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Genetic Engineering vs. Organics: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Published on Thursday, September 18, 2003 by E/The Environmental Magazine
Genetic Engineering vs. Organics: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
by Sally Deneen
 

At a supermarket in the Midwest, Mary Lee Treter passes aisles of shelves stocked with countless products containing genetically engineered ingredients: cereal, muffins, milk, taco shells, frozen pizzas, Hawaiian-grown fresh papayas, hot dogs, and soda pop. She notices the labels don't say anything about genetically engineered ingredients.

Coca-Cola, Sprite, Pepsi, Hershey's bars, Campbell's soups, Progresso soups, Quaker rice cakes, frozen dinners by Swanson and Healthy Choice, and cereals by Kellogg's and General Mills are among hundreds of products found to contain genetically engineered ingredients, according to tests conducted by Greenpeace for its True Food Shopping List.

About six out of every 10 processed foods Treter could choose to drop in her cart contain genetically modified organisms, such as corn altered to contain its own pesticide in every cell. Then Treter arrives at the organic foods section, a recent innovation at her local Kroger in Toledo, Ohio.

"It's really nice, and I'm impressed," she said. "We don't have a lot of organic food markets in this area. It's a little bit more expensive, and that's a downside."

Organic or Biotech?

How Treter and tens of millions of other consumers spend their money is akin to casting a vote between competing and ascending forms of agriculture: genetically modified foods versus organics. Both expanding industries say their techniques are the best and most sensible way to feed the world's growing population. Both maintain they're sustainable forms of agriculture and lighter on the environment than conventional better-living-through-chemistry agribusiness.

But only genetically altered foods raise concerns from a broad range of scientists, academics, and ethicists for developing never-before-seen techniques such as adding jellyfish genes to wheat to make plants glow whenever they need water. Or inserting a bacteria gene into corn to ward off pests. Only biotech foods have sparked a campaign among farmers calling for a moratorium on genetically engineered (GE) wheat and have prompted some parents to campaign against genetically engineered foods in school cafeterias. And significantly, biotech threatens — through overuse — to render useless organics' main defense against pests, a natural pesticide derived from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis and known as Bt.

Proponents contend that future biotech products such as cancer-fighting tomatoes and vitamin E-enhanced soybeans will do for the 21st century what vitamin-fortified foods did in the 20th century.

While the industry makes assurances that GE foods are safe for people and the environment, the world's scientific community has not come to a consensus. U.S. regulators are playing a slow game of catch-up, relying on a gap-filled patchwork of existing regulations to deal with a novel industry.

Monsanto is embroiled in lawsuits with farmers over patent matters. Meanwhile, some corn and soybean growers complain that the technology costs too much, bringing them smaller yields and higher costs.

And to the frustration of consumer Treter, politicians can't agree on whether these foods need to be labeled. Industry lobbies against labels; polls show consumers overwhelmingly want them.

Without labels, the only way consumers can be certain to avoid gene-spliced ingredients is to buy foods from the other ascending form of agriculture: certified organics.

Of course, organic food may also carry benefits beyond food safety: a 2001 study in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine found that organic crops had higher average levels of 21 nutrients studied, including vitamin C and iron. Last March, research at the University of California revealed that organic produce may contain more natural antioxidants, which have been linked to reduced risk for cancer, stroke, heart disease, and other illnesses.

It's an odd choice: "organic" or "other." Treter believes GE foods should be labeled and confirms industry fears when she says labels may discourage her from buying: "It would certainly make me think. And it would probably sway me."

Most Americans polled say genetically engineered foods should be labeled and, by extension, suggest they wouldn't buy them. Yet, they often vote against organics and — often times unwittingly — in favor of GE foods at the checkout line. It is that disconnect that is helping fuel the growth of the biotech food industry.

Increasing Acreage

GE crops have expanded 36-fold since they became available to farmers in the mid-1990s, swelling to more than 145 million acres worldwide by 2002. Seventy percent of today's biotech crops grow in the United States.

It's a trend on the rise: Eighty percent of all soybeans and 70 percent of all cotton now grown in the United States are genetically engineered. So is 38 percent of all corn.

Corn and soy turn up in processed foods as oils. GE soy binds hot dogs, and ground corn ends up in taco shells and chips. Most corn and soybeans are fed to animals, so consumers likely eat meat and poultry from animals raised on GE feed.

Flax, canola, Hawaiian-grown papayas, and some squashes are also GE-authorized in the United States. Wheat is probably next. Down the road could come lettuce, strawberries, sweet potatoes, sugar, and allergen-free peanuts, among others.

Then there is the next wave of biotech products: transgenic animals and plant-based pharmaceuticals. They include salmon altered to grow faster, tobacco engineered to contain pharmaceuticals for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and corn altered to contain pharmaceuticals for cystic fibrosis or E. coli sufferers.

Is it reason to worry? Just what are the downsides — and advantages — of GE foods? Monsanto, DuPont, and other major players have argued that their biotech foods promise to feed the world while cutting pesticide use and curbing soil erosion. Proponents say that future varieties will help people live healthier lives. They'll also save lives in the Third World, thanks to novel foods such as bananas that contain vaccines.

The nation's "food cop," Michael Jacobson — who as head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest has warned consumers of the dangers of movie popcorn and fast food — surprises some observers by saying that biotech foods deserve a fair hearing. He argues that they have the potential to improve food quality and already have reduced insecticide use on cotton fields.

Jane Rissler is among scientists who fear these crops are on the path to becoming self-perpetuating, uncontrollable weeds that outcompete other plants and encourage the development of super pest insects.

All the while, consumers will eat unlabeled foods that haven't been subjected to long-term tests or strict government oversight. Whenever a foreign gene is put into food, major concerns arise: Will it trigger an allergic reaction in the person who eats the food? Will the new genes or proteins produce potentially harmful toxins?

So far, the industry and the federal government contend the current varieties of GE foods are safe. Critics concede they don't appear to present a grave risk but wonder about potentially subtle long-term effects. 

"There has not been a systematic study of their safety," said Rissler, a former biotechnology regulator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who now works for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Most people are relying on the absence of evidence to give them comfort. I would prefer that we actually gather evidence.... The fact is, people are not looking for evidence of harm."

Besides that, consumers so far have gained nothing from the new technology, Rissler says. "What's in it for the consumer? Nothing," said Rissler. "I think the technique introduces a great deal of uncertainty about which we have little experience. Once we have experience and better data, then we'll have a better idea of the risks," he said.

Safe to Eat?

Right now, there are two dominant types of biotech crops. Three-quarters are herbicide-tolerant plants engineered to thrive after being doused with the weed killer glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup. Many other popular crops are engineered so that every cell contains the Bt pesticide, an impossibility in nature. How would a flounder gene wind up in a tomato?

Three federal agencies rely on largely pre-existing rules to regulate the novel industry. Biotech producers maintain the system is sufficient. For plants that contain their own pesticide to ward off insects, it's the EPA's job to ensure they are safe for the environment. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) gives permits to test new varieties in the field. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is to make sure biotech crops are safe for humans or animals to eat.

Trouble is, the FDA relies on a voluntary process to regulate the industry. That is, biotech food developers voluntarily submit summaries of their safety tests for the FDA to review. Using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain records, former EPA scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman and colleagues examined more than one-quarter of the 53 so-called "data summaries" that food developers presented to the FDA for review. They noticed a troubling pattern.

"The biotechnology companies provide inadequate data to ensure their products are safe. In addition, it was clear from our review that the FDA performs a less-than-thorough safety analysis," wrote Gurian-Sherman, science director for the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in his report titled "Holes in the Biotech Safety Net: FDA Policy Does Not Ensure the Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods."

In six of the 14 cases studied by Gurian-Sherman, the government asked the biotech-food developer for more information in order to complete a thorough safety assessment — but received answers only in three of the six cases. In case after case, according to his report, "The FDA did not generate its own safety assessment but merely summarized for the public the developer's analysis."

Gurian-Sherman and longtime critics say Congress should give the FDA a backbone; only Congress can provide the agency with the legal authority for mandatory review and safety approval of genetically engineered crops. They urge the FDA to require biotech companies to submit complete details of their testing methods and actual data from safety tests, not summaries.

Among other changes they recommend is making the process of approving new crops more open to the public. The FDA also should perform and make public its own detailed assessments of commercialized GE crops and reassess the safety of crops if new concerns are recognized or new tests become available, critics say.

It may give a consumer pause to realize that several years after genetically engineered ingredients became available on store shelves, only now is a committee of the respected National Academy of Sciences (NAS) outlining a process to identify hazards and assess any unintended effects of GE foods on human health. And only now is another subcommittee of the respected NAS-affiliated National Research Council evaluating how to confine transgenic plants, grasses, trees, fish, and shellfish to keep them from escaping into the environment. Its recommendations are expected by April of 2004.

Sacrificial Soy

The safety reports are too late for Gail Wiley, a soybean grower in central North Dakota. She and her husband, Tom, were ready to ship their high-protein, conventionally grown, food-grade soybeans to Japan in the summer of 2000 when they got the bad news. Just before the soybeans shipped, they underwent a final test — this time to ensure they weren't genetically engineered. Japan officially allowed only 1 percent of a shipment to be contaminated with genetically engineered beans. The test came in at a disappointing 1.37 percent.

"So we lost that contract," said Wiley. "We sold the soybeans on the open market, and the difference was about $10,000 for our farm."

Wiley's farm has 11 neighbors, some growing GE soybeans. "There are fields that are right across the road," Wiley said. "For us to know which neighbor's fields contaminated us would be really difficult. It's impossible to prove where the contamination came from — if it was pollen, if it was bees, if it was wind. It's even hard to find seed that isn't contaminated."

Wiley has joined the chorus of North Dakota wheat farmers calling for a moratorium on the next crop eyed by Monsanto: wheat. Hard red spring wheat engineered to be resistant to glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) already has been field-tested. It could be on the market as early as 2004, pending government approval. The Wileys testified before state legislators to make a point: How can you assure neighboring fields won't be contaminated?

"You cannot build a wall high enough to keep GMOs (genetically modified organisms) out of the environment, as pollen often drifts for miles on the wind, potentially contaminating everything in its path," argued Arran Stephens, president and founder of Nature's Path Foods, maker of organic food products.

Once contaminated, harvested organic crops can't be sold at a premium. While comprising only 1 percent of the food market, sales of organic foods have grown 20 percent a year for the last nine years, boosting it to a $6 billion industry. The amount of organic cropland and pasture has more than doubled since 1997, bringing the 2001 total to 2.34 million acres in the contiguous United States. As demand for organic foods rises, it becomes that much more important for organic farmers to avoid GE contamination.

"It's important for people to know that if we don't stop genetic engineering, we're not going to have a thriving system of organic agriculture," said Simon Harris, national campaign director for the Organic Consumers Association.

There's also a bizarre side effect of the drift phenomenon. Some growers complain that they've been pressured by Monsanto to pay fees to the company after stray gene-altered plants ended up growing on their farms, says farmer advocate Bill Wenzel. Monsanto has sued hundreds of farmers, usually on the grounds of patent infringement. From Monsanto's viewpoint, the company is only protecting its costly investment of developing the novel seeds. When farmers buy Monsanto seeds, they sign agreements to buy new seeds each year. 

Some farmers pursued by Monsanto are fighting back. One of the most famous is Percy Schmeiser, who says he never wanted gene-altered canola on his 1,400 acres in western Canada. But he was sued by Monsanto in 1998 after his conventional canola fields were contaminated with the company's Roundup Ready canola. In 2000, a judge agreed with Monsanto. That astonished Schmeiser, who has been farming for more than a half-century. He not only has appealed his case all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court, he also countersued Monsanto for more than $10 million. His case is gaining worldwide attention.

Schmeiser isn't the only farmer fighting back. "I can tell you stories that go on forever. It goes beyond bullying tactics," said Rodney Nelson, who also outlines his saga on his Web site (Nelsonfarm.net). Nelson's family grows soybeans and wheat on 8,000 acres outside of Amenia, N.D., in the Red River Valley. He says his family has spent more than $200,000 in attorney fees and other costs fighting Monsanto after it accused the family farm of saving Roundup Ready soybean seeds from their 1998 crop and planting them in 1999. Even after the independent North Dakota State Seed Arbitration Board found that the Nelsons did nothing wrong, Monsanto continued its lawsuit, but finally dropped it in autumn 2001.

"Emotionally, it's taken a huge toll," Nelson said. "It soured me a lot. I certainly despise big corporations now, and I no longer see Greenpeace as a radical or nut group."

Oddly enough, Nelson didn't even like the results of his GE plantings. He says he had decided by harvest time in 1999 to quit growing them. He grew his first GE seeds on 65 acres of weedy pastureland in 1998. The yields were "a lot less than the field next to it, which was conventional," he said.

Thinking he didn't give GE seeds a good enough try, he grew Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans on 1,450 of his family's 4,000 acres of soybeans the next year.

"The yields were horse***t," Nelson said. "And we didn't save anything in our chemical costs."

The promise of bigger profits via bigger yields or lower pesticide costs lure farmers to begin growing GE crops, according to a USDA study. Results are mixed, partly because seed costs are high. Iowa farmers who raised GE soybeans and corn in 1998 and 2000 didn't gain better returns than conventional competitors, according to Iowa State University.

By Monsanto's account, its Roundup Ready soybeans reduced herbicide costs for U.S. soybean farmers by almost $700 million between 1997 and 2000.

In a further complication, some farmers planting Roundup Ready crops for several years in a row have complained that some weeds, including marestail and water hemp, are beginning to display resistance to glyphosate. Monsanto insists that the resistance in those cases evolved by chance. Weed scientists are now recommending that farmers rotate their herbicides or apply more than one at a time.

But as Cropchoice news put it, "Others in the agricultural community contend that doing this points out the irony of escalating herbicide use at a time when the biotechnology industry is telling farmers that its genetically engineered plants require fewer herbicide applications."

Why GE?

All of this leads to the question: Why grow GE? That's simple, proponents say. Some biotech crops are engineered to ward off pests, so farmers don't have to worry about bugs devouring plants. "Roundup Ready" varieties can be doused with the herbicide and thrive, even as surrounding weeds die.

Farmers plant GE corn as sort of an "insurance policy" in fields where pest outbreaks are likely, according to Mike Duffy, agricultural economist at Iowa State. Soybean growers plant biotech varieties in hopes of easier, faster harvests. Duffy found they especially have incentive to use GE seeds if they're renting farmland from landlords who want clean-looking, weed-free fields.

There are some tangible benefits to growers. "Farmers are, at least, not being disadvantaged" by growing GE crops, according to a 2002 USDA report.

"Farmers are not stupid people," said Lisa Dry, spokesperson for the Biotechnology Industry Organization. "They're not going to buy something that is not going to give them some sort of return."

Most genetically modified seeds worldwide are controlled by a few corporations, including Syngenta, Monsanto, DuPont, and Aventis. The American Corn Growers Association has complained that such concentration is dangerous. That's because they're not just seed companies.

They develop relationships with firms involved with producing and processing food, which means they maintain control from the seed stage to the supermarket, noted Bill Heffernan, professor emeritus of rural sociology at the University of Missouri-Columbia in a speech in 2000. 

Family farmers are hit hard by a more immediate problem: the loss of overseas markets. From Austria to Zimbabwe, many people mistrust genetically engineered foods. Protesters in the United Kingdom have trampled fields of gene-altered corn. Forty-four to 70 percent of Europeans disapprove of so-called "Frankenfoods," surveys show.

U.S. corn growers have lost more than $814 million in foreign sales over the past five years as a result of restrictions on genetically modified food imports imposed by Europe, Japan, and other world buyers, according to the American Corn Growers Association.

The implications for U.S. wheat farmers could be huge, according to Robert Wisner, an economics professor at Iowa State. If foreign countries start turning away American wheat because some portion is genetically engineered, the resulting domestic oversupply could plummet prices paid to farmers by one-third, Wisner testified to the Montana legislature. By his reckoning, the nation has lost more than $1 billion in corn and soybean meal exports because of foreign concerns.

In September, American Corn Growers' Association CEO Larry Mitchell called for the investigative arm of Congress to study the cost of genetically engineered crops — not only to corn growers but also to taxpayers, who had to offset $5.4 billion of loans because of lost farm income in 2001.

"We need to know what portion of that expense was caused by our loss of export markets due to GMOs and what lower corn prices and higher seed costs meant to farm families' bottom economic line," Mitchell said. In short, whether you like GE foods or not, you're helping pay for them.

In Defense of GE

So what exactly is good about genetically engineered foods? Plenty, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).

Biotechnology is "the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of agriculture," as University of Illinois microbiology professor Bruce Chassy put it in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2002.

The Council for Biotechnology Information posts on its Web site stories like that of Iowa soybean farmer Roy Bardole, who says GE soybeans more than halved his herbicide and related costs and that conservation tillage practices have returned wild mink to his farm.

"We have wildlife on the farm today that my dad has never seen before," Bardole is quoted as saying, "and he's over 90 years old."

Despite what critics say, U.S. farmers overall have "high confidence" in biotech seeds, as evidenced by the fact that since the seeds were introduced in 1996, "We have seen a yearly increase in the percentage of acres planted with biotech seeds in nearly every single crop category…. Clearly, the benefits of these improved seed varieties help farmers to strengthen crops by making them more resistant to disease, increasing crop yields, and reducing the use of pesticides," Michael J. Phillips, BIO's executive director for food and agriculture, said last March.

Before insect-resistant GE corn was introduced, few growers sprayed their crops to kill the European corn borer — and yield losses sometimes reached 300 million bushels of corn per year. With biotech corn, "losses to the corn borer are eliminated," according to a 2001 study financed by the Rockefeller Foundation and prepared by the nonprofit National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy in Washington, D.C.

"The plant actually protects itself," BIO's Dry explains.

Herbicide-tolerant soybeans reduce weed-control costs for farmers in general, saving them a total of $216 million in 1999, according to the Rockefeller-funded report. Cotton growers have reduced their use of insecticides by 2.7 million pounds and made 15 million fewer insecticide applications per year, thanks to insect-resistant cotton, the report states. Cotton production also increased by 260 million pounds per year, raising net revenues by $99 million in 1999.

Five years after Bt cotton was first grown by 4 million small farmers in the Yellow River region of northern China, "the benefits continue," according to a 2002 study in The Plant Journal, a science journal published in association with the Society for Experimental Biology. It's increasing yields, raising farmers' incomes, and reducing insecticides and illnesses caused by spraying them.

Insecticide-resistant cotton has "substantially reduced pollution by pesticides in the regions where it was adopted," saving at least 15,000 tons of pesticides, according to a 2001 peer-reviewed study in the World Development Journal. Government extension agents also found more beneficial insects in those Chinese Bt cotton fields.

An Indian study published last February in the journal Science also reports upbeat news of reduced pest damage and increased yields and points out that Indian farmers would have to triple their current pesticide use in conventional cotton to ward off bollworms to match the job done by genetically engineered cotton.

Cotton has become a shining star that particularly impresses Michael Jacobson, the consumer advocate who considers himself a moderate in this polarized debate. "I think you have to look at the data, and you have to look both overseas and at the U.S. Biotech cotton has been extremely beneficial," Jacobson said. Less insecticide use means more insects, and, he reasons, "where there are more insects, there are more birds."

To his way of thinking, environmentally minded consumers need to realize the ecological benefits of genetically engineered crops. In the case of herbicide-resistant soybeans, he says, farmers not only save time — and thus money — that otherwise would have been spent tending to crops, but genetic engineering "possibly also decreases herbicide use."

Proponents say biotechnology makes it possible for farmers to plant crops with little or no tillage, which reduces erosion and conserves water, energy, and soil nutrients. Some farmers plant cover crops. All of which is different from conventional farming, Monsanto points out. (Organic farmers have used such practices for years, say critics.)

"The Center doesn't say all biotechnology is good. But there are many good applications and we should use them," Jacobson said. "We think biotechnology offers tremendous potential for increasing production, reducing use of dangerous pesticides, and improving the nutritional quality of diets. But it needs to be appropriately regulated to ensure that harm does not come along with the benefits."

At What Cost?

Charles Margulis, a Greenpeace genetic engineering specialist, bristles. He says that Bt engineered into cotton and other plants doesn't stay there but seeps into the soil through roots and remains in the dirt at least seven months, depressing the soil microbes that help plants grow, as the journal Nature reported in 1999. One study found that the glyphosate sprayed onto Roundup Ready crops remained in soil as long as three years.

Margulis denies that GE foods can be described as good for the environment. "The only argument they may have is cotton," he said. "There might be some small reduction in insecticide."

Even then, if reducing insecticides were the real goal, Margulis said, "Why not talk about the real choice that we have: organic agriculture?" Yet the nation's organic crops don't compete on a level playing field with biotech and conventional crops, Margulis complains. Of the $2 billion a year the USDA spends on research projects, less than 1 percent is spent on studies useful for organic growers.

"If we had a level playing field, then we'd have more organic agriculture," Margulis said.

And so it goes. Biotech food supporters point to studies and anecdotes that bolster their arguments. Critics point to others that bolster theirs. Call it a food fight.

Supporters say biotech foods will make people healthier through the hoped-for introduction of novel products. One day, lives could be saved in impoverished nations through the advent of bananas that contain vaccines, while hundreds of millions of poor children could be protected from blindness by the advent of "golden rice," which contains pro-vitamin A. Critics essentially say, promises, promises. No such food is available yet.

Golden rice, for one, faces several stumbling blocks. White rice holds spiritual significance in some cultures. Another issue is practicality. By some accounts, an adult would need to eat nine kilos of cooked rice daily to get the required amount of vitamin A.

Among other issues: Why bother to invent golden rice? Brown rice and leafy greens would do the job of providing vitamin A, if only poor people could get them somehow.

Proponents say biotechnology holds promise for feeding the world as its population continues to grow by 73 million a year — the equivalent of annually adding two Californias and one Minnesota.

According to the Council for Biotechnology Information, the world must double its food production and improve food distribution over the next quarter-century, despite widespread soil degradation and the fact that much suitable farmland is already cultivated.

According to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, "World crop productivity could increase by as much as 25 percent through the use of biotechnology to grow plants that resist pests and diseases, tolerate harsh growing conditions, and delay ripening to reduce spoilage."

Yet critics note that enough food already exists to provide every person in the world 4.3 pounds of sustenance every day — without GMOs, according to a report by University of California-Berkeley professor Miguel A. Altieri. Hunger is a food distribution issue, says the San Francisco–based Institute for Food and Development Policy, not a production shortage problem.

On the other side of the debate, advocates of a full-scale organic revolution point to a 2000 study by J.N. Pretty and Rachel Hine, which found that organic techniques can actually increase crop yields by 46 to 150 percent. Greenpeace argues that organic farming offers the developing world excellent potential for high yields, greater crop diversity, protection from pests, and improved nuturitional content. And the Britain-based Soil Association says a 2000 United Nations report "shows that GM crops are not needed to feed the world's growing population." 

In the end, what is a consumer to do? If you want to avoid GE foods, buy or grow your own certified organic alternatives. You can also make home-cooked meals with locally grown ingredients instead of relying on big-brand prepared foods or too many restaurant meals. So far, supermarket vegetables and fruits aren't genetically engineered, save for papayas from Hawaii and some squash. If you're OK with GE foods, do nothing at all. You're eating them already.

Sally Deneen is a freelance writer in Seattle.

Copyright © 2003 E/The Environmental Magazine

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