Last fall, protesters in Ireland dug up fields of gene-spliced sugar beets. In Iowa, members of the environmental group Greenpeace spray-painted rows of genetically engineered soybeans. British activists shivered naked on the rooftops of London to protest what they called a genetic coverup, and others carried life-size, inflatable Frankenstein monsters through the streets to protest genetically modified foods. In Austria, concern about bioengineered foods led the government to ban imports of gene-spliced crops.
All across Europe and in parts of the U.S., environmentalists are trying to halt the genetic manipulation of nature's agricultural bounty. Using the same kind of biotech wizardry that drug companies employ to create new drugs, laboratories at Monsanto, Novartis, Rhine-Poulenc-Rorer, and other multinationals have mastered the art of transferring useful genes from microbes and other organisms to plants. The techniques they have developed allow them to make seemingly magical transformations of soybeans, corn, cotton, and other crops, conferring resistance to blights and insect pests. Plants have also been developed that are resistant to herbicides, allowing farmers to spray plants with chemicals that wipe out weeds but don't harm the crops.
GREEN LIGHT. Such genetically altered crops are already a booming business. Last year, U.S. farmers sowed more than 16 million acres with seeds modified by a Monsanto technique. In 1998, the acreage will double. By 2005, Monsanto reckons the global market for plant biotechnology will soar to some $6.6 billion. America will be a large part of that. Pierre Hochuli, chairman of Monsanto Europe, says his company also looks at the European agricultural-biotech market as "a huge opportunity." Indeed, despite the recent spate of protests, France recently gave farmers a green light to plant gene-altered corn.
Seed companies say this is progress. But activists have succeeded in drawing attention to some compelling scientific and ethical issues. In a research area that's so young, how much can science predict about the effect of gene-altered crops on the environment or on human health? "Biotechnology is a new and very complicated technology," muses Margaret G. Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Washington. "There could be surprises long term."
In both Europe and the U.S., the protesters' main argument is that the safety of the new crops has not been proven. For example, bioengineered corn produced by Swiss life-sciences giant Novartis contains a gene from a soil microbe. It causes the corn to produce a protein called Bt that kills the corn borer--a pest that causes an estimated $152 million a year in losses to European farmers. Farmers raising Bt corn don't need to spray their crops with pesticides because the plants, in effect, protect themselves.
The corn has been tested for safety in Novartis labs, though no human clinical trials were performed. But human health is not the main worry of activist scientists. More problematic, they say, is the risk that widespread use of such gene-spliced crops will give rise to bugs that are resistant to Bt. Such resistance can arise through chance mutations in insects. If that should happen, the Bt pesticide will be rendered useless. "The danger is real," says critic Mellon. "The only question is whether resistance will happen sooner or later."
Seed companies have an answer to this. They recommend that farmers plant normal, unaltered crops alongside the gene-spliced ones. This will guarantee a large, sustained population of insects that never will develop resistance to the pesticide. The susceptible bugs will breed with the resistant ones--whose numbers will be relatively few--and thus reduce any resistance.
Another worry centers around crops that are genetically altered to survive herbicides. Monsanto, for example, makes soybeans containing a gene that allows them to grow well even when drenched with the company's potent Roundup weed-killer. Last year, U.S. farmers planted nine million acres of such Roundup Ready soybeans.
Last October, however, French scientists raised an ominous flag in the scientific journal Nature. They showed that when oilseed rape plants with a herbicide-resistance gene were bred with wild radish weeds, the gene could be transferred over to the weeds. To opponents of agricultural biotech, the idea that herbicide resistance could spread to weeds raises the specter of uncontrollable superweeds spreading across farms.
Austrian activists are worried about a different example of gene manipulation. For reasons having to do with the way gene splicing was carried out years ago, Novartis' corn contains a leftover piece of DNA that conveys resistance to common antibiotics. Critics such as Alexander Haslberger, the scientific adviser to the government's Committee on Gene Technology, fear that the gene could pass from the plants to bacteria, creating microbes that the antibiotics can't kill.
Seed company execs retort that either kind of gene transfer is unlikely. Moreover, scientists say that the gene in Novartis' corn is already widely found in bacteria and poses no risk. "I think it's silly of the company not to remove it, but it doesn't do any harm," says Stuart B. Levy, director of the Center for Adaptive Genetics and Drug Resistance at the Tufts University School of Medicine. And in fact, Novartis says that its newer corn varieties no longer have the gene.
Protests in Europe are more strident than in the U.S. But recent events may raise the level of awareness in America. One involves Monsanto's Roundup Ready cotton. For the first time, in the spring of 1997, U.S. farmers planted cotton from seeds into which Monsanto engineers had inserted a gene that makes the plants resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. When the fields are sprayed with Roundup, the weeds die while the cotton plants--at least theoretically--remain unaffected.
But last July, 30 to 40 farmers growing Roundup Ready cotton in Mississippi found that the plants dropped their bolls of cotton prematurely, reducing yields. Some farmers are threatening lawsuits. Monsanto, which says it is still studying the problem, suggests it may be the result of last spring's unusually cold and wet weather in the Mississippi Delta. Barely 1% of total Roundup Ready cotton crops were affected, the company says.
In December, agricultural biotech received another public-relations blow. The Environmental Protection Agency decided not to grant a petition from Rhine-Poulenc to allow the spraying of bromoxynil, a potent herbicide, on cotton that has been genetically engineered to withstand the poison. The decision was prompted by fears that the chemical poses risks to humans. But environmentalists say the case illustrates another problem: Agricultural giants may care more about promoting their own chemicals than about safer, more productive agriculture. Says Jane Rissler, senior scientist with the UCS: "The sole purpose of this cotton is to expand the use of a very dangerous pesticide."
The picture is not black and white. Even greens admit that biotechnology can dramatically cut down on the amount of pesticides that farmers use, while simultaneously improving crop yields. This counts for a lot in Europe, where farmers rely far more heavily on pesticides than their U.S. counterparts do. Andre Goig, European director of Novartis Seeds, says that field trials show that French farmers could boost revenue about 8% by using pest-resistant corn seed. And there are other huge potential benefits of biotech. For example the technology could help farmers grow crops that will flourish in deserts or in very salty soil.
TASTE TEST. In Europe, many farmers understand the benefits of biotech. So do some consumers. Last year, Britain's Zeneca Group PLC quietly introduced one of the first gene-altered foods into the European market--a paste made from tomatoes modified to create a beefier texture. Labeled as a product of biotechnology, the paste also was priced 10% below its natural counterparts and was an instant success. It was a "test of our hypothesis that Europeans are not necessarily anti-biotech," says Nigel Paul, Zeneca's external regulatory affairs director.
Few protesters are swayed by such examples, however. They have lobbied relentlessly for Europewide rules that would place labels on all foods produced from genetically modified soybeans and corn. But seed companies complain that the requirements, as contemplated, are vague. Potentially, anything exposed to genetically modified crops--including milk--could be labeled. That alarms U.S. government officials. "Strict adherence to labeling requirements would do damage to our trade," warns Timothy J. Galvin, associate administrator of the Agriculture Dept.'s Foreign Agricultural Service. U.S. shipments of corn to Europe exceed $200 million a year.
Ultimately, food fights won't get Europe very far. "Our genes are incorporated into approximately 19 million acres around the world--covering an area larger than Switzerland and the Netherlands combined," says Tom McDermott, Monsanto's European public affairs head. "Can Europe at this point really resist?" That's a question many concerned consumers are asking--on both sides of the Atlantic.