Northeast Region SARE Program
University of Vermont
Burlington, VT 05405
Playing God in the Garden
Today I planted something new in my vegetable garden -- something very
new, as a matter of fact. It's a potato called the New Leaf Superior,
which has been genetically engineered -- by Monsanto, the chemical giant
recently turned "life sciences" giant -- to produce its own insecticide.
This it can do in every cell of every leaf, stem, flower, root and
(here's the creepy part) spud. The scourge of potatoes has always been
the Colorado potato beetle, a handsome and voracious insect that can
pick a plant clean of its leaves virtually overnight. Any Colorado
potato beetle that takes so much as a nibble of my New Leafs will
supposedly keel over and die, its digestive tract pulped, in effect, by
the bacterial toxin manufactured in the leaves of these otherwise ordina
ry Superiors. (Superiors are the thin-skinned white spuds sold fresh in
the supermarket.) You're probably wondering if I plan to eat these
potatoes, or serve them to my family. That's still up in the air; it's
only the first week of May, and harvest is a few months off.
Michael Pollan, the author of "Second Nature," is a contributing writer
for The New York Times Magazine. He is at work on a book about the
relationship between plants and people.
Certainly my New Leafs are aptly named. They're part of a new class of
crop plants that is rapidly changing the American food chain. This year,
the fourth year that genetically altered seed has been on the market,
some 45 million acres of American farmland have been planted with
biotech crops, most of it corn, soybeans, cotton and potatoes that have
been engineered to either produce their own pesticides or withstand
herbicides. Though Americans have already begun to eat genetically
engineered potatoes, corn and soybeans, industry research confirms what
my own informal surveys suggest: hardly any of us knows it. The reason
is not hard to find. The biotech industry, with the concurrence of the
Food and Drug Administration, has decided we don't need to know it, so
biotech foods carry no identifying labels. In a dazzling feat of
positioning, the industry has succeeded in depicting these plants
simultaneously as the linchpins of a biological revolution -- part of a
"new agricultural paradigm" that will make farming more sustainable,
feed the world and improve health and nutrition -- and, oddly enough, as
the same old stuff, at least so far as those of us at the eating end of
the food chain should be concerned.
This convenient version of reality has been roundly rejected by both
consumers and farmers across the Atlantic. Last summer, biotech food
emerged as the most explosive environmental issue in Europe. Protesters
have destroyed dozens of field trials of the very same "frankenplants"
(as they are sometimes called) that we Americans are already serving for
dinner, and throughout Europe the public has demanded that biotech food
be labeled in the market.
By growing my own transgenic crop -- and talking with scientists and
farmers involved with biotech -- I hoped to discover which of us was
crazy. Are the Europeans overreacting, or is it possible that we've been
underreacting to genetically engineered food?
fter digging two shallow trenches in my garden and lining them with
compost, I untied the purple mesh bag of seed potatoes that Monsanto had
sent and opened up the Grower Guide tied around its neck. (Potatoes, you
may recall from kindergarten experiments, are grown not from seed but
from the eyes of other potatoes.) The guide put me in mind not so much
of planting potatoes as booting up a new software release. By "opening
and using this product," the card stated, I was now "licensed" to grow
these potatoes, but only for a single generation; the crop I would water
and tend and harvest was mine, yet also not mine. That is, the potatoes
I will harvest come August are mine to eat or sell, but their genes
remain the intellectual property of Monsanto, protected under numerous
United States patents, including Nos. 5,196,525, 5,164,316, 5,322,938
and 5,352,605. Were I to save even one of them to plant next year
--something I've routinely done with potatoes in the past -- I would be
breaking Federal law. The small print in the Grower Guide also brought
the news that my potato plants were themselves a pesticide, registered
with the Environmental Protection Agency.
>From the Laboratory
To the Dinner Table:
Growing a potato smart enough to vanquish its own pest enemies starts
with sections of potato stem, into which scientists essentially
"smuggle" the Bt gene. Once the stem bits have put down roots, they're
ready to plant, and it will be only a matter of months before America's
favorite vegetable is ready for eating.
If proof were needed that the intricate industrial food chain that
begins with seeds and ends on our dinner plates is in the throes of
profound change, the small print that accompanied my New Leaf will do.
That food chain has been unrivaled for its productivity -- on average, a
single American farmer today grows enough food each year to feed 100
people. But this accomplishment has come at a price. The modern
industrial farmer cannot achieve such yields without enormous amounts of
chemical fertilizer, pesticide, machinery and fuel, a set of
capital-intensive inputs, as they're called, that saddle the farmer with
debt, threaten his health, erode his soil and destroy its fertility,
pollute the ground water and compromise the safety of the food we eat.
We've heard all this before, of course, but usually from
environmentalists and organic farmers; what is new is to hear the same
critique from conventional farmers, government officials and even many
agribusiness corporations, all of whom now acknowledge that our food
chain stands in need of reform. Sounding more like Wendell Berry than
the agribusiness giant it is, Monsanto declared in its most recent
annual report that "current agricultural technology is not sustainable."
What is supposed to rescue the American food chain is biotechnology --
the replacement of expensive and toxic chemical inputs with expensive
but apparently benign genetic information: crops that, like my New
Leafs, can protect themselves from insects and disease without being
sprayed with pesticides. With the advent of biotechnology, agriculture
is entering the information age, and more than any other company,
Monsanto is positioning itself to become its Microsoft, supplying the
proprietary "operating systems" -- the metaphor is theirs -- to run this
new generation of plants.
There is, of course, a second food chain in America: organic
agriculture. And while it is still only a fraction of the size of the
conventional food chain, it has been growing in leaps and bounds -- in
large part because of concerns over the safety of conventional
agriculture. Organic farmers have been among biotechnology's fiercest
critics, regarding crops like my New Leafs as inimical to their
principles and, potentially, a threat to their survival. That's because
Bt, the bacterial toxin produced in my New Leafs (and in many other
biotech plants) happens to be the same insecticide organic growers have
relied on for decades. Instead of being flattered by the imitation,
however, organic farmers are up in arms: the widespread use of Bt in
biotech crops is likely to lead to insect resistance, thus robbing
organic growers of one of their most critical tools; that is, Monsanto's
version of sustainable agriculture may threaten precisely those farmers
who pioneered sustainable farming.
After several days of drenching rain, the sun appeared on May 15, and so
did my New Leafs. A dozen deep-green shoots pushed up out of the soil
and commenced to grow -- faster and more robustly than any of the other
potatoes in my garden. Apart from their vigor, though, my New Leafs
looked perfectly normal. And yet as I watched them multiply their
lustrous dark-green leaves those first few days, eagerly awaiting the
arrival of the first doomed beetle, I couldn't help thinking of them as
existentially different from the rest of my plants.
With the advent of biotechnology, agriculture is entering the
information age, and more than any other company, Monsanto is
positioning itself to become its Microsoft, supplying the proprietary
'operating systems' -- the metaphor is theirs -- to run this new
generation of plants.
All domesticated plants are in some sense artificial -- living archives
of both cultural and natural information that we in some sense "design."
A given type of potato reflects the values we've bred into it -- one
that has been selected to yield long, handsome french fries or
unblemished round potato chips is the expression of a national food
chain that likes its potatoes highly processed. At the same time, some
of the more delicate European fingerlings I'm growing alongside my New
Leafs imply an economy of small market growers and a taste for eating
potatoes fresh. Yet all these qualities already existed in the potato,
somewhere within the range of genetic possibilities presented by Solanum
tuberosum. Since distant species in nature cannot be crossed, the bree
der's art has always run up against a natural limit of what a potato is
willing, or able, to do. Nature, in effect, has exercised a kind of veto
on what culture can do with a potato.
My New Leafs are different. Although Monsanto likes to depict
biotechnology as just another in an ancient line of human modifications
of nature going back to fermentation, in fact genetic engineering
overthrows the old rules governing the relationship of nature and
culture in a plant. For the first time, breeders can bring qualities
from anywhere in nature into the genome of a plant -- from flounders
(frost tolerance), from viruses (disease resistance) and, in the case of
my potatoes, from Bacillus thuringiensis, the soil bacterium that
produces the organic insecticide known as Bt. The introduction into a
plant of genes transported not only across species but whole phyla means
that the wall of that plant's essential identity -- its irreducible
wildness, you might say -- has been breached.
But what is perhaps most astonishing about the New Leafs coming up in my
garden is the human intelligence that the inclusion of the Bt gene
represents. In the past, that intelligence resided outside the plant, in
the mind of the organic farmers who deployed Bt (in the form of a spray)
to manipulate the ecological relationship of certain insects and a
certain bacterium as a way to foil those insects. The irony about the
New Leafs is that the cultural information they encode happens to be
knowledge that resides in the heads of the very sort of people -- that
is, organic growers -- who most distrust high technology.
One way to look at biotechnology is that it allows a larger portion of
human intelligence to be incorporated into the plant itself. In this
sense, my New Leafs are just plain smarter than the rest of my potatoes.
The others will depend on my knowledge and experience when the Colorado
potato beetles strike; the New Leafs, knowing what I know about bugs and
Bt, will take care of themselves. So while my biotech plants might seem
like alien beings, that's not quite right. They're more like us than
like other plants because there's more of us in them.
o find out how my potatoes got that way, I traveled to suburban St.
Louis in early June. My New Leafs are clones of clones of plants that
were first engineered seven years ago in Monsanto's $150 million
research facility, a long, low-slung brick building on the banks of the
Missouri that would look like any other corporate complex were it not
for the 26 greenhouses that crown its roof like shimmering crenellations
Dave Stark, a molecular biologist and co-director of Naturemark,
Monsanto's potato subsidiary, escorted me through the clean rooms where
potatoes are genetically engineered. Technicians sat at lab benches
before petri dishes in which fingernail-size sections of potato stem had
been placed in a nutrient mixture. To this the technicians added a
solution of agrobacterium, a disease bacterium whose modus operandi is
to break into a plant cell's nucleus and insert some of its own DNA.
Essentially, scientists smuggle the Bt gene into the agrobacterium's
payload, and then the bacterium splices it into the potato's DNA. The
technicians also add a "marker" gene, a kind of universal product code
that allows Monsanto to identify its plants after they leave the lab.
A few days later, once the slips of potato stem have put down roots,
they're moved to the potato greenhouse up on the roof. Here, Glenda
DeBrecht, a horticulturist, invited me to don latex gloves and help her
transplant pinky-size plantlets from their petri dish to small pots. The
whole operation is performed thousands of times, largely because there
is so much uncertainty about the outcome. There's no way of telling
where in the genome the new DNA will land, and if it winds up in the
wrong place, the new gene won't be expressed (or it will be poorly
expressed) or the plant may be a freak. I was struck by how the
technology could at once be astoundingly sophisticated and yet also a
shot in the genetic dark.
"There's still a lot we don't understand about gene expression," Stark
acknowledged. A great many factors influence whether, or to what extent,
a new gene will do what it's supposed to, including the environment. In
one early German experiment, scientists succeeded in splicing the gene
for redness into petunias. All went as planned until the weather turned
hot and an entire field of red petunias suddenly and inexplicably lost
their pigment. The process didn't seem nearly as simple as Monsanto's
cherished software metaphor would suggest.
When I got home from St. Louis, I phoned Richard Lewontin, the Harvard
geneticist, to ask him what he thought of the software metaphor. "From
an intellectual-property standpoint, it's exactly right," he said. "But
it's a bad one in terms of biology. It implies you feed a program into a
machine and get predictable results. But the genome is very noisy. If my
computer made as many mistakes as an organism does" -- in interpreting
its DNA, he meant -- "I'd throw it out."
I asked him for a better metaphor. "An ecosystem," he offered. "You can
always intervene and change something in it, but there's no way of
knowing what all the downstream effects will be or how it might affect
the environment. We have such a miserably poor understanding of how the
organism develops from its DNA that I would be surprised if we don't get
one rude shock after another."
y own crop was thriving when I got home from St. Louis; the New Leafs
were as big as bushes, crowned with slender flower stalks. Potato
flowers are actually quite pretty, at least by vegetable standards --
five-petaled pink stars with yellow centers that give off a faint rose
perfume. One sultry afternoon I watched the bumblebees making their lazy
rounds of my potato blossoms, thoughtlessly powdering their thighs with
yellow pollen grains before lumbering off to appointments with other
blossoms, others species.
Two views of the same problem: The bane of the American potato is either
the Colorado potato beetle or monoculture, depending on whose soil
you're standing on.
Uncertainty is the theme that unifies much of the criticism leveled
against biotech agriculture by scientists and environmentalists. By
planting millions of acres of genetically altered plants, we have
introduced something novel into the environment and the food chain, the
consequences of which are not -- and at this point, cannot be --
completely understood. One of the uncertainties has to do with those
grains of pollen bumblebees are carting off from my potatoes. That
pollen contains Bt genes that may wind up in some other, related plant,
possibly conferring a new evolutionary advantage on that species. "Gene
flow," the scientific term for this phenomenon, occurs only between
closely related species, and since the potato evolved in South America,
the chances are slim that my Bt potato genes will escape into the wilds
of Connecticut. (It's interesting to note that while biotechnology
depends for its power on the ability to move genes freely among species
and even phyla, its environmental safety depends on the very opposite
phenomenon: on the integrity of species in nature and their rejection of
foreign genetic material.)
Yet what happens if and when Peruvian farmers plant Bt potatoes? Or when
I plant a biotech crop that does have local relatives? A study reported
in Nature last month found that plant traits introduced by genetic
engineering were more likely to escape into the wild than the same
traits introduced conventionally.
Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Technology Assessment in
Washington, told me he believes such escapes are inevitable. "Biological
pollution will be the environmental nightmare of the 21st century," he
said when I reached him by phone. "This is not like chemical pollution
-- an oil spill -- that eventually disperses. Biological pollution is an
entirely different model, more like a disease. Is Monsanto going to be
held legally responsible when one of its transgenes creates a superweed
or resistant insect?"
Kimbrell maintains that because our pollution laws were written before
the advent of biotechnology, the new industry is being regulated under
an ill-fitting regime designed for the chemical age. Congress has so far
passed no environmental law dealing specifically with biotech. Monsanto,
for its part, claims that it has thoroughly examined all the potential
environmental and health risks of its biotech plants, and points out
that three regulatory agencies -- the U.S.D.A., the E.P.A. and the
F.D.A. -- have signed off on its products. Speaking of the New Leaf,
Dave Stark told me, "This is the most intensively studied potato in
Significant uncertainties remain, however. Take the case of insect
resistance to Bt, a potential form of "biological pollution" that could
end the effectiveness of one of the safest insecticides we have -- and
cripple the organic farmers who depend on it. The theory, which is now
accepted by most entomologists, is that Bt crops will add so much of the
toxin to the environment that insects will develop resistance to it.
Until now, resistance hasn't been a worry because the Bt sprays break
down quickly in sunlight and organic farmers use them only sparingly.
Resistance is essentially a form of co-evolution that seems to occur
only when a given pest population is threatened with extinction; under
that pressure, natural selection favors whatever chance mutations will
allow the species to change and survive.
Working with the E.P.A., Monsanto has developed a "resistance-management
plan" to postpone that eventuality. Under the plan, farmers who plant Bt
crops must leave a certain portion of their land in non-Bt crops to
create "refuges" for the targeted insects. The goal is to prevent the
first Bt-resistant Colorado potato beetle from mating with a second
resistant bug, unleashing a new race of superbeetles. The theory is that
when a Bt-resistant bug does show up, it can be induced to mate with a
susceptible bug from the refuge, thus diluting the new gene for
But a lot has to go right for Mr. Wrong to meet Miss Right. No one is
sure how big the refuges need to be, where they should be situated or
whether the farmers will cooperate (creating havens for a detested pest
is counter-intuitive, after all), not to mention the bugs. In the case
of potatoes, the E.P.A. has made the plan voluntary and lets the
companies themselves implement it; there are no E.P.A. enforcement
mechanisms. Which is why most of the organic farmers I spoke to
dismissed the regulatory scheme as window dressing.
Monsanto executives offer two basic responses to criticism of their Bt
crops. The first is that their voluntary resistance-management plans
will work, though the company's definition of success will come as small
consolation to an organic farmer: Monsanto scientists told me that if
all goes well, resistance can be postponed for 30 years. (Some
scientists believe it will come in three to five years.) The second
response is more troubling. In St. Louis, I met with Jerry Hjelle,
Monsanto's vice president for regulatory affairs. Hjelle told me that
resistance should not unduly concern us since "there are a thousand
other Bt's out there" -- other insecticidal proteins. "We can handle
this problem with new products," he said. "The critics don't know what
we have in the pipeline."
And then Hjelle uttered two words that I thought had been expunged from
the corporate vocabulary a long time ago: "Trust us."
rust" is a key to the success of biotechnology in the marketplace, and
while I was in St. Louis, I asked Hjelle and several of his colleagues
why they thought the Europeans were resisting biotech food. Austria,
Luxembourg and Norway, risking trade war with the United States, have
refused to accept imports of genetically altered crops. Activists in
England have been staging sit-ins and "decontaminations" in biotech test
fields. A group of French farmers broke into a warehouse and ruined a
shipment of biotech corn seed by urinating on it. The Prince of Wales,
who is an ardent organic gardener, waded into the biotech debate last
June, vowing in a column in The Daily Telegraph that he would never eat,
or serve to his guests, the fruits of a technology that "takes mankind
into realms that belong to God and to God alone."
Monoculture is probably the single most powerful simplification of
modern agriculture. But monoculture is poorly fitted to the way nature
seems to work. Very simply, a vast field of identical plants will be
exquisitely vulnerable to insects, weeds and disease.
Monsanto executives are quick to point out that mad cow disease has made
Europeans extremely sensitive about the safety of their food chain and
has undermined confidence in their regulators. "They don't have a
trusted agency like the F.D.A. looking after the safety of their food
supply," said Phil Angell, Monsanto's director of corporate
communications. Over the summer, Angell was dispatched repeatedly to
Europe to put out the P.R. fires; some at Monsanto worry these could
spread to the United States.
I checked with the F.D.A. to find out exactly what had been done to
insure the safety of this potato. I was mystified by the fact that the
Bt toxin was not being treated as a "food additive" subject to labeling,
even though the new protein is expressed in the potato itself. The label
on a bag of biotech potatoes in the supermarket will tell a consumer all
about the nutrients they contain, even the trace amounts of copper. Yet
it is silent not only about the fact that those potatoes are the product
of genetic engineering but also about their containing an insecticide.
At the F.D.A., I was referred to James Maryanski, who oversees biotech
food at the agency. I began by asking him why the F.D.A. didn't consider
Bt a food additive. Under F.D.A. law, any novel substance added to a
food must -- unless it is "generally regarded as safe" ("GRAS," in
F.D.A. parlance) -- be thoroughly tested and if it changes the product
in any way, must be labeled.
"That's easy," Maryanski said. "Bt is a pesticide, so it's exempt" from
F.D.A. regulation. That is, even though a Bt potato is plainly a food,
for the purposes of Federal regulation it is not a food but a pesticide
and therefore falls under the jurisdiction of the E.P.A.
Yet even in the case of those biotech crops over which the F.D.A. does
have jurisdiction, I learned that F.D.A. regulation of biotech food has
been largely voluntary since 1992, when Vice President Dan Quayle issued
regulatory guidelines for the industry as part of the Bush
Administration's campaign for "regulatory relief." Under the guidelines,
new proteins engineered into foods are regarded as additives (unless
they're pesticides), but as Maryanski explained, "the determination
whether a new protein is GRAS can be made by the company." Companies
with a new biotech food decide for themselves whether they need to
consult with the F.D.A. by following a series of "decision trees" that
pose yes or no questions like this one: "Does ... the introduced protein
raise any safety concern?"
Since my Bt potatoes were being regulated as a pesticide by the E.P.A.
rather than as a food by the F.D.A., I wondered if the safety standards
are the same. "Not exactly," Maryanski explained. The F.D.A. requires "a
reasonable certainty of no harm" in a food additive, a standard most
pesticides could not meet. After all, "pesticides are toxic to
something," Maryanski pointed out, so the E.P.A. instead establishes
human "tolerances" for each chemical and then subjects it to a
hen I called the E.P.A. and asked if the agency had tested my Bt
potatoes for safety as a human food, the answer was ... not exactly. It
seems the E.P.A. works from the assumption that if the original potato
is safe and the Bt protein added to it is safe, then the whole New Leaf
package is presumed to be safe. Some geneticists believe this reasoning
is flawed, contending that the process of genetic engineering itself may
cause subtle, as yet unrecognized changes in a food.
State of the biotech art: New Leaf Russet Burbank mini-tubers by
Monsanto -- designed to out-Mother Nature Mother Nature.
The original Superior potato is safe, obviously enough, so that left the
Bt toxin, which was fed to mice, and they "did fine, had no side
effects," I was told. I always feel better knowing that my food has been
poison-tested by mice, though in this case there was a small catch: the
mice weren't actually eating the potatoes, not even an extract from the
potatoes, but rather straight Bt produced in a bacterial culture.
So are my New Leafs safe to eat? Probably, assuming that a New Leaf is
nothing more than the sum of a safe potato and a safe pesticide, and
further assuming that the E.P.A.'s idea of a safe pesticide is
tantamount to a safe food. Yet I still had a question. Let us assume
that my potatoes are a pesticide -- a very safe pesticide. Every
pesticide in my garden shed -- including the Bt sprays -- carries a
lengthy warning label. The label on my bottle of Bt says, among other
things, that I should avoid inhaling the spray or getting it in an open
wound. So if my New Leaf potatoes contain an E.P.A.-registered
pesticide, why don't they carry some such label?
Maryanski had the answer. At least for the purposes of labeling, my New
Leafs have morphed yet again, back into a food: the Food, Drug and
Cosmetic Act gives the F.D.A. sole jurisdiction over the labeling of
plant foods, and the F.D.A. has ruled that biotech foods need be labeled
only if they contain known allergens or have otherwise been "materially"
But isn't turning a potato into a pesticide a material change?
It doesn't matter. The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act specifically bars the
F.D.A. from including any information about pesticides on its food
I thought about Maryanski's candid and wondrous explanations the next
time I met Phil Angell, who again cited the critical role of the F.D.A.
in assuring Americans that biotech food is safe. But this time he went
even further. "Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of
biotech food," he said. "Our interest is in selling as much of it as
possible. Assuring its safety is the F.D.A.'s job."
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