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Over the past year the number of genetically engineered crops grown in Minnesota has increased dramatically. Soybeans, corn, and wheat have all been genetically altered to withstand disease and pests. But a growing consumer movement is fighting to ban the foods from grocery store shelves.
FARMERS FROM THROUGHOUT SOUTHWEST MINNESOTA are gathered at the University of Minnesota Morris Experiment Station to view the latest variety of Roundup Ready soybeans. The beans were created by the Monsanto Corporation. They've been genetically engineered to withstand direct applications of Monsanto's own Roundup herbicide.
Roundup is well known to farmers and gardeners as a chemical which kills nearly anything green. But Roundup Ready soybeans contain the DNA of a bacterium which is resistant to the chemical.
For many farmers here, this is the first time they've planted Roundup Ready beans, and Chuck Cyrus, who farms in Pope County, says he and his friends are pleased with the results.
Cyrus: It was just exactly like we had hoped. The beans are lookin' really good, and the weeds are dead, and we will be continuing to plant them. We're looking forward to having as good a yield on them as we are on the rest of our beans.Cyrus says the program is saving him money and freeing up his time.
Cyrus: I think it's the wave of the future. We're just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of genetic manipulation of plants to make them produce more or be more tolerant to weeds and other types of pests, and it's something that's gonna come, and I think we as farmers should welcome it.And that's just what Monsanto is hoping for. The company's patent on Roundup expires in 2000. Roundup Ready soybeans will help secure a future market for the chemical.
In Minnesota, Roundup beans now make up 30 percent of soybean acreage, and agronomists say the volume of genetically altered crops produced will only continue to grow.
Chemical, seed, and even pharmaceutical companies are preparing for that increase by restructuring to include biotechnology. A series of mergers and buyouts has consolidated the industry, and millions have been spent on development.
Jim Orf is a soybean breeder at the University of Minnesota St. Paul Campus. He says many farmers like the idea of getting a package deal on seed and chemicals from a company, but with the consolidation of industries, Orf says farmers could be forced into it.
Orf: What that means to the farmer is that there won't be hundreds of companies to choose things from, but just a couple of companies - and whether that's good or bad, I don't know. It depends on the kinds of products that the farmers have, but they will have fewer choices. That's the way I think things are going.But as more corporations and farmers invest in biotechnology, more consumers are demanding the foods be labeled as genetically engineered. Some food companies have caught onto the trend and will now pay farmers premiums to keep their genetically engineered crops separated. But biotech proponents say genetically engineered foods are no different than non-altered foods and need no special labeling. The FDA agrees.
Monsanto spokesperson Karen Marshall says the company would support labeling if the altered foods contained an allergen or posed a safety threat to consumers.
Marshall: Research shows that four out of five Americans support the FDA program, and we do, too. These are just foods, and if they're the same foods they should be treated like other foods. So that we're for labeling when there's a need for labeling, such as if you were putting an allergen in, or if there's any kind of safety problem for consumers.But some scientists say there's no foolproof way to know whether altered foods could cause a person to have an allergic reaction, or even die.
Phil Regal is an ecology professor at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. He's studied genetic engineering for more than fifteen years serving on scientific advisory boards for the EPA and organizing workshops for the National Science Foundation.
Regal says the potential health and safety risks of genetically engineered foods are well known by the scientific community, including the FDA.
Regal: All sorts of things are going into foods with genetic engineering that are untested with regard to their allergenicity from microorganisms, like yeast and bacteria, genes from plants, genes from animals, and we have simply no way scientifically of screening in advance if those new transgenic foods are allergenic to people.Regal says by genetically manipulating food, scientists can alter the foods' natural toxins - creating possible new toxins and allergens.
When scientists attempt to alter a foods' genes, they use what's called an enhanced vector to transfer a gene to its new host. Regal calls enhanced vectors a sort of molecular carrier pigeon. But once the vectors are released, Regal says it's hard for scientists to determine where they'll end up. And once someone eats the altered food, Regal says, there are still many questions about what these enhanced vectors may do as they're digested in the body. Regal can envision some disturbing scenarios.
Regal: The problem there is that if one of these little DNA passenger pigeons leaves your mouth or gut and goes into your cells, it can cause mutations, and that can start a cancer. Or if it goes into your germ cells, it can cause deformities in your future generations of children. So this is a problem I raised at meetings as far back as 1985, and they didn't know what to do about it then, and as far as I know, they haven't done a thing about it.Regal says despite the concern of scientists, promoters of biotechnology say it's too big too stop. Banks and corporations have invested millions. Scientists have invested their careers. Farmers have invested their livelihoods. Regal has now joined a long list of scientists from across the country in a lawsuit against the FDA demanding labeling of genetically engineered foods.
Consumer rights and environmental groups are organizing awareness and signature campaigns for mandatory labeling as well. Laura Tiacchi is with the Consumer Right to Know Campaign in Fairfield, Iowa.
Tiacchi: It's a basic democratic right to be able to make an informed choice in the marketplace, and I know the FDA and the industry says there's no difference so it would confuse consumers but my feeling is that there's a lot of things on the label that I don't know what they mean, there all sort of technical names, but if I want to know what they mean, I can go and find out what they mean.More than 60 percent of all processed foods contain soybeans including margarine, chocolate, pizza, salad dressing, and even baby formula.
Tiacchi says she's received calls from people across the world organizing to ban the import of American genetically engineered soybeans into their country. Groups in Germany, Austria, and Japan have all begun major campaigns. The U.S exports over half its soybean crops, and a number of ships have already been blockaded by protesters in European ports.
But farmers at the Morris Field Days say they're not worried about any consumer rejection of their crops. They say they welcome the new technology and anything to make their jobs easier.
Monsanto spokesperson Karen Marshall says she's heard the same response from farmers using Monsanto's Roundup program. She says she doesn't think there is a consumer movement against the crops.
Marshall: I think that there have always been a small number of consumers who don't like the idea. Products have been here on the markets for years now, people have been consuming them, nothing has changed in the marketplace that way, the food's just as nutritious and safe as it's always been.But biotech companies have had a hard time proving this to everyone. Earlier this year, the USDA proposed genetically engineered foods, along with irradiated foods, be allowed into the organic market. Farmers and consumers flooded the agency with more than 200,000 phone calls, letters, and emails. As a result, the USDA decided to leave organic standards alone.
The controversy over the safety of genetically engineered foods is sure to continue. The biotech industry's stated objective is for the entire global food supply to one day be genetically engineered.