Albion Monitor /News

First "Super Crop" Harvest Spurs Critics

by Binod Bhattarai

(IPS) MADISON -- The world's first major harvest of genetically engineered "super crops" is underway in the United States, spurring activists to step up their efforts to prevent these crops from reaching consumers.

Corn, soybeans, potatoes, and cotton, produced in ways that were once the domain of science fiction, were approved for commercial production last year. They are now being prepared for U.S. consumers under such marketable names as "Maximizer," "New Leaf," and "Freedom II."

"We have some serious crops out there," said Ronnie Cummins, director of Pure Food Campaign, a project of the Washington D.C.-based Foundation on Economic Trends (FET), which tracks genetically engineered foods.

No one knows where genetic engineering is heading

Cummins, who oversees the campaign from an office in Minnesota, said that U.S. farmers are about to harvest 1 million acres of soybeans, half million acres of corn, 2 million acres of cotton, and potatoes that were grown from several million pounds of seed.

The entry of these crops in the market will mark the first major influx of lab-designed foods since the controversial bovine growth hormone (rBGH), injected to dairy cows, and Flavr Savr, a super-tomato designed to rot slowly and which proved to be a commercial flop, were introduced about two years ago.

And this is only the beginning of the genetic age.

According to some 60 animal rights, environmental and pure-food activists who met here recently to discuss bioethics, no one knows where genetic engineering is heading.

Today's biotechnology allows scientists to cut genes from one species and inject them into another, and in the process cross the reproductive barriers set by nature.

"Biotechnology which allows transferring genes across natural boundaries is most powerful, least understood and has ramifications we are least able to predict," said Dr. Margaret Mellon, director of the agriculture and biotechnology program at the Washington, D.C.-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

"The organisms produced," she added, "are not only not available in nature but couldn't be produced by nature."

Although genetically engineered crops have yet to generate profits, corporations are spending billions

So far, about 15 genetically engineered products have received federal approval for sale and about another 15 are awaiting the government's green light, according to "The Gene Exchange," a publication of the 90,000-member UCS.

Genetic engineering has many useful applications in medicine, agriculture and environmental conservation but what activists question is its the lack of regulatory limits on its wanton advances.

Scientists are already working with transgenic mice, pigs, cows, sheep, fish and insects and the list of possible new life forms is growing.

Salmon are being designed to grow faster than they would normally do in nature, plants to secrete their own pest killing toxins, and pigs injected with human genes are being raised for possible organ transplants to human beings.

Another method called "molecular farming" allows scientists to use gene transplant technology to engineer cows and sheep to function as drug factories, according to Mellon, who estimates that at least 1,700 corporations are currently engaged in genetic technology in the United States.

Among those racing to create and patent new life forms are Calgene, Ciba-Geigy, Mycogen, Monsanto, DuPont, Asgrow, Hoechst, AgrEvo, DeKalb, Sandoz, Northrup King, and other multinational giants.

Although genetically engineered crops have yet to generate profits, Cummins pointed out that "corporations are spending billions in their development."

"We're in the early stages of an industry which expects to be selling billions of dollars worth of production within a couple of years,"' he added. "They want to transform agriculture in the way of the so-called 'Green Revolution'."

Activists, however, want to stop this revolution before it takes root.

Cummins' organization of about 60,000 volunteers and supporters coordinates efforts to boycott genetically produced foods with 75 U.S. community groups and 400 others worldwide.

The Pure Food Campaign is still pressing for proper labeling and a boycott of milk products made from rBGH-injected cows. Cummins says about three percent of U.S. diary cows are still injected with the hormone.

"For us, that is three percent too much," he added.

Mothers for Natural Law, who warn that genetic engineering is "a national emergency that could create serious public health crisis and untold damage to our ecosystems," wants all genetically engineered foods in grocery stores labeled as such.

And the Iowa-based consumer group hopes to make the new, high-tech foods a topic of conversation in every U.S. household within the next two months.

"Do we really need these products?"

The race to produce new life forms has also raised concerns among activists about the social and economic impact of biotechnology in developing countries.

"It is possible to isolate genes of vanilla beans, insert them into certain bacteria and have them producing analogues of vanilla in big fermentation containers. But what about the real thing and the country producing that product in the first place," said Dr. Michael J. Fox, vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States and head of its bioethics division.

Ever since W.R. Grace was awarded a U.S. patent for its method of storing an extract of the neem tree, activists around the world have been wary about biotechnological advances. Many have challenged the patent, arguing that the company wrongly claims "invention" of the naturally occurring substance, which farmers in India and other developing countries have used to control pests for centuries.

The thought of biotech sleuths stalking developing countries for indigenous plant and animal species whose genes they can patent has led many to fear the rise of "genetic colonization."

"One criminal aspect of biotechnology is stealing of intellectual property from developing countries," Fox said.

But rising above all concerns, Fox stressed, is a basic question that remains unanswered: "Do we really need these products?"

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Albion Monitor October 26, 1996 (

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