Dinner at the New Gene Café: How Genetic Engineering Is Changing What We Eat, How We Live, and the Global Politics of Foodby Bill Lambrecht
Biotech companies are racing to alter the genetic building blocks of the world's food. In the United States, the primary venue for this quiet revolution, the acreage of genetically modified crops has soared from zero to 70 million acres since 1996. More than half of America's processed grocery products-from cornflakes to granola bars to diet drinks-contain gene-altered ingredients. But the U.S., unlike Europe and other democratic nations, does not require labeling of modified food. Dinner at the New Gene Café expertly lays out the battle lines of the impending collision between a powerful but unproved technology and a gathering resistance from people worried about the safety of genetic change.
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Dinner at the New Gene Café
How Genetic Engineering is Changing What We Eat, How We Live, and the Global Politics of Food
By Bill Lambrecht
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Bill Lambrecht
All rights reserved.
ON OPENING DAY, FIELDS OF DREAMS
Will we survive our technologies? We are being propelled into this new century with no plan, no control, no breaks.
— Bill Joy
President, Sun Microsystems
Do you know why people fear DNA? Because criminals always leave it at the scene of a crime.
— Joke told by Monsanto scientist Stephen Rogers
Genetically modified food is part of the fabric of American life."
So says Gene Grabowski, my seat mate and a front-line player in the new politics of food, as vendors hawk hot dogs, nachos, and Crackerjacks in front of our Section 11 box seats in Camden Yards, one of America's grand new baseball parks. Moments before, the Orioles' Cal Ripken clunked his 2,992d hit as a Major League player into a swath of grass temporarily devoid of any Cleveland Indians in short right field.
"In a grocery, as much as 70 percent of the processed food might contain GMOs," Gene tells me. As a vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers of America and therefore chief spokesman of the American food industry, he ought to know.
GMOs. Grabowski is speaking in a code that most Americans haven't unraveled. In parts of the rest of the world — including Europe, Japan, and Brazil — these three letters trigger fear and befuddlement, with a measure of hope sprinkled in. As most Europeans can tell you, GMO stands for genetically modified organism, which is what you get when you move genes across the traditional species boundaries of plants and animals in the quest for new traits.
It is Opening Day at Camden Yards, and Gene has invited me to watch baseball and, as I suspected, to talk about genetically modified food. The subject has consumed us both of late, he as point man for American food retailers, who worry increasingly about the reaction to GMOs in their food; I as a newspaper reporter writing about a powerful technology that has landed on the world with breathtaking speed. It has been in our midst only since the mid-1990s, the brainchild of a handful of companies that have bigger plans for re-creating what we eat.
Up to now, the DNA of plants has been manipulated to make growing them easier. Companies have profited, and farmers have saved money by heading better equipped into the battle with weeds and insects. But there's been little in the technology to inspire consumers, which is one of the reasons that Gene is feeling anxious today. He would love to see scientists hasten their quest to produce genetically modified food that is more nutritious — or more appealing in any way — so that people won't be suspicious when they learn GMOs have occupied their supermarket shelves.
"So far, we've had to be futurists, talking about the foods that will be available someday, like fruits and vegetables that can retard tooth decay. And that's been one of the difficulties. It's been a challenge, always talking about the future. I like painting a picture of the future, but it's always easier when you have something that is concrete," he tells me, as we alternate between baseball and GMOs during this annual rite of spring.
I joke that in my mind, it's not really Opening Day, seeing as how Major League Baseball commenced its season in Japan five days earlier. Hoping to enhance the game's global appeal, baseball marketers dispatched the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets to perform the Opening Day ritual on foreign soil. To dedicated fans, this was heresy. But tinkering with baseball is inconsequential compared to the bold drive by corporate science to reorder the world's food system. At the moment, they are succeeding, albeit neither as swiftly nor as stealthily as they had hoped.
Fans watching Major League Baseball open its 2000 season at the Tokyo Dome ate snacks that contained GMOs. If they dipped their sushi, they undoubtedly consumed soy sauce from genetically modified soybeans grown in the United States. In China, hundreds of thousands of cotton farmers had sown modified seeds the season before, and the government also had commercialized engineered tomatoes, cucumbers, and a pepper variety, in addition to its engineered tobacco. In Argentina, the vast majority of seventeen million acres of soybeans were genetically engineered. In 1999, three new countries — Portugal, Rumania, and Ukraine — planted engineered crops commercially for the first time, bringing to an even dozen the countries of the world where they legally sprout. Even Europeans, who by and large spurn the technology, were, whether they like it or not, eating food processed with genetically engineered soybeans.
When it comes to transformation of food, Americans lead by example. Ball Park Franks, a brand of hot dogs, was one of many foods found to contain genetically modified ingredients in tests sponsored by Consumer Reports, the magazine, and advocacy groups. As Gene had suggested, genetic engineering is as American as the national pastime.
North Americans are eating genetically modified foods regularly, but they don't know which ones because, unlike Europe, Japan, and Australia, the governments of the United States and Canada don't require labeling that provides this information on food packaging. Thus, North Americans are unaware of how deeply the technology has already reached into their cupboards. Tests by the consumer groups also showed altered DNA in breakfast cereals; corn and tortilla chips; granola bars; cake and muffin mix; corn meal; diet drinks; dog food; soy burgers; powdered chocolate drink; and taco shells. The new modified diet starts young; GMOs were found in three types of baby food.
GMOs are drunk as well as eaten. At Camden Yards, Gene reminds me that cola and soft drinks contain high-fructose syrup made from bulk corn that is likely to have engineered hybrids mixed in. Dairy farmers are using a genetically engineered hormone that induces cows to give more milk. Modified milk blends in the general supply of the beverage that's hired wholesome hero Cal Ripken as its poster boy. Next, barley breeders intend to use genetically engineered varieties in beer. Scanning the patchwork of reds, yellows, and Oriole orange worn by fans in the rows in front of us. Gene observes that many in this crowd of 46,902 are wearing cotton from genetically engineered plants.
Our genetically engineered food is new, so new that on September 6, 1995, the day that Ripken surpassed Lou Gehrig's "Iron Man" record of 2,130 consecutive games, gene-altered corn and soybeans had not yet been planted commercially. They were sprouting in American fields for the first time the following spring, when Ripken broke Japanese third baseman Sachio Kinugasa's world record of 2,216 games.
GENETIC ERA DAWNS
On October 19, 1992, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved Petition No. 92-196-0IP, which allowed Calgene Incorporated to proceed with commercializing its Flavr Savr Tomato. Two years later, Flavr Savr became the first genetically engineered product to reach U.S. supermarkets. By then, China was already producing tomatoes and tobacco, after having sown its first commercial crop in 1992, a transgenic tobacco resistant to the cucumber mosaic virus, on approximately one hundred acres. Two years later, Chinese scientists had engineered a second gene into tobacco to ward off tobacco mosaic virus.
By 1996, the U.S. Agriculture Department had approved more genetic variations of Calgene's invention, in which a gene was inserted backwards to slow the speed at which tomatoes softened as they ripened. The manipulation was supposed to remedy the tastelessness of tomatoes picked long before they're sold. Unfortunately for the genetic engineers, the Flavr Savr tomato was as short on consumer appeal as on vowels. What we grow in our gardens remains the standard for comparison, and even gene wizards couldn't produce a tomato that good.
The first truly revolutionary crop genetically engineered in the United States, a Monsanto Company soybean, won the government's blessing on May 19, 1994, ushering in a series of government approvals for corn, potatoes, more tomatoes, cotton, squash, papaya, and, oddly, radicchio. In 1996, the first year GMO crops were grown commercially, American farmers planted 3.6 million acres, surpassing China. In Canada that year, farmers planted about 300,000 acres with an herbicide-tolerant canola. Argentina, Mexico, and Australia had also begun cultivating a small acreage of modified plants. But nowhere would the new crops proliferate as in the United States.
By the time the new century arrived, the American government had approved more than fifty bioengineered crops. In 2000 in the United States, soybeans, corn, potatoes, and cotton were cultivated on seventy-five million acres of the 109.2 million planted globally. Never before had the worldwide acreage exceeded one hundred million, a landmass twice the size of the United Kingdom. The vast majority of these crops had genes inserted for two traits: herbicide tolerance, which enables plants to withstand sprayings of proprietary herbicides, primarily Monsanto-created Roundup formulations; and insect resistance, which equips plants with the gene of a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, so that they produce a protein that is fatal to pests.
Already, thousands of processed foods around the world contain genetically modified ingredients, most often modified soybeans. In the vision of the life-science companies, that is just the beginning. The seed catalogue of modified foods tested in the United States is thick indeed. In thousands of experiments during the century's waning years, companies and university scientists conducted tests engineering new traits into wheat, rice, canola, melons, squash, cucumbers, strawberries, and sugarcane. Into apples, coffee, cranberries, eggplant, oats, onions, peas, pineapples, plums, raspberries, sweet potatoes, walnuts, and watermelons. Science is marching us toward a new gene smorgasbord, with many foods seasoned with DNA that has never before existed in the supply of human food.
It doesn't stop with food. Modified tobacco has been tested outdoors, and experiments have been conducted manipulating the DNA of creeping bentgrass, Kentucky bluegrass, the American chestnut, spruce trees, sweet-gums, geraniums, gladiola, and the Texas gourd. Once approved by the Agriculture Department, these outdoor tests proliferated. In 1987, there were just five of these field-test sites approved. Then:
1988 — 16 1995 — 3,859 1989 — 40 1996 — 2,997 1990 — 81 1997 — 3,792 1991 — 155 1998 — 5,088 1992 — 381 1999 — 5,102 1993 — 905 2000 — 4,549 1994 — 1,926
No longer are companies content to add a single gene. Monsanto, which remained the leader in the gene-altering race, has added as many as eight to potatoes. These "stacked-gene" potatoes provide resistance to pests and diseases, add tolerance for direct applications of herbicides, increase solid content, and reduce bruising.
Smelling french fries at Camden Yards, I recalled to Gene Grabowski the words of an Agriculture Department biotech expert, Arnold Foudin, when we talked about these experiments: "That's a potato that can take care of itself."
"OPENING DAY" ALL AROUND
The genetically engineered NewLeaf Potato, as Monsanto called it, may be so tough that it can kill bugs, so resilient that it can ward off fungi, so ruggedly constituted that it can withstand the vicissitudes of transport, so muscle-bound that it weighs in for market heavier, therefore netting the grower more. But so far, there's been no gene discovered to help the potato handle its public relations.
That would become apparent in the spring of 2001, when Monsanto acknowledged that it was bowing out of the business of genetically modified potatoes. With Monsanto holding iron-fisted control over the gene-altered spud technology, the company's concession to the emerging new politics of food meant that no modified potatoes would sprout in the United States and Canada in the next growing season. "We hope to return to it some day. For now, the potatoes will be mothballed," a company spokesman told me, prompting me to ponder for an instant how a baked, genetically engineered potato that had been stored in mothballs would taste.
With so many foods modified so soon, the creators of genetically modified food have led us to believe that the march of biotechnology is unstoppable. But the future is much less certain than Gene Grabowski's grocery statistics might suggest. A backlash against GMOs in Europe has spread to other continents and cultures and sprouted in the United States. The reaction was rooted in worries about safety; about the control of food in the hands of few companies; about a new technology with the power to reorder the building blocks of life.
This April day, farmers also were opening their new seasons, heading into the fields. The roar of rejection from Europe, accompanied by new chords of disapproval elsewhere, left them wondering and worrying. Would they find buyers abroad for their harvests? How, when the breadth of food-changing became widely known, would American consumers respond?
By spring 2000, the acreage of American soybeans sown in genetically engineered seed had increased to about 54 percent, while modified cotton had claimed 61 percent of cotton fields. But a 20 plus percent drop in engineered corn testified to spreading fears. For the first spring since 1996, when genetically engineered crops had become legal, sales of the new crop wonder had fallen.
For the global biotechnology industry as well, this day, April 3, 2000, was about more than baseball. This was Opening Day for their new offensive to hold back the tide of opposition. On this morning, seven life-science companies — Monsanto, Novartis, DuPont, Dow Chemical, Zeneca Ag Products, Aventis CropScience, and BASF — announced that they had formed an unprecedented alliance, committing $50 million for a yearlong information campaign in North America. By 2005, their spending in defense of GMOs may reach $250 million, testimony to the enormity of the coming battle.
This April day, they opened a coast-to-coast television campaign heralding the rewards of their new technology. Before heading to the ballpark, I previewed the first spot, which recalled to me the "Morning in America" feel-good commercials in the reelection campaign of former President Ronald Reagan that I had covered in 1984. A boy and his dog, a golden retriever, loping together, fade to a farm girl with two calves. A voice alternates between telling us of successes down on the farm and trumpeting breakthroughs in medical research. "Discoveries in biotechnology, from medicine to agriculture, are helping doctors and farmers to treat our sick and to protect our crops," we are told.
In thirty seconds, I identified Caucasians, Africans, and Asians; farmers, scientists, doctors, and athletes; dogs, cattle, seagulls, and geese. The message was, indeed, Reaganesque: Biotechnology is bringing a new day to America. Amid music that soothes, we're told that genetic engineering of food is no different than the techniques that make our medicine.
Sponsors of these ads have invested billions of dollars to create the recombinant-DNA technologies that farmers carried into their fields on this day. They had purchased the seed companies that sell farmers what they plant. They had budding monopolies along the food chain — or so they thought. Suddenly, the backlash had rendered those investments risky. No company was feeling the pressure more than Monsanto, the band leader of the biotech march, for whom this, also, was a new day.
For Monsanto, the pioneer of the bold new technology, the company that looked to all the world to be toting the shotgun at the marriage of genetic engineering and agriculture, April 3, 2000, was unlike any day in ninety-nine years. Since 1901, Monsanto had stood alone, prospering near the banks of the Mississippi River, first as a chemical company, then reengineering itself into a hybridized life-science company. But this was the first business day after a merger that has diminished its stature; now Monsanto was a subsidiary of Pharmacia Corporation.
Gene Grabowski's hope is that American consumers won't demand that genetically engineered food be labeled. Block labeling. Squelch the opposition. These are the imperatives for the biotech and the food industries, which are allied in battle. That is why, in talking about what people eat, I am hearing words that describe how people fight.
WAR OVER WHAT WE EAT
Grabowski matches wits with consumer and environmental activists from his office overlooking the Potomac River at Georgetown. From cake mix to Spam, the Grocery Manufacturers of America keep the goods of its members displayed behind glass like artifacts at the Smithsonian. With 142 affiliates — from giants like Kraft, Kellogg's, and General Mills to pint-sized operators like McKee Foods, of Tennessee, maker of L'il Debbie snack cakes — the association is the world's biggest trade group for food. The companies Grabowski speaks for sell $460 billion worth of products each year in the United States alone.
Excerpted from Dinner at the New Gene Café by Bill Lambrecht. Copyright © 2001 Bill Lambrecht. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Bill Lambrecht writes about environment and natural resource issues for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His journalism prizes include three Raymond Clapper Awards for Washington Reporting, one of them in 1999 for his articles on genetic engineering around the world. He lives in Fairhaven, Maryland.
Bill Lambrecht, author of Big Muddy Blues and Dinner at the New Gene Café, writes about environment and natural resource issues for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His journalism prizes include three Raymond Clapper Awards for Washington Reporting, one of them in 1999 for his articles on genetic engineering around the world. He lives in Fairhaven, Maryland.
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