2000s Archive

Friend or Foe?

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And although it may surprise some opponents of genetic engineering, they have a few goals in common with Beachy. Much of his career has focused on moving toward sustainable food production, on reducing the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fumigants, and on halting deforestation. For the earth to heal from years of chemical damage, he says, we must accept plants genetically engineered to resist weeds and pests.

Until recently, plants were altered by mixing the male of one plant with the female of another to achieve traits other than those that might have occurred through natural pollination. For centuries, cross-breeding meant a human hand picking pollen and transferring it to another plant. In the past few decades, technology has driven the process. Radiation and chemicals have been used to create mutations that might yield desirable traits. Genetic engineering takes the technique to a whole new level, allowing the specific selection of a gene, or a set of genes, rather than the wholesale mixing of two parents. In traditional breeding, genetic modification can take from seven to 30 years, whereas with direct gene transfer, results are sometimes attained in as little as a year or two. And, rather than just mixing the genes, of, say, a grapefruit with those of an orange, it is now possible to breed some of the genes from a fish with the genes of a tomato.

That’s probably the heart of the issue in genetic modification, and the heart of the difference in perspective between people like Beachy and me and you. When I ask him how he feels about using the genes of animals in plants, he sort of shrugs, so I push for an explanation. “No one is proposing using animal genes in food right now,” he says. “The public is just too upset by that idea.” When I ask whether they have a reason to be upset, he shrugs again. Scientists, he says, consider a gene a gene, regardless of whether it’s in a fish or a tomato. A gene from a flounder that helps an organism withstand chilling is not seen as a flounder gene, but as an anti-chill gene; so when it goes into a tomato, scientists don’t think, Wow, look at that tomato with the soul of a flounder. To them, genes are simply combinations of chemicals that are similar in all living organisms, be they worms or people (see “Breaking the Code,” below).

A scientist could easily become absorbed in the possibilities that gene transfer presents, and in the elegance of the science itself. Yet unlike many of his peers, who regard those who do applied research as second-class citizens, Beachy strives to do work that finds a life beyond the scientific paper. And he’s impressed by the gains so far. In the United States between 1996 and 1998, he says, the use of insecticide on cotton crops declined by about a million pounds because the seed had been altered to make it resistant to pests. “Why would you not adopt a technology that saves on the environmental load?” he asks.

Even so, many organic farmers and environmentalists counter that Beachy and his gang of scientists are the devil’s own, out to remake the food supply for companies driven only by profit. Beachy, however, seems stunned by the opposition. “When people came out and said that this might not be safe—something we considered safe&,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “We expected that organic farmers would love it.” Corporations could have done a better job explaining the changes, he says. But he doesn’t absolve himself, or his peers. Scientists, he says, were “pretty naive” in pursuing their work without considering how the public would view changes in food, with which we all have a personal relationship. “We were quiet, and complacent about it.”

Educating people about the new science is a daunting task. Beachy and his colleagues tell me stories of people who insist they “never eat DNA,” having no awareness that every living entity contains DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), or who, when asked to define DNA, say it’s “something that scientists put in food.”

By the fall of 2001, when construction of the Danforth Center headquarters should be complete and its 15 labs fully staffed, it will be one of the largest independent facilities focusing on plant biology and its applications in sustainable agriculture, food, and nutrition. A tax credit was provided by the state of Missouri. And the biggest grants have come from the Monsanto Fund and the Danforth Foundation, which traces its beginnings to money from Ralston Purina, the food company where Donald Danforth, the center’s namesake, was once president. (Ralston Purina has no ties to the Danforth Center.) Despite the vested interests of its donors, the institution’s autonomy is crucial to Beachy, who left his job at the Scripps Research Institute to create the new center. None of the sponsors will have any claim on the work, although companies that sponsor specific research in the center can make licensing agreements to commercialize it. “I wouldn’t have taken the job if it had been funded by a single company,” says Beachy, “because then its research would have reflected only that company’s interests.”

For Beachy, the work is a crusade. His goal is to train scientists from developing countries here so they can bring the knowledge home with them. Some people feel that such an approach is forcing GM technology on other countries, yet Beachy insists that these countries are desperate for ways to stop the blights that kill their crops.

“When consumers are uninformed,” he says, “that causes changes in policy that affect the rest of the world. That’s a moral conflict.” But what about the criticism that natural diversity in South America, Asia, and Africa will be reduced by these techniques, leading to fields of monoculture (those with one crop alone), as in the U.S.? Jungles and rain forests will only be saved, he says, if the land that is currently being farmed can be made more productive.

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