Shoppers select genetically modified food
By MICHAEL SMITH-- CNEWS Science
A few miles south of the Ontario town of Orangeville, Birkbank Farms
offers a selection of freshly grown produce to passing motorists. This is,
of course, nothing unusual; many farms have small markets, selling corn,
potatoes, tomatoes and the like. What makes Birkbank Farms unusual is that
the market is selling genetically modified corn and potatoes.
What's more -- and here's the kicker -- they're outselling conventional
varieties by a two-to-one margin.
This story starts with Doug Powell, a professor of food science at the
University of Guelph, and Jeff Wilson, owner of Birkbank Farms.
Powell and Wilson wanted to know if people -- ordinary people, just
passing by in their cars -- would buy genetically altered products if they
were given a choice.
Much of the alleged debate so far has been fuelled by surveys, Powell
says -- surveys that seem to show consumers are worried about the
unquantified dangers involved in eating foods with altered DNA.
But surveys don't reflect actual behaviour. "People vote in the grocery
store," Powell says. "They say one thing on surveys, but do a completely
different thing in the store." And the surveys are usually taken by people
with an axe to grind, which means their results have to be taken with more
than a grain of salt.
Time for an experiment, Powell and Wilson decided.
So Wilson planted conventional corn and potatoes, as well as corn and
potatoes altered to express a gene called BT.
BT comes from a bacterium called bacillus thuriengis and the protein it
produces -- confusingly, also called BT -- has the interesting property
that it kills such pests as the European corn borer, while remaining
completely inert in the human digestive tract.
Organic farmers like BT, because it's harmless to humans.
The problem with corn and BT is that spraying the pesticide only hits the
outside of the corn. The corn borer -- as its name implies -- bores from
within, so it's not much affected. That means farmers must use other, more
toxic pesticides if they want a crop.
But, eureka! What if we use genetic modification so that every cell in the
corn plant produces BT? Then the corn borer is stopped in its tracks,
farmers can avoid using other pesticides and --since we don't digest BT --
the corn is safe to eat.
The argument is much the same for potatoes, although the pest is different.
Now, BT corn and potatoes have been on the market for a while, but
consumers rarely see them. They wind up in things like potato chips and
corn syrup, mixed together with their conventionally grown cousins.
That has left the field open to opponents of the technology, who argue
that consumers would reject such foods, if they knew about them and could
keep them separate from "normal" crops. Unfortunately, it has been hard to
test those assertions.
Out at Birkbank Farms, the crops are pretty much grown now and the results
are starting to come in.
In the Birkbank Farms market, Wilson, Powell and research assistant Katija
Blaine have set up displays of the varieties of corn and potatoes on
offer. "We're not pushing one or the other," Powell says.
But near the crops are signs explaining the differences -- this basket of
corn is genetically modified, but had no pesticides used, this basket is
"normal" but was sprayed three times with a chemical pesticide called
carbofuran. And so on.
Some customers, Powell says, shake their heads and go straight to the
conventional baskets. Others read the material and opt for the GM crops --
apparently because they'd like to avoid pesticides.
"Folks that are buying the BT have read all the stuff," Powell says.
Indeed, interest in the whole process was so high that early in the
summer, the trio had to set up a walking tour through the farm so that
customers could see for themselves what the various crops looked like in
The result is not exactly science, mainly because it's hard to know how
you'd replicate the experiment. On this farm, with these crops, in this
rainy, cool summer, two people out of three opted for GM corn and potatoes.
What would happen 50 kilometres away with other crops and a different
farmer is another question.
But the experiment does provide -- refreshingly -- a data point amid the
sound and fury.
Subj: Re: Vandals,
Date: Fri, 29 Sep 2000 8:53:21 AM Eastern Daylight Time
From: "Bob MacGregor"
The piece on US vandals said, "Shadowy "ecoterrorists" have declared war
on genetically altered plants in the United States, carrying out attacks
on biotechnology facilities over the last 18 months."
That isn't really true. If these folks had declared war on GM crops,
they wouldn't have to stealthily attack research plots when there are many
millions of acres of (relatively) unguarded GM cotton, soy, corn
throughout the country in commercial farm fields. At least the UK crop
terrorists had the intestinal fortitude to perform their vandalism
publicly and face prosecution for their beliefs. In the US, they are
still sneaking around making symbolic attacks on obscure corporate and
academic research plots, purely for publicity ends. This has no
influence on the fate of millions of acres of GM crops in real farm fields.
Subj: RE: AGBIOVIEW: Vandals, China, Africa
Date: Fri, 29 Sep 2000 9:18:09 AM Eastern Daylight Time
From: "HUANG, LU [AG/2165]"
Why the law-enforcement officials have made no arrests in any of the
incidents? Did the vandals break the law by setting fire on research
facility and destroying the research materiel, commercial crop, thousands
poplar trees? Should they be responsible for the damage that they made for
the last of up to one million dollars and the immeasurable research effort?
Have anyone seeking law-enforcement to stop those crimes?
Date: Sep 28 2000 14:07:47 EDT
From: Craig Sams
Subject: organic food vs GM food - TV program
I have spent considerable time in the past year seeking published
evidence that organic food is not safe and, apart from the laughably
unscientific statistical manipulations of Dennis Avery at the Hudson
Institute, there is no serious evidence. However, it is still possible
to consider the questions you ask and point you towards sensible
Is organic food more dangerous?
Organic food is not more dangerous than conventionally grown produce and
this is a red herring. The E coli risk so often associated with organic
food arises from once incident of cross contamination with dairy farm
slurry from a non organic farm. E coli contamination arises from faecal
contamination of beef carcasses or dairy products at the point of
production, or, less frequently, from slurry overflows into water that
is used for swimming or drinking. By the time manure gets spread on the
ground E coli is minimal, even in conventional agriculture where there
is no requirement to compost.
There are hundreds of thousands of reported cases of food poisoning
arising from the eating of the products of modern agriculture. The sad
fact in the UK is that the level is has risen by 5 times in the past ten
years and is still on an upward path. Incidents of listeria,
salmonella and E coli poisoning from organic food are rare. The only
recorded incident by the CDC in the USA of food poisoning associated
with organic food was in 1996. If any other year is taken as a basis it
would produce the alarming inference that organic food never causes food
poisoning, which just shows the fallibility of reliance on statistics.
Nutritional value - Another red herring. Nutrition is about choices of
food and eating a balanced and healthy diet, not about how food is
produced. However, the absence of pesticide residues, antibiotic
residues, hormones, hydrogenated fat, phosphoric acid, preservatives,
colourings and other artificial additives means that organic food offers
a preferred nutritional option to the minority who are either allergic
or sensitive to these substances found in conventionally produced food.
Organic food is also GMO free, but it is unrealistic to assume that it
is any way nutritionally superior as a result. In fact, as research is
almost non-existent into the nutritional impact of genetically modified
food on human digestion and is unlikely to be a popular area for funders
or researchers after the Puztai affair, this will continue to be an area
where no firm conclusions can be drawn.
I hope that the above information is useful to you in assisting the
researcher for the well-known and generally respected TV program you are
Subj: Re: AGBIOVIEW: Aventis Is Suspending Seed Sales Of Genetically
Date: Thu, 28 Sep 2000 9:47:01 AM Eastern Daylight Time
From: Alex Avery
>Aventis Is Suspending Seed Sales Of Genetically Engineered Corn
>By SCOTT KILMAN
>September 27, 2000
>Aventis SA said it is suspending seed sales of the genetically modified
>corn that tainted Kraft Foods' taco shells.
>The French pharmaceutical and agricultural company, inventor of the corn,
>said it won't resume U.S. sales of the seed until Washington approves the
>crop for use in human food, which regulators say won't happen anytime
>soon. It is the first time a major crop-biotechnology firm has frozen
>sales of a genetically modified seed.
>Aventis, began licensing U.S. companies to market the genetically modified
>seed, called StarLink, in 1998 after the Environmental Protection Agency
>cleared the corn for use in livestock feed and for making ethanol fuel.
>The corn, engineered to make its own insecticide, isn't approved for human
>consumption. Regulators aren't convinced the bug-killing protein, called
>Cry9C, isn't a potential food allergen.
>Kraft, a unit of Philip Morris Cos., New York, began voluntarily recalling
>millions of taco shells from U.S. supermarkets Friday after independent
>laboratory tests conducted for it confirmed a report from an
>antibiotechnology group that some shells illegally contain ingredients
>from StarLink corn. The shells are marketed under a license from Taco
>Bell, a fast-food chain owned by Tricon Global Restaurants Inc.
>Aventis' move won't have noticeable financial impact on the company, which
>had revenue of $20.7 billion in 1999 on a pro-forma basis. Aventis,
>created by the December 1999 merger of European pharmaceutical companies
>Hoechst AG and Rhone-Poulenc SA, is generating roughly $1 million this
>year from licensing the fledgling StarLink gene to U.S. seed firms. In 4
>p.m. New York Stock Exchange composite trading Tuesday, Aventis rose 44
>cents to $74.44 a share.
>Aventis said its suspension is designed to reassure the public that
>StarLink corn won't get into the food supply in the future. "It isn't in
>our interest to sell corn seed if it is causing confusion," said Aventis
>spokesman Rick Rountree. Stephen L. Johnson, EPA deputy assistant
>administrator for pesticides, called Aventis' decision "a prudent action
>that we fully support."
>It is unclear whether Aventis can prevent the corn from entering the food
>chain. StarLink is grown on 315,000 acres on farms scattered from Texas to
>Federal regulators aren't yet sure how the taco-shell debacle happened in
>the first place. Some food industry officials suspect airborne pollen from
>a StarLink field might have blown into fields of conventional corn being
>grown under contract for the Azteca Milling facility in Plainview, Texas,
>which makes corn flour for Kraft's taco shell.
>The EPA requires that farmers plant StarLink seed at least 660 feet from
>other cornfields to prevent cross-pollination. Organic farmers, who have
>turned their backs on biotechnology, have complained that such buffers
>aren't sufficient to protect their fields from pollen drift.
>It is also possible that a farmer or grain handler accidentally mixed a
>shipment of StarLink corn with grain destined for Azteca Milling. Both
>types of corn look so similar that chemical analysis is needed to tell
>The StarLink plant uses a gene transplanted from a common soil organism,
>Bacillus thuringiensis, to make a protein toxic to certain insects.
>StarLink's gene expresses a slightly different protein from the sort made
>by the other types of insect-resistant corn already approved for use in
>food. Of the 40 or so genetically modified crops on the market, StarLink
>corn is the only one that isn't approved for human consumption.
>The taco-shell incident revealed that the food industry lacks a quick and
>reliable way to screen its products for the presence of genetically
>It took Kraft several days to determine whether StarLink corn is in its
>taco shells, and some biotechnology officials still doubt Kraft's results.
>Some food companies testing their products in wake of the Kraft recall
>complain privately that the same sample can test positive and negative for
>StarLink, depending on what method is used.
>Capitalizing on the confusion, Strategic Diagnostics Inc., a Newark, Del.,
>testing firm, began selling the first rapid-field test for StarLink only
>yesterday. Arthur A. Koch Jr., Strategic Diagnostics chief operating
>officer, said the company is so swamped with orders from grain handlers it
>is rationing the kits. The field test is designed to detect the StarLink
>protein in raw corn, which means it doesn't work on processed foods such
>as taco shells.
>The recall was ammunition for antibiotechnology groups in a Senate health
>committee hearing Tuesday. Groups such as Friends of the Earth want far
>tighter regulation of the young science by the Food and Drug
>Administration, among other agencies. They're lobbying for mandatory
>labels on food products that contain genetically modified organisms, an
>idea most big food companies oppose.
>"It is not lost on consumers that the problem was discovered not by the
>FDA or EPA, but by Friends of the Earth," Consumers Union researcher
>Michael Hansen told the committee.
>-- Sara Leuck in Washington contributed to this article.
>Write to Scott Kilman at firstname.lastname@example.org