by Cara Gardner

What did you have for dinner last night? Did you barbecue, go to a restaurant, reheat leftovers? While you were slopping on the A1 Sauce, you probably weren't thinking about where your food came from. You may not realize it, but the items on your dinner plate are the source of one of the most complicated and contentious debates in the world. Chances are high that the foods in your diet are genetically modified (GM). Eighty percent of all soybeans, 70 percent of all cotton and 38 percent of all corn grown in the U.S. are GM. The United States grew about 145 million acres of GM crops in 2002, more than any country in the world.

Since the mid-'90s, large biotechnology companies like Monsanto, DuPont and Novartis have worked with farmers around the world, pushing high-tech seeds designed to fight off pests and weeds, produce higher yields and protect the soil. Proponents of GM farming and food say that the technology can help the environment, rid the world of hunger, make people healthier and aid farmers during tough seasons.

But before biotech corporations can start marketing, for example, genetically engineered bananas with vaccines in them, there's a lot those companies need to prove to skeptics. In some countries, protests and rallies against GM foods show no signs of going away.

"The fundamental reason for GM research is profit-driven, not driven by scientific or humanitarian benefit," argues Chrys Ostrander, a grower of organic produce and botanicals at Tolstoy Farms in Davenport, Wash. Ostrander says the companies developing this technology are manipulating nature in ways that are potentially harmful to the environment and to human health. "Nature is a matrix, not a straight line. Scientists are not going to take into account the effects on the ecosystem that go beyond what the corporation is looking for."

"If Thomas Edison was required to do more tests to prove that electricity was safer than candles, where would we be?" asks Jim Cook, chairman of wheat research at Washington State University. "People would have said, 'Oh! You can be electrocuted and it's dangerous and then there will be dams and what will happen to the fish?' Society goes forward. There are risks in everything we try to do, and there is a downside, but the downsides are few and far between."

The two camps are far apart, and there is little science to illuminate the debate -- it may be years before some of the questions surrounding GM foods are answered.

"There are a lot of urban myths about the way this technology is being used that are wholly inaccurate," says Kim Brooks of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. "At this time, there's no commonly known scientific evidence that the products out there are unsafe." But as critics point out, there isn't any scientific evidence that they are absolutely safe, either.

Fast Changes -- These changes have been the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of agriculture. That has many people worried. Environmental and consumer advocate groups have taken issue with GM food and farming; national and international campaigns have been launched, and politicians have come out against genetic modification in foods, including Great Britain's Prince Charles, who asked, "Do we have the right to experiment with and commercialize the building blocks of life?" despite ongoing pressure from American companies to deregulate GM products in England.

In many parts of the world, particularly in Europe, public demand has encouraged governments to put moratoriums on all GM imports.Are these governments allowing an uninformed public to make hysterical, fear-driven decisions, as supporters of GM foods say? Or is this precautionary approach a more rational response to the sudden onslaught of genetically altered organisms in our food supply?

Though a majority of Americans claim to be optimistic about the possibilities of genetic modification in farming, most admit they don't know enough about the technology to feel comfortable eating GM foods. And with war and terrorism dominating the media, there hasn't been much coverage of the issue in the States.

The Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network is a statewide organization made up of farmers, environmentalists, faith-based groups, hunger and nutrition advocates, educators, scientists and concerned citizens -- all fighting GM technology in agriculture. Bonnie Rice is the group's director, and she believes genetic modification is being introduced to the human food supply at an alarming rate.

"A big issue for us is that there are so many unknowns," Rice explains. "The industry has done some studies, but it doesn't say what the long-term effects are. If you look at chemicals, they can show up in the next generation. We think the precautionary approach, where you don't just put [GM foods] out in a wide scale until you have some long-term research, is the best way. It puts the burden of proof on whoever wants to commercialize the technology; in this case, it's Monsanto."

Advocates of biotechnology in agriculture argue that the moratoriums on GM foods grown in the United States have less to do with public concern about safety and more to do with foreign governments buying time in order to catch up with the American technology. Either way, it's practically a moot point here: A majority of Americans are already eating GM foods.

The truth about Labeling -- You might be surprised to know that GM foods line the shelves of every supermarket. In fact, six out of 10 processed foods contain GM ingredients. Products containing soybeans, corn and canola oil are likely to be genetically modified. This includes corn syrup, cornstarch and most processed soy products. While amounts of fat and other ingredients are listed on most foods, there are currently no laws at either the federal or state level that require the labeling of GM food products.

"There's a huge number of consumers who feel it's unfair for them to go to supermarkets and not be able to tell from the label whether or not the food contains GM organisms," Ostrander says.

Rice, with the WSFFN, agrees. "We're talking about the food supply, and that's a very critical thing to the public and to life. In effect, we are the guinea pigs."

A push for labeling of GM foods has been met with fierce resistance from the food industry, which has claimed that if all food containing GM organisms were labeled, consumers would unfairly discriminate against the products.

"If you ask people if they want labeling, they'll say yes," says WSU's Cook. "But if you ask people, 'Do you want labeling even though it may mean biotechnology will shift completely out of agriculture and focus only on medicine?' I think they'd say no."

Cook testified before Congress in 1999, stating that GM foods improve the quality of life globally. An expert in plant pathology, he claims GM foods are absolutely safe. He adds that labeling GM foods is "not useful information" for consumers and may run many companies out of business. He agrees that people have the right to know where their food comes from, and should look into how it's produced, but says a label encourages consumer discrimination based on misunderstandings.

Studies indicate he's right about consumers not choosing GM products; a majority of Americans admit it may deter them from purchasing the product.

"In order to label GM foods, there would be tremendous efforts to rework the entire bulk commodity system," says Brooks of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, which conducts research and advocates for policies regarding biotechnology in foods and farming. "There are all kinds of ideological reasons people favor or oppose labeling. The fact is it's tough. It's not as simple as do it or don't do it."

Moving crops from farms to manufacturing plants to supermarkets doesn't allow for segregation between GM crops and non-GM crops. Labeling, in other words, wouldn't simply mean slapping a sticker on a package of taco shells. Instead, it would require the creation of an entirely new system for food transport, storage and manufacturing. And that's an expense the food industry says is completely unnecessary -- and that would likely be passed on to consumers.

Caution or Paranoia? -- "Nobody ever did an experiment to prove that orange juice was safe," Cook points out. "We've never proved that bread is safe -- in fact, it's not for some people. What the Federal Drug Administration says is if oil from soybeans is safe, then oil from soybeans with extra genes in it is also safe. They do not do clinical trials with these two kinds of soybeans to see if there is any difference."

Opponents of GM food say FDA standards are based on assumptions, not research. Charles Benbrook, an agricultural consultant based in Sandpoint, Idaho, helps farmers analyze the risks and benefits of incorporating biotechnology into their farms. An op-ed piece he wrote on the subject was published in the July 11 edition of the New York Times.

"I think there is some important food safety and nutritional research that still has not been done," says Benbrook. "The U.S. adopted a policy back in the early '90s that GM foods are a 'substantial equivalent' [to non-GM foods]."

Benbrook says that not only are American scientists not conducting enough research, but also that agricultural companies are marketing their products before fully understanding their long-term effects. "At this point, the government is frankly concerned about what the research will show if it is carried out," Benbrook says.

Already claims have surfaced about the harmful effects of some GM foods. Many of these claims are unproven.

And it may be that science will never be able to answer such questions absolutely. As an example, consider the case of StarLink, a type of GM corn that has only been approved for use in animal feed. Some claimed the product's innovative protein is an allergen for humans, and when StarLink wound up in the human food supply about three years ago, chaos erupted. Massive consumer product recalls, lawsuits and buy-backs from farmers followed. But after all that, it is still unclear whether StarLink contains allergens that can harm humans.

After the StarLink incident, some called for new regulations, but the opposite has occurred.

"The industry is pushing for less and less testing from the FDA, and that's a concern of mine," says William Aal, vice president of the Washington Biotechnology Action Council. "It's genetic material. We just don't know the different aspects when it gets combined in a new place with a new organism. A number of possible negative impacts could occur."

Allergens, toxins and other chemicals are all cause for concern in GM foods. Aal says there's plenty of evidence to add up to reasonable doubt.

"Bovine Growth Hormone [BGH] was one of the first GM food products out there," says Aal. "[Monsanto] started pumping it into cows to increase milk production. The industry and FDA say because BGH is found in non-GM milk [cows produce BGH naturally], it's not harmful. But they give cows super-doses, and it's known to cause premature maturation of boys and girls and breast cancer. The industry has suppressed this information."

Despite the FDA's claim that there is no evidence that BGH causes either early maturation in children or breast or prostate cancer, some remain convinced that there are links. Aal says the dairy industry influenced the FDA to approve BGH, eliminating necessary research about the potential health risks. In fact, BGH failed scientific and regulatory reviews in the European Union and Canada, where it is banned. In the United States, it remains legal and in widespread use.

In fact, Monsanto, the developer of BGH, is suing a Portland, Maine, dairy company for marketing its milk with a label that reads "No Artificial Growth Hormones." Monsanto claims the label makes BGH milk look worse than hormone-free milk, and promotes public misunderstanding of BGH. This is the third time Monsanto has sued a company for promoting a hormone-free product.

Terminator Technology -- The biggest criticism of GM food and farming is often directed more toward the companies that develop and sell the technology rather than the technology itself.

"Companies are bound only to their shareholders," says Ostrander.

It's true that the use of biotechnology in agriculture increases the monopoly a handful of companies have on the global food market. From seeds to ready-to-eat food, fewer than 10 companies control a majority of our food.

One of the major controversies surrounding biotechnology in agriculture is Monsanto's development of genetic use restriction technology (GURT), which basically makes a GM seed sterile after one season, ensuring a farmer will purchase new seed from the company. Currently no corporation is marketing GURT seeds, but as GM seeds are increasingly distributed, the companies may use them to restrict the use of their technology to paying customers only.

Critics call them "terminator seeds" and say this is another example of genetically engineering organisms in ways that shift power and control toward big business.

But Cook says that saving seeds isn't a healthy farming practice anyway, and that most farmers, particularly in the United States, buy new seed on a yearly basis already.

The main concern regarding biotech companies' control over the rights of seeds lies in what that means for farmers in the developing world (see "Patenting Life," page 22).

Aal says that if corporations continue to gain control over the land where their seeds are planted, farmers may be giving up some autonomy. "They'd basically be selling their labor, not their food," he says.

Ostrander says the entire system is rigged to the benefit of big business, from law regulation to cozy relationships between the companies and researchers.

WSU's Cook has received research grants from Monsanto. "Monsanto gave my lab $10,000," he says. "I then worked for the USDA and WSU." Cook was conducting field tests on some GM seeds developed by Monsanto. He says money toward his and others' research comes from both the public and private sectors.

Rice, the WSFFN director, says it's common for state universities to receive funding from corporations, and that WSU probably receives less money than many universities.

"It's a problem, because state funding for agricultural research continues to go down, so they start looking around for funding," Rice says. "Of course there's funding available through the biotech industry and through private industry. That brings up potential conflicts. What's the research that's being done, and, more importantly, what's the research that's not being done? What control does the company funding the research have over the research? These are big issues."

Biotech In Our Backyard -- "The Pacific Northwest has been largely untouched by the debate of agriculture biotechnology," says Sandpoint's Benbrook. Right now, GM seeds for any wheat variety are not available on the market. But that may soon change, perhaps with big consequences for the Inland Northwest, one of the nation's top wheat-producing regions.

"There is a petition before the USDA by Monsanto requesting them to deregulate GM wheat, which means it will be able to be grown in the U.S.," says Rice. "In April, a coalition of farming groups and environmental organizations filed a petition on GM wheat to the USDA, [asking for] an environmental and economic impact statement before they be allowed to grow [GM wheat] on a large scale. We feel like they should do that analysis."

Chris Laney, a grower of several wheat varieties as well as alfalfa, spring canola and spring barley on a dry-land farm north of Sprague, Wash., says he's already tried GM canola seeds. While his results were lukewarm, he'd be interested in trying GM wheat seeds.

"They make the plant capable of metabolizing herbicide, and that's a phenomenal tool from a producer's standpoint," Laney says. "I could see where I'd be tempted to use [GM] wheat."

But Laney isn't without concerns. He says that more than 90 percent of soft white wheat (the variety he grows) is sold overseas. Because of international moratoriums on GM crops, Washington farmers could find themselves restricted to domestic markets if they started producing GM crops.

Laney has other concerns, too. "If it was widely adopted and proper management techniques were not adhered to, you could accelerate the mutant process in which weeds would become immune," Laney says, referring to "super weeds." Many farmers worry that overuse of GM seeds will encourage the speed of bug and weed mutations.

"Turning plants into pesticide factories is not, in general, a thoughtful way of dealing with a pest problem," notes Benbrook, the Sandpoint consultant. "Since the late '90s, there has been a preoccupation in U.S. agriculture with biotechnology. It doesn't matter what the problem is, someone thinks the GM crop is the solution. I think that's terribly misguided."

Benbrook says that for all the unknowns, there hasn't been an overwhelming payoff for farmers. "In general, U.S. farmers have about broken even with biotechnologies. In some years and in some places, they perform well, but in others they don't return to the farmer the added cost of the seed."

But Laney thinks GM wheat seeds could help produce a better crop. "We're not being forced to adopt this technology," he says. "I have not been contacted by [Monsanto]. I have sought them out and got prices and requirements."

The WBAC's Aal says between the anti-biotechnology agricultural activists, the scientists from universities and the companies themselves, farmers are getting pushed in many directions.

"I think very few people are really listening to what farmers want. I think they should have as much autonomy as possible."

The Future of Food -- For many people, organically grown foods are the answer to their uncertainty over GM foods. In fact, despite the monolithic rise of GM farming across the United States in the corn, soybean and cotton industries, organic farming is on the rise as well; it was a $6 billion industry in 2002.

"Agriculture should move to organic production," says Ostrander. "In the last 50 years, university research has been almost entirely chemical and intervention-oriented. I hope we can turn that around and have as big of an impact in the next 50 years if we could figure out ways of improving non-chemical agricultural research."

Though Ostrander is adamant that organic farming is the only sustainable route, he says consumers should be focused on supporting local farmers above all else.

"We need to support the farmers still in business, regardless of whether they are organic or not," Ostrander says. "I see the redevelopment of local food systems as a very strong economic development tool. We really need to renew the agrarian roots that we have in our region."

While Ostrander's concerns about supporting local farmers are shared by most agricultural experts on both sides of the GM fence, others don't share his views that organic farming is the be-all and end-all of agriculture.

"I don't think it's possible to make blanket conclusions about the nutrition of organic food vs. [GM] food," says Benbrook. "What's really missing is the consideration of what the alternative ways are to advance the productivity of farming systems."

David Granatstein of the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at WSU says that even though he's not convinced genetically engineered crops are safe, he thinks the technology is crucial.

"People are using genetic tools to investigate all kinds of things about soil and organisms," Granatstein says. He says purists and organic farmers may be closing the door on new developments that could be both safe and beneficial.

"Can genetic engineering help organic farming? I could see 10 years from now [organic farmers] could say, 'We know this technology and we know where we don't want to go with it, but we also know where we want to use it and where it could be safe.' "

Granatstein, a former organic farmer himself, points out that nothing -- especially something as complex as biotechnology -- can be seen in black or white.

"I don't think it's an either/or issue," he says. "I know a guy who says the best way of farming hasn't been invented yet. Organic has a lot of good principles, but is it the ultimate end of agriculture? I don't know that. We may find that some elements of biotechnology really move us forward."

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Publication date: 07/17/03

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