The Outcry over "Terminator" Genes in Food

Critics fear such safeguards present fresh genetic perils

On June 24, Iowa farmer George Naylor and a dozen of his friends dumped 100 pounds of feed corn and seeds near a busy intersection in Sacramento. They did it to thumb their noses at the Agriculture Dept., which was staging its first-ever conference nearby on genetically modified food. Agriculture officials were promoting new technology designed to improve food production worldwide. The protesters, however, weren't buying it, explains Naylor, president of the National Family Farm Coalition. "We have safety questions," he says. "We have environmental questions."

So do many others. The three-day conference drew thousands of protesters -- who blocked traffic, staged hunger strikes, and marched down the streets of California's capital dressed as killer tomatoes. Indeed, scattered groups of environmentalists and farmers have been marching since the mid-1990s, when corporations such as Monsanto (MON ) Co. started tweaking the genes of common food crops to make such oddities as corn that's resistant to pests. Critics worry that newfangled crops will creep into the wild and cross-pollinate with natural species, potentially damaging plant diversity and maybe even endangering the people who eat them. But what makes today's protesters different is that they also abhor the high-tech solutions biotech companies are developing to prevent the spread of altered species. Among these innovations are "Terminator genes," named by critics after the Arnold Schwarzenegger character who is again blasting into theaters this month.

The debate will only grow louder as the market for futuristic foods blossoms. Agricultural scientists are cooking up such inventions as corn with low concentrations of unhealthy fats and salmon that grow twice as fast as normal. And some companies are devising methods to grow pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals in plants. All told, analysts estimate the market for biotech crops will expand 18%, to $5 billion, by 2005.

For the promise to be fully realized, though, the agriculture industry must figure out how to prevent what critics call Frankenfoods from wreaking havoc on the natural food chain. Otherwise, the world could see endless replays of the 2000 StarLink incident, when genetically modified corn not intended for human consumption found its way into Taco Bell (YUM ) products.

One of the first potential solutions was proposed in 1998 by the Agriculture Dept. and Delta & Pine Land (DLP ) Co., a Scott (Miss.) seller of cotton and soybean seeds. They worked together to develop a concoction of chemicals and genes that prevents seeds from propagating after the first harvest. "It disrupts germination," explains Dr. Harry B. Collins, vice-president for technology transfer at Delta & Pine Land. He predicts it will take a further four years or so to perfect the system and win regulatory approval.

Some farmers' advocates have loudly rejected this "Terminator" sterilization method. They fear the technology will give all makers of genetically modified seed a built-in mechanism to ensure that customers can't replant once they harvest a crop. Monsanto enforces such a policy today by requiring customers to sign contracts -- an extremely controversial practice that detractors say places a burden on small farmers, especially in developing countries, by forcing them to buy new seeds every year. "Saving seeds is a fundamental human right," says Jean Halloran, a policy director at the Consumers Union.

Some scientists are developing sequels to the Terminator -- new technologies that would both protect the environment and keep seeds fertile. One such effort is under way at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, an environmental group in Ottawa. Researchers there figured out how to get plants to overproduce a hormone that ensures that if pollen from genetically modified crops drifts to other species, the resulting seeds won't germinate. Under this scheme, when two plants containing the same mechanism are crossed, the lethal action doesn't kick in, and the seeds remain fertile. The group is now testing the system in canola and tobacco.

It isn't just reengineered vegetables that need to have their reproductive urges controlled. Environmentalists are also worried about fish that have been fashioned to possess superior traits -- and fish farmers are sensitive to their concerns. At Aqua Bounty Farms Inc. in Waltham, Mass., salmon grow at twice the normal speed, because they have an extra gene that causes them to produce all year round a growth hormone that is normally seasonal. Nobody wants these critters to pass on their engineered traits to wild fish.

For one thing, a species that matured quickly might outbreed all other varieties, leading to less biodiversity and to a dominant species that may have other unknown traits. Because farmed fish excel at wriggling out of their sea pens, Aqua Bounty borrowed a trick, also used by trout farmers, to ensure that its salmon can't cross-breed: The company places all its eggs in a high-pressure environment, which causes the fish to be born with an extra chromosome, rendering them sterile.

The protesters needn't be worried about bioengineered fish quite yet. The Food & Drug Administration is putting Aqua Bounty's salmon through the same review process it uses for new animal drugs -- a much more rigorous test than genetically modified plants must pass. Aqua Bounty founder Elliot Entis has been working with the FDA since 1995, providing data to prove that his fish have the same hormonal and nutritional makeup as normal salmon, with no extra allergy-causing ingredients. Entis hopes to get an answer from the FDA within a year. And he respects the concerns the environmentalists express. "When you start playing with the food supply, people get nervous," he admits.

The need to calm those fears couldn't be more urgent. The European Union has imposed a partial ban on genetically modified foods, prompting the U.S. to file suit with the World Trade Organization in May. The Farm Labor bureau estimates that the U.S. is losing $300 million a year in agricultural sales because of the moratorium. So while costumed protesters were marching down the streets of Sacramento, President George W. Bush was on the other side of the country at the Biotechnology Industry Organization's conference in Washington, where he scolded foreign leaders for rejecting genetically modified crops. He lamented that "the great advantages of biotechnology have yet to reach [the countries] where these innovations are now most needed." Without new technologies for controlling altered crops, it will take more than Presidential support to get these useful products on the world market.

By Arlene Weintraub in Los Angeles, with Pallavi Gogoi in Chicago

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