Should we worry about genetically modified farming? Opposition to genetically modified crops was a theme of the December 1999 riots at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Many activists, including many people of faith, are leery of this new technology. Opposition in Europe is particularly intense. Fear of scientific tampering with the food supply is not irrational: we all have a clear self-interest in knowing whether food is healthful and wholesome. Even if it turns out that genetically engineered crops are safe, will they alter our relationship with our daily bread?
Today, few Americans worry about whether they will have food on the table, though we must never forget the estimated 800 million people worldwide who are malnourished. (For United Nations updates and donation information on global food needs, see www.thehungersite.com.) But beyond keeping us alive, our daily bread provides one of the day's reliable pleasures, to say nothing of a connection to the cycle of life. Break a piece of freshly baked bread, preferably with a friend: the warm, expanding aroma is the scent of biology itself, what the Bible calls a "sweet savour." Gene-engineered bread--will it have the same savour?
So far, there's no indication that genetically modified crops have caused any harm to human health. The genes being moved around in "transgene" plant breeding aren't lab products; rather, they're naturally occurring DNA that have caused no harm in the organisms from which they were taken. For this reason, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Medical Association have said there are no known health risks with genetically engineered crops.
Some aspects of transgenic food, in fact, are good for you. Those isoflavones, for example, are a healthful protein, which some studies associate with reduced cancer risk. Soybeans are being genetically engineered to include isoflavones to make them more nutritious; other soy engineering projects seek to reduce the bean's content of polysaturated fat, allowing for lower-fat vegetable oil. Plant biologists are attempting to use genetic engineering to splice the allergens out of peanuts, add vitamins to potatoes, and achieve other improvements. Some researchers, for example, are splicing cauliflower DNA into potatoes, so that potatoes can contain beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A that's linked to lower heart disease, according to some studies. If a cauliflower gene is inserted into a potato, does this create something fundamentally unnatural, or represent merely a high-tech extension of the selective breeding that has produced what we now think of as "traditional" crops? Bear in mind that modern high-yield wheat barely resembles the Middle Eastern grasses from which it was originally bred; today's full, rich high-yield maize is unrecognizable next to its ancestor teosinte, the wispy Mexican plant that North Americans began selectively breeding several thousand years ago.
Almost nothing grown on today's farms, including on organic farms, is wholly natural. And it seems that hasn't hurt us: Americans live longer every year, with better health indices on almost every point, including declining rates of most cancers.
Then there are the environmental questions raised by genetically engineered crops. Most of the transgene corn now grown in the United States has been DNA-spliced to make its own bacillus thuringiensis (B.T.), a naturally occurring microorganism that kills farm pests such as the European corn borer. Corn with B.T. is essentially its own pesticide, and the use of pesticides by American farmers appears to be dropping as transgene crops are adopted. (BT has no known effect on human health; organic farmers have been spraying it on crops for decades.) But B.T. corn might have unwelcome environmental effects; some preliminary tests suggest that its pollen may kill the caterpillar of the monarch butterfly. Once millions of acres of B.T. corn are planted, it seems inevitable that insects that are resistant to this natural pesticide will evolve; the B.T. gene may also "outcross" into wild plants, causing weeds with built-in insect resistance.
In theory, genetically modified crops could be great for the biosphere. In practice, there are many worrisome concerns, while the hodgepodge nature of the U.S. regulatory apparatus hardly inspires confidence--the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, and Department of Agriculture all have inconclusive, overlapping authority regarding genetically engineered crops. Some regulators seem to take a blasé approach to gene engineering of crops, and that hardly reassures either. Last fall, James Maryanski, a top F.D.A. official, casually told a congressional committee hearing, "If a copy of a new gene introduced into a carrot produces a protein that significantly changes the composition of the vegetable, the name 'carrot' may no longer accurately describe the product, and a new name would be required." Oh.
Does America really need genetically modified crops? No. The United States already enjoys abundant food at ever-lower real-dollar prices; as a nation, we are overnourished, and it seems likely that nothing short of a comet strike could cause serious disruption to that bounty. If genetically modified crops were banned here, no American would suffer. But transgene crops represent a potential godsend to the developing world, where farm yields must rise an estimated 40 percent in the next 25 years, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, to feed the two billion more people who will join the human family during that period. Genetically modified crops not only hold out the hope of higher yields in the developing world, but also may offer a new tool to fight malnutrition.
The Rockefeller Foundation, long the leading sponsor of developing-world agricultural advancement, is putting the finishing touches on "golden rice," a new gene-engineered strain that contains increased levels of vitamin A, to fight the vitamin-A deficiency so common in developing nations. Because Rockefeller-funded researchers will simply give away their cultivars of golden rice, within a few years a much more nutritious rice will be in dinner bowls in Asia, at essentially zero cost to farmers and consumers.
Researchers continue to work on "ultimate rice," which would use transgene technology to splice elevated levels of iron and protein into rice. Iron-deficiency anemia is a global problem for developing-world women, while protein deficiency affects hundreds of millions, especially children. Researchers at the Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri are working on genetically engineered high-yield cassava that would also be immune to mosaic virus, the scourge of African agriculture; this plant may revolutionize African farming. Gene engineers at Cornell University are even attempting to splice vaccines into plants. One reason hepatitis C is at a runaway level in Africa is that people there simply can't afford the $150 three-shot course of vaccine. Cornell plant researchers are attempting to transfer hep-C vaccine into bananas, which will allow for an inoculation that costs about 10 cents per dose and requires no medical personnel to administer.
Perhaps the promise of genetically modified crops for the developing world won't materialize. But for now, research signs are promising. This makes transgene foods into an interesting ethical quandary for the United States--we probably don't need them, but others probably do. If Western opposition succeeds in blocking the development of the next generation of genetically modified crops, everyone here will still have plenty to eat, but global malnutrition may worsen. Isoflavones, anyone?
Gregg Easterbrook, a Beliefnet columnist, is the author, most recently, of "Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt."