How big agriculture and the US government bungled the biotech revolution and made a deal with the devil
(Tuesday, May 25, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- DAN BAUM , Playboy, 1jun04:
I. THE SHOT HEARD ROUND THE PLANET
John Sanford, a 34-year-old Cornell University professor, had two things on his mind in the fall of 1983. The first was how to transfer DNA from one living cell to another-an urgent mission for his lab, since the U.S. Supreme Court had recently decided that life-forms could be patented, owned and marketed for profit. The second was how to protect his home in a leafy neighborhood of Ithaca, New York from squirrels, specifically the aggressive gray varmints that had been vandalizing his bird feeders and tearing up his flower beds. The usually gentle pollen expert finally broke down and bought a BB gun to hold his ground against the garden invaders.
Sanford was a pro at conventional greenhouse crossbreeding, but his first attempts at genetic engineering were failures. He tried zapping cells with tiny laser beams to cut holes in their walls through which genes could be moved, but he quickly realized that the process was too destructive. The autumn slipped away, and nothing worked at the lab. At home, however, he and his BB gun made satisfying progress against the squirrels.
Shortly before Christmas, Sanford ran into fellow Cornell professor Edward Wolf, a lab whiz who was also confounded by the genetic transformation problem. Both were wondering whether a piece of DNA could itself be accelerated fast enough to puncture a cell wall if it rode piggyback on some-thing heavier, like a one-micron particle of, say, tungsten.
"How fast do you think the particle would have to travel?" Wolf asked.
"What if there really is a health problem with the beans?" asks farmer Doug Doughty, top, at his 165-year-old family spread in Missouri. Bottom: Greenpeace protesters destroy biotech crops in the U.K. in 1999.
Sanford, fresh from his latest squirrel siege, had an idea: How about 300 to 400 feet a second, the muzzle velocity of the average BB gun? At Fay's drugstore in Ithaca, Wolf bought an inexpensive Crosman air pistol and told Sanford and Nelson Allen, his lab's head machinist, to meet him in the clean room, a lab at the National Submicron Facility on campus.
Dressed in a white gown, booties and a hat and surrounded by millions of dollars' worth of state-of-the-art equipment, Wolf poured tungsten powder down holes they'd drilled in the barrel of the air pistol, while Sanford set an ordinary yellow onion on the lab table. They had chosen it because onions have large cells. Wolf pumped up the pistol, held the muzzle six inches from the onion and pulled the trigger.
An unholy mess of onion pulp sprayed the three men. Eyes streaming with tears, they reloaded, took a step back and shot again at the sundered bulb. They tried various muzzle pressures, moving forward and back until the onion was in pieces.
Wolf, bending over a microscope, could clearly see tungsten shrapnel lodged in living cells.
In the history of the genetic engineering of foods, this was Genesis. The shot heard round the world was the p ffft of a dime-store pellet gun ruining an onion. Sanford spent the next two years soaking tungsten particles in DNA, loading them into Allen's various high-tech modifications of the gun and shooting new traits into cells. By the winter of 1986 his invention could reliably make plants adopt the genes of alien species.
Nearly 20 years later genetically modified foods have profitably slipped into the American food chain. Three quarters of the soybeans and 30 percent of the corn harvested in the U.S. sprout from genetically modified seeds. They form the basis of three quarters of all processed foods, so whether you eat chips or tofu, you are probably at this moment digesting new man-made species. It won't be long before just-patented, fast-growing supersalmon and other animal miracles of bioengineering join them on the dinner plate.
Frankenfoods, as critics call them-though the preferred industry term is genetically modified organisms, or GMOs—are patented, lab-made organic inventions entirely owned by large corporations. Millions of consumers, small farmers and environmentalists find the practice of modifying the nuclear structure of food crops by inserting genes from other species to be imprudent, morally offensive or downright terrifying. Some worry about giving corporations even more control over the food chain. For others, the issue is genetic pollution of wild species or the emergence of fearsome, perhaps deadly man-made mutations. All agree that things are happening too fast, without controls or determinations of the long-term effects of what is sure to be the most profound, most lasting change in the way we live.
While the average American seems relatively unconcerned, citizens in Mendocino County, California voted in March to impose the nation's first ban on raising genetically modified crops, and activists in Vermont and Hawaii are considering ways to put similar measures on ballots in those states. Environmental groups in Europe, including Greenpeace, have tried everything from lobbying to physically destroying the sites where GMOs are developed. The European Union and a handful of other nations have practically banned genetically engineered foods altogether. In the U.S. even the National Academy of Sciences has weighed in with a stern warning: Slow down! Meanwhile the Frankenfood invasion continues in force.
"The risks of moving genes from one organism to another are too great. It can't be undone," says Doreen Stabinsky, Ph.D., a geneticist for Greenpeace, which leads the political charge against genetically modified crops worldwide. "What are they doing to our food? Who gets to decide?"
II. WEIRD SCENES IN THE GRAIN BELT
Doug Doughty says he'll meet me in his cornfield on Missouri Highway U, and when he shows up he's driving a Case Inter-national combine the size of a two-story house. I climb up and squeeze into the jump seat. The floor is covered by two dusty, loose-skinned retrievers, who sit shoulder to shoulder against the cab's glass front wall, tongues adangle, eyes scanning the rows for rabbits.
"Go ahead," says the 46-year-old Doughty, bobbing his chin to-ward the dogs, and I rest my shoes on their backs. They barely notice. Doughty throws a sequence of levers, and the fiendish steel maw beneath our feet comes alive, clanking, roaring and sucking in eight rows of corn at once. The dogs shiver with excitement.
Along with his father, Doughty farms the same rolling prairie land that his family was plowing in 1838, plus about double that much they've bought or leased over the years. With so much paid-for land, Doughty knows he has it about as easy as any grain farmer on the plains. So in the respites between hoppers, hail and interest-rate swings, he has the leisure to lift his eyes to the future. What he sees in place of family farms is an artless landscape of corporation-owned outdoor grain factories seeded by scientists, patrolled by lawyers and tended by "human re-sources" instead of farmers. It has happened all around him. Chicken production has fallen to the likes of Tyson and Pilgrim's Pride, pork to Smithfield and ConAgra. Grain, our nation's largest cash crop, is still grown on family farms-but maybe not for long.
A rabbit darts out of the combine's path, and the cab explodes with feverish barking. Doughty grinds the machine to a halt, throwing a sparkling blizzard of chaff into the air. He quiets his dogs and sums up his worry: "I'm afraid pretty soon I'm not going to be working for myself," he says. "When you get right down to it, we've placed our fates in Monsanto's hands."
Monsanto, a $4.9-billion-a-year company based in St. Louis, raced to the front of the biotech pack in 1996, offering farmers the first genetically engineered soybean seeds. Here was the gee-whiz technology the Midwest had hoped would finally tip crushing agricultural odds in the farmers' favor. Doughty joined the stampede to plant Monsanto's amazing product.
The new beans were supposed to increase yields and lower costs, but a decade into the experiment Doughty is getting the willies. Life is a little easier in the field-he can now spray one specially made herbicide (produced by Monsanto, naturally) instead of several-but the seeds complicate the business of farming in frightening ways. Intellectual-property attorneys now monitor Doughty's work. Seed choices are narrowing. And a specter is rising of whole continents rejecting American food.
AgWeb.com-an online news service for farmers-carries stories of a gathering storm of protests, government bans and attacks. When Doughty reads them he grieves to his agricultural marrow. "The idea that people are mad at their food...," he says with a shudder.
If the revolution stalls, it will be a pity, because genetic engineering has the potential to deliver miracle crops: rice loaded with the vitamins that millions of Asians lack, grains that save precious topsoil because they don't require plowing, African staples such as cassava and yams that can resist drought and grow in the continent's increasingly salty soil. But we may never get there. John Sanford, a deeply religious man who originally wanted to use the profits from his gene gun to give third world countries free access to the benefits of bioengineered food, found the costs too high for his nonprofit institute. Instead, aided by hardball U.S. trade representatives, greedy biotech companies have ignored important truths about the culture of food and have created a panicky backlash.
Forget the miracle crops for a moment. Not one of those tasty, vitamin-packed, drought-resistant, plow-obviating seeds exists outside the laboratory; they're all in the murky, bombast-laden realm of technological potential. For the moment genetically engineered crops fall almost entirely into two far less charismatic categories: those that resist certain bugs and those that let farmers use a single weed killer instead of many.
That's because Monsanto isn't a seed company; its expertise is in making chemicals. Some 40 percent of its sales derives from a single product, Roundup, a wondrous weed killer introduced in 1974. Roundup was the first herbicide to kill almost every plant it touched, and it worked in a way that made it practically harmless to people and animals. (It interferes with an enzyme that plants have but that we and our livestock do not.) Farmers no longer had to buy and apply a complex cock-tail of expensive and dangerous chemicals on their land. In its early days Roundup was used primarily to eliminate vegetation in areas where farmers wanted to plant a new crop, an easy alternative to mowing and hoeing. But Roundup had one serious drawback-it was too effective for its own good. Farmers had to spray carefully; an unexpected change in wind direction could wipe out acres of apple trees. pumpkins or corn.
Tony Blair: TONY, DON'T SWALLOW BILL'S SEED. But today's action was more serious. With Melchett in the lead, 28 activists were descending on fields belonging to a chemical company called Aventis, planning to mow down the of-fending crop, bag it and dump it at the Aventis office. Twenty minutes into the operation, though, the crop's farmer showed up with his two brothers and a tractor of their own. "They went completely crazy," Melchett says. "One of them tried to ram the press photographers with the tractor. Another went after our banner with a knife."
Norfolk County police eventually arrested the trespassers, but a funny thing happened at the trial. The activists argued that they were justified in destroying the crop to prevent it from doing greater harm to surrounding areas-and the defense succeeded beyond their dreams. Not only did the jurors quickly acquit all 28, they waited outside the courtroom afterward to hug and thank the Greenpeace raiders. "They said, `You needn't have worried. There was no way we were going to convict you,"' Melchett recalls. "They'd supported us from the start."
During the past five years fear and hatred of genetic engineering has driven green outlaws to attack and destroy research sites from California to Maine and from Belgium to Scotland. In early September 2003, for example, an unknown number of people found their way to a hidden Monsanto-modified maize crop isolated in a forest in southern France and systematically destroyed it. A week later a mob descended on a Monsanto greenhouse in Bangalore, India and smashed it to shards. But the outlaw attacks are nothing compared with the peaceful victories. Last fall an estimated 35,000 people marched through the streets of Auckland to protest the New Zealand government's plan to lift a ban against genetically modified food, which it did in October. Last summer authorities in one of Italy's regional governments ordered almost 1,000 acres of corn destroyed because of suspicion that they contained genetically engineered plants, in violation of Italy's zero-tolerance policy.
Perhaps the most scathing wholesale rejection of genetically modified food has come from the European Union, whose countries import about $6.5 billion a year in American crops. Five years ago it placed a moratorium on approving new GMOs for import, practically slamming the door on some of America's biggest commodities. For the past two years it has been promising to lift the ban "soon"; rules for labeling and tracing genetically modified crops took effect in April. But the Bush administration, impatient and doubting, sued last year in the World Trade Organization to try to force the E.U.'s hand. The problem is, even if Bush wins, the decision won't make European consumers put the hated stuff in their mouths.
Given the attitude of the average European-86 percent of Britons, for example, report being unhappy with the idea of eating genetically engineered food-labeling will amount to extending the ban. In October 2003 Monsanto threw in the towel, shutting down its European cereal business and giving up the attempt to market genetically modified wheat on the Continent.
Giovanni Anania, an economist at the University of Calabria in Italy and an expert in how cultural preferences translate into agricultural megabucks, marvels at the hubris of a company and a nation that "thought they could push this entire thing through without a serious confrontation with consumers. It's really amazing how Monsanto blew the communication."
IV. CULTURE AND GREED
Associate professor Tom Clemente runs the eerily named Plant Transformation Facility at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. "When it comes to judging food safety, culture is bullshit," he says, as we walk into his lab. Clemente, an Italian-Lebanese American from eastern Pennsylvania, is a voluble Democrat amid a sea of taciturn Republicans. But when it comes to GMOs, he's a hard-core corporate booster. "A Frenchman will eat a piece of unpasteurized cheese swarming with every cootie in the book and then say genetically modified corn is unsafe to eat," he says. "The Japanese will eat a puffer fish, which if it isn't prepared exactly right will kill you at the table, but they won't touch a Roundup Ready soybean. It doesn't make sense."
Located in the middle of the corn-and-soy belt, Clemente's lab is one of the premier research sites for genetically engineering America's commodity crops. On a counter in one immaculate room sits a PDS-1000/He Biolistic Particle Delivery System-the modern version of the Cornell pellet gun. A stainless steel box about 18 inches high, the PDS-1000 uses compressed helium to shoot DNA-drenched tungsten powder into plants. "The soybean has roughly 30,000 genes, so when you add a gene it then has 30,001," Clemente says, exasperated. He runs a hand through his messy dark hair. "You're telling me that makes it toxic? Come on."
Clemente believes genetically engineered food is safer than conventionally crossbred crops. "When you hybridize you're moving enormous numbers of genes around to acquire one trait," he says. "You have no idea what other genes are coming over with the one you want. How is that better than moving a single gene and knowing exactly what it does?"
Clemente is chafed not only by European fear but by American ignorance. A Rutgers University study last fall found that fewer than a quarter of those polled believed they had ever eaten genetically engineered food-which is remarkable given the statistic that three quarters of all processed food contains components from genetically modified plants. However, Clemente says, "that doesn't mean you're eating the new gene. The DNA is only in the protein, not in the oil or, in the case of sugar, in the carbohydrates. You take a gallon of Roundup Ready soybean oil and a gallon of conventional, or a gallon of Bt corn syrup and a gallon of conventional, and you cannot tell the difference. The best lab wouldn't be able to tell which is which."
Nonetheless American consumers can hear the clamor abroad and are growing increasingly suspicious of biotech. Only about half the people Rutgers surveyed approved of genetically engineered food, and more than 90 percent wanted genetically modified ingredients labeled as such, a measurable increase in trepidation from earlier polls.
The folks who make our processed food aren't fools. For the moment there's nothing in biotechnology for them except heartache. Consider the high-tech spud. The same year that Monsanto introduced Roundup Ready soybeans, it released the NewLeaf potato, which was engineered to resist the Colorado potato beetle and therefore reduce the use of expensive and toxic chemical sprays. Farmers loved it; acreage grew fivefold in four years. But the engineered potato didn't do a thing for the people who eat potatoes-it didn't make them cheaper, less fattening, tastier or more nutritious-and the public said a collective phooey. Or, as a spokesman for the massive potato distributor J.R. Simplot put it, they "expressed concern," which was all the big potato processors had to hear. In 1999 McCain Foods, which makes a third of the country's french fries, announced that "in response to consumer demand" it would no longer buy NewLeaf or any other genetically engineered food. Four months later McDonald's and Frito-Lay -- titans of the potato-buying world -- finished the job of strangling NewLeaf in its cradle by asking their suppliers not to buy genetically engineered potatoes.
"They could have done anything to those seeds," says a financial analyst who follows the agriculture industry. "They could have crossed a potato with corn and gotten a vegetable with both eyes and ears. They haven't even scratched the surface of making crops more nutritious or better tasting."
Scientists can already engineer soy-beans whose inexpensive oil contains high levels of the beneficial monounsaturates that olive oil has-and that health-conscious consumers pay a premium to get. Once products like that start hitting the market, says Clemente, the irrational fears, as he calls them, will disappear. "The trick is to improve people's nutrition without their having to change the way they eat," he says. "People are going to love that."
"The science and technology have potential, but we really screwed it up in the beginning," says Richard Rominger, who was Bill Clinton's deputy secretary of agriculture at the time the first biotech seeds were introduced in 1996. Rominger recalls a meeting with Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro: "He said to us, `We're doing God's work. The world will think we're saviors.' They didn't think about consumer reaction. People thought only Monsanto was benefiting."
V. NOBODY'S SICK, BUT THE WEEDS ARE BACK
As the bumper sticker says, shit happens. In 2000 a load of genetically modified StarLink corn that was approved only for animal feed ended up in Taco Bell taco shells, among other human food, touching off a massive recall and the destruction of hundreds of tons of corn. StarLink contained a protein-with the liltingly bucolic name Cry9C-that the EPA suspected might cause serious allergic reactions in humans. That nobody got sick was cold comfort to the critics of genetically modified food. What about next time? The law of unintended consequences, after all, has never been repealed. The national "grain stream" is so huge and moves so fast that biotech seeds cannot help mixing with conventional ones. Field trials have shown that genetically modified DNA can contaminate organic crops and even wild plants when pollen from biotech species is carried on the breeze.
And as though rising from a perfect nightmare for Monsanto and farmers, the few weeds that are resistant to Roundup are starting to take over in corn and soy-bean fields. Evidence is emerging that other weeds are developing tolerance to the herbicide too. About one weed a year shows resistance. "Everybody predicted this," says Bill Johnson, a weed scientist at Purdue University. "But the way big business works, it's quarter-to-quarter profits."
VI. BITTER HARVEST: FARMER VS. FARMER
Dale Whiteside, 73 years old and wizened by a lifetime of farming, is lying under a dump truck in the rain when I arrive at his impressive spread south of Chillicothe, Missouri. He's known as an unreconstructed advocate of the biotech revolution, and by God, he announces, emerging to shake hands, he is the real thing. "How in the world are we going to feed the population of the world if we stifle technology?" he asks as he leads me inside for coffee. A fourth-generation Missouri farmer, Whiteside was a Republican legislator in Jefferson City for nine years and remains an enthusiastic member of the Farm Bureau, the voice of Big Ag. As we sit in his elegant farmhouse, he offers that biotech opponents "can't get out of their shell. They're living in the past." As for conventional soybean farming, "there's no use to ride a dead horse any longer. It's not going to work."
But as Whiteside talks, a few doubts surface. He praises Europeans for having "an allegiance to their farmers that we don't have," which makes it possible for traditional family farms to survive. Though he defends biotech science, he's not a wholehearted booster of the business. "If you could trust the large corporations, there'd be nothing wrong with it," he says, letting his voice trail off, as though he is afraid to consider a world in which corporations aren't trustworthy. A shadow falls across his face. "The large corporations are gradually taking over agriculture," he says quietly.
Whiteside knows this from personal experience. He used to be a hog farmer. Now the hogs in the buildings behind his house are owned by Smithfield, a giant pork processor based in North Carolina. The company delivers the piglets, pays Whiteside to raise them and collects them for slaughter-which makes Whiteside a kind of hog custodian. Life may be easier, but he misses his old independence. "Eventually it will happen with grain and beans," he says. "It's not like owning it yourself. You're locked in. At the end of the contract period they could say, `We're not going to need you anymore."'
Mindfully.org note: No story about the pros and cons of biotech crops for farmers is complete without mention of Percy Schmeiser. And nobody knows about Monsanto's cheating, lying, bullying, extortion, and downright greed better than Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian canola farmer.
Monsanto trespassed on the Schmeiser's land to take samples of his crop and then sued him for stealing their patented seed or obtaining it illegally. Monsanto's claims changed as needed. Monsanto won the federal suit against Percy, as well as his appeal. And just this week, on Friday 21 May, 2004, The Canadian Supreme Court ruled against Percy. Essentially what the Canadian court did was to uphold the right of the corporation to pollute a farmer's field with genetically engineered genes and then turn around and prosecute that farmer for patent rights infringement.
Now that species are intellectual property, the companies that invent them are as tough on piracy as the recording industry was on Napster. Monsanto has been particularly aggressive. Its rules require farmers to abandon the ancient practice of saving seed from one year's crop to plant the next. Instead they must buy new seed every year. Monsanto's huge legal department keeps an eye on every farmer, comparing seed purchases with the amount of Roundup a farmer buys, trying to ferret out discrepancies. They sometimes send inspectors to microsearch fields for unpaid-for proprietary DNA. Monsanto maintains a hotline, 800-ROUNDUP , to encourage farmers to rat one another out. The company has sued dozens of farmers suspected of saving seed.
Troy Roush, whose family has been farming in Indiana since 1832, started planting Roundup Ready soybeans in 1997 and loved the ease of weed control. In 2001 Monsanto wrongly sued him for saving seed -- he suspects a neighbor falsely accused him -- and by the time the company dropped the lawsuit, the fight had cost the Roush family $390,000 in lawyers' fees. The experience taught Roush how a seemingly useful technology can destroy the culture of farming.
"It lets you farm more acreage, so you have to farm more acreage-and that puts farmers at each other's throats," Roush says. "We used to help each other out, but now we're competitors for any land that becomes available. One of our neighbors got us to be 400 grand lighter, so the next time a farm comes up for sale, we can't compete."
Roush doubts his teenage daughters will grow up to farm. "I've watched the guys farming 200 acres get forced out. I've watched the guys farming 500 acres get forced out. And now the guys with thousands of acres are getting forced out," Roush says. "Genetically modified crops are destroying the social fabric of our rural communities."
Monsanto's early successes with Roundup and Roundup Ready crops have narrowed farmers' options. Roundup has dominated agriculture for so long that basic research in other types of herbicides has withered. "As Roundup loses its effectiveness, there's nothing in the pipeline to replace it," says Purdue's Johnson. The same can be said for basic crop research; it's now almost entirely geared toward genetically modified seed. "Until recently bakers could reasonably have assumed that they would have the option...of buying biotech wheat or nonbiotech wheat," reads a position statement of the American Bakers Association . "Recent events have indicated that assumption may not be correct.... Bakers may not have the option of buying nonbiotech wheat."
Roush probably couldn't go back to conventional crops even if he could find good conventional seed; once Monsanto's DNA is in your field it's almost impossible to get it out. And with the corporate DNA police abroad in the land, farmers can't afford to take a chance. So it looks as though there's no turning back from a future in which Monsanto and a handful of other companies own the genetic building blocks of the world's food supply. "I'd put the genie back in the bottle in a heartbeat," says Roush.
Across the county from the Whiteside farm in Chillicothe, Doug Doughty parks the combine and leads me to the airy modern farmhouse he shares with his wife, his stepson and a regiment of dogs. Few farm families live on farm income alone; Doughty's wife, Barb, is working at the dining room table, transcribing medical records. So Doughty takes me down to his basement study, where he has hung a framed copy of Sports Illustrated from 1968, open to a two-page photo of the St. Louis Cardinals. Roger Maris, Curt Flood, Lou Brock and the rest smile smugly at the camera. And why not? "They were the highest-paid team in baseball that year," says Doughty. "Look here," he points to the caption. "The whole team made $607,000 that year -- together -- and at the time that was considered big money." He sighs. "That's be-fore money and the corporations ruined everything." Then he laughs; he realizes he's been stuck on that theme all day.
Doughty's off-the-farm job is umpiring high school and college baseball games, calling balls and strikes with Show-Me State equanimity. I've asked him to tally the pros and cons of genetically modified crops, and he pauses, trying to be fair. "They are about a wash financially," he says finally, "but they've created all these other problems-Europe, the concentration of power in Monsanto's hands, not being able to save seed." He gazes at the television for a few minutes, at a Viagra ad with the sound off. "In the back of your mind you're always thinking, What if there really is a health problem with the beans? We have to hope the FDA gets it right, but they've gotten it wrong before. I don't know. I think we've made a bargain with the devil."