The Biotech Debate

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In 1967, government researchers developed a new potato variety--the Lenape--with great promise for the snack food industry. The result of extensive plant breeding, the Lenape was considered to have the perfect characteristics for making potato chips. But the tuber was also prized because it was immune to such troublesome plant diseases as late blight, mild mosaic and tuber necrosis. One scientist called the new variety, “fabulous,” especially in light of the difficulties inherent in breeding any new potato strain.

While still in the experimental stage, a report surfaced that this new potato, when consumed in regular quantities, caused nausea, headaches, vomiting and fever. Additional research followed which discovered that one of the Lenape’s unknown traits was elevated levels of a naturally occurring toxin--glycoalkaloids. In fact, each potato contained between three and four times the glycoalkaloids legally allowed in food.

In 1970, embarrassed federal officials withdrew the Lenape variety from production and its “superior” qualities never reached the consumer.


This obscure story, chronicled by Jack Doyle, author of “Altered Harvest,” (Viking Penguin: 1985) was frequently retold last week when the federal government gave the green light for the sale of genetically engineered foods.

Critics say that the Lenape potato presages the problems that biotechnology will create both in the food supply and, eventually, in the environment. Advocates of genetic engineering, however, claim that much has been learned since the Lenape fiasco and that regulations are in place to prevent any recurrence.

The issue becomes relevant because FDA officials are now equating genetic engineering with plant breeding and, as a result, have ruled that most biotech foods do not need any special labeling. They argue that seedless grapes, for instance, are not labeled as a product of plant breeding so why should some super tomato be stigmatized with a biotechnology tag?


“Bioengineering is just another technique of plant breeding,” said Eric Flamm, PhD., with FDA’s Office of Biotechnology in Washington. “Any food, any produce you eat has been engineered by one breeding technique or another. There are no natural foods that have not been modified by genetic means. In other words, a wild tomato looks different from one grown for commercial use. And we don’t require labels for all the different breeding techniques that go into foods.”

Charles Benbrook, a food/agriculture consultant currently working with the state’s Environmental Protection Agency on pesticide policy, said, however, that the changes forthcoming from biotechnology will dwarf plant breeding.

“Conventional plant breeding can markedly change the vitamin, nutrient and flavor content of fruit and vegetables,” he said. “But biotechnology is going to be able to do that much more dramatically.” Still, Benbrook believes that there is “persuasive technology and scientific arguments that support” FDA’s regulatory approach. He calls the prospect of a biotechnology label on produce or other foods a “threatening scarlet letter.”


Others disagree.

“When you buy processed foods the ingredients are always on the label and they are not labeled just because they may be hazardous,” said Rebecca Goldburg, senior scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund in New York. “People have all sorts of reasons to know what is in their food. And many of the reasons have to do with religious or ethical beliefs.”

The only biotech foods that will require labeling are those that include genes from plants, such as peanuts, which may trigger an allergic reaction in some people. Extensive reviews must also be conducted before a company could market a product that contained a “new substance” in food.

The first genetically engineered food to appear at the produce counter is likely to be the Flavr Savr tomato, engineered by Calgene, Inc., at an estimated research cost of $20 million. The tomato’s primary attribute is the presence of a gene that retards rotting. As such, the fruit can be picked ripe and shipped without damage.

“The Flavr Savr will be a better-tasting tomato than the supermarkets carry most of the year,” said Dan Wagster, Calgene’s chief financial officer. “How we price it has yet to be determined but consumers will have more value than ever before.”

The Davis, CA.-based company, which will market its produce under a subsidiary, is more than a year from bringing their trade-marked tomato variety to market. The delay is complicated by the fact that there remains some doubt about the safety of one of the Flavr Savr’s two genetic components.

Left unanswered in last week’s federal approval of genetically engineered food is the fate of a particular Flavr Savr gene--aminoglycoside 3-phosphotransferase II or APH--which, if consumed, could create a resistance in the body to the therapeutic effects of antibiotics such as kanamycin and neomycin.


FDA’s Flamm said the agency is still reviewing the status of APH. He said that kanamycin is a rarely used antibiotic and that neomycin is not a concern because it is used mostly as a topical agent for cuts and is not ingested. However, the Environmental Defense Fund has petitioned FDA to treat APH like a food additive and require that it undergo animal testing and other safety reviews.

“This (Calgene) process makes plants that produce an enzyme that inactivates kanamycin and other antibiotics,” said Goldburg. “People receive these antibiotics for good medical reasons.”

Calgene’s Wagster does not anticipate any problems with APH.

“We have demonstrated with safety data that the kanamycin select marker posed no health risk of any kind,” he said. “It is just another protein and when consumed is broken down in the gut like any other nutrient.”

Another critic of biotechnology, Joan Gussow, professor of nutrition and education, Teachers College, Columbia University, said the process may initially yield beneficial results but that there are still some important uncertainties.

“In a culinary sense, biotechnology may actually make something taste better because we will have things like real vanilla grown in a test tube,” she said. “And biotechnology may actually make tomatoes that are so durable they they sit around and never get old.

“But biotechnology is also being developed and promoted to make money,” she said.

Gussow claims that in order for agriculture biotechnology to be economically viable it must develop patented seeds or plants that cannot be duplicated by any other means. As a result, farmers will become dependent upon the companies that market seeds for the genetically designed crops.


“These companies want to sell (seeds or plants to growers) every year and sell as much as possible and put the special genes into as many crops as possible,” Gussow said. “It is dangerous and is now in the hands of people who have not shown much ecological wisdom or concern.”

Similar environmental concerns were expressed by Wes Jackson, founder and president of the Land Institute in Salina, KA.

“I want to know what the assumptions are of the biotech people that allows them to believe that an ozone hole equivalent isn’t in the cards in the aftermath of all this genetic manipulation,” he said. “These guys are operating as if we have repealed Murphy’s law and I don’t believe we have repealed it.”