2000s Archive

Friend or Foe?

Originally Published September 2000
Through genetic engineering plant biologist Roger Beachy is growing a whole new kind of crop. Is he messing with Mother nature or is he helping to feed the world?

Long before I began writing about food, I lived in a rural corner of Pennsylvania and grew up seeing farmers selling out to developers. Even at an early age, I understood why they gave up. Farming was a tough way to make a living. And even as I knew by heart, and still do, the smell of a ripe tomato on a hot August day, or the feel of cornstalks on my bare legs during games of hide-and-seek, I’ve always found the country—the real country, not the one that city dwellers drive to on weekends— filled with people who’ve been battered by its demands. I am not automatically opposed to something that might make farmers’ lives easier.

So when news stories started appearing about a little-known technology called genetic engineering, and we discovered, seemingly overnight, that some 60 percent of our processed foods contain genetically engineered ingredients, I didn’t know what to think. In food circles it is taken for granted that one would oppose genetic engineering. Chefs like Alice Waters, who have fought hard to use locally grown produce in their restaurants, argue that tampering with our crops is dangerous and shortsighted.

Other opponents of the techniques have become more visible in the past two years, on occasion breaking into laboratories and ripping out plants. Existing regulations, they say, are inadequate to protect people and plants from the potentially harmful consequences of this new science. Even those who haven’t assaulted the genetically modified flora find the idea of designing plants to suit human needs godlike, aggressive, or just frightening. But most of us have no idea what genetic engineering means.

Unfortunately, there are no simple answers to the many questions I have: Are the scare stories true? Will genetically modified crops really lead to the extermination of the monarch butterfly? Did rats really become sick when they ate genetically engineered potatoes?

In search of answers, which I’ll be presenting in a series of stories for Gourmet, I’ll be interviewing farmers, both organic and “traditional,” as well as food companies and passionate opponents of genetic modification. But first I needed to know how this technique actually worked, and I needed someone to give me a rationale for using it. I needed a scientist.

I quickly found myself concentrating on Dr. Roger Beachy, who not only had pioneered the technology of genetically engineering plants but considers ignoring its benefits morally wrong. While there are others like him, as director of the new Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, which is being developed with initial funding of $146 million, he is particularly influential.

Besides, Beachy actually grew up on a farm. A fit-looking man in his mid-fifties, he spent his childhood going to 4-H meetings, raising animals, and planting gardens, first on a farm in Ohio and later in Indiana.

Fifteen years ago, Beachy made history. He was on the team that developed the first genetically engineered food crop. They injected a tomato plant with genes that gave it the capacity to fight off the tomato mosaic virus, much like immunization. Since then, there have been rapid advances in the technology and quick (some say too quick) implementation of new techniques in farming crops like soy, corn, and cotton. As many as half of these crops in the United States are now planted using seeds that have been altered to give them genetic traits that make them easier to grow.

This was a big moment in agriculture, one that was expected to change the world. But then politics—and the opinions of both ordinary and celebrated citizens worldwide—intervened. Many large companies, even while insisting that the foods so many people have rejected are safe, have decided not to use any ingredients from so-called GM crops in some of their best-known brands. McDonald’s won’t use GM potatoes for its french fries (but will use modified oil for cooking); Frito Lay won’t put altered corn in its corn chips (but its parent company, Pepsi-Cola, uses syrup made with GM corn in its soft drinks).

This posturing perplexes Beachy. Virtually none of our food as we know it came from Mother Nature without some intervention by man, he says. What really stumps him is Seagram’s decision not to use genetically modified corn for its whiskey. “Can you imagine a guy at a bar ordering a 7 and 7, and saying, ‘But not with genetically modified corn’?” he asks, with a laugh.

As irrationally as these companies seem to be behaving, I can understand their dilemma. Their stand, simultaneously for and against the technology, reflects the confusion that consumers feel.

“Talk about the tomato,” Beachy says. Through manipulation by man over hundreds of years, the tomato, he says, has evolved from a plant riddled with a toxin called tomatine into the essential ingredient in our pasta sauces and salsas. And the plump yellow corn we eat today is nothing like its ancestor, teosinte, which has small dark kernels that fall easily from the cob. Nearly everything we eat, from broccoli and apples to wheat and corn, is as different from the original as an Internet mogul is from Cro-Magnon man.

Beachy says he’s driven to discover “what makes plants get sick,” an impulse encouraged by his farm childhood: “When you see an insect larva chewing up a leaf, you ask a lot of questions.” His father eventually left agriculture to become a Mennonite minister, and Beachy himself never wanted to be a farmer. Influenced by a few good teachers, he studied biology at Goshen College, took his doctorate at Michigan State University, and did postdoctoral work at Cornell University. He focused on how viruses affect plants, he says, in part because viruses are genetically simpler than other disease-causing agents. It seemed possible to understand their mechanics.

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