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|Photo by Zachary Scott|
The late-afternoon sun casts a golden radiance across the fields and, between the rows of young spring plants, jackrabbits bounce up and down. It's a scene straight out of some deep rural fantasy: nature benignly transforming sunlight and soil into nourishment for our tables. But all is not well among these neatly tended rows of lettuce and tomatoes, broccoli, melons and grapes. The fields are owned by the University of California at Davis, a leading center for agricultural research and education. These two goals have been quietly pursued for over a century, but last September, Davis scientists had a rude awakening when several fields were ripped out during the night. The reason for this vegetable vandalism? The plants had been genetically modified.
Since then the farm has been attacked several more times, and so it is that my host, Kent Bradford, director of the UC Davis Seed Biotechnology Center, won't say which plots contain genetically modified ("GM") crops. They can't be too careful, Bradford explains darkly. At the moment there are no obvious signs of defense, but Bradford says the center is considering installing a high-security fence and alarm system. The problem is, this would immediately signal the target to would-be aggressors. It would also be expensive: "We'd far rather be spending the money on our research," Bradford says.
Bradford is a GM enthusiast. A liberal-seeming guy and former member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, he went into agricultural research believing he could do something to truly help the world. With genetic engineering, he says, "The possibilities of what can be done with improving food are almost endless." The future he envisions includes enhanced nutritional value of foods, reduction in the use of pesticides and herbicides (now a major environmental hazard), and alleviation of world hunger. So he is puzzled by the increasing chorus of concern about GM foods. "We thought we were doing what everyone wanted," Bradford says. "When did we become the enemy?"
The debate over GM foods, long the subject of intense resistance in Europe, is finally moving stateside. Of the hundreds of thousands of products available in our nation's supermarkets, it is estimated that over 60 percent now contain genetically modified ingredients, including oil from modified soy and canola, and flour from modified soy and corn. Last year, 55 percent of the U.S. soybean crop were genetically modified varieties, as were 35 percent of the corn crop. There are currently 46 GM crops in our food supply, including potatoes, tomatoes, sugar beets, squash and papaya. Chances are you're already consuming GM foods on a daily basis. And you have no way of knowing. In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that there was "no substantial difference" between GM foods and conventional varieties, and so no form of labeling was necessary. Likewise it deemed there was no need for human-safety tests.
Belated concerns over the safety of GM foods are now prompting organizing and protests, including local attempts to get the Trader Joe's chain of stores to agree to pull GM products off the shelves (something protesters felt the chain's shoppers would particularly care about). In the eyes of protesters milling outside Trader Joe's one recent afternoon in West Hollywood, the government has colluded in a massive form of force-feeding. Brett Doran of the Action Resource Center in Venice and a co-organizer of the rally waves aloft a placard in the shape of a giant tomato, emblazoned with the slogan "No fish genes in our tomatoes!" -- a reference to the fact that anti-freeze genes from flounders have been engineered into these fruits. Still in his early 30s, Doran is already a veteran environmental activist; to him, genetic modification of plants is a hazard both to human health and to the environment. "It's untested, and it's not predictable what effects it's going to have on humans in the long run," he tells me. "The DNA that is the building block of life on our planet is being tinkered with -- that's why some people call them 'Frankenfoods,'" he continues. Speaking for the group, Doran says, "We don't see a need for genetic engineering. We see a need for more community-based farming."
Around the country, anti-GM sentiment is building. Last year, Mothers for Natural Law presented to Congress a petition with half a million signatures, demanding the introduction of labeling for GM foods, and there are now labeling bills before both the House and the Senate, with the Senate bill having been sponsored by California's own Barbara Boxer. Tom Hayden is currently sponsoring a labeling bill at the state level. Earlier this year, a group of 50 environmental, consumer and farmers groups formally petitioned the FDA, demanding the implementation of mandatory safety testing.
All this activity seems to be making the industry nervous. In March, a consortium of seven leading biotechnology companies announced a $52 million advertising campaign to "educate" Americans about ä the advantages of GM foods. Consisting of all the major players -- Monsanto, DuPont, Dow AgroSciences, Novartis, Aventis, AstraZeneca and BASF Corp. -- the consortium will blitz the nation with advertisements for the next three to five years.