Introduced in 1994, it was the first genetically engineered crop to be sold commercially. It featured not only an annoyingly purposeful misspelling in its name but the ability to stay firm through shipping. Though well received at first, disappointment set in when the flavor part implied in the name was lacking -- the tomato tasted like all its tasteless cousins that had been conventionally hybridized to ripen to a uniform red. We now know that that hybridization also turns off the gene that gives tomatoes flavor. In any case, the Flavr Savr proved unprofitable because of “high production and distribution costs,” according to an article in the University of California’s journal California Agriculture, and it disappeared from grocery shelves.
Above, a tomato breeder displays varieties grown at the Monsanto Co. facility in Woodland, Calif. (Noah Berger / Bloomberg)
Got corn? Unless it says otherwise, chances are that you’re eating (or drinking) a genetically engineered product. About 90% of the corn grown in this country is genetically engineered, often to withstand spraying with the herbicide popularly known by the trade name Roundup. This isn’t just about the ears of corn you shuck; Americans consume an extraordinary amount of corn products, including corn oil and high-fructose corn syrup. Now that Roundup-resistant weeds have emerged and are proving difficult to fend off, Dow AgroSciences is seeking federal approval for a new bioengineered corn that can survive spraying with a different herbicide. The FDA and EPA shouldn’t go for it; creating products that have to withstand ever more powerful pesticides isn’t what I’d call a sustainable agriculture plan. Studies have raised serious environmental questions about Roundup-ready crops. The heavy use of a single herbicide has resulted in the prevalence of weeds that are resistant to that herbicide; in addition, the loss of milkweed from spraying has been linked to dramatic drops in the monarch butterfly population throughout the Midwest.
Above, Renee Lafitte, a research fellow at DuPont Pioneer, in one of the various corn plots where the biotech company conducts research to develop drought-tolerant corn. (Los Angeles Times )
The most commonly bioengineered food crop, about 95% of soybeans have been genetically modified in the laboratory, often, as with corn, to be Roundup ready, or able to withstand the herbicide glyphosate. This isn’t just about tofu; many processed foods contain soy, perhaps most commonly as the emulsifier lecithin (one of the 10 most common ingredients in processed foods) but also in the form of soybean oil and soy sauce.
Above, a farmer holds Monsanto’s Roundup-ready soybean seeds at his family farm in Bunceton, Mo. (Dan Gill / Associated Press)
Few fruits are genetically modified, but a major exception is the Hawaiian papaya, and for a very specific reason. The state’s papaya crop was threatened by papaya ringspot virus until a papaya was produced that’s resistant to the virus. The technology is credited with saving the state’s papaya industry, according to the Cornell University News Service, but other papaya-growing countries have been uninterested in following suit.
Above, a Chimayo at the Beach’s infusion jar of pineapple, watermelon and papaya is drenched with tequila and triple sec. (Los Angeles Times)
Another bioengineered fruit is trying to make its way to the grocery shelves, but first it will have to overcome the objections of the apple industry, which says the product would harm the reputation of apples as whole. The Arctic Apple would resist browning when cut; it also wouldn’t show minor bruising when whole on the shelf.
Above, apples travel toward a machine that analyzes size, color and shape as they are sorted on the packing line in Michigan. (Daniel Acker / Bloomberg)
AquaBounty Technologies has not yet received FDA approval for its genetically engineered salmon, which feature a growth hormone gene from another kind of fish plus an antifreeze gene from a third so that it will grow much faster. This is one that The Times’ editorial board has called for rejecting, at least until considerably more research has been done. Scientists have raised concerns about whether adequate studies were done -- especially the lack of data over what would happen in the wild if the fish escaped from the tanks inland where the company plans to raise them. To avoid interbreeding, all the fish would theoretically be both female and sterile. But the process doesn’t work for all fish; a certain percentage would be able to breed. Another concern is whether all future operations for raising the salmon would be as careful as the one being outlined for FDA approval.
Above, AquaBounty’s genetically modified salmon, rear, is shown with an unmodified salmon of the same age. (AquaBounty Technologies / Associated Press)