Genetically Manipulated Food News

30 October 98

Table of Contents

Modified Potato is Taken off the Menu
Africa: Biotech Firms have their Eyes on Africa, ...
Food Lobby Kills Safety Watchdog
Canola Crossbreeds Create Tough Weed Problem
Resistant Canola Expected
U.S. Biotech Giant Patents on "Terminator Technology"
Netherlands Files Suit to Cancel EU Patenting of Plants and Animals
Canada: Scientists Present Concerns to Senate Standing Committee on Health
Scientists `pressured' to approve cattle drug
'Revolving door' row as aide joins Monsanto lobbyists
Scare In Test Crop Blunder
Internet: Articles and On-line Voting
Ottawa Tried to Control Scientists' Testimony
Canada doesn't need milk-boosting hormone
NY Times Magazine: "Playing God in the Garden"

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Date: Wed, 21 Oct 1998 21:56:26 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Modified Potato is Taken off the Menu

By Debora Mackenzie, New Scientist October 17, 1998

DOUBTS over the effects of genetically modified crops on health and the environment are threatening to undermine attempts by biotech companies to sell them in the European Union. For the first time, the European Commission's scientific advisers have recommended that a genetically modified plant should be withheld from the market because they cannot guarantee its safety. And Britain's environment minister, Michael Meacher, is considering imposing a three-year moratorium on transgenic crops grown for commercial use.

Date: Wed, 21 Oct 1998 21:56:26 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Africa: Biotech Firms have their Eyes on Africa, ...

PARIS, (Oct. 14) IPS

European Union (EU) rules limiting the range of biotechnological activity appear to be prompting some biotech firms to look for new locations where they can operate more freely. In fact, biotech industrialists and researchers have reportedly started hinting about relocating, possibly to Africa, so as to circumvent strict EU regulations prohibiting some activities. Operations banned in Europe include cloning humans, modifying the genetic identity of a human being and artificial reproducing embryos that have the same genetic information as another person, whether alive or dead.

Also included on the banned list are inventions whose exploitation or publication would violate public order or morals, and any modification of the genetic make-up of animals that would cause them to suffer or to become physically handicapped where this is of no substantial medical usefulness to man or animal.

There are also restrictions to the manipulation of vegetable species and animal breeds. To get around this arsenal of constraints, transnationals are reportedly looking towards Africa as the place to go to operate with total impunity, and they are said to be banking on the elimination of trade barriers under the World Trade Organization (WTO) and moves to dismantle barriers to investment, touted by various developed nations.

Date: Wed, 21 Oct 1998 21:56:26 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

from archive/latest/325

Food Lobby Kills Safety Watchdog

by Michael Prescott and Stephen Bevan, London Sunday Times October 18 1998

PLANS for an independent food safety watchdog have been shelved by Tony Blair after lobbying by supermarkets and manufacturers.

The pledge to set up a food standards agency to protect consumers was contained in Labour's election manifesto and ministers promised early legislation to restore confidence in an industry battered by the BSE crisis, the E-coli outbreak that killed 20 people, and other food poisoning scandals.

Jeff Rooker, the food standards minister, told the industry just months ago that it would soon have to deal with "a very powerful body" that would be independent of the agriculture ministry, which had become too closely associated with the farming lobby. "We cannot afford to fail on this," he said.

However, the expected bill to set up the watchdog will not feature in next month's Queen's speech. Nor, it emerged this weekend, is it likely to be introduced to parliament next year. There are increasing doubts that it will ever see the light of day.

Yesterday one of those involved in the food industry's campaign to lobby ministers and officials boasted about his success. "We hijacked this from the start," he said.

Date: Wed, 21 Oct 1998 21:56:26 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

From: Genetic Resources Action International (by way of genetics

Canola Crossbreeds Create Tough Weed Problem

by Mary MacArthur, Western Producer, Camrose bureau, Oct. 15/98

Canola resistant to Roundup herbicide has turned up in a northern Alberta farm where none was recently planted. On Tony Huethers farm near Sexsmith, the Roundup-tolerant trait appears to have been transferred through pollen movement to canola in a neighboring field.

John Huffman, an Alberta Agriculture crop specialist in Grande Prairie said that has caused Roundup-tolerant canola to appear in the field where none had been seeded the year before. "It appears that some pollen has flown across the road and pollinated the canola and the gene has shown up the following year," said Huffman, who also worked with the departments weed specialist Linda Hall to check the possibility of cross pollination.

"When John told me I said Thank God, now we can get the concerns out there," said Hall of Edmonton.

"We've known and predicted this for a long time," she said. Hall said the viability of pollen diminishes with the distance it travels from the source. Sunshine and air impair pollen viability.

The article went on to say that in 1997, Huether planted two fields of canola. On the west side of a county road he planted Quest, a Roundup-resistant canola and on the east side of the road he planted 20 acres of Innovator, a Liberty-resistant variety. The rest of the 140-acre field was planted to 45A71, a Smart canola resistant to Pursuit and Odyssey. All are Argentine types. The two fields are about 30 metres apart.

The fields were harvested at different times, eliminating the possibility of contamination by combine, said Huffman. This year, in the east field where the Innovator and 45A71 were grown one year earlier, Huether sprayed one litre per acre of Roundup on May 13 for a quick weed burnoff. Because of dry conditions, he didn't seed the field and sprayed another three-quarters of a litre of Roundup about a month later. "I was seeing pretty viable canola plants before and was wondering what was happening.

Even before the second application, I was wondering if the Roundup was doing the job. I sprayed it and it was the same story. They just kept going," said Huether. When Huffman was called to Huethers farm 10 days later, he found some canola had survived.

The Roundup had worked except for a large number of healthy blooming canola plants, said Huffman.

The unexpected Roundup-resistant canola grows thickest near the road, but is present throughout the 140-acre field, said Huether. Samples have been taken from the plants, but haven't been tested. "We're pretty sure they're highly tolerant because he sprayed them twice," Hall said.

Aaron Mitchell, biotechnology manager for Monsanto in Saskatoon, said he hadn't heard about the field of cross-pollinated canola, but it isn't unexpected.

There have been studies of cross-pollination between canolas at various distances in test plots. Mitchell said, "This is the first known example of cross-pollination in a field situation. We always expected a level of natural outcross would occur within the species." He doubts whether wind carried the pollen across the road, noting bees are more likely the cause. Pollen of Argentine canola tends to be too heavy for wind. Huether said there are native bees in the area, and the closest commercial hives are about 13 kilometres away.

Because seed companies and researchers were aware of possible cross-pollination, Mitchell said he has promoted the importance of farmers talking to their neighbors about the varieties of canola they grow. More than half the canola seeded on the Prairies this year was herbicide-tolerant and the number of acres is expected to increase as new varieties reach the market.

Date: Wed, 21 Oct 1998 21:56:26 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Resistant Canola Expected

by Mary MacArthur, Western Producer, Camrose bureau, Oct. 15/98

In a related article, Gary Stringam, a University of Alberta professor who conducted canola pollination studies when he was with Agriculture Canada in Saskatoon during the 1970s said it was just a matter of time before volunteer herbicide-resistant canola from cross-pollination appeared on the Prairies.

Those studies used recommended pedigreed seed isolation distances. Plots were established to see how far the pollen would travel from its source.

Researchers found five or six percent out-crossed canola plants up to 400 metres from the original source with Polish canola, said Stringam. Pollen from Argentine varieties doesn't travel as easily, but outcrosses were still found 400 metres from the original Argentine plants. Stringam said the canola can spread up to eight kilometres if there are lots of bees in the area to carry pollen.

"Pollen movement isn't something we totally understand. There hasn't been a lot of research. Its true napus or Argentine variety pollen doesn't move that well on the wind, but that's not to say it doesn't happen. With more herbicide-tolerant canola being grown on the Prairies. Farmers will need to be more vigilant about where their canola is grown, what herbicides they use and what types of canola their neighbors grow."

Girona 25, pral., 08010 Barcelona Spain
Tel: (34-93) 301 13 81, Fax: (34-93) 301 16 27

From: (jim mcnulty)

U.S. Biotech Giant Patents on "Terminator Technology"

October 21, 1998

WASHINGTON - Inter Press Service via NewsEdge Corporation : The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is forging ahead with plans to give a U.S. corporation an exclusive patent on new seed technology, despite an international outcry that it threatens the livelihood of Third World farmers.

Developed jointly by the USDA and Delta and Pine Land Co., a subsidiary of the U.S.-based chemical and biotech giant Monsanto, the new bio-engineering process is called Technology Protection System. It enables a company to genetically alter seeds to produce crops that in turn produce sterile seeds.

Small-farmer advocacy groups and non-profit research organizations charge that the new process, dubbed "terminator- technology," will force farmers to return to the commercial seed market every year since they will no longer be able to save seed from their harvest. This process, sometimes called brown-bagging, is a tradition mainly in developing countries.

Date: Wed, 21 Oct 1998 21:56:26 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Netherlands Files Suit to Cancel EU Patenting of Plants and Animals

Agence France Presse, 19 October1998

THE HAGUE, Oct 19 (AFP) - The Dutch government filed a suit with the European Court of Justice on Monday in a bid to cancel a directive over the patenting of biotechnological discoveries, the economics ministry said.

The EU Life Patents Directive, which came into being in July, permits the patenting of biotechnological discoveries, such as the genetic manipulation of plants and animals as well as the technical methods used to change the organisms.

The Dutch government, which voted against extending biotechnological patents to plants and animals, filed an appeal seeking to nullify the directive on legal grounds, claiming that it violated international treaties and basic human rights, the economics ministry spokesman said.

"We voted against the directive because we felt it went too far and should not have included patents on living beings," the spokesman added.

Date: Fri, 23 Oct 1998 16:27:33 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Canada: Scientists Present Concerns to Senate Standing Committee on Health

On Thursday October 22, several Health Canada Scientists met before the Senate Standing Committee on Health, and presented concerns regarding Bovine Growth Hormone and the politics of the approval process.

The official transcript of the meeting is temporarily posted at the website:

Please feel free to download this file, as it may not be posted there permanently.

Date: Fri, 23 Oct 1998 16:27:33 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Thanks to: Bradford Duplisea of Sierra Club for forwarding the following article which discusses many of the points that were brought up at the hearings:

Scientists `pressured' to approve cattle drug

By James Baxter, The Ottawa Citizen Fri 23 Oct 1998 Page A1

Health Canada researchers accuse firm of bribery in bid to OK `questionable' product

Veterinary scientists from Health Canada's Human Safety Division testified yesterday that they are being pressured to approve a controversial hormone intended to boost milk production in dairy cattle.

"We have been pressured and coerced to pass drugs of questionable safety, including rBST," Dr. Shiv Chopra told the Senate Standing Committee on Agriculture and Forestry.

Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin is an artificial growth hormone that is estimated to increase milk production in cows by 10 to 15 per cent. The drug has been widely used in the United States since 1993, but remains unapproved in Canada and much of Europe. The Senate has been investigating rBST for nearly a year and decided to call in the five scientists after they filed a grievance with a government internal labour board that they were being pressured to sign off on a drug they felt had yet to be sufficiently tested.

The senators sat dumbfounded as Dr. Margaret Haydon told of being in a meeting when officials from Monsanto Inc., the drug's manufacturer, made an offer of between $1 million and $2 million to the scientists from Health Canada -- an offer that she told the senators could only have been interpreted as a bribe.

Ray Mowling, vice-president of Monsanto Canada Inc., who attended the hearings yesterday, said Monsanto does give money to Health Canada to oversee studies, but denied that company officials ever tried to bribe the scientists.

Mr. Mowling said his company was eager to get rBST approved for what could bring the company up to $50 million a year in sales, but only when it has been deemed safe by Canadian authorities. He said it was Monsanto's job to provide whatever data and studies are necessary to assist Health Canada.

Dr. Haydon also recounted how notes and files critical of scientific data provided by Monsanto were stolen from a locked filing cabinet in her office. Dr. Chopra said that all files pertaining to rBST are now controlled by one senior bureaucrat and can only be viewed by gaining permission.

"I can't even believe I'm in Canada when I hear that your files have been stolen and that all the files are now in the hands of one person," said Senator Eugene Whelan. "What the hell kind of a system have we got here?"

Mr. Whelan was strongly critical of Health Canada's willingness to accept data and money from companies seeking approval to market drugs in Canada. He said Canadian scientists are not free to conduct independent research and are at the mercy of corporations on which they depend for raw data.

Reading from a prepared text, Bureau of Veterinary Drugs scientist Thea Mueller said "It was not the mandate of the (Health Canada scientists) to make any recommendation regarding human safety ... only whether or not the data upon which the (department's) conclusions would be based are adequate."

Dr. Chopra said that without meaningful long-term studies on animals and then on humans, it would be unsafe to release a hormone of this sort into the basic food system.

"These are chemical switches, which triggers another one, which triggers another one, which triggers another one," he said.

At the heart of the scientists' fears is not the effects of rBST, but an insulin-like bi-product called IGF-1 that is found in the milk of cows injected with the hormone.

High levels of IGF-1 have been found in humans suffering from cancer, particularly breast and prostate cancer. It is still unknown whether it is a causal factor in the cancers or the body's reaction to the tumour. While scientists generally believe IGF-1 would be broken down in the digestive process, Dr. Chopra said there are too many questions that need to be answered before the IGF-1 issue can be overlooked.

Dr. Chopra also raised questions about the ethics of making cows sick to produce more milk. In its packaging, Dr. Chopra says Monsanto list 20 side effects, including swollen and ulcerated udders, skin rashes, hoof disorders, and reduced hemoglobin. Most veterinarians said that cows suffering these conditions would be in some discomfort if not considerable pain.

These conditions are usually treated with antibiotics, which, in turn, can make their way into the milk. Over time, scientists fear humans will build up tolerances to many of the strongest antibiotics, rendering them useless against infection. Another concern is that most dairy cattle eventually are slaughtered for meat, and no studies have been done on the effects of eating beef from rBST-injected cows.

Ottawa Citizen



A POWERFUL government committee is to investigate genetically modified foods because of growing consumer fears about their safety. The Ministerial Group on Biotechnology and Genetic Modification will be chaired by the Cabinet "enforcer", Jack Cunningham, in an attempt to monitor commercial development of the crops.

As Downing Street unveiled the committee yesterday, the Environment minister, Michael Meacher, confirmed to Parliament that much tougher checks would be carried out on GM products under a voluntary agreement with the industry.

However, Friends of the Earth said it was disappointed the Government had not taken up English Nature's proposal to impose a five-year moratorium on the commercial growing of such crops. Mr Meacher told a Lords select committee that no insect-resistant crops will be introduced to the UK for three years and pledged to provide much more information about the fast-developing business.

Date: Wed, 28 Oct 1998 18:14:25 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

'Revolving door' row as aide joins Monsanto lobbyists

by Athony Barnett, The Observer Oct 25th 98 (UK)

A key adviser to the Cabinet Minister responsible for evaluating genetically modified food has taken a job with the lobbying firm that advises Monsanto, the American biotechnology giant pioneering the controversial crops.

Her appointment has raised fresh concern over the 'revolving door' between government and business, particularly in the lobbying industry.

Cathy Mc Glynn spent six years as a special adviser to Jack Cunningham, including the period when he was Agriculture Secretary, until she resigned six months ago. Last week Cunningham, who is now the Cabinet 'enforcer', was appointed by Tony Blair to head a Cabinet committee monitoring the genetically modified food industry.

Mc Glynn has now signed a contract to work for Bell Pottinger, the lobbying firm run by Sir Tim, Margeret Thatcher's favourite public relations man.

Tony Juniper, policy director of Friends of the Earth, which has called for a ban on genetically modified crops, reacted angrily to the news of her new appointment.

"This is a clear case of money talking, corperations attempting to buy access and influence that are denied to others. This episode will further undermine the public confidence in the way Government oversees genetically modified food," he said

Date: Wed, 28 Oct 1998 18:14:25 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Thanks to Paul Davis for forwarding the following article from the Oct 25, 1998 issue of the UK newspaper "The Mail on Sunday"

Scare In Test Crop Blunder

by Christopher Leake, Consumer Affairs Editor, The Mail on Sunday

One of the worst fears of campaigners against genetically modified crops has almost come true. An experimental crop of oilseed rape that was altered to be resistant to herbicides has had to be destroyed after it pollinated nearby plants.

The fear was that, left unchecked, a new breed of superweeds which normal chemicals could not destroy might have resulted with devastating effects for Britains agriculture. Now, in what could be the first case of its kind in the UK, the Government is considering prosecuting the America chemical giant behind the experiment for allegedly contaminating the environment.

If convicted, Monsanto, the world's leading producer of genetically modified foods and British based sub-contractor Perryfields Holdings Ltd face heavy fines. Monsanto's directors, headed by chairman and chief executive, Bob Shapiro, could even be jailed if found to have been negligent.

The companies were ordered by the Agriculture Ministry to dig up and destroy a field of oilseed rape, which is used in the production of magerine and vegetable oils, on a 1,000 square metre Government licensed site. All seeds harvested over the next two years within a 50-metre radius of the site, at Rothwell in Lincolnshire, will also be ditched. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, headed by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, will decide son whether to initiate prosecution under the 1992 Genetically Modified Organisms Regulations. A spokesman said the case was "too sensitive" to discuss.

Minutes of a recent meeting of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment reveal that Monsanto and Perryfields failed to prevent genetically modified winter oilseed rape cross-pollinating with another field of their normal oilseed rape. A pollen barrier, or buffer zone, of only two metres instead of the required six surrounded the test site.

The minutes say that "a breach of consent occurred" and show that Monsanto officials had not visited the trail site even though it was the company's duty to do so.

Tony Strickland, trials manager for Perryfields Holdings, of Inkberrow, Hereford and Worcester, said, " We expect to be prosecuted. A path was put around the test area and those on site overlooked the fact that the pollen barrier was then too small. This increased the risk of cross-pollination." He added that new rules this winter would ensure that such sites operated under much stricter conditions.

A Monsanto spokesman said,"We do not want to comment about a case that is pending with the Ministry, but to the best of our knowledge no breach of consent has led to environmental damage."

Date: Wed, 28 Oct 1998 18:14:25 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Internet: Articles and On-line Voting

Dear all, the Boston Globe recently published a useful front-page report on genetically engineered foods. It's on the web:


Here is a forwarded request -- Vote on CNN site


Dear Friends,

Another poll is being taken regarding whether or not you would buy food that has been genetically engineered. Please go to the above site and vote NO. Results when I voted a few minutes ago were appalling: 64% YES, 36% NO. The good news is that only 800 people had voted. We can change those percentages with your participation.

Date: Wed, 28 Oct 1998 18:14:25 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Ottawa Tried to Control Scientists' Testimony

by ANNE McILROY Parliamentary Bureau 10/27/98, The Globe and Mail News

Researchers raised fears about safety of controversial hormone

An internal document shows the federal Health Department had an aggressive plan to control the testimony of scientists who appeared before a Senate committee last week to explain how they were pressed to approve a drug they don't believe is safe. Bovine growth hormone, manufactured by Monsanto, boosts milk production in cows.

The genetically engineered product was approved by the United States in 1993 but is still prohibited in Europe and Canada. Environmentalists fear it is about to get the green light even though they say there is inadequate proof that it is safe.

Six Health Canada scientists have been ordered not to speak publicly about their concerns about its safety. Last week, three of them made a dramatic appearance before the Senate committee investigating the hormone, testifying that they had been pressed by their superiors to approve drugs including bovine growth hormone despite their concerns about safety. They appeared after being given written assurances by Health Minister Allan Rock on Oct. 2 that they wouldn't be punished for doing so. But the government's strategy document, dated Oct. 20, shows the department planned to send their superior to the hearing whether he was invited or not.

Assistant deputy minister Joseph Losos, who heads the health- protection branch and is the scientists' boss, would, according the document, "lead" them and "intervene as required." Initially, the department planned to send several senior managers, but decided instead that Dr. Losos would go alone.

The document said that Mr. Rock's office "will try to engineer" Dr. Losos's appearance at the committee meeting. But Senate researcher Barbara Robson said yesterday that the committee turned down the request to have him present when the scientists testified.

Late yesterday, the Health Department released a statement confirming the document was prepared by an official. But it said it does "not reflect the position or policy of the department." Yet Mr. Rock sent a letter to the committee expressing disappointment that Dr. Losos would not be allowed to appear with the scientists. His spokesman, Cyrus Reporter, said the minister was not attempting to stop the scientists from speaking freely.

"I think it was a legitimate request for him to appear at the same time. He [Dr. Losos] is the scientist who is ultimately responsible for signing off on the science of rbST [bovine growth hormone]. He is ultimately part of the approvals process," Mr. Reporter said.

The hormone is controversial, in part, because consumers may not be able to find out whether the milk they are buying was produced by cows injected with it.

In 1993, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that the hormone had been thoroughly evaluated and was safe, and that no special labels would be required on milk.

The technology has been criticized by public-interest groups and some scientists who warn it could increase udder infections in cows and lead to the increased use of antibiotics, which could end up in the milk produced by these animals.

Some scientists also say there is evidence to suggest that the milk may contain another hormone that might stimulate the growth of cancerous tumours.

Mr. Rock has insisted it will not be approved until his department is satisfied it is safe.

The Health Canada document, which apparently was inadvertently E-mailed to about 60 people, also indicates the government is under pressure from Monsanto not to release information the company believes is confidential. "Monsanto lawyers in St. Louis and its Government Relations representatives in Ottawa have expressed concern that, in responding to senate committee and others, we may choose to disclose protected information. ...

They also have commented on leaks of confidential information, apparently by Health Protection Branch employees."

The memo goes on to say that "this concern could become industry-wide" and have implications for other applications for drug approvals. The document also says that consideration is being given to the releasing of the department's response to complaints the six scientists had made in a grievance before the Public Service Staff Relations Board. Senior Health Department officials have in the past insisted that the issue of bovine growth hormone is more about employee-management relations than it is about public safety.

Date: Wed, 28 Oct 1998 18:14:25 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Canada doesn't need milk-boosting hormone

BY Jennifer Robinson, Final Editorial / Op-Ed B2
Montreal Gazette Tuesday, October 27, 1998

Thanks to technological and medical discoveries, we are probably better off in many respects than our parents or grandparents ever were. It's hard to dispute the merits of penicillin or polio vaccines. The same holds true for the potential benefits of biotechnology. Modifying the genetic makeup of a plant to reduce disease, increase crop yield and lengthen the shelf life of a tomato or eggplant could be a clever and worthwhile endeavour.

But just because we have the know-how to tamper with nature doesn't always make it right, or desirable.

We have the means to inject dairy cows with growth hormones, recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), to make them produce more milk. But there's no good reason to do it. That's why Ottawa should stop dilly-dallying and just ban the use of rBST.

Consumers don't want it. Canada doesn't need it. This country already has more milk than we know what to do with - it imposes quotas on farmers. What's more, there is conflicting evidence about rBST's safety.

There are indications that the growth hormone, which increases milk production in cows by up to 15 per cent, increases the risk of illness and disease in cows and could also have unwanted secondary affects on humans.

It is known to increase the chances of udder infections, called mastitis, in cows. Mastitis requires treatment with antibiotics, which would be passed on to consumers through milk. Scientists fear that over time, humans would build up tolerance to even the strongest antibiotics, making them useless against infection.

Another concern is that dairy cattle eventually are slaughtered for meat. No studies have been conducted on the effects of eating beef from cows injected with rBST.

The hormone may also increase an insulin-growth factor (IGF-1) in milk, which has sparked fears among scientists. IGF-1 is found in the milk of cows injected with rBST. High levels of IGF-1 have also been found in humans suffering from cancer, particularly breast and prostate cancer.

There are also troubling questions about the ethics of making cows sick to produce more milk. The drug has been in use in the United States since 1993 primarily through a product called Posilac produced by Monsanto.

On its packaging, Monsanto lists several side effects, many of which can be painful for cows. These include swollen and ulcerated udders, skin rashes, hoof disorders and reduced hemoglobin.

Canada's $8-billion dairy industry is one of the world's most productive and safest, thanks to healthy, well-nourished herds and high industry standards.

There is no reason to tamper with it , just because we have the technology. Yet, that is precisely what Health Canada, allegedly under pressure from drug companies, seems willing to do.

Five scientists from Health Canada are complaining that they have been pressured to approve the hormone and other drugs of "questionable safety." Last week, the Senate committee on agriculture and forestry, which has been investigating rBST, called the scientists to testify about a grievance they filed earlier this year with a government labour board. They say they were being pressured to sign off on a drug they felt hadn't been sufficiently tested.

Monsanto and Health Canada deny there has been undue pressure. Despite the scientists' fears, it has already deemed that milk from cows injected with rBST is safe for human consumption. But the department is still officially reviewing the drug's effects on animals (it's been under review for eight years).

The case raises serious doubts about Health Canada's objectivity in approving drugs, now that companies, including Monsanto, fund part of the department's research. Health Canada's job is to protect the health and safety of Canadians.

Yet, the department relies on multi-million-dollar subsidies and raw research data supplied by the very companies that are seeking approval to market their drugs in this country.

It's not a system that inspires confidence. Injecting cows with hormones might be good for Monsanto, but for cows and Canadians, it's time Ottawa said no.

Date: Thu, 29 Oct 1998 12:30:47 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Here is a good article from The New York Times Sunday Magazine (October 25) on the risks of genetically engineered food. Quite long!

NY Times Magazine: "Playing God in the Garden"

by Michael Pollan
The New York Times Sunday Magazine, October 25, 1998
© Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

Meeting the Beetles


Today I planted something new in my vegetable garden -- something very new, as a matter of fact. It's a potato called the New Leaf Superior, which has been genetically engineered -- by Monsanto, the chemical giant recently turned "life sciences" giant -- to produce its own insecticide. This it can do in every cell of every leaf, stem, flower, root and (here's the creepy part) spud. The scourge of potatoes has always been the Colorado potato beetle, a handsome and voracious insect that can pick a plant clean of its leaves virtually overnight.

Any Colorado potato beetle that takes so much as a nibble of my New Leafs will supposedly keel over and die, its digestive tract pulped, in effect, by the bacterial toxin manufactured in the leaves of these otherwise ordinary Superiors. (Superiors are the thin-skinned white spuds sold fresh in the supermarket.) You're probably wondering if I plan to eat these potatoes, or serve them to my family. That's still up in the air; it's only the first week of May, and harvest is a few months off.

Certainly my New Leafs are aptly named. They're part of a new class of crop plants that is rapidly changing the American food chain. This year, the fourth year that genetically altered seed has been on the market, some 45 million acres of American farmland have been planted with biotech crops, most of it corn, soybeans, cotton and potatoes that have been engineered to either produce their own pesticides or withstand herbicides. Though Americans have already begun to eat genetically engineered potatoes, corn and soybeans, industry research confirms what my own informal surveys suggest: hardly any of us knows it.

The reason is not hard to find. The biotech industry, with the concurrence of the Food and Drug Administration, has decided we don't need to know it, so biotech foods carry no identifying labels. In a dazzling feat of positioning, the industry has succeeded in depicting these plants simultaneously as the linchpins of a biological revolution -- part of a "new agricultural paradigm" that will make farming more sustainable, feed the world and improve health and nutrition -- and, oddly enough, as the same old stuff, at least so far as those of us at the eating end of the food chain should be concerned.

This convenient version of reality has been roundly rejected by both consumers and farmers across the Atlantic. Last summer, biotech food emerged as the most explosive environmental issue in Europe. Protesters have destroyed dozens of field trials of the very same "frankenplants" (as they are sometimes called) that we Americans are already serving for dinner, and throughout Europe the public has demanded that biotech food be labeled in the market.

By growing my own transgenic crop -- and talking with scientists and farmers involved with biotech -- I hoped to discover which of us was crazy. Are the Europeans overreacting, or is it possible that we've been underreacting to genetically engineered food?

After digging two shallow trenches in my garden and lining them with compost, I untied the purple mesh bag of seed potatoes that Monsanto had sent and opened up the Grower Guide tied around its neck. (Potatoes, you may recall from kindergarten experiments, are grown not from seed but from the eyes of other potatoes.) The guide put me in mind not so much of planting potatoes as booting up a new software release. By "opening and using this product," the card stated, I was now "licensed" to grow these potatoes, but only for a single generation; the crop I would water and tend and harvest was mine, yet also not mine.

That is, the potatoes I will harvest come August are mine to eat or sell, but their genes remain the intellectual property of Monsanto, protected under numerous United States patents, including Nos. 5,196,525, 5,164,316, 5,322,938 and 5,352,605. Were I to save even one of them to plant next year --something I've routinely done with potatoes in the past -- I would be breaking Federal law. The small print in the Grower Guide also brought the news that my potato plants were themselves a pesticide, registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

If proof were needed that the intricate industrial food chain that begins with seeds and ends on our dinner plates is in the throes of profound change, the small print that accompanied my New Leaf will do. That food chain has been unrivaled for its productivity -- on average, a single American farmer today grows enough food each year to feed 100 people. But this accomplishment has come at a price. The modern industrial farmer cannot achieve such yields without enormous amounts of chemical fertilizer, pesticide, machinery and fuel, a set of capital-intensive inputs, as they're called, that saddle the farmer with debt, threaten his health, erode his soil and destroy its fertility, pollute the ground water and compromise the safety of the food we eat.

We've heard all this before, of course, but usually from environmentalists and organic farmers; what is new is to hear the same critique from conventional farmers, government officials and even many agribusiness corporations, all of whom now acknowledge that our food chain stands in need of reform. Sounding more like Wendell Berry than the agribusiness giant it is, Monsanto declared in its most recent annual report that "current agricultural technology is not sustainable."

What is supposed to rescue the American food chain is biotechnology -- the replacement of expensive and toxic chemical inputs with expensive but apparently benign genetic information: crops that, like my New Leafs, can protect themselves from insects and disease without being sprayed with pesticides. With the advent of biotechnology, agriculture is entering the information age, and more than any other company, Monsanto is positioning itself to become its Microsoft, supplying the proprietary "operating systems" -- the metaphor is theirs -- to run this new generation of plants.

There is, of course, a second food chain in America: organic agriculture. And while it is still only a fraction of the size of the conventional food chain, it has been growing in leaps and bounds -- in large part because of concerns over the safety of conventional agriculture. Organic farmers have been among biotechnology's fiercest critics, regarding crops like my New Leafs as inimical to their principles and, potentially, a threat to their survival. That's because Bt, the bacterial toxin produced in my New Leafs (and in many other biotech plants) happens to be the same insecticide organic growers have relied on for decades. Instead of being flattered by the imitation, however, organic farmers are up in arms: the widespread use of Bt in biotech crops is likely to lead to insect resistance, thus robbing organic growers of one of their most critical tools; that is, Monsanto's version of sustainable agriculture may threaten precisely those farmers who pioneered sustainable farming.


After several days of drenching rain, the sun appeared on May 15, and so did my New Leafs. A dozen deep-green shoots pushed up out of the soil and commenced to grow -- faster and more robustly than any of the other potatoes in my garden. Apart from their vigor, though, my New Leafs looked perfectly normal. And yet as I watched them multiply their lustrous dark-green leaves those first few days, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the first doomed beetle, I couldn't help thinking of them as existentially different from the rest of my plants.

All domesticated plants are in some sense artificial -- living archives of both cultural and natural information that we in some sense "design." A given type of potato reflects the values we've bred into it -- one that has been selected to yield long, handsome french fries or unblemished round potato chips is the expression of a national food chain that likes its potatoes highly processed.

At the same time, some of the more delicate European fingerlings I'm growing alongside my New Leafs imply an economy of small market growers and a taste for eating potatoes fresh. Yet all these qualities already existed in the potato, somewhere within the range of genetic possibilities presented by Solanum tuberosum. Since distant species in nature cannot be crossed, the breeder's art has always run up against a natural limit of what a potato is willing, or able, to do. Nature, in effect, has exercised a kind of veto on what culture can do with a potato.

My New Leafs are different. Although Monsanto likes to depict biotechnology as just another in an ancient line of human modifications of nature going back to fermentation, in fact genetic engineering overthrows the old rules governing the relationship of nature and culture in a plant. For the first time, breeders can bring qualities from anywhere in nature into the genome of a plant -- from flounders (frost tolerance), from viruses (disease resistance) and, in the case of my potatoes, from Bacillus thuringiensis, the soil bacterium that produces the organic insecticide known as Bt. The introduction into a plant of genes transported not only across species but whole phyla means that the wall of that plant's essential identity -- its irreducible wildness, you might say -- has been breached.

But what is perhaps most astonishing about the New Leafs coming up in my garden is the human intelligence that the inclusion of the Bt gene represents. In the past, that intelligence resided outside the plant, in the mind of the organic farmers who deployed Bt (in the form of a spray) to manipulate the ecological relationship of certain insects and a certain bacterium as a way to foil those insects. The irony about the New Leafs is that the cultural information they encode happens to be knowledge that resides in the heads of the very sort of people -- that is, organic growers -- who most distrust high technology.

One way to look at biotechnology is that it allows a larger portion of human intelligence to be incorporated into the plant itself. In this sense, my New Leafs are just plain smarter than the rest of my potatoes. The others will depend on my knowledge and experience when the Colorado potato beetles strike; the New Leafs, knowing what I know about bugs and Bt, will take care of themselves. So while my biotech plants might seem like alien beings, that's not quite right. They're more like us than like other plants because there's more of us in them.


To find out how my potatoes got that way, I traveled to suburban St. Louis in early June. My New Leafs are clones of clones of plants that were first engineered seven years ago in Monsanto's $150 million research facility, a long, low-slung brick building on the banks of the Missouri that would look like any other corporate complex were it not for the 26 greenhouses that crown its roof like shimmering crenellations of glass.

Dave Stark, a molecular biologist and co-director of Naturemark, Monsanto's potato subsidiary, escorted me through the clean rooms where potatoes are genetically engineered. Technicians sat at lab benches before petri dishes in which fingernail-size sections of potato stem had been placed in a nutrient mixture. To this the technicians added a solution of agrobacterium, a disease bacterium whose modus operandi is to break into a plant cell's nucleus and insert some of its own DNA. Essentially, scientists smuggle the Bt gene into the agrobacterium's payload, and then the bacterium splices it into the potato's DNA. The technicians also add a "marker" gene, a kind of universal product code that allows Monsanto to identify its plants after they leave the lab.

A few days later, once the slips of potato stem have put down roots, they're moved to the potato greenhouse up on the roof. Here, Glenda DeBrecht, a horticulturist, invited me to don latex gloves and help her transplant pinky-size plantlets from their petri dish to small pots. The whole operation is performed thousands of times, largely because there is so much uncertainty about the outcome. There's no way of telling where in the genome the new DNA will land, and if it winds up in the wrong place, the new gene won't be expressed (or it will be poorly expressed) or the plant may be a freak. I was struck by how the technology could at once be astoundingly sophisticated and yet also a shot in the genetic dark.

"There's still a lot we don't understand about gene expression," Stark acknowledged. A great many factors influence whether, or to what extent, a new gene will do what it's supposed to, including the environment. In one early German experiment, scientists succeeded in splicing the gene for redness into petunias. All went as planned until the weather turned hot and an entire field of red petunias suddenly and inexplicably lost their pigment. The process didn't seem nearly as simple as Monsanto's cherished software metaphor would suggest.

When I got home from St. Louis, I phoned Richard Lewontin, the Harvard geneticist, to ask him what he thought of the software metaphor. "From an intellectual-property standpoint, it's exactly right," he said. "But it's a bad one in terms of biology. It implies you feed a program into a machine and get predictable results. But the genome is very noisy. If my computer made as many mistakes as an organism does" -- in interpreting its DNA, he meant -- "I'd throw it out."

I asked him for a better metaphor. "An ecosystem," he offered. "You can always intervene and change something in it, but there's no way of knowing what all the downstream effects will be or how it might affect the environment. We have such a miserably poor understanding of how the organism develops from its DNA that I would be surprised if we don't get one rude shock after another."


My own crop was thriving when I got home from St. Louis; the New Leafs were as big as bushes, crowned with slender flower stalks. Potato flowers are actually quite pretty, at least by vegetable standards -- five-petaled pink stars with yellow centers that give off a faint rose perfume. One sultry afternoon I watched the bumblebees making their lazy rounds of my potato blossoms, thoughtlessly powdering their thighs with yellow pollen grains before lumbering off to appointments with other blossoms, others species.

Uncertainty is the theme that unifies much of the criticism leveled against biotech agriculture by scientists and environmentalists. By planting millions of acres of genetically altered plants, we have introduced something novel into the environment and the food chain, the consequences of which are not -- and at this point, cannot be -- completely understood. One of the uncertainties has to do with those grains of pollen bumblebees are carting off from my potatoes. That pollen contains Bt genes that may wind up in some other, related plant, possibly conferring a new evolutionary advantage on that species.

"Gene flow," the scientific term for this phenomenon, occurs only between closely related species, and since the potato evolved in South America, the chances are slim that my Bt potato genes will escape into the wilds of Connecticut. (It's interesting to note that while biotechnology depends for its power on the ability to move genes freely among species and even phyla, its environmental safety depends on the very opposite phenomenon: on the integrity of species in nature and their rejection of foreign genetic material.)

Yet what happens if and when Peruvian farmers plant Bt potatoes? Or when I plant a biotech crop that does have local relatives? A study reported in Nature last month found that plant traits introduced by genetic engineering were more likely to escape into the wild than the same traits introduced conventionally.

Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Technology Assessment in Washington, told me he believes such escapes are inevitable. "Biological pollution will be the environmental nightmare of the 21st century," he said when I reached him by phone. "This is not like chemical pollution -- an oil spill -- that eventually disperses. Biological pollution is an entirely different model, more like a disease. Is Monsanto going to be held legally responsible when one of its transgenes creates a superweed or resistant insect?"

Kimbrell maintains that because our pollution laws were written before the advent of biotechnology, the new industry is being regulated under an ill-fitting regime designed for the chemical age. Congress has so far passed no environmental law dealing specifically with biotech. Monsanto, for its part, claims that it has thoroughly examined all the potential environmental and health risks of its biotech plants, and points out that three regulatory agencies -- the U.S.D.A., the E.P.A. and the F.D.A. -- have signed off on its products. Speaking of the New Leaf, Dave Stark told me, "This is the most intensively studied potato in history."

Significant uncertainties remain, however. Take the case of insect resistance to Bt, a potential form of "biological pollution" that could end the effectiveness of one of the safest insecticides we have -- and cripple the organic farmers who depend on it. The theory, which is now accepted by most entomologists, is that Bt crops will add so much of the toxin to the environment that insects will develop resistance to it.

Until now, resistance hasn't been a worry because the Bt sprays break down quickly in sunlight and organic farmers use them only sparingly. Resistance is essentially a form of co-evolution that seems to occur only when a given pest population is threatened with extinction; under that pressure, natural selection favors whatever chance mutations will allow the species to change and survive.

Working with the E.P.A., Monsanto has developed a "resistance-management plan" to postpone that eventuality. Under the plan, farmers who plant Bt crops must leave a certain portion of their land in non-Bt crops to create "refuges" for the targeted insects. The goal is to prevent the first Bt-resistant Colorado potato beetle from mating with a second resistant bug, unleashing a new race of superbeetles. The theory is that when a Bt-resistant bug does show up, it can be induced to mate with a susceptible bug from the refuge, thus diluting the new gene for resistance.

But a lot has to go right for Mr. Wrong to meet Miss Right. No one is sure how big the refuges need to be, where they should be situated or whether the farmers will cooperate (creating havens for a detested pest is counter-intuitive, after all), not to mention the bugs. In the case of potatoes, the E.P.A. has made the plan voluntary and lets the companies themselves implement it; there are no E.P.A. enforcement mechanisms. Which is why most of the organic farmers I spoke to dismissed the regulatory scheme as window dressing.

Monsanto executives offer two basic responses to criticism of their Bt crops. The first is that their voluntary resistance-management plans will work, though the company's definition of success will come as small consolation to an organic farmer: Monsanto scientists told me that if all goes well, resistance can be postponed for 30 years. (Some scientists believe it will come in three to five years.) The second response is more troubling. In St. Louis, I met with Jerry Hjelle, Monsanto's vice president for regulatory affairs. Hjelle told me that resistance should not unduly concern us since "there are a thousand other Bt's out there" -- other insecticidal proteins. "We can handle this problem with new products," he said. "The critics don't know what we have in the pipeline."

And then Hjelle uttered two words that I thought had been expunged from the corporate vocabulary a long time ago: "Trust us."

"Trust" is a key to the success of biotechnology in the marketplace, and while I was in St. Louis, I asked Hjelle and several of his colleagues why they thought the Europeans were resisting biotech food. Austria, Luxembourg and Norway, risking trade war with the United States, have refused to accept imports of genetically altered crops. Activists in England have been staging sit-ins and "decontaminations" in biotech test fields. A group of French farmers broke into a warehouse and ruined a shipment of biotech corn seed by urinating on it. The Prince of Wales, who is an ardent organic gardener, waded into the biotech debate last June, vowing in a column in The Daily Telegraph that he would never eat, or serve to his guests, the fruits of a technology that "takes mankind into realms that belong to God and to God alone."

Monsanto executives are quick to point out that mad cow disease has made Europeans extremely sensitive about the safety of their food chain and has undermined confidence in their regulators. "They don't have a trusted agency like the F.D.A. looking after the safety of their food supply," said Phil Angell, Monsanto's director of corporate communications. Over the summer, Angell was dispatched repeatedly to Europe to put out the P.R. fires; some at Monsanto worry these could spread to the United States.

I checked with the F.D.A. to find out exactly what had been done to insure the safety of this potato. I was mystified by the fact that the Bt toxin was not being treated as a "food additive" subject to labeling, even though the new protein is expressed in the potato itself. The label on a bag of biotech potatoes in the supermarket will tell a consumer all about the nutrients they contain, even the trace amounts of copper. Yet it is silent not only about the fact that those potatoes are the product of genetic engineering but also about their containing an insecticide.

At the F.D.A., I was referred to James Maryanski, who oversees biotech food at the agency. I began by asking him why the F.D.A. didn't consider Bt a food additive. Under F.D.A. law, any novel substance added to a food must -- unless it is "generally regarded as safe" ("GRAS," in F.D.A. parlance) -- be thoroughly tested and if it changes the product in any way, must be labeled.

"That's easy," Maryanski said. "Bt is a pesticide, so it's exempt" from F.D.A. regulation. That is, even though a Bt potato is plainly a food, for the purposes of Federal regulation it is not a food but a pesticide and therefore falls under the jurisdiction of the E.P.A.

Yet even in the case of those biotech crops over which the F.D.A. does have jurisdiction, I learned that F.D.A. regulation of biotech food has been largely voluntary since 1992, when Vice President Dan Quayle issued regulatory guidelines for the industry as part of the Bush Administration's campaign for "regulatory relief." Under the guidelines, new proteins engineered into foods are regarded as additives (unless they're pesticides), but as Maryanski explained, "the determination whether a new protein is GRAS can be made by the company." Companies with a new biotech food decide for themselves whether they need to consult with the F.D.A. by following a series of "decision trees" that pose yes or no questions like this one: "Does ... the introduced protein raise any safety concern?"

Since my Bt potatoes were being regulated as a pesticide by the E.P.A. rather than as a food by the F.D.A., I wondered if the safety standards are the same. "Not exactly," Maryanski explained. The F.D.A. requires "a reasonable certainty of no harm" in a food additive, a standard most pesticides could not meet. After all, "pesticides are toxic to something," Maryanski pointed out, so the E.P.A. instead establishes human "tolerances" for each chemical and then subjects it to a risk-benefit analysis.

When I called the E.P.A. and asked if the agency had tested my Bt potatoes for safety as a human food, the answer was ... not exactly. It seems the E.P.A. works from the assumption that if the original potato is safe and the Bt protein added to it is safe, then the whole New Leaf package is presumed to be safe. Some geneticists believe this reasoning is flawed, contending that the process of genetic engineering itself may cause subtle, as yet unrecognized changes in a food.

The original Superior potato is safe, obviously enough, so that left the Bt toxin, which was fed to mice, and they "did fine, had no side effects," I was told. I always feel better knowing that my food has been poison-tested by mice, though in this case there was a small catch: the mice weren't actually eating the potatoes, not even an extract from the potatoes, but rather straight Bt produced in a bacterial culture.

So are my New Leafs safe to eat? Probably, assuming that a New Leaf is nothing more than the sum of a safe potato and a safe pesticide, and further assuming that the E.P.A.'s idea of a safe pesticide is tantamount to a safe food. Yet I still had a question. Let us assume that my potatoes are a pesticide -- a very safe pesticide. Every pesticide in my garden shed -- including the Bt sprays -- carries a lengthy warning label. The label on my bottle of Bt says, among other things, that I should avoid inhaling the spray or getting it in an open wound. So if my New Leaf potatoes contain an E.P.A.-registered pesticide, why don't they carry some such label?

Maryanski had the answer. At least for the purposes of labeling, my New Leafs have morphed yet again, back into a food: the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act gives the F.D.A. sole jurisdiction over the labeling of plant foods, and the F.D.A. has ruled that biotech foods need be labeled only if they contain known allergens or have otherwise been "materially" changed.

But isn't turning a potato into a pesticide a material change?

It doesn't matter. The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act specifically bars the F.D.A. from including any information about pesticides on its food labels.

I thought about Maryanski's candid and wondrous explanations the next time I met Phil Angell, who again cited the critical role of the F.D.A. in assuring Americans that biotech food is safe. But this time he went even further. "Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food," he said. "Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the F.D.A.'s job."

Meeting the Beetles

My Colorado potato beetle vigil came to an end the first week of July, shortly before I went to Idaho to visit potato growers. I spied a single mature beetle sitting on a New Leaf leaf; when I reached to pick it up, the beetle fell drunkenly to the ground. It had been sickened by the plant and would soon be dead. My New Leafs were working.

From where a typical American potato grower stands, the New Leaf looks very much like a godsend. That's because where the typical potato grower stands is in the middle of a bright green field that has been doused with so much pesticide that the leaves of his plants wear a dull white chemical bloom that troubles him as much as it does the rest of us. Out there, at least, the calculation is not complex: a product that promises to eliminate the need for even a single spraying of pesticide is, very simply, an economic and environmental boon.

No one can make a better case for a biotech crop than a potato farmer, which is why Monsanto was eager to introduce me to several large growers. Like many farmers today, the ones I met feel trapped by the chemical inputs required to extract the high yields they must achieve in order to pay for the chemical inputs they need. The economics are daunting: a potato farmer in south-central Idaho will spend roughly $1,965 an acre (mainly on chemicals, electricity, water and seed) to grow a crop that, in a good year, will earn him maybe $1,980. That's how much a french-fry processor will pay for the 20 tons of potatoes a single Idaho acre can yield. (The real money in agriculture -- 90 percent of the value added to the food we eat -- is in selling inputs to farmers and then processing their crops.)

Danny Forsyth laid out the dismal economics of potato farming for me one sweltering morning at the coffee shop in downtown Jerome, Idaho. Forsyth, 60, is a slight blue-eyed man with a small gray ponytail; he farms 3,000 acres of potatoes, corn and wheat, and he spoke about agricultural chemicals like a man desperate to kick a bad habit. "None of us would use them if we had any choice," he said glumly.

I asked him to walk me through a season's regimen. It typically begins early in the spring with a soil fumigant; to control nematodes, many potato farmers douse their fields with a chemical toxic enough to kill every trace of microbial life in the soil. Then, at planting, a systemic insecticide (like Thimet) is applied to the soil; this will be absorbed by the young seedlings and, for several weeks, will kill any insect that eats their leaves. After planting, Forsyth puts down an herbicide -- Sencor or Eptam -- to "clean" his field of all weeds. When the potato seedlings are six inches tall, an herbicide may be sprayed a second time to control weeds.

Idaho farmers like Forsyth farm in vast circles defined by the rotation of a pivot irrigation system, typically 135 acres to a circle; I'd seen them from 30,000 feet flying in, a grid of verdant green coins pressed into a desert of scrubby brown. Pesticides and fertilizers are simply added to the irrigation system, which on Forsyth's farm draws most of its water from the nearby Snake River. Along with their water, Forsyth's potatoes may receive 10 applications of chemical fertilizer during the growing season. Just before the rows close -- when the leaves of one row of plants meet those of the next -- he begins spraying Bravo, a fungicide, to control late blight, one of the biggest threats to the potato crop. (Late blight, which caused the Irish potato famine, is an airborne fungus that turns stored potatoes into rotting mush.) Blight is such a serious problem that the E.P.A. currently allows farmers to spray powerful fungicides that haven't passed the usual approval process. Forsyth's potatoes will receive eight applications of fungicide.

Twice each summer, Forsyth hires a crop duster to spray for aphids. Aphids are harmless in themselves, but they transmit the leafroll virus, which in Russet Burbank potatoes causes net necrosis, a brown spotting that will cause a processor to reject a whole crop. It happened to Forsyth last year. "I lost 80,000 bags" -- they're a hundred pounds each -- "to net necrosis," he said. "Instead of getting $4.95 a bag, I had to take $2 a bag from the dehydrator, and I was lucky to get that." Net necrosis is a purely cosmetic defect; yet because big buyers like McDonald's believe (with good reason) that we don't like to see brown spots in our fries, farmers like Danny Forsyth must spray their fields with some of the most toxic chemicals in use, including an organophosphate called Monitor.

"Monitor is a deadly chemical," Forsyth said. "I won't go into a field for four or five days after it's been sprayed -- even to fix a broken pivot." That is, he would sooner lose a whole circle to drought than expose himself or an employee to Monitor, which has been found to cause neurological damage.

It's not hard to see why a farmer like Forsyth, struggling against tight margins and heartsick over chemicals, would leap at a New Leaf -- or, in his case, a New Leaf Plus, which is protected from leafroll virus as well as beetles. "The New Leaf means I can skip a couple of sprayings, including the Monitor," he said. "I save money, and I sleep better. It also happens to be a nice-looking spud." The New Leafs don't come cheaply, however. They cost between $20 and $30 extra per acre in "technology fees" to Monsanto.

Forsyth and I discussed organic agriculture, about which he had the usual things to say ("That's all fine on a small scale, but they don't have to feed the world"), as well as a few things I'd never heard from a conventional farmer: "I like to eat organic food, and in fact I raise a lot of it at the house. The vegetables we buy at the market we just wash and wash and wash. I'm not sure I should be saying this, but I always plant a small area of potatoes without any chemicals. By the end of the season, my field potatoes are fine to eat, but any potatoes I pulled today are probably still full of systemics. I don't eat them."

Forsyth's words came back to me a few hours later, during lunch at the home of another potato farmer. Steve Young is a progressive and prosperous potato farmer -- he calls himself an agribusinessman. In addition to his 10,000 acres -- the picture window in his family room gazes out on 85 circles, all computer-controlled -- Young owns a share in a successful fertilizer distributorship. His wife prepared a lavish feast for us, and after Dave, their 18-year-old, said grace, adding a special prayer for me (the Youngs are devout Mormons), she passed around a big bowl of homemade potato salad. As I helped myself, my Monsanto escort asked what was in the salad, flashing me a smile that suggested she might already know. "It's a combination of New Leafs and some of our regular Russets," our hostess said proudly. "Dug this very morning."

After talking to farmers like Steve Young and Danny Forsyth, and walking fields made virtually sterile by a drenching season-long rain of chemicals, you could understand how Monsanto's New Leaf potato does indeed look like an environmental boon. Set against current practices, growing New Leafs represents a more sustainable way of potato farming. This advance must be weighed, of course, against everything we don't yet know about New Leafs -- and a few things we do: like the problem of Bt resistance I had heard so much about back East. While I was in Idaho and Washington State, I asked potato farmers to show me their refuges. This proved to be a joke.

"I guess that's a refuge over there," one Washington farmer told me, pointing to a cornfield.

Monsanto's grower contract never mentions the word "refuge" and only requires that farmers plant no more than 80 percent of their fields in New Leaf. Basically, any field not planted in New Leaf is considered a refuge, even if that field has been sprayed to kill every bug in it. Farmers call such acreage a clean field; calling it a refuge is a stretch at best.

It probably shouldn't come as a big surprise that conventional farmers would have trouble embracing the notion of an insect refuge. To insist on real and substantial refuges is to ask them to start thinking of their fields in an entirely new way, less as a factory than as an ecosystem. In the factory, Bt is another in a long line of "silver bullets" that work for a while and then get replaced; in the ecosystem, all bugs are not necessarily bad, and the relationships between various species can be manipulated to achieve desired ends -- like the long-term sustainability of Bt.

This is, of course, precisely the approach organic farmers have always taken to their fields, and after my lunch with the Youngs that afternoon, I paid a brief visit to an organic potato grower. Mike Heath is a rugged, laconic man in his mid-50's; like most of the organic farmers I've met, he looks as though he spends a lot more time out of doors than a conventional farmer, and he probably does: chemicals are, among other things, labor-saving devices. While we drove around his 500 acres in a battered old pickup, I asked him about biotechnology. He voiced many reservations -- it was synthetic, there were too many unknowns -- but his main objection to planting a biotech potato was simply that "it's not what my customers want."

That point was driven home last December when the Department of Agriculture proposed a new "organic standards" rule that, among other things, would have allowed biotech crops to carry an organic label. After receiving a flood of outraged cards and letters, the agency backed off. (As did Monsanto, which asked the U.S.D.A. to shelve the issue for three years.) Heath suggested that biotech may actually help organic farmers by driving worried consumers to the organic label.

I asked Heath about the New Leaf. He had no doubt resistance would come -- "the bugs are always going to be smarter than we are" -- and said it was unjust that Monsanto was profiting from the ruin of Bt, something he regarded as a "public good."

None of this particularly surprised me; what did was that Heath himself resorted to Bt sprays only once or twice in the last 10 years. I had assumed that organic farmers used Bt or other approved pesticides in much the same way conventional farmers use theirs, but as Heath showed me around his farm, I began to understand that organic farming was a lot more complicated than substituting good inputs for bad. Instead of buying many inputs at all, Heath relied on long and complex crop rotations to prevent a buildup of crop-specific pests -- he has found, for example, that planting wheat after spuds "confuses" the potato beetles.

He also plants strips of flowering crops on the margins of his potato fields -- peas or alfalfa, usually -- to attract the beneficial insects that eat beetle larvae and aphids. If there aren't enough beneficials to do the job, he'll introduce ladybugs. Heath also grows eight varieties of potatoes, on the theory that biodiversity in a field, as in the wild, is the best defense against any imbalances in the system. A bad year with one variety will probably be offset by a good year with the others.

"I can eat any potato in this field right now," he said, digging Yukon Golds for me to take home. "Most farmers can't eat their spuds out of the field. But you don't want to start talking about safe food in Idaho."

Heath's were the antithesis of "clean" fields, and, frankly, their weedy margins and overall patchiness made them much less pretty to look at. Yet it was the very complexity of these fields -- the sheer diversity of species, both in space and time -- that made them productive year after year without many inputs. The system provided for most of its needs.

All told, Heath's annual inputs consisted of natural fertilizers (compost and fish powder), ladybugs and a copper spray (for blight) -- a few hundred dollars an acre. Of course, before you can compare Heath's operation with a conventional farm, you've got to add in the extra labor (lots of smaller crops means more work; organic fields must also be cultivated for weeds) and time -- the typical organic rotation calls for potatoes every fifth year, in contrast to every third on a conventional farm. I asked Heath about his yields. To my astonishment, he was digging between 300 and 400 bags per acre -- just as many as Danny Forsyth and only slightly fewer than Steve Young. Heath was also getting almost twice the price for his spuds: $8 a bag from an organic processor who was shipping frozen french fries to Japan.

On the drive back to Boise, I thought about why Heath's farm remained the exception, both in Idaho and elsewhere. Here was a genuinely new paradigm that seemed to work. But while it's true that organic agriculture is gaining ground (I met a big grower in Washington who had just added several organic circles), few of the mainstream farmers I met considered organic a "realistic" alternative. For one thing, it's expensive to convert: organic certifiers require a field to go without chemicals for three years before it can be called organic. For another, the U.S.D.A., which sets the course of American agriculture, has long been hostile to organic methods.

But I suspect the real reasons run deeper, and have more to do with the fact that in a dozen ways a farm like Heath's simply doesn't conform to the requirements of a corporate food chain. Heath's type of agriculture doesn't leave much room for the Monsantos of this world: organic farmers buy remarkably little -- some seed, a few tons of compost, maybe a few gallons of ladybugs. That's because the organic farmer's focus is on a process, rather than on products. Nor is that process readily systematized, reduced to, say, a prescribed regime of sprayings like the one Forsyth outlined for me -- regimes that are often designed by companies selling chemicals.

Most of the intelligence and local knowledge needed to run Mike Heath's farm resides in the head of Mike Heath. Growing potatoes conventionally requires intelligence, too, but a large portion of it resides in laboratories in distant places like St. Louis, where it is employed in developing sophisticated chemical inputs. That sort of centralization of agriculture is unlikely to be reversed, if only because there's so much money in it; besides, it's much easier for the farmer to buy prepackaged solutions from big companies. "Whose Head Is the Farmer Using? Whose Head Is Using the Farmer?" goes the title of a Wendell Berry essay.

Organic farmers like Heath have also rejected what is perhaps the cornerstone of industrial agriculture: the economies of scale that only a monoculture can achieve. Monoculture -- growing vast fields of the same crop year after year -- is probably the single most powerful simplification of modern agriculture. But monoculture is poorly fitted to the way nature seems to work. Very simply, a field of identical plants will be exquisitely vulnerable to insects, weeds and disease. Monoculture is at the root of virtually every problem that bedevils the modern farmer, and that virtually every input has been designed to solve.

To put the matter baldly, a farmer like Heath is working very hard to adjust his fields and his crops to the nature of nature, while farmers like Forsyth are working equally hard to adjust nature in their fields to the requirement of monoculture and, beyond that, to the needs of the industrial food chain. I remember asking Heath what he did about net necrosis, the bane of Forsyth's existence. "That's only really a problem with Russet Burbanks," he said. "So I plant other kinds." Forsyth can't do that. He's part of a food chain -- at the far end of which stands a long, perfectly golden McDonald's fry -- that demands he grow Russet Burbanks and little else.

This is where biotechnology comes in, to the rescue of Forsyth's Russet Burbanks and, if Monsanto is right, to the whole food chain of which they form a part. Monoculture is in trouble -- the pesticides that make it possible are rapidly being lost, either to resistance or to heightened concerns about their danger. Biotechnology is the new silver bullet that will save monoculture. But a new silver bullet is not a new paradigm -- rather, it's something that will allow the old paradigm to survive. That paradigm will always construe the problem in Forsyth's fields as a Colorado potato beetle problem, rather than as a problem of potato monoculture.

Like the silver bullets that preceded them -- the modern hybrids, the pesticides and the chemical fertilizers -- the new biotech crops will probably, as advertised, increase yields. But equally important, they will also speed the process by which agriculture is being concentrated in a shrinking number of corporate hands. If that process has advanced more slowly in farming than in other sectors of the economy, it is only because nature herself -- her complexity, diversity and sheer intractability in the face of our best efforts at control -- has acted as a check on it. But biotechnology promises to remedy this "problem," too.

Consider, for example, the seed, perhaps the ultimate "means of production" in any agriculture. It is only in the last few decades that farmers have begun buying their seed from big companies, and even today many farmers still save some seed every fall to replant in the spring. Brown-bagging, as it is called, allows farmers to select strains particularly well adapted to their needs; since these seeds are often traded, the practice advances the state of the genetic art -- indeed, has given us most of our crop plants. Seeds by their very nature don't lend themselves to commodification: they produce more of themselves ad infinitum (with the exception of certain modern hybrids), and for that reason the genetics of most major crop plants have traditionally been regarded as a common heritage. In the case of the potato, the genetics of most important varieties -- the Burbanks, the Superiors, the Atlantics -- have always been in the public domain. Before Monsanto released the New Leaf, there had never been a multinational seed corporation in the potato-seed business -- there was no money in it.

Biotechnology changes all that. By adding a new gene or two to a Russet Burbank or Superior, Monsanto can now patent the improved variety. Legally, it has been possible to patent a plant for many years, but biologically, these patents have been almost impossible to enforce. Biotechnology partly solves that problem. A Monsanto agent can perform a simple test in my garden and prove that my plants are the company's intellectual property. The contract farmers sign with Monsanto allows company representatives to perform such tests in their fields at will. According to Progressive Farmer, a trade journal, Monsanto is using informants and hiring Pinkertons to enforce its patent rights; it has already brought legal action against hundreds of farmers for patent infringement.

Soon the company may not have to go to the trouble. It is expected to acquire the patent to a powerful new biotechnology called the Terminator, which will, in effect, allow the company to enforce its patents biologically. Developed by the U.S.D.A. in partnership with Delta and Pine Land, a seed company in the process of being purchased by Monsanto, the Terminator is a complex of genes that, theoretically, can be spliced into any crop plant, where it will cause every seed produced by that plant to be sterile. Once the Terminator becomes the industry standard, control over the genetics of crop plants will complete its move from the farmer's field to the seed company -- to which the farmer will have no choice but to return year after year. The Terminator will allow companies like Monsanto to privatize one of the last great commons in nature -- the genetics of the crop plants that civilization has developed over the past 10,000 years.

At lunch on his farm in Idaho, I had asked Steve Young what he thought about all this, especially about the contract Monsanto made him sign. I wondered how the American farmer, the putative heir to a long tradition of agrarian independence, was adjusting to the idea of field men snooping around his farm, and patented seed he couldn't replant. Young said he had made his peace with corporate agriculture, and with biotechnology in particular: "It's here to stay. It's necessary if we're going to feed the world, and it's going to take us forward."

Then I asked him if he saw any downside to biotechnology, and he paused for what seemed a very long time. What he then said silenced the table. "There is a cost," he said. "It gives corporate America one more noose around my neck."


A few weeks after I returned home from Idaho, I dug my New Leafs, harvesting a gorgeous-looking pile of white spuds, including some real lunkers. The plants had performed brilliantly, though so had all my other potatoes. The beetle problem never got serious, probably because the diversity of species in my (otherwise organic) garden had attracted enough beneficial insects to keep the beetles in check. By the time I harvested my crop, the question of eating the New Leafs was moot. Whatever I thought about the soundness of the process that had declared these potatoes safe didn't matter. Not just because I'd already had a few bites of New Leaf potato salad at the Youngs but also because Monsanto and the F.D.A. and the E.P.A. had long ago taken the decision of whether or not to eat a biotech potato out of my -- out of all of our -- hands. Chances are, I've eaten New Leafs already, at McDonald's or in a bag of Frito-Lay chips, though without a label there can be no way of knowing for sure.

So if I've probably eaten New Leafs already, why was it that I kept putting off eating mine? Maybe because it was August, and there were so many more-interesting fresh potatoes around -- fingerlings with dense, luscious flesh, Yukon Golds that tasted as though they had been pre-buttered -- that the idea of cooking with a bland commercial variety like the Superior seemed beside the point.

There was this, too: I had called Margaret Mellon at the Union of Concerned Scientists to ask her advice. Mellon is a molecular biologist and lawyer and a leading critic of biotech agriculture. She couldn't offer any hard scientific evidence that my New Leafs were unsafe, though she emphasized how little we know about the effects of Bt in the human diet. "That research simply hasn't been done," she said.

I pressed. Is there any reason I shouldn't eat these spuds?

"Let me turn that around. Why would you want to?"

It was a good question. So for a while I kept my New Leafs in a bag on the porch. Then I took the bag with me on vacation, thinking maybe I'd sample them there, but the bag came home untouched.

The bag sat on my porch till the other day, when I was invited to an end-of-summer potluck supper at the town beach. Perfect. I signed up to make a potato salad. I brought the bag into the kitchen and set a pot of water on the stove. But before it boiled I was stricken by this thought: I'd have to tell people at the picnic what they were eating. I'm sure (well, almost sure) the potatoes are safe, but if the idea of eating biotech food without knowing it bothered me, how could I possibly ask my neighbors to? So I'd tell them about the New Leafs -- and then, no doubt, lug home a big bowl of untouched potato salad. For surely there would be other potato salads at the potluck and who, given the choice, was ever going to opt for the bowl with the biotech spuds?

So there they sit, a bag of biotech spuds on my porch. I'm sure they're absolutely fine. I pass the bag every day, thinking I really should try one, but I'm beginning to think that what I like best about these particular biotech potatoes -- what makes them different -- is that I have this choice. And until I know more, I choose not.

Sunday, October 25, 1998 © Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

Richard Wolfson, PhD
Consumer Right to Know Campaign, for Mandatory Labelling and Long-term Testing of all Genetically Engineered Foods,
500 Wilbrod Street Ottawa, ON Canada K1N 6N2
tel. 613-565-8517 fax. 613-565-1596 email:

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