So, just how different are genetically engineered products? Are they bad for you? The answer is, It depends on whom you ask. Turn on the radio, television, or computer, or pick up a magazine or newspaper. You'll soon be aware of a food fight in progress, and not only in this country. This fight doesn't involve flying chili peppers -- just words. But some can be pretty hot.
There is much at stake. Those who support agricultural biotechnology cite as some of their reasons improved nutrition, the elimination of hunger in the developing world, and more reasonable prices for the consumer. Those against point to concern for food safety, ethical considerations, and differences of opinion on how to feed the hungry.
The fact is, there are 6 billion people inhabiting the Earth today. By 2030, this number is estimated to be close to 9 billion. According to Dr. Channapatna S. Prakash, Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskeegee University, approximately 40,000 people starve to death every day -- about half of them children. As our planet's population continues to rise, these numbers also will rise. Prakash sees genetic engineering as essential if we hope to address this problem. "Genetically engineered food is scale-neutral," he says, "in that a poor rice farmer with one acre in Bangladesh can benefit as much as a large farmer in California."
Some genetically engineered varieties are being designed specifically for poorer countries. "Beta carotene-enhanced rice [called Golden Rice] is such an example for the developing world." says Dr. R.W.F. Hardy, president of the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council (NABC). "It was created to decrease blindness in children, as well as to improve immune function where rice is the major staple food."
The trick, say scientists, is to increase yields without increasing the amount of land needed to grow more food. The Green Revolution of the 1960s produced higher-yielding varieties of rice and wheat that helped to meet the demands of an increasing world population. But the breeding and added fertilizers used to meet those goals now have been used to their maximum potential. Something more is needed. Much current work is focused on developing biotechnology crops that are resistant to environmental stresses, such as drought or high salt, and pest-resistant varieties that are important in African countries.
If Dr. Charles Arntzen, president of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, gets his way, painful vaccinations will be a thing of the past thanks to genetically engineered plants. He's developed a potato that carries a gene for cholera vaccine, and he hopes to do the same with bananas, which don't need cooking and are more appealing to children. The plant produces the vaccine as it grows. Though it was developed for countries where high costs and the need for refrigeration of traditional vaccines has meant not all people receive protection against disease, it might change the way vaccines are given to all in the future. Not simply a food, but a cross between medicine and a food, it could be a taste of things to come.
Not everyone thinks these developments will be good for us and for the environment, though. Some of the criticism comes from people who don't understand the science, and this can be irksome to researchers. Others, like Dr. Marti Crouch, a professor at Indiana State University, once did genetic engineering research herself. But now she is asking questions about it. Is it right for a company to hold patents on life itself?. Is it right to force farmers to sign legal agreements pledging that they will not save seed from their crop, instead forcing them to buy new seeds each year? "Terminator technology," given that name by environmental groups, is a system designed to protect genetically engineered seed varieties from farmers who make a practice of saving seed to save money. The plant grows and produces a normal harvest, then kills its seeds. Monsanto, the company that owns the patent for this, recently stated that due to negative public opinion they would be terminating their terminator research. That makes Crouch happy, but she says there are other similar systems still being patented.
She is also very concerned that by developing Golden Rice, for example, we are doing a disservice to people in developing nations. By encouraging them to plant one super crop, we are causing them to become malnourished, because humans need variety in their diets. By making designer crops that replace crops which have evolved to become suited to a particular area over time, we are decreasing the biodiversity of our world.
Criticisms such as these serve to focus attention on how research is conducted and point out where we need to exercise caution (see sidebar). In a sense, we've reached a traffic light along the road of development of agricultural biotechnology, where the public is asking, "Is it safe to continue?" What do you think? Would you give it a green (go), yellow (caution), or red (stop) light? Tell us which one and why. Send it to: Traffic Light, ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458. We'll publish the results of our poll in a future issue.
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Leafing Through the Evidence
Last year scientists at Cornell University reported a startling discovery: Pollen from genetically engineered corn can kill monarch butterflies. Monarch caterpillars have a boring diet -- they eat only milkweed leaves, and milkweed grows around cornfields. Bt corn, so called because it contains genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringensis, makes a toxin that kills the larval stage of a butterfly that drills into corn stalks, a pest called the "corn borer." Entomologist Dr. John Losey and his colleagues wondered whether pollen from Bt corn might also kill monarch butterfly larvae, since the habitat of the monarch overlaps with the "corn belt" of the midwestern United States.
According to Losey, "When monarch caterpillars ate milkweed leaves dusted with pollen from Bt corn they ate less, they grew more slowly, and more of them died in comparison to caterpillars that ate leaves dusted with regular corn pollen or leaves that were not dusted at all.
"Does this mean that Bt corn is bad for butterflies?
"Not necessarily. Scientists are still doing studies to see if enough pollen to harm monarchs or other butterflies ever leaves cornfields. Even if some butterflies are harmed, the number may be less than would be harmed if farmers sprayed insecticides instead of using Bt corn. All methods of controlling pests pose some risk to the environment. Scientists are always looking for methods to produce the most food, while causing the least damage."
Barbara Eaglesham is a microscopist and writer who is working on a children's mystery involving the wonders of science.