corn we eat today is nothing like
its ancestor, teosinte, which has small dark kernels that fall easily from
the cob. Nearly everything we eat, from broccoli and apples to wheat and
corn, is as different from the original as an Internet mogul is from
Beachy says he's driven to discover "what makes plants get sick.' an
impulse encouraged by his farm childhood: "When you see an insect larva
chewing up a leaf; you ask a lot of questions." His father eventually left
agriculture to become a Mennonite minister, and Beachy himself never
wanted to be a farmer. Influenced by a few good teachers, he studied
biology at Goshen College, took his doctorate at Michigan State
University, and did postdoctoral work at Cornell University. He focused on
how viruses affect plants, he says, in part because viruses are
genetically simpler than other disease-causing agents. It seemed possible
to understand their mechanics.
And although it may surprise some opponents of genetic engineering, they
have a few goals in common with Beachy. Much of his career has focused on
moving toward sustainable food production, on reducing the use of
pesticides, herbicides, and fumigants, and on halting de, forestation. For
the earth to heal flora years of chemical damage, he says, we must accept
plants genetically engineered to resist weeds and pests.
Until RECENTLY, plants were altered by mixing the male of one plant with
the female of another to achieve traits other than those that might have
occurred through natural pollination. For centuries, cross-breeding meant
a human hand picking pollen and transferring it to another plant. In the
past few decades, technology has driven the process. Radiation and
chemicals have been used to create mutations that might yield desirable
traits. Genetic engineering takes the technique to a whole new level,
allowing the specific selection of a gene, or set of genes, rather than
the wholesale mixing of two patents. In traditional breeding, genetic
modification can take from seven to 30 years, whereas with direct gene
transfer, results art sometimes attained in as little as a year or two.
And, rather than just mix- the genes, of, say, a grapefruit with those of
an orange, it is now possible to breed some of the genes from a fish with
the genes of a tomato.
That's probably the heart of the issue in genetic modification, and the
heart of the difference in perspective between people like Beachy and roe
and you. When I ask him how ha feels about using the genes of animals in
plants, he sort of shrugs, so I push for an explanation. "No one is
proposing using animal genes in food tight now; ' be says. "The public is
just too upset by that idea." When I ask whether they have a reason to be
upset, he shrugs again. Scientists, he says, consider a gene a gene,
regardless of whether it's in a fish or a tomato. A gene from a flounder
that helps an organism withstand chilling is not seen as a flounder gene,
but as an anti-chill gene; so when it goes into a Tomato, scientists don't
think. Wow, look at that tomato with the soul of a flounder. To them,
genes are: simply combinations of chemicals that are similar in all living
organisms, be they worms or people (see "Breaking the Code," below).
A scientist could easily become absorbed in the possibilities that gent
trans fer presents, and in the elegance ofthe science itself. Yet unlike
many of his peers, who regard those who do applied research' as
second-class citizens, Beachy strives to do work that finds a life beyond
the scientific paper. And he's impressed by the gains so far. In the
United States between 1996 and 1998, he says, the use of insecticide on
cotton crops declined by about a million pounds because the seed had been
altered to make it resistant to pests. "Why would you not adopt a
technology that saves on the environmental load?" he asks.
Even so, many organic farmers and environmentalists counter that Beachy
and his gang of scientists are the devil's own, out to remake the food
supply for companies driven only by profit Beachy, however. seems stunned
by the opposition. "When people came out and said that this might not be
safe--something we considered safe_" he says, shaking his head in
disbelief. "We expected that organic farmers would love it." Corporations
could have done a better job explaining the changes, he says- But he
doesn't absolve himself, or his peers. Scientists, he says, were `pretty
naive" in pursuing their work without considering how the public would
view changes in food with which we all have a personal relationship. "We
were quiet, and complacent about it"
Educating people about the now science is a daunting task. Beachy and hit
colleagues tell me stories of. people who insist they "never eat DNA,"
having no awareness that every living entity contains DNA
(deoxyribonucleic acid), or who, when asked to define DNA, say it's
something that scientists put in food."
By the fall of 2001, when construction of the Danforth Center headquarters
should be complete and its 15 labs fully staffed, it will be one of the
largest independent facilities focusing on plant biology and its
applications in sustainable agriculture, food, and nutrition. A tax credit
was provided by the state of Missouri. And the biggest grants have come
from the Monsanto Fund and the Danforth Foundation, which traces its
beginnings to money from Ralston Purina, the food company where Donald
Danforth, the center's namesake, was once president. (Ralston Purina has
no ties to the Danforth Center.) Despite the vested interests of its
donors, the institution's autonomy is crucial to Beachy, who left his job
at the Scripps Research Institute to create the new center. None of the
sponsors will have any claim on the work, al. though companies that
sponsor specify research in the center can make licensing agreements to
commercialize it. "I wouldn't have taken the job if it had been funded by
a single company," says Beachy. "because then its research would have
reflected only that company's interests. "
For Beachy, the work is a crusade. as goal is to train scientists from
developing countries here so they can bring the knowledge home with them.
Some people feel that such an approach is forcing GM technology on other
countries, yet Beachy insists that these countries are desperate for wave
to sine the blights that kill their crop."
"When consumers are uninformed," he says, "that causes changes in policy
that affect the rest of the world. That's a moral conflict." But what
about the criticism natural diversity in South America, Asia, and Africa
will be reduced by these techniques, leading to fields of monoculture
(those with one crop alone), as in the US? Jungles and rain forests will
only be saved, he says, if the land that is currently being farmed can be
made more productive.
Opponents of genetically modified foods, of course, dismiss the arguments
of Beachy and other like-minded advocates as hypocritical, coming as they
often do from large corporations focused on making profits from large
commercial crops in this country. But Beachy's stand has been strongly
expressed in his work.
Nine years ago, Beachy and French scientist Claude Fauquet founded a
research program, the International Laboratory for Tropical Agricultural
Biotechnology (ILTAB), that focuses on improving agriculture in developing
countries. One of ILTAB's scientists. Nigel Taylor, tells me he's trying
to make the cassava plant both easier to grow and more nutritious. Six
hundred million people consume cassava on a daily basis, but in Africa the
crops are being decimated by the cassava mosaic virus, spread by the
whitefly. "We have plants growing in our greenhouse which have been
genetically engineered to have an elevated resistance to that virus," he
says. "We hope. to send this to Africa for controlled field testing by
People in the U.S. might not see any benefit in these techniques, says
Taylor, and he doesn't argue that they should be adopted in this country-
But, he notes, the developing world, with 80 percent of the world's
population-projected to be 90 percent by 2050-must strive to produce mom:
food from the same cultivated area.
To the average American consumer, the whole business may seem so strange
that it must be dangerous. And it's getting stranger still. The first
generation of seeds were modified to have characteristics that made them
easier to farm. Now work is being done on more complex trait transfers,
which may lead to foods that will more directly benefit people: A tomato
with more nutrients that may keep cancer at bay, and a rice enriched with
betacarotene brat could possibly prevent hundreds of thousands of cases of
blindness in the developing world were recently created; and, ironically,
in two years' time Monsanto expects to launch an oil that lowers
cholesterol- Why don't people just use less oil, you ask? Well, habits are
hard to change, and making processed foods healthier could save lives.
Just as we may soon be able to cure hereditary diseases because of the
mapping of the human genome, we may be able to shore up our plants to
resist the vagaries of weather and insect infestation. The benefits of the
new techniques are clear, yet with each advance will we face a drawback?
No dangers to human health have thus farbeen documented from genet-
engineered food, yet scientists admit that all technology carries a degree
of risk. Are we manipulating nature, or simply recognizing our connection
to it? The debate resembles an endless Ping-Pong match. We can't promise
to feed the world's poor, and we can't say that we don't need our
scientists to find new ways of farming. We know that moving forward can be
dangerous. But if Roger Beachy is right about the world's need for food,
the greater danger may lie in standing still.