The Arctic flounder uniquely evolved through time to thrive in freezing waters. It's safe to say that, until recently, this fish has never had any contact with tomatoes. And tomatoes have never considered the flounder a partner in procreation. Yet biotechnology has integrated these two species in a way Mother Nature never intended. By inserting a flounder gene into tomato DNA, scientists have created a tomato that is less susceptible to freezing, has a longer shelf life and whose larger size may make it appear tastier. Flounder genes have also been inserted into strawberries for the same reasons. What's not to like?

  • Vegetarians might not like the idea of biting into a berry that contains fish blueprints.
  • Ecologists might wonder about genetic pollution and the wisdom of tinkering with Mother Nature.
  • Consumer-rights advocates might feel shoppers should be notified via product labels as to exactly what is in their food.
  • Natural-living types might be put off by the whole idea of eating something so ... well, unnatural.

But what about the promise of feeding the world with more nutritious foods and less pollution? Can biotech grow an edible silver bullet?

Let's back up a half-century to the birth of the agricultural-industrial complex. In the 1950s, America's crops and livestock began being sprayed, ground, canned, milled, stripped, reconstituted, adulterated, fortified, packaged and sold to the public. Processed cereal — Corn Pops (1950), Sugar Smacks (1953) and Alpha-Bits (1958) — was born. Nutritious and delicious, they said. These wonder foods build strong bodies 12 ways!

In 1962, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Rachel Carson documented the effects of that foray into high-tech food processing in her seminal book, Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin). All over the country, DDT was being sprayed from airplanes to control mosquitoes. "Better living through chemistry" was a common phrase. As an unintended consequence, however, DDT also killed songbirds, poisoned animals throughout the food chain — some to near extinction — and, in 1969, the National Cancer Institute declared, it caused cancer in humans. The federal government banned DDT in 1972.

So here we are today, at the threshold of the next great leap forward in food-making — genetic engineering (GE). Should it strike us as ironic that the GE pioneers of today are some of yesteryear's chemical giants, including Monsanto and DuPont? Backers of this new technology believe the technology is much better this time around and can be trusted.

"At what point in history have we been required to know everything before we go forward?" asks Eric Ward, president of Novartis, a multinational biotech giant with U.S. headquarters in North Carolina. Mistakes can be improved upon, he says, "like a Microsoft upgrade."

Genes 1.0 — System Error
The Bill Gateses of biotech create genetically modified organisms (GMOs) first by identifying a gene with a desired trait from a plant, animal or bacterium. The gene is isolated and removed. Next, it is inserted into a bacterial cell that copies it millions of times over and ferries it into a target organism. Genes can also be directly injected into a target organism, without being multiplied, by using a particle gun. From there, it's up to nature to weave the protein string into a new strand of DNA.

The trouble is, it's not as exact a science as it sounds. When the target cell takes up the inserted gene, it's anybody's guess where it will end up. The gene may attach in the middle of another gene and interfere with the normal functioning of the cell. It might damage the DNA of the host, which can lead to foods that contain allergens or toxins. Engineered proteins from living things people have never consumed could end up on store shelves, with unknown health effects.

In 1996, researchers at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, found that people allergic to nuts became allergic to soybeans engineered to contain a nutritious protein from a Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa). Although the biotech company shelved the product before it hit retail stores, "the next case could be less ideal, and the public less fortunate," according to a companion editorial in the same issue of the New England Journal of Medicine (1996, vol. 334) that reported the case of the GE soybeans.

Natural foods advocates are also beginning to ask questions about unintended consequences of this most recent tinkering with our food supply. Most difficult is the patience required to gauge environmental effects that can take years to fully blossom. Once GMOs cross-pollinate with their wild counterparts and weeds, there is no way to put the genie back in the bottle. And pollen dispersal from GE crops has been recorded at up to 3 kilometers by airflow and 4 kilometers by insects (The Soil Association Report, 2000).

"They're making fundamental and irreversible changes in the food supply," says Mike Liguori, communications coordinator for Citizens For Health, which is coordinating a GMO labeling campaign (see "What You Can Do," p.52). "The long-term effects are unprecedented and unknown, and there's no thought put into it."

In what has been called the smoking gun against the biotech industry, a now-famous laboratory study by Cornell University researchers found that pollen from genetically engineered corn can kill monarch butterfly larvae. Monarch caterpillars were fed milkweed leaves, their only natural food source, which had either no pollen, regular corn-pollen dust or pollen dusted with GE "Bt" pollen. After four days, 44 percent of those fed Bt corn pollen died, while all those fed the other milkweed leaves survived (Nature, 1999, vol. 399). The study was even more significant because half of the summer monarch population is concentrated in the U.S. corn belt — not to mention that this study took place after 25 million acres of Bt corn had already been planted (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 1998, vol. 95). In response, a consortium of biotech-backed scientists in November 1999 released six months of studies that took place in and around actual GE cornfields, as opposed to the strict confines of the lab. Conclusions varied; some studies found Bt corn does not release pollen, while other studies found close to 100 percent overlap. Ultimately, they concluded, monarchs are as much at risk from habitat destruction in Mexico, where they reside in winter, as from poisoned pollen (Natural Biotechnology, 1999, vol. 17).

In another study, researchers fed six rats potatoes genetically engineered to make their own lectins, which are a group of chemical proteins — including poisons — found in some bean varieties. Six other rats were fed potatoes injected with the protein. After 10 days, the rats eating the GE potatoes suffered greater atrophy in the small intestine and other organs. The researchers said this suggests that something in the modification process itself may contribute to organ damage (Lancet, 1999, vol. 354).

Just Good Business?
Despite marketing hype about how genetic engineering makes foods more nutritious, only one in five current GE foods is actually designed to improve product quality, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The rest are only beneficial for agribusiness entities concerned with cultivation and distribution; fully 28 percent are aimed at increasing crop tolerance to herbicides. Biotech's balancing act is predicated on seed sales to farmers, who save money if fewer pesticides are needed. The problem is, farmers then have to sell it to consumers. But the more consumers learn about GMOs, the more wary they become. Consequently, the biotech industry is scrambling to create a "better nutrition through genetically engineered foods" angle.

Researchers at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati and the Center of Ethics and Toxics in Gualala, Calif., raised questions about better nutrition. They compared two varieties of GE soy to their conventional counterparts grown in similar conditions. In 12 of 21 analyses, the GE soy demonstrated a 12 to 14 percent reduction in genistein and daidzein, the two major soy isoflavones of benefit to menopausal women (Journal of Medicinal Foods, 1998, vol. 1).

As a rejoinder, much ado has been made of the recent unveiling of so-called "golden rice," engineered to contain the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene, a nutrient lacking in some diets. UNICEF research shows that 300,000 children in developing countries were saved in 1998 by vitamin A supplementation. With one consumer success finally under its belt, Big Biotech comes just a little clean about its checkered past.

"What if, when they invented electricity, the first two products were the electric chair and the cattle prod?" asks Novartis' Ward. "Would you say electricity is bad?"

Conspiracy theorists shrug off the golden rice news. "The timing of this is so clear," says Charlie Kronick, head of Britain's Greenpeace genetic engineering campaign. "[Proponents] are talking about the potential benefits of the second generation of GE crops when almost no questions raised by the first have been answered."

Plus, as former USDA scientist James Duke, Ph.D., says, people can get satisfactory vitamin A levels with rice without technological assistance: Simply eat the vitamin A-rich weeds that grow alongside rice. "We'll call them herbs or leafy veggies instead of weeds," says Duke. "A new mantra might be 'Eat your weedies!'"

This low-tech idea, however, begs the question: Can GMOs really feed the world? It might be nice to engineer a seed to withstand drought and poor soil. But it seems the real issues may be Third World affordability and distribution.

"There are 10 simple steps we could take right now to feed a billion hungry people," says Margaret Mellon, Ph.D., of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C., "from building roads to encouraging people to grow their own gourds."

A recent poll of 1,800 U.S. households found 40 percent were concerned about GMOs, 11 percent were not and almost 50 percent had no opinion. Those fence-sitters are the object of biotech's affections: A group of biotech giants will spend $250 million during the next five years on a public relations campaign to win over the agnostics.

In the end, the success or failure of GMOs will likely be determined by consumer education and analysis. For now, here's food for thought: We've come to revere the technology on our computers; will we equally trust the technology on our plates?

Todd Runestad is associate editor for Nutrition Science News.