Seeds of Doubt by The Sacramento Bee

A special report

Published Sunday, June 6, 2004

Following is a text-only version of this project. The whole project, complete with photos, interactive graphics and audio, can be seen at http://www.sacbee.com/biotech.

Respond to this project: biotech@sacbee.com

Send a letter to the editor: viewpoints@sacbee.com


Intro | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Credits

Intro

From the editor

Much has been written about biotechnology's hope - to feed the hungry, to limit pesticides - and much has been written about its hazards.

The Bee spent eight months investigating this new green revolution.

What we found was propaganda where there should be probing; superficial talk where there should be deeper truths.

We hope you will find some of those truths over the next five days, when we take you from the deserts of Africa to the labs and fields of California, the Midwest and Mexico.

Rick Rodriguez, Executive Editor


Intro | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Credits

Part One: Seeds of Doubt

Mali's people reap no reward from cloned wild-rice gene

By Tom Knudson -- Bee Staff Writer
Published Sunday, June 6, 2004 -- First of five parts

KEREDJI MOLLA, MALI -- Overhead, the sun hangs like a heat lamp, searing an African landscape the color of toast. Patches of sandy soil that yielded green shoots of millet and wild rice last fall now swirl with dust.

Near a well ringed by thirsty livestock, a crowd of men and boys has gathered. There is time to talk. It's been a tough year.

“Many here have died from hunger, infections and malaria,” says Mihdi Ag Mohamed, a herder who lives in this ramshackle settlement of mud and grass huts west of the fabled city of Timbuktu. “Poverty is extreme.”

In June 1996, the University of California, Davis, began an unprecedented effort to help the West African nation of Mali, using the promising and controversial new tool of agricultural biotechnology.

With money earned cloning and patenting a gene from a hardy species of wild rice native to Mali, UC Davis would give something back - first, scholarships for Mali students and later, disease-resistant rice to help feed the impoverished country. There was talk of future health clinics and conservation programs, even using the gene to battle hunger and poverty in other corners of the world.

Eight years later, no help whatsoever has arrived. The Genetic Resources Recognition Fund that UC Davis officials hoped would turn university patents and corporate profit into a model of social responsibility has a balance of zero.

In the hopes that inspired the effort - and the missteps that stifled it - lies a drama larger than the sum of its parts, one that shows both the promise and pitfalls of the largest technological leap in American agriculture since the tractor: biotechnology.

Born a generation ago, partly in California laboratories and farm fields, biotechnology promised a banquet of benefits: It would bring more choice to consumers, pose no environmental threat to organic and conventional farmers, create little or no regulatory burden for government and, most tantalizingly, help feed the world's hungry.

So far - like UC Davis' effort to aid Mali - biotechnology has not delivered.

Consumer wariness and environmental opposition have slowed its progress, of course. Government regulations are convoluted.

But other problems are home-grown. In moving from public to private ownership of genes and gene technology, universities got snarled in a patent system so complex and conflict-prone it has slowed the flow of innovations from their labs. In licensing their discoveries to industry, universities have turned over the fruits of taxpayer-funded research to private biotechnology companies, where earning a profit can eclipse the public good.

“There is enormous pressure for fast results, for blockbusters,” said Pamela Ronald, the UC Davis scientist who cloned the gene from Mali and encouraged the university to create the benefit-sharing fund. "If something doesn't yield in six months, it's out."

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They keep both feet planted

They both love the outdoors and have a special interest in plants. So when a mutual friend introduced Pam Ronald and Raoul Adamchak, the couple hit it off instantly.

It mattered not at all, they say, that Adamchak is an organic farmer and Ronald is a genetic engineer. “It never came up for a split second,” Ronald said. In 1996, they got married.

In modern agricultural politics, organic farming and genetic engineering occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. In the Ronald-Adamchak household, the world is not so black and white.

Ronald is a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis. Adamchak manages the student-run organic farm on campus. Together, they're rearing two young children in a pastoral neighborhood west of Davis. Their house is sided with wooden shingles, a spacious remodeled kitchen its centerpiece.

Peek in the pantry, and the prevailing food philosophy of this family is obvious. They buy grains from an organic grower up north who harvests her crop using draft horses. Dinner on a typical weekend is tofu and brown rice purchased from the local co-op. Cabbage and garlic stir-fried, with the tofu, come from the campus organic garden.

“If you evaluate people based on what they eat, we're a very organic family,” said Adamchak, who doesn't mind spending $8 on a pound of organic ginger so that Cliff, 4 1/2, and Audrey, 3, can make Christmas cookies with their mother.

Ronald doesn't mind spending more on organics either, but says the ginger price is exorbitant. She's also been known to argue for using engineered crops in organic foods, saying that might achieve some goals of organic farming, such as reducing pesticides.

Adamchak softly deflects the notion of engineered organics by stating not his own opinion, but the position of his peers: “The organic community has been pretty strongly opposed to having biotech products in any form as part of organic agriculture.”

When they disagree professionally, they do so gently. And on one critical point, husband and wife are in complete accord: They say conventional agriculture, with its heavy reliance on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, is toxic.

- Edie Lau

 


Survival on a stalk

North of the swift-moving Niger River in Mali, the source of Ronald's cloned African gene is both prized and despised.

To commercial farmers in Mali, the jade-green species of wild rice, Oryza longistaminata, is a weed - a tenacious tangle of roots and leaves so destructive that if they find it in cultivated rice fields, they douse it with chemicals and yank it up by its roots.

To the seminomadic Bela people, who inhabit villages across the region, the grasslike wild rice that grows along irrigation ditches and in wet spots during the rainy season is a gift. It is survival on a stalk - shelter for homes, fodder for livestock and food when times are lean.

Slaves just two generations ago, the Bela are among the poorest of Mali's poor. They earn less than a dollar a day. Most are illiterate. Many are sick. The rhythm of life in a Bela village has two primary beats: food and work. You can hear it in the thwomp, thwomp of women - babies strapped to their backs, babies at their feet - pounding millet into mash. You can see it in the iron-hard muscles of men making bricks out of mud. You can smell it in the acrid smoke of trees burned into charcoal for cooking.

Survival is what counts, not scientific discovery.

When informed that university officials half a world away in California owned a part of their culture, a gene from their rice - and were licensing it to biotechnology corporations - the Bela were puzzled, even angry.

As she sat inside a grass hut weaving reeds into brooms and fans in the Bela backwater of Musawere, Fadimata Walet Alkhassane - a 40-year-old mother of two - expressed the view of many:

“For the man who took something from our rice, I only want to ask him for help so we can leave these bad conditions where we live without adequate water, garments and shoes.”

Basket of biotechnology

Helping the world's poor and hungry is a prominent part of American culture and agriculture. It is a creed that shapes U.S. foreign policy, motivates humanitarian organizations and inspires agricultural scientists and students across the country.

And it has no greater success than the “Green Revolution” - an outpouring of farming methods, crop varieties and publicly funded research that, transplanted to India and Asia in the 1960s, saved millions from starvation.

Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, was a young U.S. State Department officer in South Vietnam in 1968 when .higher-yielding Green Revolution rice began to arrive.

“It brought about a stunning transformation,” Quinn said. “People went from being marginal subsistence farmers, growing one crop a year, to growing two or even three.”

“You could see people's lives change,” he said. “There were more kids going to school. People were better clothed. ... Child mortality rates dropped.”

Worldwide, rice production jumped from 257 million tons in 1966 to 587 million tons in 1999, feeding about 700 million more people annually. That's the kind of success the biotechnology industry wants to clone. In advertisements and conferences, companies promise a future of virus-resistant sweet potatoes, vitamin A-enriched rice and other miracle crops for the world's poor.

“Worrying about starving future generations won't feed them. Food biotechnology will,” said one ad by the Monsanto Co., an international biotechnology giant, in a London newspaper in 1998.

Last year, Monsanto Vice President Robert Horsch repeated the theme in testimony on Capitol Hill: “Biotechnology will be a crucial part of expanding agricultural productivity in the 21st century. This technology can be particularly beneficial for Africa.”

Today, Monsanto points out that it and other firms are working on a basket of biotechnology products for Africa, including pest-resistant bananas, high-yielding black-eyed peas and millet immune to parasitic infection. But so far, South Africa is the only African nation with commercially grown biotechnology crops - cotton, maize and soybeans.

Some say the industry is peddling dreams. “It's so naive,” said Robert Goodman, a professor of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin. “It is at least partly a public relations exercise.”

Goodman is no biotechnology basher. He is a former director of research at Calgene, the California firm that brought the first genetically modified crop, the Flavr Savr tomato, to store shelves in 1994. And he advises crop scientists in Africa on both conventional and biotech crops.

Helping Africa's hungry, he said, “is such a complicated situation. There are multiple crops, markets and food preferences among cultures, a whole range of policy and infrastructure issues. I don't think private companies have the staying power to deal with it.”

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Cowpeas just won't cooperate

Kim Carney has never tasted black-eyed peas, but working with them in the laboratory is tough enough to give a scientist a stomachache.

A staff research associate in the University of California, Davis, Plant Transformation Facility, Carney has tried for two years to genetically engineer the little legume, with the goal of feeding hungry African people. The pea won't cooperate.

Its cells either don't take up foreign DNA, or, if they do, those cells don't grow into a new plant.

Carney isn't the first person to be thwarted this way. George Bruening, the UC Davis plant pathologist overseeing the project, figures that scientists collectively have spent the equivalent of 20 to 30 years of one person's life trying to transform the pea. For reasons probably related to their physiology, legumes are notoriously hard to engineer.

Nevertheless, one of the most abundantly grown genetically engineered crops is a legume - the soybean. That was hard, too, but numerous companies threw their efforts into it because the soybean is a hugely valuable commodity. The black-eyed pea is not.

Unlike soy, it doesn't appear in foods all over the map. The crop is most important to poor countries of western and central Africa, where it's known as the cowpea. It's a good source of protein in a place where other forms of protein are too costly or hard to come by, according to Bruening.

Here's the problem: A caterpillar called Maruca vitrata drills holes into the pods and gobbles up the precious peas. Chemical insecticides easily kill the pod-borers, but African subsistence farmers typically can't afford the chemicals, Bruening said. Hence, an attempt to engineer black-eyed peas to produce their own insecticide.

The U.S. Agency for International Development gave Bruening $400,000 to work on the pea for two years. The grant is nearly spent, with no success in sight. Unwilling to give up, the professor is scouting for more money.

Carney, who keeps modifying his lab technique in hopes of a breakthrough, figures it will be 10 years, at a minimum, to get a useful engineered pea into the ground in Africa. But he and his boss, lab manager David Tricoli, say there's satisfaction in the project because of its noble aims.

“The cowpea is very special,” Tricoli said. “We feel very good about it.”

- Edie Lau

 


Private property

Biotechnology didn't invent genetic tinkering. All farming springs from it. Corn was once a wild grass in Mexico. Generations of careful plant breeding have brought a cornucopia of choice to store shelves: sweeter onions, seedless grapes, monster melons. But biotechnology works in ways nature does not.

It shuffles genes - tiny biological units that shape life - between species. It imagines a world of frost-resistant tomatoes, drought-tolerant corn, even crops that grow medicines. But so far, most of its magic is tied to two genes, each tailored to U.S. industrial farming: One transfers resistance to the weedkiller Roundup into a crop, making farming easier; the other allows a plant to kill certain insects.

Something else sets biotechnology apart from other farming revolutions: Much of its promise is private property.

No longer do universities routinely make discoveries available, for free, to poor nations - as they did during the Green Revolution. Today, most universities typically patent them first, then license the technology to private companies. The idea is to speed discoveries to market and, as public funding declines, generate money for research.

But there's a downside. What was once owned by all - plant and animal DNA, the building blocks of life - is now the property of a few.

“Three-fourths of new biotechnology products, including those originally made possible by publicly supported research, are controlled by the private sector,” said Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation - one of the world's largest nongovernment sources of agricultural research for developing nations - in a speech last year.

Statewide, the University of California holds 125 agricultural biotechnology patents - more than any other university system. Its portfolio includes patents that could help strawberries, lettuce and other California crops resist disease and insects, reducing pesticide use.

But few of those innovations are close to commercialization, in part because of conflicts with other patent holders, mostly corporations. “The system was primed for much greater potential than what we have seen in the field,” said Gregory Graff, a research economist at UC Berkeley.

Last year, nine colleges, including UC Davis, formed an initiative to break the impasse by licensing technology more carefully and sharing more discoveries among universities. UC Davis recently was selected to be the national clearinghouse for the effort.

Some are calling for stronger measures. “The patent law did not come down with the Ten Commandments,” said Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group. “If it doesn't work, we need to rethink it.”

Unexpected turns

When UC Davis filed for a patent on the cloned disease-resistant African rice gene in 1995, it saw an opportunity for financial reward and public service. Money was expected to flow to the school from corporate coffers for research and other purposes. Ronald, for example, has received about $825,000 from Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred International for work on the rice gene in her laboratory.

UC Davis, in turn, was to sow benefits globally. To work such a miracle, the university had a world of options: It could send Ronald to Africa. It could invest in wild-rice conservation programs in Mali. It could tap school funds and bring a Mali researcher to campus. Instead, it chose to earmark corporate revenue - the money it anticipated making from licensing the cloned gene to the private sector - to set up a scholarship fund for Mali students.

The idea was to use the university's strong suit, its agricultural know-how, to improve the lives of the world's poor through rice. Rice is one of the planet's critical crops, a staple for nearly 2 billion people, many of them impoverished. But up to half of the global rice harvest is lost to disease - a loss UC Davis wanted to stem.

“This was a big scientific deal at the time,” said Gary Toenniessen, director of agricultural programs at the Rockefeller Foundation, which helped fund the work. “It turned out to be an extremely valuable gene in rice - and may be valuable in other cereals as well.”

Subsequent years were filled with unexpected turns. Monsanto and Pioneer, which signed options to license the gene, lost interest. Hope for the hungry took a detour when UC's Office of Technology Transfer, which manages the rights to use university inventions, spent three years negotiating an agreement with a nonprofit research facility serving Third World farmers - the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

Ronald was infuriated. “This drove me absolutely crazy,” she said.

“I agree with her frustrations,” said Alan Bennett, director of the technology transfer office. “It took a long time - longer than I would have liked.”

Nonetheless, Ronald remains a patent partisan. The Mali gene, known as Xa21, she says, may still one day boost crop harvests and yield dividends for the university and for developing nations. Without patents, she said, “all the profits go to the companies.”

Philanthropic failure

It's not the gene's scientific potential that has captured the interest of Anil Gupta, an Indian agricultural specialist. It is its philanthropic failure.

Founder of the Honeybee Network, which tracks grass-roots efforts to protect the world's genetic diversity, Gupta wrote a study critical of UC Davis' Genetic Resources Recognition Fund.

“I admire the university's initiative, but the means it chose were not appropriate,” Gupta said from his home in India's Gujarat province.

Among other things, his study, commissioned by the U.N. Environment Program, took issue with UC Davis for not consulting with officials in Mali, not working to conserve the wild Malian rice in its natural habitat and not helping the people who actually use it - the Bela.

At UC Davis, those familiar with the fund take a different view.

“Yes, there should be a conservation effort. Yes, there should be consultation,” said Stephen Brush, a professor of human and community development. “But that doesn't mean our efforts were misplaced.” This was a very innovative idea.

“Look at the practicalities of really getting it done,” Brush added. “We would have to go Mali. We'd have to spend time negotiating, figuring out who to talk to.”

Children at risk

Sunrise in Mali, when cream-colored light tumbles out of a pastel sky and casts long shadows across the sand, is magnificent. But by mid.morning, Mali turns malevolent. The sun lances like a knife. The wind stirs up gritty clouds of dust and sand. And the heat has no mercy: It bakes and broils, bringing village life to a standstill.

Scores of statistics evoke Mali's misery. Its economy is among the poorest on the planet. The average life span is 49. The infant mortality rate - 119 per 1,000 births - is the ninth-highest in the world.

But Mali's misfortune touches some more than others. In the desert outback north of Ségou, it is magnified in the Bela villages where statistics are more than numbers on a page. They wear a human face.

They pad along the sand in bare feet and ragged T-shirts. They scavenge for seeds. They slap mud into wood frames to make bricks. And, like 6-year-old Alhousseini Ag Intamaka, they stand in the doorway of a hut in cowhide sandals.

The U.N. Statistics Division reports that Mali has the third-highest illiteracy rate in the world. Eight million of its 12 million people can't read or write. Alhousseini is one of them.

Like most Bela children, he has never seen a school, nor is he likely to. In this isolated village of Djoringuinda, there is no school. And childhood is brief.

“It's important he stay with the family - to help gather food, to herd our goats,” said the boy's mother, Hatta Oualet Aboubaerine, in her native Tamashek language.

Among the Bela, childhood is not only short - it's risky. According to the U.N. Development Program, Mali has the highest childhood mortality rate from malaria in the world - 2,046 per 100,000 in the year 2000.

Many are buried in Bela villages. “I have 15 children but five are dead - three from malaria,” said Douna Ag Ekhamadane, chief of the Bela settlement of Fisso.

But all ages suffer. “For 18 days, I was sick. Today is my first day back,” said brick maker Mossa Ag Alamene Cisse, just recovered from malaria. Standing near his mud-splattered job site, the 36-year-old Bela man looked worn out.

Making bricks is brutal work that pays about $1 a day - a typical wage in Mali, where the U.S. Agency for International Development reports people earn an average of $250 a year. Many make less.

“Sometimes we earn only 50 cents a day,” said Alkhassane Ag Bilal, a Musawere farm worker. “And some days, nothing. We are paid only with food - rice or millet.”

The U.N. also reports that Mali is chronically malnourished - one in five people don't get enough to eat. A balanced diet is not part of the Bela lifestyle.

Bursting into a thatch-roofed hut in Fisso, one gaunt herder opened his cupped hands to reveal a few specks of partially eaten grain seeds - crawling with ants.

“In a good year, these insects gather food like this and store it in the ground,” Wandaya Ag Khami said. “And in a bad year, we dig it up and eat it.”

Ag Khami's home, Fisso, is part of a constellation of Bela villages stretching northeast for 300 sun-punished miles from Niono to Timbuktu. Most settlements are home to fewer than 200 people. They are not marked on maps. For a visitor, just getting to a Bela village is a kidney-jarring excursion over rippling dunes, through eerie forests of flat-topped acacia trees and past grazing camels.

The Bela are tall, strong and friendly. Knowledge of foreign affairs is vague. During one conversation, Musawere chief Aljou Ag Alkhassane was perplexed when “America” was mentioned. “I've heard the name,” he said. “But I don't know what it is.”

Around the squalid farm town of Niono, where many Bela congregate for work, they live in clusters of mud and stick huts on the edges of someone else's fields. They sow sorghum and millet on scrub land ignored by others.

But when their domestic crops wither, the Bela have a backup. They forage for nuts and seeds. They comb the ditches and damp spots for bright green pools of wild Malian rice.

“The work is very hard,” said Fadimata Walet Alkhassane, the Bela woman in Musawere. “Sometimes we labor all day - from morning to night - just for a handful. It can take three or four days to make one meal.”

Nothing is wasted. After the reddish grains are gathered, the Bela bundle the stalks of O. longistaminata and use them for roofs, fences and windbreaks. They mix them with mud to make bricks. They even use them in dancing and ceremonies.

But one day soon, those practices may be history.

As Mali's rice industry has grown, efforts to eradicate O. longistaminata have intensified. Pointing to a green smudge on the horizon west of his Bela village of Bankore 1-7 Koura, farmer Talfi Yattara shook his head.

“Over there - through those trees - that's where we gathered wild rice,” said Yattara, a pickax over his shoulder. “For me it was important - something to eat, to live on. But farmers from another ethnic group took the land, irrigated it and planted it. The wild rice, it no longer appears.”

Blight-resistant rice

It was in this dusty region that a scientist more than 30 years ago collected a sample of O. longistaminata and dropped it in a bag. Not realizing the importance of his find, the researcher carried the sample - along with others - to the Central Rice Research Institute in India.

At that facility, in the mid-1970s, a scientist noticed something curious. When he dipped the leaves of O. longistaminata and other varieties into a solution containing the dreaded bacterial blight disease, the wild Malian rice remained healthy.

Excitement spread rapidly.

By 1978, O. longistaminata was sprouting at the the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, where scientists began trying to find the source of its disease-fighting power. By 1990, they had narrowed the search to a neighborhood of genes, perhaps even a single gene they called Xa21.

Then, Pam Ronald, a young researcher from Cornell University, showed up at IRRI and requested samples of the variety. IRRI sent seeds to Ronald by airmail. For free.

At Cornell, researchers had just completed a map to the vast genetic landscape of rice - its genome. Two years later Ronald took a job at UC Davis, where she continued searching for Xa21. By 1995, she had found it, and she began churning out clones. Soon afterward, the University of California filed a patent application on her clone.

The implications were enormous. Rice is a main dish for a third of the planet's inhabitants, but production is not keeping pace with population growth. If Xa21 could be spliced through crop biotechnology into domestic rice, it could feed future generations. Even more promising, there were signs it might work in maize, millet, sorghum and other crops important in the Third World.

“There was so much excitement,” Ronald recalled.

Like most UC Davis professors, Ronald is a public employee, paid by the state. Her research was partly funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which has a mission to help feed poor nations.

But as word of her success spread, the private sector rushed in.

Monsanto and Pioneer negotiated options to license the gene, hoping to turn it into a blockbuster. Monsanto would pursue work on barley and rice, Pioneer on corn.

To the University of California, it was a natural fit. “We are good at basic discovery. We are not good at commercial development,” said Bennett, the technology transfer director.

“It seemed like a good situation,” Ronald agreed. “I was thrilled.”

Sharing the spoils

Ronald's office, near the center of campus, is a reflection of her life. There are long rows of books, a bank of well-organized file cabinets and a rumpled gym bag in a corner. Ronald swims two miles a day and has an athlete's energy and determination.

As the potential of Xa21 became clear, Ronald threw her energy into sharing the spoils with Mali.

Traditionally, plants have been regarded as a common heritage of mankind, a vast green reservoir tapped for everything from cancer-fighting drugs to high-yielding crops. But biotechnology, with its power to patent genes, has raised concerns that universities and companies in wealthy nations are mining the genetic wealth of poor ones without compensating them - a practice some call “bio-prospecting,” others “bio-piracy.”

Ensuring that developing countries are rewarded for genetic resources was a key provision of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity - a global treaty signed by more than 160 nations.

It was Ronald's mission, too: “It just seemed such common sense.”

But she wasn't sure how to proceed. Using a biotechnology patent to help an impoverished African nation was unprecedented. Ultimately, in a plan approved by UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, the university decided it would award scholarships funded by the gene's expected future corporate profits.

“Education - in all its forms - is the thing we do,” Vanderhoef said. “We felt this was something that certainly couldn't hurt.”

Then something unanticipated happened: Monsanto and Pioneer didn't commercialize the gene.

“They never started any research at all - zero - as far as I can tell,” Ronald said. “One day, businesspeople are in the mood to do one thing. And the next day - something else.”

Monsanto said its priorities did, in fact, change. “It was an interesting technology at the time,” Monsanto spokesman Bryan Hurley said of Xa21 in an e-mail. “Disease resistance isn't something we're focusing on within our pipeline today.”

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Engineered genes rescue papaya crop

A deadly virus threatened Hawaii's papaya industry, so biotech scientists came to the rescue of a key state exports.

The cure, two genetically engineered varieties that fight off the ringspot virus, is among the most lauded commercial successes of biotechnology and an example of how the technology can benefit small farmers and consumers.

“There are a lot of farmers who wouldn't be in agriculture if it weren't for the transgenic (papaya),” said Hawaii grower Delan Perry.

For years, scientists tried using traditional plant breeding to produce papaya resistant to ringspot - with few positive results. Then in 1992, Cornell University and the University of Hawaii started field testing genetically engineered versions that look and taste like their conventional counterparts.

Six years later, after federal approvals, the varieties - one red-fleshed, one yellow-fleshed - were quickly adopted by farmers. Today, roughly half of the state's papaya crop is genetically engineered.

Most farmers' fears about the new technology were overcome by desperation. “It was an easy decision,” Perry said. “The difference between your trees dying and growing was so obvious.”

The modified papaya's success also proved to be its weakness: Production shot up, but without Japanese buyers - the Japanese government still hasn't approved biotech papayas for import - growers have a harder time selling their fruit.

So farmers toggle between growing biotech papaya when the virus is bad and returning to conventional varieties when they think they've beaten the virus, so they can reap the higher prices from Japan.

- Mike Lee

 


Pioneer said it had better science in-house. "There are a lot of ways to skin a cat," said spokesman Doyle Karr. "We focus on (things) that have the best chance of success."

Legal barriers

One institution remained keenly interested in Xa21 - IRRI, the nonprofit Philippine research center, wanted the cloned gene for its own biotechnology program. The center has a humanitarian goal: "to improve the well-being of present and future generations of rice farmers ... particularly those with low incomes."

And Ronald's work, too, had a charitable theme. As a Rockefeller Foundation memo put it: "Rice biotechnology grantees will share materials and technology at zero royalty for use in developing countries. Grantees should not enter into agreements that conflict with this obligation."

Yet when the Philippine center - which had given the rice to Ronald in the first place - asked for a clone of Xa21 back, UC wanted to negotiate.

Although it agreed to provide the gene, UC wanted to make sure IRRI's research did not conflict with the U.S. commercial licenses. "We had legal obligations," said Bennett. "It was a challenging thing - a situation the office had never faced before."

As the haggling dragged on, something else drew Ronald's attention. In year three of the negotiation, she said, the university "put a $10,000 fee in there, after everybody had agreed there would be no charges at all."

Bennett, who had just become director, does not remember a fee. But Rockefeller's Toenniessen does. He called Bennett's office after hearing about it from IRRI. "I talked to a lady who said: 'Our job is to process the agreement and get as much money for the university as we can.' "

As the Xa21 fund foundered, it caught the attention of Gupta - the Indian agricultural specialist - who in 1999 traveled to UC Davis, later visited Mali and wrote his report for the U.N. Environment Program and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

"Pamela deserves credit for what she did," Gupta said. "I greatly admire it. But the community that is conserving the gene - the Bela - does not have children who will ever qualify for scholarships. Scholarships will only help the children of the bureaucrats."

Gupta maintains UC should make contributions mandatory for all scientists working with genetic material from Third World countries and put the money to work on the ground protecting biological diversity. He also said UC Davis administrators should have consulted with officials in Mali.

Chancellor Vanderhoef said UC Davis was "quite dependent on somebody who understood - or felt they understood - that circumstance," referring to Ronald.

Ronald, though, figures doing something was better than doing nothing. "I am not the kind of person where everything has to be perfect before you go forward," she said. "As soon as you go forward, you are going to get criticism."

Mali's top agricultural official had mixed feelings about UC's work with Xa21, which he knew little about. Though there are no genetically engineered crops grown in Mali, Bino Témé said the country might be able to benefit from the gene's powers.

"To share would be a good thing," Témé said in his office in Mali's capital of Bamako. "But how to share - that should be discussed with stakeholders in Mali."

But Témé also voiced personal reservations about UC's decision to patent the cloned African gene: "I am against this kind of appropriation of a genetic resource."

More patent claims

The patent explosion in plant biotechnology sprang from a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing the ownership of novel life forms. Congressional passage of the Bayh-Dole Act that year, allowing universities to patent discoveries from government-funded research, also played a role.

The number of plant-related biotechnology patents issued annually by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has jumped dramatically, from just 16 in 1981 to 289 in 1993 and nearly 2,400 last year, according to CAMBIA, an international biotechnology research center.

Today, there are so many claims on genes and gene technology that getting a new product to market is a nightmare. The most often-cited example is "golden rice" - a biotech variety engineered to produce beta carotene. It is aimed at curing a vitamin-A deficiency that causes blindness in Third World children. Five years ago, research on golden rice was stymied by more than 60 patents. It is not yet in production.

"If there were no patents, I would be happy," said Gurdev Khush, winner of the 1996 World Food Prize and former director of the plant-breeding program at IRRI in the Philippines. "Patents certainly complicate and delay research."

Khush - who received a doctorate from UC Davis in 1960 - knows Mali's wild rice well. He is the one who brought it from India to the Philippines in 1978. It also was Khush who sent the cultivated variety containing the Xa21 gene to Ronald.

Even so, he supports UC's decision to patent Ronald's discovery. "If you don't do it, somebody else might - and exploit it," he said.

Universities, foundations and companies are working to break the patent logjam by forming pools of publicly accessible patents to speed biotech varieties to hungry nations. One effort - the African Agricultural Technology Foundation - is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Many Africans remain skeptical of biotechnology, saying genetically modified agriculture is just another First World help-the-hungry notion that will have little lasting impact - and could hurt more than it helps.

"This could mean another type of dependency," said Mamadou Dia.wara, director of the Center for Research on Local Knowledge in Bamako.

"Biotechnology is a technical solution," Diawara said, and in a country like Mali, technical fixes don't work well. "We have had antibiotics since 1928. But we still have kids dying daily here from very light infections. The challenge is not technical. It is social and political. It is finding simple solutions on the ground."

Hopeful for help

At Mali's rice research center outside Niono, truly simple solutions would help - like those a good plumber could offer. In the main administrative building, the toilets don't flush. No water flows from the taps. On a Tuesday afternoon, the place doesn't bustle - it hibernates.

In his cramped office, microbiologist Soungalo Sarra said he found out about the university's gene fund only last year - while surfing the Internet.

"If you don't know a fund exists, you cannot benefit from it," he said. Still, Sarra is hopeful something might one day germinate.

"Our laboratories are not well-furnished," he said. "We could exchange a lot of information on rice."

The facility's chief of research, Mamadou M'Bare Coulibay, reacted enthusiastically when told details about UC Davis' work with Xa21.

He was eager for information, for communication with UC and something more: He wanted the gene itself.

"The gene was taken from Mali," he said, springing to his feet, leaning over his desk. "It should be returned so we can test it on Malian crops, on Malian land."


Intro | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Credits

Part Two: Globe-trotting genes

Welcome or not, modified strains pop up in crops near and far

By Tom Knudson, Edie Lau and Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writers
Published Monday, June 7, 2004 -- Second of five parts

CAPULÁLPAM, MEXICO - Working the rutted rows of their hillside garden in 1997, Alberto Cortes and his wife, Olga Toro Maldonado, noticed something unusual.

The maize was like steel. It shot up strong and thick. Bugs didn't hurt it. Drought didn't wilt it. Growing alongside scrawny stalks of traditional Mexican maize, the new variety was a bulked-up, botanical stranger - maize on steroids.

But the biggest surprise came three years later, when a scientist from the University of California showed up in the small Oaxacan village and analyzed their maize in a makeshift laboratory.

The new variety, it turned out, was an outsider - a kind common on big mechanized farms in “El Norte.” And inside its big yellow kernels and muscular stalks was the latest signature of industrial agriculture: genes shaped not by nature but by technology.

Their maize was genetically engineered - altered to kill insects by producing its own pesticide. And through the miracle of pollination, its genes had leaped into their own centuries-old varieties.

“We don't want it,” Maldonado said. “We don't know the consequences.”

A decade after genetically modified crops first were planted broadly across the United States - starting with some tomatoes developed in Davis - the technology is working its magic even where it's not welcome.

Defying state, national and cultural boundaries, biotech crop genes are showing up, uninvited, all over - from rural gardens in Mexico to organic farms in Canada, even on barges of corn that's “GM-free” - not genetically modified - floating down Midwestern rivers.

What this genetic mixing means for the environment and food supply is uncertain. So far, no one is known to have fallen ill from eating a modified crop. Nor have biotech genes caused ecological calamity, as conservation groups predicted.

But biotechnology is young. Today, as companies race to develop new forms of wizardry - from lawns resistant to weedkiller to rice that produces medicine - the globetrotting nature of biotech genes is sowing widespread unease.

“This is Pandora's Box,” said Marion Nestle, former chair of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University. “It's out of the box. Now everybody has to deal with it.”

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A good takes time capsule back to the future

Buried at the entrance of the rural Esparto library is a bit of Yolo County's past that the University of California, Davis, would rather forget.

The library's time capsule, sealed in April 2000, contains the usual assortment of items: a new quarter, county maps, children's essays - and, most likely, genetically engineered tomato seeds.

Tomato seeds are an appropriate symbol of Yolo's agricultural bounty, but library patrons who sponsored the time capsule didn't aim to highlight another feature of the modern age, the unintended spread of biotech genes.

Will Baker, a retired UC Davis professor of English who helped collect time capsule items, said he went out of his way to gather local seeds that hadn't been adulterated by genetic engineering. He figured that in 50 years they could be the only ones left.

As it turns out, the tomato seeds donated by UC Davis were part of a long-running mistake acknowledged by the university in December.

For the previous seven years the university's highly regarded seed bank unwittingly had been shipping genetically engineered seeds around the world to researchers who asked for conventional seeds.

Baker doesn't remember for sure if the tomato seeds made it into the time capsule, but the mixup reminded him of a science fiction storyline worthy of the author of The Minority Report and Total Recall.

Said Baker: “You imagine what Philip K. Dick would do with that - you open the time capsule and release the beast.”

 


Biological hobos

Moving wherever chance takes them, engineered crop genes are biological hobos. Bound up in pollen, they ride the wind, catch rides from insects. Bundled inside seeds, their horizons expand. Trucks haul them down dusty gravel roads. Ships filled with U.S. food aid carry them to hungry nations.

But nothing sets them free like human error. No matter the kind of mishap - a spilled bag of grain, a mislabeled packet of seed - an accident is an opportunity. From 1996 to 2003, scientists at the University of California, Davis, sent shipments of biotech tomato seeds, by mistake, through the mail. Those seeds landed in Europe, Asia and Africa.

“The bottom line is: Most crops mate with wild relatives somewhere in the world,” said Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics at the University of California, Riverside.

“This means crop genes are getting into wild populations. Would we expect (biotech) genes to be any different? No.”

Will the next generation of engineered genes leapfrog into the wild? If the industry succeeds in its plan to grow drugs in edible crops, could it accidentally contaminate ingredients headed for grocery store shelves?

Scientists simply don't know, because more money is spent developing new products than studying their environmental impacts - a process known as risk assessment.

“It's sad we don't have more data,” said Allison Snow, a professor of ecology at Ohio State University. “There isn't a lot of money, and there isn't a big community working on it. Companies don't really pay for research that's not in their own interest.”

“You don't make money on risk assessment," Snow said. "And you do make money on biotechnology.”

For its part, the biotechnology industry says genetic engineering poses little or no threat to nature or nonbiotech crops. “Nobody has yet identified any risk or substantial harm that is specific to crops or foods derived from biotechnology,” said Val Giddings, vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington, D.C., lobbying and trade group.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investing more money in biotech research, but many scientists say it's still not enough.

Last year, it spent nearly $180 million on biotechnology research and development. But less than 2 percent - $3.4 million - was routed to the agency's Biotechnology Risk Assessment Grants Program to study environmental and food-safety impacts.

Much of the data the government does have comes from corporations seeking approval to market their genetically engineered crops. Michelle Marvier, an assistant professor of biology at Santa Clara University, has evaluated some of that data and calls it superficial and scientifically unsound.

For one thing, she found, studies don't last long enough. Studies involving earthworms typically lasted two weeks, but earthworms can live about a year in nature, and more than four in the laboratory.

For another, industry tests to prove safety typically included just three or four samples per test.

“What if a new drug were tested on only four people and compared to another four people given a placebo?” Marvier asked. “No one would believe the claim of 'no significant side effects' if it were based on such a flimsy drug trial.”

“I would not let my undergraduate students turn in this kind of work,” she added. “They know better.”

Lisa Dry, communications director for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, disagrees. She said it's in a company's self-interest to minimize all possible risks.

“Anybody who's marketing a new product of course wants to make sure it's safe and effective,” Dry said. “Nobody wants to market a product that has a negative impact on the environment.”

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Ripples in academic circles

Ever since he spoke out against his employer's alliance with a biotechnology company, life has been chaotic for Ignacio Chapela.

Chapela is an ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1998, Berkeley's Department of Plant and Microbial Biology struck a deal with a company named Novartis that gave the department $25 million and access to trade secrets. In return, the company could mine department brainpower and claim first dibs on potentially lucrative discoveries.

Chapela, a faculty representative for the college overseeing that department, denounced the partnership. With that, his anti-biotech reputation was born.

Fast forward two years. A doctoral student in Chapela's laboratory, David Quist, discovered biotech genes in native Mexican corn from the highlands of Oaxaca. The find was explosive - a snapshot of biotechnology run amok. The two scientists retested the corn repeatedly to be sure. In 2001, the prestigious journal Nature published their research.

A chorus of other scientists, including Berkeley colleagues who'd received Novartis money, roundly criticized the study, finding fault in the details. The journal subsequently disavowed the paper. No one, however, contested the underlying claim that genetically engineered genes were in Mexican corn. In anti-biotech circles, Chapela and Quist were heroes.

Meanwhile, Chapela came up for tenure. One day before Thanksgiving 2003, word came down: Tenure denied.

Was it retaliation? Or did Chapela truly fall short on his academic record? The university won't comment on personnel matters.

Regardless, Chapela's tenure fight became a symbol of a bigger fight.

In December, he hosted a program on campus, “The Pulse of Scientific Freedom in the Age of Biotechnology,” featuring himself and three other scientists who've been vilified for their controversial research. It was there, in a lecture hall filled with supporters, that Chapela first announced the outcome of his tenure review.

He spoke not of his personal grief but of a loss to UC Berkeley: “This is such a jewel of a place,” he said wistfully. “This ship is being looted and pirated left and right. We have been too much of a willing crew.”

Since then, Chapela has geared up to fight back. Though officially he's out of a job as of June 30, he's not ready to leave.

“I want to clear my name,” he said, adding, “I feel I belong here.”

 


Ecological promise

So far, California remains less vulnerable to gene pollution because corn and soybeans, the two major biotech crops, aren't widely grown here. But biotechnology is not standing still.

Today, about 110 new engineered crop varieties, from a new kind of seedless watermelon to insect-resistant tomatoes, are being tested in California fields. Such brave new crops offer ecological promise - farmers could spray fewer pesticides, for example - but they also pose special challenges.

A report prepared for the California Department of Food and Agriculture in 2002 said the consequences of biotechnology may take years to show up. “The benefits and risks ... have hardly been examined,” the report said.

There's one quick way to see what biotechnology could bring to California: Visit the places it is booming.

Travel through the prairies of Saskatchewan and you find that runaway biotech genes are a top environmental problem for farmers. Along gravel roads, the yellow paintbrush-like flowers of genetically modified canola sprout where they're not wanted: in fields of organic flax, organic canola and other crops.

“Listen, it's all over the country here,” said Arnold Taylor, a farmer south of Saskatoon. Taylor has given up growing organic canola because it is so easily tainted with biotech genes. “It's in the gardens. It's in the towns. It's on the roadsides. This whole countryside is contaminated.”

Swing through western Illinois, where StarLink feed corn engineered to make its own pesticide - pulled off the market four years ago after it appeared in taco shells - still shows up at harvest time, taking money out of people's pockets.

Phil Thornton, an Illinois grain elevator manager, is among those shortchanged. Last fall, DNA tests detected StarLink on one of his company's barges, a mix-up that cost him $1,000 when the corn had to be sold as animal feed because StarLink is not approved for human consumption.

“We're still keeping an eye open for it,” he said. “It could very well still be out in the country.”

Or catch a flight to Mexico, where maize first was domesticated some 6,500 years ago, where villagers still line up each day outside neighborhood mills with maize to be ground into “masa” - dough for tortillas. Mexico is the motherland of maize, the cradle of corn. Here, the mysterious appearance of a foreign crop gene is more than just an inconvenience. It is a cultural insult.

“These genes are killing our heritage,” said Olga Maldonado, the rural farmer.

Diversity as insurance

When the genes were found, Mexico's environmental ministry called it the “world's worst case” of genetic crop pollution. Today no one is certain how far the genes have spread; researchers at Mexico's national university, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, are still trying to figure it out.

Paul Gepts, a professor of agronomy and plant genetics at the University of California, Davis, also is on the trail.

“Because there is wild maize in Mexico, this brings to the fore a series of new ecological issues,” Gepts said.

Is the genetic diversity of Mexican maize - a biological insurance policy against pests and disease - in danger? Is the grasslike ancestral parent of maize - teosinte - at risk?

Two years ago, Gepts received a $25,000 grant to look for answers. But when he asked three biotechnology companies for the seed samples he needed for his research, the trail went cold.

Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. in Des Moines, Iowa, said no. Syngenta, of Switzerland, and St. Louis' Monsanto Co. also turned him down. “I was not surprised,” Gepts said. “If you want to study the effects of biotechnology, you come up against a wall.”

Pioneer spokesman Doyle Karr said the seed sample “wasn't ours to give away. It was licensed from Monsanto.”

Monsanto spokesman Bryan Hurley said the company is cooperating with an environmental commission, under the North American Free Trade Agreement, which also is examining gene-flow issues south of the border - with some assistance from Gepts.

“Given that the (commission's) work is still outstanding, we believed it was premature to support related work,” Hurley said.

Gepts sighed. “That's ridiculous,” he said. “The commission is not involved in experimental work. It is a purely bibliographic review. Monsanto is using the commission as an excuse not to provide seeds. I don't think that's right.”

“This was a major hindrance,” he added. “But I worked around it. I bought a bag of transgenic corn, a 50-pound bag - way more than I needed.”

Study stymied

Today, Gepts' research continues. But other scientists have been stifled by industry resistance. It killed Allison Snow's work on sunflowers.

For five years at a test plot in Nebraska, Ohio State professor Snow had painstakingly monitored the flow of genes from genetically engineered sunflowers to wild relatives - and found the wild kin were capitalizing on the exchange. They were producing more seeds, perhaps evolving into “super-weeds.”

But as she prepared to begin a new phase of research in 2002, Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Dow Chemical Co., which had funded her work, put a stop to it, saying they owned the genes.

“We had to destroy all of our seeds,” Snow said. “We were so disappointed. No one had ever studied these questions before. We thought, just for the sake of science and openness, it would be good to explore this further.”

Pioneer had other priorities. “We were not going to bring (the modified sunflower) to market,” said company spokesman Karr. “There was no reason to take the fitness study further.”

Snow sees the issue differently. “This makes it really hard to get research done when regulatory agencies need it,” she said. “Public scientists can't get access to anything until it's already out in the environment. That's the Catch-22.”

In January, a prestigious National Academy of Sciences panel on biotechnology sounded similar concerns, saying “the current lack of quality data and science” is a major threat to agriculture and the environment.

Calling for more “non-market-driven, publicly funded research,” the panel ticked off a scientific wish list. “More data are needed on the nature of potential ecological effects,” it stated, adding that legal, ethical and social matters should be examined, too, including studies on the behavioral patterns of farmers and ways to reduce human error.

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Biotech crops can reduce use of toxic pesticides

Ask biotech farmers why they switched to genetically engineered crops and they are likely to offer two reasons: easier pest control and reduced reliance on older chemicals that tend to be more toxic and expensive.

Pesticide reduction long has been a primary promise of the biotechnology industry, eager to score points with consumers and farmers who are under constant pressure to slash chemical use.

Do they? The answer is yes and no, depending on the crop, the location, the vagaries of weather and the years analyzed.

A November 2003 pesticide study - funded by groups critical of biotechnology - showed that overall pesticide use on biotech crops did shrink between 1996 and 1998, but that it rose again over the next three years.

The increase was linked to the rise of weeds that, just like some biotech crops, withstand blasts of the popular herbicide Roundup. That forces farmers to mix more chemicals into their spray tanks, adding both time and cost.

The open question is whether weed resistance to a few widely used chemicals eventually will force large numbers of farmers back to the pesticides they swore off.

In some cases, industry claims do bear out. Even persistent critics such as noted scientist Charles Benbrook, author of the November report, acknowledge that bug-killing corn and cotton continue to yield “significant” decreases in the amount of insecticides farmers need to apply to those crops.

 


Harvest mistakes

There's no better laboratory for such inquiry than the American Midwest. This huge region - reaching from Ohio to Nebraska, North Dakota to Missouri - is both a pantry for the planet and a biotechnology profit center. The two biggest genetically engineered crops - Bt corn, which makes its own pesticide, and herbicide-resistant soybeans - are grown here in abundance.

And there's no better time to see how that pans out than the fall. Harvest in the heartland is a time of hope and hurry, a haze of 18-hour days, a struggle with unkind weather and unreliable equipment. Harvest is when genes break free.

Few people are more familiar with the problem than Thornton, the grain elevator manager. One crisp morning last fall, he waited near a rumbling conveyor belt for the crush of trucks to arrive from the fields. A stream of soybeans whooshed into a red-roofed barge on the Illinois River, ready for a trip to New Orleans and beyond.

The 400 or so farmers who haul corn and soybeans to Thornton's elevator grow both conventional and biotech varieties. Thornton's job is to keep them separate. The process begins with a simple question.

As trucks heaped high with grain rumble onto a scale, Thornton asks: “What are you growing?”

When the answer is conventional grain, drivers are directed to a shiny new silo along the river. The genetically modified stuff is held in a traditional concrete silo a few yards away. “It really comes down to a lot of trust, to tell you the truth,” Thornton said.

But trust has its limits, especially at harvest. Farmers get tired and cranky. Mistakes happen. “This time of year, it's pretty easy to forget details,” said Illinois farmer Ron Fitchhorn, who finds himself hustling every fall when his 2,000 acres of soybeans and corn - biotech and conventional - are ready for harvest.

Fearing a mix-up, Thornton also tests his grain for traces of genetic modification. But even that is not enough. A state inspector double-checks, taking samples, by machine, every 75 seconds as the streams of grain cascade onto the awaiting barges.

“Life was a lot easier before,” Thornton said. “Corn was corn.”

For Thornton, the mysterious fingerprint of StarLink corn on one of his grain shipments headed to Japan last fall was a reminder of biotechnology's bleakest hour.

Mysterious spread

Approved for livestock but not people, StarLink caused an uproar when it was found in taco shells and dozens of other products in 2000. Its manufacturer, Aventis, pulled it out of the market, but a wave of product recalls eventually cost food companies up to $1 billion.

How it spread remains a mystery. “There are all kinds of ways StarLink could have moved into other corn supplies,” said Ellstrand, the UC Riverside geneticist. “It could have been by cross-pollination, by seed mixing in farm machinery.”

Across the Midwest, elaborate systems now are in place to prevent contamination incidents. They include a dramatic upswing in testing and redesigned grain-storage facilities, along with education. The Illinois Corn Growers Association distributes a booklet on proper grain handling called, “Know Before You Grow - Know Where To Go.”

But could a StarLink-style disaster happen again?

Count on it, said lawyer Ronald Osman, who represented farmers whose grain was tainted by StarLink corn. “It's just a matter of time. There is no way anyone can keep it all separate,” Osman said. The case brought a judgment of $110 million total for about 75,000 U.S. farmers.

Even when farmers and grain handlers are meticulous, engineered genes still escape. They have a key accomplice, one that laughs at even elaborate containment schemes: nature.

Stray canola

On the wind-whipped plains of Saskatchewan, Arnold Taylor - the canola farmer - said it's impossible to contain anything. A few springs back, a storm front swept across the region, tugging and tearing at whatever lay in its path. “It rained GM canola all over the country,” Taylor said. “We think we've got a science-based world - and it's not. Nature bats last.”

Last summer, Saskatchewan organic farmer Pat Neville was eating dinner when two of his sons, Cale and Andrew, burst through the door. “We've got canola, dad!” the teens shouted.

Neville winced and headed for the door. Since he bought the farm in 1997, he had never planted canola. His specialty was organic seeds, including flax and oats. He prided himself on their purity.

After learning the stray canola was genetically modified and had probably blown in from a neighbor's field, Neville took action: He asked Monsanto - which makes the modified canola seed - to remove it.

“They asked if I was growing without a permit,” Neville said. “I said 'You bet I am growing without a permit; and I don't want it.'”

In all, 57 acres were contaminated. Monsanto sent out a crew with garbage bags, which pulled out the genetically modified canola by hand. It took three trips.

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A dramatic find, then a dead end

Even before the scandal, Lilia Pérez got grief for her choice of professions.

Her four siblings all moved to the city to become teachers. Pérez studied agronomy in college, then returned to her farming village in the mountains for a job paying less than $7,000 a year.

Pérez works for a cooperative, the Union of Zapotec and Chinantec Communities, whose mission is to conserve forests, promote farming and develop markets for local products. An ecologist named Ignacio Chapela from the University of California, Berkeley, helped the cooperative set up a small laboratory and taught its members how to analyze DNA.

The skill was useful for jobs such as proving the authenticity of local shiitake mushrooms to Japanese buyers. Earnest and eager, Perez traveled to Berkeley at one point to perfect her lab technique.

Later, after one of Chapela's graduate students stumbled on the biotech genes in the native strains of corn, Perez assisted with tests that confirmed the discovery.

“It was the worst thing that happened to me.” Pérez's normally sunny expression clouded with frustration at the recollection. “There was contamination, but I had no way to get rid of it.”

Worse, once word spread of the discovery, the heated politics of the issue made it difficult for the Berkeley scientists to return to Capulálpam. Pérez wanted to continue testing the corn to see whether the foreign DNA is diminishing or persisting. She couldn't.

“No reactivos,” she said, speaking of the biochemicals needed to do DNA analysis.

The supplies needed to test enough corn samples to produce a valid scientific analysis would cost roughly $2,000. The cooperative doesn't have that kind of money. So to the continued waves of visitors from abroad who want to know what's happening in Capulálpam, Pérez offers as many questions as answers.

 


Canola farmer Taylor took a different course. He rallied farmers into a class-action lawsuit, claiming biotech contamination is making organic farming impossible. The case, still pending, says that in Saskatchewan: “As a result of widespread contamination by GM canola, few, if any, certified organic grain farmers are now growing canola. The crop has been lost.”

Such courthouse action is becoming more common across the heartland, raising a tantalizing legal question - one that is pitting giant companies against small farmers and farmer against farmer, too.

“Who's responsible if somebody's nontransgenic crop gets inadvertently contaminated with transgenes?” said Robert Goodman, a professor of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin. “The law will have its day with that decision.”

Goodman, a former director of research at Calgene Inc., the Davis biotechnology firm now owned by Monsanto, added his opinion. “As a scientist,” he said, “it seems to me the person responsible is the one who's growing the transgenes, because they should be controlling them.”

Seeds from government

Tracking truant genes to their origin can be difficult, though. Scientists still scratch their heads about the discovery of engineered corn four years ago in Mexico - a country where the planting of genetically modified corn is banned.

A trip to the rustic town in Oaxaca, where the genes first turned up, helps unravel the mystery. Visit with Alberto Cortes, the Capulálpam farmer, and he will tell you who planted the mysterious seed: He and his neighbors did.

And he will tell you where they bought it: at the government food store. That store, known as Diconsa, is one of about 22,000 across Mexico that sell food to the rural poor.

The genetically engineered corn that sprouted like steel in Cortes' 2-acre plot was most likely American - bought by the Mexican government and shipped south to feed hungry people through the Diconsa outlets. In 2001, Mexico's National Institute of Ecology found a third of Diconsa's corn was genetically engineered.

As Mexican government food aid, the corn was meant to be sold at a discount and eaten. Because most corn kernels look alike, Cortes and his wife had no way of knowing they were buying biotech corn.

Olga remembers someone telling them the corn wouldn't grow well in Oaxaca's cool climate and mountainous terrain. They took it as a challenge. “Let's buy it,” Alberto urged Olga. “Let's farm it.”

Today, in the void of definitive scientific information, some organizations claim the foreign genes have spread to eight Mexican states. In maize-growing rural communities, fear and frustration about genetic pollution are commonplace.

“I tell people: 'Watch out for the transgenics,'” said Pedro Aarón Ramírez, manager of the government food store in Capulálpam. “'Don't even think about growing it.'”

Most scientists, though, say the biodiversity of Mexican maize is not in danger.

“The local varieties are going to be fine,” said Snow, the Ohio State professor, who attended a gene-flow conference last fall in Mexico City. “What I worry about is the future. There's nothing out there now that is very dangerous or scary. It just has a lot of potential to go that way.”

“Is the technology moving faster than our ability to evaluate it? That's what I worry about.”


Intro | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Credits

Part Three: Biotech industry funds bumper crop of UC Davis research

By Tom Knudson and Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writers
Published Tuesday, June 8, 2004 -- Third of five parts

Last August, a promising new report about genetically modified corn flickered across a Web site sponsored by the corn's corporate creator, the biotechnology giant Monsanto Co.

Citing new research by the University of California, Davis, the report said corn altered to produce its own pesticide was a biotechnology bonanza - one that could make farmers across the country wealthier and reduce the use of toxic insecticides.

But there was one fact the “Biotech Knowledge Center” Web site failed to mention: Monsanto paid for the UC Davis research.

Following a pattern set by farm chemical companies in the 1960s, the biotechnology industry is mining public agricultural colleges such as UC Davis for scientific research, confidential business advice and academic support for its technology.

You name it, and biotechnology companies help pay for it at UC Davis: laboratory studies, scholarships, post.doctoral students' salaries, professors' travel expenses, even the campus utility bill. Some professors earn extra money, up to $2,000 a month, consulting for such companies on the side.

The school's attraction to biotechnology is driven by its desire to transform itself from a traditional agricultural college into a bustling center for the exploration - and manipulation - of plant genes. That desire is more than talk. New buildings and research centers are sprouting: the Seed Biotechnology Center, the Genome Center and a planned new life science research park along Interstate 80. A bumper crop of biotechnology research is under way.

Biotechnology industry dollars are helping spark the transformation.

Reaching out to industry “is good for regional economic development. It's good for the state. It's good for our students,” said Barry Klein, vice chancellor for research at UC Davis.

The university's top official - Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef - supports the concept but said caution must be applied. “We have to be very vigilant and very wary,” he said. “Universities are flirting with the gray zone with regard to what kind of research there is to be done - and whether or not our noses are being turned by the money.”

A fundamental force drawing colleges and companies together is declining state and federal revenue for agricultural research. “Most faculty members don't necessarily want to please large companies,” Vanderhoef said. “What they do want is their research funded.”

But some wonder whether UC Davis could be losing sight of its mission to serve the broad needs of agriculture and society as it works with industry to serve up a smorgasbord of biotech foods - from slow-ripening tomatoes to genetically engineered cheese.

“The public is having a hard time figuring out where the corporate door ends and where the university door begins,” said Bill Liebhardt, former director of the UC system's sustainable farming program, which promotes nonindustrial farming methods.

Small farmers - the very people agricultural colleges like UC Davis were established to help - feel neglected. “The university is being led by industry,” said Judith Redmond, co-owner of Full Belly Farm, an organic vegetable farm in Yolo County.

Digging for details

UC Davis' courtship with companies attracts little outside attention. Documents detailing the relationship are scattered widely across campus and sometimes missing entirely. Track down the files, talk to those involved and you'll find:

A “who's who” of international biotechnology companies fund work at UC Davis. They include Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont and Bayer. Some grants pay for specific research, but many arrive with no official strings attached. Whatever the form, the companies get something in return - access to the university's talent pool and, often, first crack at its scientific breakthroughs.

A special UC program - Discovery Grants - distributes state money to California biotechnology firms, hoping to jump-start research. Some of that taxpayer money also has been awarded to the world's largest biotechnology corporations. On occasion, the taxpayer-funded program has been undermined when companies start research, then don't pay their bills.

More than 20 UC Davis professors have earned outside income providing advice to biotechnology companies, a practice known as consulting. In one instance, two UC Davis professors purchased shares of stock in a biotech startup company that funded their research. Often, those financial ties are not disclosed in academic articles and public forums.

Industry funding is changing the culture of the public university. Professors who once shared discoveries freely now guard them like industry trade secrets - which they sometimes are. “You can't talk as openly,” said James Murray, a UC Davis animal science professor.

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Campus goes from farm to future

If the wind is right, you can catch a whiff of the UC Davis dairy herd from the gates of the gleaming $95 million Genome Center rising on the western edge of campus.

The six-story tower represents the university's future; the cows - already displaced as the campus mascot by the sleeker mustang - represent its past as the university farm.

Genomic studies are emerging as one of the campus's most prominent intellectual features. UC Davis officials are determined to be at the world's leading edge as they fill the new Genome Center with more than a dozen new professors and their lab teams.

“This cannot afford to fail,” said Richard Michelmore, the veteran genetics professor who will direct the center. Denmark-based Novozymes, the world's largest manufacturer of industrial enzymes, recently donated $500,000 to endow his position.

Already, Davis boasts more than 70 genomics researchers. The center is an attempt to further explore what some call the “new biology” - studies such as proteomics (studying proteins), bioinformatics (managing biological data) and metabolomics (tracking the biochemical effects of active genes).

The goal is to take an integrated approach to big questions, such as how microorganisms infect plants and animals. Work at the center will be so fundamental that much of it isn't expected to have immediate commercial appeal.

As finishing touches are put on the building for this summer's opening, not everyone applauds its purpose. At the agricultural college, a core of scientists fear the investment signals a further decline in plant researchers who actually get their hands dirty.

“The study of biology has really become unbalanced,” said Arnold Bloom, a vegetable crops professor. “DNA is only part of the story.”

- Mike Lee

 


UC Davis is one of more than 70 land-grant agricultural colleges first established by Congress in the 1860s to serve the public and small farmers. With names such as Iowa State, Purdue, Cornell, Texas A&M and Virginia Polytechnic, they form the educational foundation of the world's richest and most productive farm system.

Three decades ago, land-grant colleges came under sharp criticism from farm workers and environmentalists for their close ties to agribusiness. Among projects drawing fire was a mechanical tomato harvester developed at UC Davis that put farm workers out of a job.

“Although the land-grant college complex was created to be the people's university ... the system has, in fact, become the sidekick and frequent servant of agriculture's industrialized elite,” wrote Jim Hightower, a former Texas agriculture commissioner, in “Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times,” a 1972 book about the controversy.

Today, some see history repeating itself as land-grant colleges embrace biotechnology. “We are following the technology and allowing it to set our direction,” said Chuck Hassebrook, a member of the University of Nebraska's Board of Regents.

Some universities are choosing alternate paths. Despite budget cuts, Iowa State University - a major target of criticism in the 1970s - recently launched a special program to examine biotechnology's social, economic and environmental impacts. In New York, Cornell University has a reputation for examining all sides of the biotechnology boom.

But such scrutiny has not taken root at UC Davis.

“On this campus you have a very strong lobby for biotechnology,” said Paul Gepts, former chairman of the agronomy department. “The university should be a meeting place of ideas. Let's examine (biotechnology) and let the chips fall where they may.”

Scavenger hunt

For professors, finding money for research is more than a challenge. It is a scavenger hunt. They look everywhere - foundations, government, farm groups, nonprofit organizations. Some even dip into their own bank accounts to keep graduate students working.

In July 2002, UC Davis farm economics professor Julian Alston found a patron in the private sector: Monsanto, one of the world's five largest crop biotechnology firms.

The official announcement came in the form of a letter. “Dear Dr. Alston,” it read. “Please find enclosed a check for $40,000 that represents an unrestricted gift in support of your research program.”

As the company had prearranged with Alston, the money would fund a survey of farmers' attitudes about a new variety of biotech corn Monsanto was bringing to market. Alston would hire a polling firm, analyze the results and prepare a report. The polling firm selected - Doane Marketing Research Inc. - is based three miles from Monsanto's St. Louis headquarters.

Bryan Hurley, a Monsanto spokesman, said the company merely wanted to learn more about what farmers think about its new biotech product. Now, he said, “there's solid, objective research available.”

When Alston's report came out a year later in a biotech online journal, its findings were favorable to Monsanto. The new variety - Yieldguard Rootworm - could put an additional $231 million in farmers' pockets, Alston reported, and could save them $58 million through lower pesticide costs.

Critics of biotechnology's influence are not surprised by such company-friendly findings.

“When industry funds studies, they tend to echo what industry wants to hear,” said Merrill Goozner at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit industry watchdog group.

Alston said the Monsanto money did not influence his analysis. “I am going to report my findings whatever they are, regardless of the source of funds,” he said.

Still, he acknowledged it might look funny from the outside. “We'd be a lot better off if we could just find funding ... that doesn't imply any taint,” Alston said.

In his report in the online journal AgBioForum, Alston and three co-authors thanked Monsanto for data and advice - but didn't mention the company funding. They did acknowledge financial support from a National Science Foundation program, which, it turns out, also is partly funded by Monsanto.

Like Alston, other professors are torn about company coziness.

“On the one hand, I feel biotech companies - how can I say this? - are influencing the way we do research,” said Eduardo Blumwald, a UC Davis cell biologist who tapped biotechnology industry money for field experiments after being turned down by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “But on the other hand, they are the only ones that can help us in promoting the research.”

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Shhhh ... It's a company secret

“We found the secret of life,” Francis Crick exclaimed to patrons of the Eagle Pub in 1953, announcing to all who would listen that he had discovered the structure of DNA.

That culture of openness, long a hallmark of higher education, appears to be a victim of the biotech age. Between increasing competition for grant money, the lure of license fees and company sponsorships, some of that collegiality has disappeared.

Indeed, a recent biomedical research review showed that companies sometimes even deny professors access to the results of their own experiments.

“Science in general now is getting more guarded,” said Elizabeth Maga, an assistant research biologist at UC Davis who has worked on company-funded projects.

One of Maga's colleagues, animal-science professor James Murray, is preparing a research grant agreement with a company. But don't ask him for details. “I can't talk to you about that,” Murray said.

A few years ago, a job candidate for the agricultural college gave a formal presentation about his research. Prof.Professor John Labavitch, a UCD horticulture specialist, recalled that the candidate piqued everyone's interest when he said he'd worked on some important advances in plant science. When pressed for details, however, the candidate begged off, .pleading “company secrets.”

“We would want to have somebody on our faculty who (could) save the world,” Labavitch said, “but he said, 'I can't tell you what it is.'”

For the record, Labavitch said the clammed-up candidate didn't get the job.

- Mike Lee

 


Discoveries kept secret

Companies aren't looking just for information when they fund UC Davis work. Often, they're hungry for valuable discoveries, too - and seek first rights to them in research agreements.

Gepts recalled one such proposal he turned down as agronomy department chairman. “A professor in the department wanted to go into a (research) agreement with Monsanto,” Gepts said. “If he found something, he had to let them know. They held the rights to pursue it. In effect, he would have worked for them. I felt that was not appropriate.”

The agreements also typically call for industry-funded discoveries to be kept secret - at least until companies can examine them for their profit potential. Traditionally, scientists have published their findings and worried about business details later, if at all.

“When one of my experiments worked, I literally ran down the hall to tell other people,” said Margaret Mellon, who received her doctorate in molecular biology at the University of Virginia in the 1970s.

“Nobody does that anymore,” said Mellon, now director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Now people have their lab notebooks locked up in drawers.”

Company funding for agricultural research is not new, of course. Syngenta, for instance, has a long-term relationship with most of the nation's major agricultural colleges. “It's been very beneficial for us, and hopefully for the universities as well, to have an exchange of information,” said Mike Moss, director of North American research for the Swiss-based biotech and chemical company.

Nor do companies stop at funding research. Commonly, they tap professors as consultants. Sometimes they pay for their travel, too.

In January, Monsanto flew a few dozen university researchers from around the country to Phoenix for a summit on a major new biotech product expected in 2005: Roundup-resistant alfalfa.

Dan Putnam, a UC Davis alfalfa authority, is not apologetic about accepting the free ride to Arizona. He said it allowed him to share with the company his concerns that excessive spraying of Roundup could backfire - making weeds more resistant to the chemical.

“They have an opportunity to give us their point of view, but that doesn't mean that we have to buy it,” Putnam said.

Most industry contributions to UC Davis researchers are modest, ranging from $1,000 to $50,000. “It's very unlikely that a scientist is going to sell his soul for these kinds of dollars,” said Neal Van Alfen, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

But industry money does come in larger sums. Overall, corporate gifts for all kinds of agriculture research at UC Davis can reach $10 million annually. In good years, that includes nearly $2 million from companies dealing in seeds and biotechnology.

In addition, company research grants to the ag college - those explicitly tied to specific projects - have waxed and waned with the economy over the last decade, amounting to roughly 4 percent of the $57 million the college received in outside grants in 2003-04. Most of the money - about three-quarters - comes from the state and federal governments.

Peter Rosset, former director of the nonprofit Oakland group, Food First, said companies don't have to give a bundle of money to get universities to focus on their priorities. “Industry comes in, (and) provides money that is desperately needed, - to turn taxpayer-funded infrastructure to their needs,” said Rosset, now a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. “They can skim the cream off.”

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Gene giants have wide influence

If you're looking for the straight scoop on biotech, chances are you're in for a long search.

Not only are many major universities tightly tied to the industry, so are several of the most of the widely quoted ag think tanks and public information groups. Yet their names might lead you to believe they are impartial operations.

Take the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, famous for glowing forecasts about the potential for biotechnology to reduce pesticide use. It's funded partly by large biotech companies.

How about the Council for Biotechnology Information? Its members are a similar cast of corporations.

Ditto for the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, which even federal agencies cite as a principal source for statistics on the worldwide spread of biotech crops. In California, the industry's face is the Western Plant Health Association, which represents farm chemical companies, some of which deal in biotech crops, too.

The reach of the gene giants can be even more subtle. For instance, Monsanto sponsors a program with the National Association of Wheat Growers to provide “leadership training for a whole new group of wheat leaders.” Its focus: biotechnology and the environment.

- Mike Lee

 


A maze of policies

Professors who work with industry navigate a labyrinth of UC policies aimed at keeping industries from exerting too much influence over research. Those policies - overseen by a special conflict-of-interest committee at UC Davis - touch upon everything from requiring professors to report financial interest in companies funding their research to deciding how much time they may spend consulting on the side.

Determinations often are a judgment call.

For instance, when Bo Lonnerdal, a UC Davis nutrition professor, reported receiving $24,000 in outside income from consulting with a Sacramento biotechnology company in 2000, he filled out a conflict committee form that asked:

“How are you keeping your obligations to the (company) separate and distinct from your obligations to the university, particularly student mentorship?”

Lonnerdal replied, “My obligations to the (company) sponsor I fulfill late evenings and weekends. They do not involve students at all.”

The committee found no problem with that arrangement.

“The policies - if they are adhered to - are good policies,” said Chancellor Vanderhoef. “The problem is it's very easy to slip across the line.”

Those policies were tested in 2002 by a $778,000 project that mingled state and industry dollars and involved an unusual biotechnology product - genetically modified goats.

Working with a small Bay Area biotechnology company, Pangene Inc., UC Davis researchers were attempting to jigger goat genes so the animals would produce higher-protein milk - important for cheese production. They also aimed to prove a new technique for inserting genetic material into a targeted spot in the animals' DNA, rather than relying on hit-and-miss methods.

“That was the holy grail,” said Gary Anderson, chairman of the animal science department at Davis, who helped create the transgenic goats.

Two years later, two of the goats - including the placid Peppercorn - live on at Davis' butter-yellow goat research barn, and researchers hope one day they can afford to finish what Pangene money started.

The process is expensive - a transgenic goat costs about $35,000 to create - but a UC Davis grant proposal said results would “have a great impact on ... California, the United States and the world.”

Pangene had made a down payment on the research of $70,000 and also had offered perks to professors Gary Anderson and James Murray, who oversaw the project: 20,000 shares of company stock each. The professors paid next to nothing - 1 cent a share, or $200 each. The privately held company valued its stock at $3 a share - which would have made the professors' investments worth $60,000 each.

The professors reported their holdings to the campus conflict-of-interest committee, which allowed them to keep their shares.

Anderson and Murray both say their equity was so small that they weren't concerned about the ties. “I have never thought of it in terms of financial interest,” Murray said. “They were like an honorarium for being on (Pangene's) advisory board.”

But someone did wonder about the relationship. Atop one conflict-of- interest committee document, a hand-written query on a yellow sticky note asked: “Why did the committee conclude there was no conflict?”

The source of that dissent remains a mystery. When contacted by The Bee, none of the six people on the committee at the time recalled penning the note; most said UC Davis is conservative about managing possible conflicts of interest and that the professors' holdings weren't large enough to warrant action.

University researchers usually are barred from having a “significant” financial interest in the outcome of their research. But there is some leeway, according to Mikal Saltveit, the committee chairman.

“We have to balance preventing any appearance of conflict of interest with the ability of people to actually work with industry and the funding agencies,” Saltveit said.

At Stanford University's Center for Biomedical Ethics, associate director Mildred K. Cho finds such arrangements worrisome. “There is more incentive for bias to creep in when there is a potential relationship between results and the financial gain of the researcher,” she said.

“It's a question everyone is struggling with: Where to draw the line?”

Ultimately, Anderson and Murray came up empty, in part because Pangene ran out of money, reneging on more than $450,000 it had promised to pay UC.

Deadline after deadline had passed for nearly a year while $165,000 in public money flowed into the project.

Then, finally, someone in the office of the UC Davis vice chancellor for research flagged the troubled account, prompting officials to take a closer look.

“Any progress (on) Pangene's enormous default?” wrote Jane Lee Chien, a UC grants officer in Berkeley in an e-mail to a colleague at UC Davis. She heard back the next day. “We have major problems with this project,” wrote Jess Phelan, a UC Davis grants officer. “There appear to be lots of strange things happening.”

On March 26, 2002, the Discovery Grants office canceled the Pangene project. Efforts to reach former officials at Pangene for comment were not successful.

UC Davis research biologist Elizabeth Maga, a key player in the Pangene project, found her work put on indefinite hold. Now she tends the two goats, their numbers insufficient to do her research.

“I think we need to be a little more vigilant about what money the companies have and what they say they have,” she said.

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What's in a name? A war of words

What's in a name? Quite a bit, when it comes to public acceptance of biotechnology.

The industry lost the first round of the culture war over biotech foods when its products entered mainstream parlance as “genetically modified organisms” - technical gobbledygook few understood - with the awkward acronym GMOs.

To make matters worse, anti-biotech activists attached the ominous tag of “Frankenfoods,” conjuring up a picture of out-of-control science. Industry leaders worry that other monikers, such as biotech, transgenic, genetically engineered and GE, mostly breed confusion for the general public.

“The activists did a wonderful job of painting us into a corner,” said Michael J. Phillips, vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D.C.

The solution?

“We need to use words that consumers understand,” Phillips told a roomful of biotech leaders in Sacramento. He encouraged the use of “enhanced” and “improved” to replace “engineered” and “modified.”

Phillips hopes to avoid repeating history as the industry looks forward to the first crops engineered to produce drug compounds. Focus groups helped select the industry's preferred term - “plant-made pharmaceuticals” - in an attempt to resonate with people who need the biotech drugs.

“We defined the language,” Phillips said. “The term...is not an accident.”

- Mike Lee

 


Prompt payment

University officials acknowledge mistakes in letting companies such as Pangene and others drag out their matching payments. They said defaults prompted changes.

Susanne Huttner, executive director of the grants program in Berkeley, said companies do typically pay on time. In all, there have been 23 defaults out of 624 grants since the program started in 1996, a rate of 3.7 percent.

A new grant policy adopted late last year gives companies just 30 days to make payments - a period during which research spending is frozen. Failure to pay means the grant will be terminated. “We are going to move very quickly now,” Huttner said.

Overall, the Discovery Grants office distributes about $17 million a year of state and UC money to help California biotechnology companies pay for UC research.

But on occasion, it also has subsidized the research bills of the industry's biggest firms - Monsanto, Novartis, Syngenta and Dow Chemical Co., all based out of state. It teamed with Monsanto to work on fruit and corn pollination; with Dow Chemical Co.for research on western corn rootworms.

Huttner said there's a shortage of California plant biotechnology companies but all funding - for companies large or small - must be “focused on a problem of immediate and critical importance to California agriculture.”

After the Pangene project collapsed, Maga, Anderson, Murray and several of the project's scientists published an article about their work in the journal Transgenic Research. The article contained no mention of Murray and Anderson's stake in Pangene. When asked by The Bee, however, Murray said he supports a movement within academia to routinely disclose financial ties in journal articles.

“Biotechnology ... is more tied in with companies and industry than basic research used to be,” he said. “To disclose ... is open and transparent.”

Industry funding for UC Davis' new Seed Biotechnology Center is openly acknowledged by the facility's director, Kent Bradford. Biotech and seed companies collectively contributed more than $1 million.

“Does that influence what I do? Sure,” said Bradford. “To me, I don't think that's a problem. What I am trying to do with that funding is things that are in fact of use to that industry.”

“If a sustainable ag group came to us and said 'Geez, here's a great project that's seed-related that would help the sustainability of ag,' and they've got money, I'd be happy to direct our resources that way.”

Last December, Bradford submitted court papers on behalf of a biotech industry group seeking to defeat a Mendocino County ballot measure banning genetically engineered crops, which ultimately passed. He also has consulted for Monsanto.

“I feel that as a university professor you also have a responsibility sometimes to speak up,” Bradford said. “How do I just sit on the sidelines?”

Other UC Davis ag biotech researchers feel the same way, and most of the time when they go public they do so to support genetically engineered crops.

Martina Newell-McGloughlin, who runs the UC system's biotechnology program from her UC Davis office, regularly appears at forums to promote biotech as hope for a hungry world - an industry mantra that has yet to live up to the claim.

“The real issue in this world is not biotechnology,” Newell-McGloughlin told a packed house during a biotech debate at downtown Sacramento's Crest Theatre last summer. “The real issue is starvation.”

'Home of biotech'

Crops and genes have long been a UC Davis passion. Gurdev Khush, known worldwide for his work to improve rice yields in Third World countries, is a 1960 graduate. Dennis Gonsalves, developer of the virus-resistant papaya - a biotech crop that rescued one of Hawaii's top farm exports - is another alum. So, too, is Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and author of “The Doubly Green Revolution - Food for All in the 21st Century.”

Since 1999, when gene studies officially got top priority at the UC Davis agricultural college, 10 genetics experts have been hired to work on everything from mosquitoes to weeds. More such “gene jockeys” are on the way to fill the monolithic Genome Center due to open later this year on a campus already well known as a life-science leader.

“We call it the home of biotech,” said a beaming Judith Kjelstrom, who runs the UC Davis biotech studies program. The goals of Kjelstrom's program include promoting biotechnology, creating partnerships with industry and educating the public.

Although universities crave industry connections, those liaisons may undermine something even harder to come by: the public's trust.

It's an issue that's starting to get more attention. At Portland State University, environmental economist David Ervin is part of a nationwide project to analyze industry sponsorships. One of his key questions is whether such ties hinder critical reviews of biotech crops, including potential environmental and health safety problems.

“There seems to be very little research in academia that dispassionately assesses all sides,” Ervin said. “It seems to be mostly, 'How do we use industry-university relationships to promote the development of this technology?'”

Ask almost anyone at UC Davis if the university is biased in favor of biotech crops, and they'll point to one man as the counterweight: Paul Gepts.

Gepts is a compact, soft-spoken professor who got into biotechnology through a side door. He spills a can of beans on his desk - various hues, shapes and sizes that he has collected from around the world - as he explains.

His primary interest was tracking the flow of genes between domesticated and wild beans. His research led him to Mexico, where he ran into questions about biotech genes infiltrating native Mexican corn, and back to Davis, where he's the de facto representative for critical assessment of biotech crops, also known as genetically modified organisms or GMOs.

Said Gepts: “On this campus... there is actually very little research going on - no organized effort - about the environmental effects of GMOs.”

Van Alfen, the college dean, attributes the lack of such work to the paucity of federal money for it. “That really is what decides what research is being done,” he said.

The USDA offers universities a relative pittance for work on biotech risk assessment - and since 2000, UC Davis hasn't had a single project funded through the agency's main grant program.

Instead, the UC's best-known biotech risk research program is at Riverside - not Davis. UC Riverside is where professor Norman Ellstrand runs a small Biotech Impacts Center out of his office. He wryly calls it “budget-free.”

To do almost anything, he must solicit donations or grants - and from a much smaller pool of potential funders than peers who accept corporate contributions.

Ellstrand has won more USDA risk money in the past decade than all of UC Davis, including a grant last fall for a two-day conference weighing risks and benefits of biotechnology. For that conference, he scoffed at accepting company money to pay the bills.

“Somebody said, 'Why don't you have a Monsanto reception?'” Ellstrand recalled. “I said 'No - then we might as well hang it up and go home.'”


Intro | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Credits

Part Four: Scattered efforts

California plays little part in the patchwork that oversees biotech crops

By Mike Lee and Edie Lau -- Bee Staff Writers
Published Wednesday, June 9, 2004 -- Fourth of five parts

Dig deep into state files to see just how closely genetically modified agriculture is regulated in California and you'll find an unsettling memo, part of a federal sign-off that is supposed to occur a week before some experimental crops are planted.

The memo is dated April 24, 2001 - five days after insect-resistant corn was planted on about 8 acres near Woodland.

“The weather was right, so we put it in the ground,” seed giant Pioneer Hi-Bred informed government regulators.

No federal fine followed. No state alarm sounded.

California is home to the nation's most diverse and valuable agricultural industry and a center of organic farming. Its cornucopia of crops can be bound for biotech-wary markets in Japan or Europe. The smallest genetic mistake could send customers fleeing.

Yet California takes almost no role in regulating genetically engineered crops or food. It does little to manage the economic, environmental or trade implications of biotech farming on the state's $28 billion agricultural industry, despite several calls for action during the past five years.

None of the 1,791 employees at the California Department of Food and Agriculture is dedicated full time to crop biotechnology, one of history's largest agricultural revolutions, and one now budding in California.

Instead, like every other state, California relies almost entirely on a decision made nearly a decade before the first genetically engineered foods arrived in supermarkets - that such products need no special state attention.

California defers to a three-agency system of federal oversight that has been widely criticized for failing in many of the areas that matter most to this state: contamination of other crops, foreign trade barriers to biotech products and the long-term environmental and health implications of genetic engineering.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees crops being tested in fields, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates plants engineered to contain pesticides, and the Food and Drug Administration monitors food safety. But there are overlaps and yawning gaps.

Without the state filling in, farmers like Bryce Lundberg of Butte County are left to come up with their own system of self-protection, which for Lundberg includes writing letters to neighbors asking them not to plant genetically engineered crops next to his fields.

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Organic ideal becomes her mission

Just about every week, Juli Brussell charges from her lush organic farm in the gentle hills of southern Illinois to distant meetings in Wisconsin, Texas and California.

Her mission: to preserve the organic ideal in a world overrun by genetically engineered crops.

She's passionate, articulate and linked to like-minded groups nationwide, including the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz.

Her concerns - shared by a small minority in the Corn Belt - are that biotechnology mostly benefits big companies and that their products are spreading quickly into places where they aren't welcome, such as conventional seed.

“We can't measure the impact, we can't control the technology in the field and we have no way to know there is a problem until we have a train wreck. Then it will be too late, because the stuff will be pervasive in the environment,” she said.

Brussell has made it her mission to force such issues into the public debate, and she's got a federal grant to create something she calls the Illinois Sustainable Food Policy Council. Its job is to lobby for legislation that supports healthy farms and healthy food from the perspective of small farmers and others who typically don't get asked about farm policy.

Like Brussell, the group will raise questions about the economic, social and health impacts of biotech foods, questions that Brussell fears often are ignored because of the biotech industry's influence.

- Mike Lee

 


Lundberg hopes for something better someday soon - perhaps a tracking program for genetically modified crops, like the one that allows him to get information about farm chemical use across the state.

“That system is already in place,” said Lundberg, who exports rice to notoriously picky buyers in Japan. “Why not put GM (genetically modified crops) in there so we are not letting this stuff just go all over the place and potentially impact ... customers and companies that haven't accepted biotech?”

More than 110 biotech field tests were slated for California this spring alone - experiments in growing everything from rice to peas - and the volume of commercial plantings of biotech corn and cotton continues to grow.

Yet state oversight does not grow with them. Former state Sen. Tom Hayden, who in 2000 tried - and failed - to get California to require labeling of genetically modified food, finds that surprising for a state that generally takes pride in setting stricter environmental standards than the federal government.

“We have the lead in anti-smoking legislation, we take the lead in trying to protect the coast against offshore drilling, we take the lead in trying to establish standards higher than the norm for pesticides,” said Hayden, who now teaches at Occidental College. “With respect to biotech, (the state) took the complete reverse position. ... We are just going to pass on it. I found that really astounding.”

With a flood of ever more novel genetically engineered plants on company drawing boards, but only a few in commercial fields, Hayden and others say there's still time for California to protect itself from the unintended consequences of biotechnology.

Missing pieces

Barbara Hass became California's first line of defense against biotech mistakes in 1986, when she started part time as its sole biotech plant regulator.

Hass, a biologist, was charged by CDFA with preventing the experimental plots from introducing diseases or insect infestations into the state's farms.

Glossy FedEx packets of proposed experiments for California fields landed almost daily in Hass' third-floor office downtown, competing with her raft of nonbiotech duties.

First, she'd look to see what type of plant was being engineered, then what novel trait had been created. In the early days, she remembers, that initial review went relatively smoothly.

But by 1990, Hass hit a bump. Nitty-gritty scientific descriptions were missing from many pages; others lacked information as basic as the variety of plants.

Hass puzzled over the increasingly blank documents. “What is going on?” she asked herself.

“You look at application after application with skimpy data and manage to figure it out,” Hass said. “Then you would finally come to one that was basically an application form with 'CBI' deleted on just about everything.”

Her opponent was formidable: CBI, short for “confidential business information,” a federal protection for trade secrets that allows private companies to withhold information from the public. Biotechnology companies, increasingly aware of how accessible state files were to the public and competitors alike, had begun removing as much information as they legally could.

Hass remembers thinking, “How would a sensible applicant think that it was possible for a government scientist to review their proposal?”

She questioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture about the deleted data, only to be told that the state couldn't have the missing information unless she promised to keep it from public view.

Cloak of secrecy

Confidential business information - CBI - is a common refrain in the biotech industry, used, it says, not just to keep competitors in the dark, but also to prevent destruction of controversial crops by environmental activists.

When Dow Chemical Co. wanted to plant up to 200 acres of corn engineered with “synthetic genes sourced from mammalian species” in Corcoran two years ago, the details of its experiment in state files included six mostly blank pages.

Want to know what mammal the genes came from? CBI.

Want to know what drug components the company hoped to grow in corn plants? CBI.

Wonder whether the fields might be next to your family's corn farm? CBI.

The public might want to know that information. Just a few months before Dow's application to the federal government arrived in California, federal agents in Hawaii discovered the company had failed to plant the right trees to create a buffer zone to prevent genes from an experimental biotech corn plot from spreading to other corn on the island of Molokai.

Despite that lapse, in the end the EPA did not find evidence that genes had escaped. But concern increased when a second company, Pioneer Hi-Bred, had a similar problem on the island of Kauai.

The cloak of secrecy is reinforced by federal law, which can mete out harsher penalties for an employee who discloses trade secrets than for a company that breaks the rules for experimental plantings. Secrecy is closely protected by federal officials, who delayed The Bee's requests for information while they consulted with the companies involved - and then denied large chunks of information on the basis of confidential business information - CBI.

Such secrecy is not just a problem for reporters, either. Months after the Hawaii incidents, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, wrote to then-EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, asking her to clear up widespread public confusion about what had happened.

Whitman wrote back that the ongoing investigation made it impossible for her to answer his questions.

The lack of transparency about biotechnology is so pervasive that the august National Academy of Sciences - commissioned by the USDA to critique biotech regulations - warned in 2002 that public confidence in federal oversight could be undermined by the companies' ability to withhold vast amounts of information.

“Indeed, the committee often found it difficult to gather the information needed to write this report due to inaccessible CBI,” the scientists wrote.

Verbal compromise

Those difficulties are compounded when public-interest groups or government watchdogs want to investigate. They don't even know where to look for trouble, because locations of experimental fields are secret.

“It makes it virtually impossible for concerned citizens to know if regulations are being followed,” said Noli Hoye at GMO Free Kauai, a consumer group formed to oppose the expansion of biotech field experiments in Hawaii.

Such public concern increases the pressure on government agents to cobble together ways to do their jobs with limited authority and sometimes-skimpy data.

Hass, for instance, didn't want to bar the public from the state's files, nor did she want to reject company applications that posed no risk. So, she called companies and asked for deleted information over the phone, assuring them that nothing they told her would end up in the public files.

“We worked on a verbal basis,” Hass said. “It was sort of a compromise position. It was one of those things that I worked out to conduct business, to meet our responsibilities and keep the applications moving.”

Hass retired two years ago, and it's not clear whether her makeshift system remains in place today. The state Department of Food and Agriculture's written responses to questions from The Bee failed to address how the agency handles trade secrets.

Instead, state officials said simply that it's not their job.

“There really isn't much to discuss,” said agency spokesman Steve Lyle. “The regulatory authority rests with the federal government.”

Inspections rare

On the windblown west side of Kauai, federal inspectors showed up in March 2002 to look at land where farmers once turned swamps into sugar cane plantations. Now, it's used by one of the world's largest seed companies to test genetically engineered crops.

During that rare field visit by the Environmental Protection Agency, regulators realized that Pioneer Hi-Bred had planted experimental corn engineered to kill bugs in an unapproved location, too close to other corn. To make matters worse, the company had indications that genes were indeed migrating, but had failed to immediately tell the EPA.

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EPA soon may have eye in the sky

A biotech spy plane will swoop over a few Midwest fields this summer as the federal government tries to get an unusual pilot program off the ground.

Eventually, the Environmental Protection Agency hopes to be able to monitor millions of acres for the presence of insects that survived after eating plants that produce their own pesticides. The goal is to issue an early warning about the biotech plants before farmers face large populations of beefed-up bugs.

The EPA loves the idea of insect-resistant plants because they can reduce the use of chemical sprays. So, with the help of NASA, it's sending up an airplane equipped with a special computer-linked camera that can detect subtle differences between biotech crops and their conventional counterparts.

To most observers, the two types of crops look exactly the same on the ground - let alone from 10,000 feet - but agency tests in 2003 showed that a highly precise photography called “hyperspectral imaging” can discern differences between them.

By first locating biotech fields, analysts will be able to take the next step, zeroing in on insect “hot spots” based on relative crop health as observed from the air.

Don't understand how it all works? Neither does John Glaser, leader of this year's $800,000 experiment for the EPA in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“The cause-and-effect relationship is not completely there,” he said. “We are still in the learning mode ... but our plans are going in the right direction, and we can see what we are looking for.”

- Mike Lee

 


The discovery and delay led to more than $80,000 in fines for Pioneer - among the highest ever in the world of agricultural biotechnology.

The problems that led to the penalties might have served as a warning to the EPA about the potential for problems elsewhere.

Yet California - the nation's fourth-most-popular testing ground for biotechnology, with more than 1,100 tests since 1987 - has never had an EPA field inspection, not even of the 169 of those experiments that involved bug-killing plants like those in Hawaii.

The EPA suggests states should take the lead on inspections. California's EPA counterpart - the Department of Pesticide Regulation - flatly denies responsibility and accuses the federal EPA of routinely issuing field-test permits without a follow-up plan.

One of those permits in 2004 was for insect-resistant tomatoes on nearly 200 acres in the Central Valley. In that instance, the EPA did approve a plan to prevent biotech tomato genes from spreading, but a critical section of the permit is vague. Biotech tomatoes were to be separated from conventional tomatoes by “alleys.” The plan gives no intended size or other description of those alleys.

Such murkiness stems from regulation of biotech being squeezed into rules developed before the technology was invented - before anyone ever considered the complexity of regulating a plant that produces its own pesticide.

“The federal regulatory system is a weak one,” said Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It should not be relied on as one that is doing all that needs to be done to make sure we are not taking unacceptable risks.”

Policing themselves

Big food companies recognize the shortcomings of the federal tag-team effort. “It's difficult to explain to people and it's difficult to look at it as a ... robust reassurance to consumers in the face of controversy about the safety of human use,” Keith Triebwasser, a top regulatory official at Procter & Gamble, told a federal committee on agriculture last fall.

Companies have a lot riding on public acceptance, however, and some spend time and money policing themselves.

Judging from the experience of Monsanto Co., the nation's biggest seed biotech company, most mistakes are caught by the companies. Last fall, Monsanto said it had found, and reported, three-fourths of its 44 infractions.

The USDA maintains that less than 2 percent of biotech test plots violate federal rules, based on agency inspections and company-reported problems. Yet even after a special enforcement unit was created last fall, the agency inspects only about 10 percent of test plots.

Sometimes biotech food trouble is discovered at the last minute by advocacy groups such as Friends of the Earth, which in 2000 found taco shells laced with the biotech corn StarLink, which had not been approved for humans.

Consumers may assume the FDA has a rigorous program to assess biotech foods. But it actually defers to companies to determine whether their products should be regulated. When a company wants to market a biotech product as food, the FDA sign-off is optional.

The FDA does review companies' summaries of human safety data, but such documents vary widely in detail and scope, ranging from a few dozen pages to a few hundred, according to a 2003 report for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., written by a former EPA biotech plant specialist.

At times, the center found, companies didn't provide regulators with enough statistical analysis for adequate safety evaluations and, in three of the six cases reviewed by the center, when the FDA asked for more information, companies ignored the request.

Filling the gaps

Lanky Illinois farmer Leon Corzine loves his biotech soybeans as much as the next guy, but he's sympathetic to calls for mandatory FDA review of biotech foods.

“If it helps the comfort level of the consumer,” he said as beans clattered into his combine last fall, “that is probably something we should do.”

From the seats of their giant machines, however, it's unlikely that farmers such as Corzine ever will see a federal agent checking out their biotech crops.

Once biotech seeds and plants are approved by the government, usually on the basis of a small-scale field test, it's almost like they never existed.

When the USDA allows a biotech crop to be put on the market, the agency usually gives up its authority to require companies to monitor the crop, and the manufacturer may not have a legal obligation to report problems, according to an analysis by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. From then on, there's no coordinated national attempt to track questions about long-term environmental complications.

In 2002, the National Academy of Sciences told the USDA that there are “several compelling arguments for ... ecological monitoring” of commercial biotech crops, including the fact that approvals often are based on tests of just a few acres.

Two years later, the USDA has improved an array of in-house biotech risk and mitigation research projects, and the White House has ordered related federal work to be reviewed for research shortcomings. USDA officials say that is part of an effort to answer public questions about the technology. But they acknowledge it is not comprehensive.

“There is certainly some monitoring and research out there, but it is not coordinated through us in some sort of central ecological (review),” said John Turner, who heads a policy branch of .USDA's Biotechnology Regulatory Services division.

States' concern grows

As biotechnology spreads farther into California, Richvale rice farmer Bryce Lundberg wants to make sure things are done better.

He peeled away from his job as organic certification director at Lundberg Family Farms during the heat of the summer growing season last year to urge a state Senate committee to protect farmers from the unintentional spread of genetically engineered crops.

“I don't want them on our farm and ... right now there's nothing that says it's wrong for those genes to be moving across farm borders,” Lundberg told Sen. Nell Soto, D-Ontario.

“I'll be glad to introduce that legislation,” Soto replied.

“I think that would be fantastic,” Lundberg said.

Though Soto has yet to follow through, her interest may be part of a small, but growing, awareness in Sacramento. Similar concerns are being voiced in statehouses and county offices from Vermont to Hawaii.

Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, said the federal policy vacuum leaves states with the rubber-meets-the-road issues that accompany the expansion of any new technology.

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Congress sees biotech largesse

As the biotech industry matures, it's spreading more cash around Washington, D.C., and getting more favors in return.

Campaign contributions from biotech companies topped $7.7 million in the 2002 election cycle, up more than sixfold from $1.2 million in 1990, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group. Its report includes biotech companies in agriculture and medicine.

The top donors are Dow Chemical Co., Aventis and Monsanto Co. - all of which have been big players in the agricultural biotech world - which gave nearly $13 million combined to congressional campaigns between 1990 and 2003. Not far behind are Bayer, DuPont and Syngenta, the other major players in biotech seeds, according to an analysis conducted by the center for The Bee.

One leading recipient of biotech largesse, Missouri Republican Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, boasts that he's been able to secure more than $40 million of federal money for biotech research in his home state, the corporate home for Monsanto. Since 1990, the biotech industry has given Bond more than $177,000, according to the center's analysis.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and strong supporter of allowing drug compounds to be grown in corn, is among the heavyweights on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee backed by biotech company dollars. He's gotten $123,000 since 1990. Other top recipients on the panel include Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

Few bills in Congress mention any risks associated with biotechnology. More typical is a June 2003 bill that would create a federal task force to promote the “benefits, safety and potential uses” of biotechnology around the world.

- Mike Lee

 


Activists and legislators in dozens of states are trying to address problems such as what responsibility companies should have for preventing and cleaning up genetic contamination.

In 2003, legislators in 32 states introduced 130 biotech bills and resolutions, according to Pew research. Only 27 pieces of legislation passed and, of those, about 70 percent sided with industry - many of them aimed at boosting biotech businesses with research initiatives and tax breaks.

Virtually all attempts to restrict the industry have failed in recent years, including efforts to shift liability for environmental damage to biotech companies, give farmers the right to save genetically engineered seeds from year to year and allow states to ban the planting of biotech crops during a study period.

The biotechnology industry works hard to defeat such measures, saying state and county regulation is inappropriate because the federal government is in charge. Patchwork state-by-state legislation also would increase their cost of doing business.

“Consistent rules to the game would be good,” said Doyle Karr, a spokesman for Pioneer.

Typically, gene giants don't invest much money directly in state candidates. Instead, they hire lobbyists in the major agricultural states. They also contribute to industry organizations, such as the Western Plant Health Association, which in turn support industry-friendly political candidates and oppose legislation that could undermine the industry.

Mendocino money

This spring, biotech interests turned their attention toward Mendocino County, where organic activists aimed to make their county the nation's first to swear off genetically modified plants. Under the banner of the industry organization CropLife America, biotechnology companies spent more than $600,000 to convince residents that the county had no business regulating biotechnology.

It bought them a blizzard of radio ads and countywide mailers, but not what they really wanted: a decisive defeat of the proposed ban. Measure H was approved, 56 percent to 44 percent, and already has spurred copycat measures in Humboldt and Sonoma counties.

The industry was more successful in North Dakota, where a bipartisan group of legislators in 2001 proposed a ban on growing biotech wheat, which farmers feared would scare away major export buyers.

The bill sailed through the state House but met stiff resistance in the Senate after CropLife and Monsanto lobbyists showed up.

At the time, Monsanto and the chairman of the state Senate Agriculture Committee said the bill sent a negative message about the acceptance of innovation in North Dakota. In May, the company succumbed to grower concerns about exports and said it would wait at least four years before putting its Roundup Ready wheat on the market.

Over the summer, though, North Dakotans still plan to gather signatures for a ballot initiative that would give the state's agriculture commissioner some authority over the growing of biotech wheat.

If North Dakota adopts the initiative, it would follow in the steps of California's rice industry, which four years ago sponsored legislation to protect itself from the economic hazards of biotech rice.

Rice law unique

The California Rice Commission's president, Tim Johnson, worked out the legislative language as he and his wife flew to Kauai for their 10th anniversary in January 1999.

Biotechnology companies were creating a biotech rice for California, and the state's growers were agitated about how foreign buyers would react.

Concerned that companies were moving faster than public acceptance, Johnson spent his vacation in paradise on the phone with Rice Commission lawyers, hammering out what would eventually become the Rice Certification Act of 2000.

The legislation remains the only law of its kind in the nation. Although it never mentions biotechnology, it gives a 12-member committee of the Rice Commission an opportunity to set protocols for any new rice varieties that need to be kept separate from the main crop.

The Legislature approved it, biotech companies cringed - but they didn't mount a concerted campaign against the bill - and rice growers waited.

Four years later, a small Sacramento biotech company called Ventria Bioscience caught almost everyone off-guard with a proposal that gave Johnson's legislation its first big test.

Ventria asked to expand its test plots of rice engineered to inexpensively produce common human proteins for use in an anti-diarrhea medication - the first attempt in the nation to grow commercial-scale food crops as drug factories.

The rice industry collectively gasped, then debated for months about what conditions to set.

The main issue: how to assure that not a single biotech grain escaped from Ven.tria's transport trucks, farming machines or planted fields.

In early March, Maxwell rice farmer Joe Carrancho told the rice panel that he wouldn't hesitate to eat Ventria's rice. But he's so uncertain about how the rest of the world might react to the new product that he begged the panel not to allow it in California.

“If there is one kernel that gets out here somehow, it could ruin our entire industry,” Carrancho said.

Although Ventria worked toward compromise, privately the company bristled at the public scrutiny.

“We are less than happy with a completely open process,” company official Stacey Roberts complained in a January e-mail to the California Rice Commission that was obtained by The Bee. In another, she wrote: “Under no circumstances is the location of our crop, its yield nor the amount processed 'public information.'”

Agreement stalled

At the end of March, the rice panel gave the go-ahead for a new era in California agriculture, but only after Ventria agreed to dozens of conditions on its crop - including to not plant it in the state's rice-growing region, the Sacramento Valley. Then, the California Department of Food and Agriculture rejected the Rice Commission's emergency agreement, saying the public needed time to comment. The issue is expected to come back to the state later this year.

The process illustrated the potential value of state review, which allowed Ventria and the rice industry to alleviate some major concerns.

Yet, besides the rice bill, California has done little else to put bounds on biotechnology. Instead, like other states, it's focused on promoting biotech business and its high-paying jobs.

“I do believe its success is going to drive our economy and hopefully push us out of the economic downturn we are in,” said Assemblywoman Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, who recently introduced bills for biotech tax breaks and biotech job training.

When faced with the 2000 proposal from former Sen. Hayden to label genetically engineered foods, the Legislature instead created a task force to assess advantages and risks of biotech crops.

The task force's findings, issued three years later, proposed no new rules for genetically engineered agriculture, nor did the panel address whether the state's role was adequate.

An accompanying letter from the state Department of Food and Agriculture highlighted some weighty public-policy considerations for California: federal and state oversight, impacts to organic farming, implications for international marketing and issues that might arise if biotech traits were introduced into one of many crops that California grows almost exclusively.

It also expressed the need for long-term studies about the environmental and health effects of biotechnology.

The Legislature never responded, said Lourminia Sen, who was tracking biotechnology for the CDFA when she wrote the letter.

Since then, Sen's position has been eliminated. She does analytical chemistry for the agency instead. But the issues raised in her letter, she said, still merit state attention.

“It's huge - it's right here on our doorstep,” Sen said. Referring to biotech mistakes such as StarLink corn that have rocked Midwest grain markets in recent years, she added, “To me, it's a wake-up call for California.”


Intro | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Credits

Part Five: Grocery quandary

For U.S.shoppers, a lack of labels limits choice on biotech products

By Edie Lau -- Bee Staff Writer
Published Thursday, June 10, 2004 -- Last of five parts

Grocery shopping was going smoothly until Lori Brennan stopped for soy milk.

Studying the shelves at a natural foods market in Grass Valley this spring, Brennan found her options mind-boggling. Some of the drinks carried the organic seal, some did not. All but one new variety were sweetened. A brand on sale caught Brennan's interest, but it bothered her that the package said nothing about whether the soy was genetically modified.

Brennan, a 57-year-old registered nurse with a zeal for eating healthfully, sighed. “It's not easy to be a consumer,” she said.

Not long afterward, in the aisle of a London grocery store, Sylvia Slark picked up a plastic container of seedless grapes and dropped it in a basket. A label on the container clearly read: “Naturally contains no GM products.”

“I'm fussy about what I eat,” said Slark, an office manager for a nightclub. “Choice is important to me.”

A decade since the debut of gene-spliced food, biotechnology is a dominant presence in world agriculture. But the distribution of biotech foods is uneven. Dancing around deeply divided opinions over the technology's health and environmental safety, and over its social and economic effects, the global food industry approaches genetic engineering with a double standard.

In much of Europe and parts of Asia, where consumer mistrust is greatest and labeling is required, food manufacturers take pains to eliminate genetically engineered ingredients as much as possible.

In the United States, a land of seemingly infinite grocery choices, food purveyors rarely make distinctions between what's genetically engineered and what's not. People who want to avoid biotech foods are left trying to sort it out on their own.

“I'd like to...be able to make an informed decision; at this point, I can't,” said Jeff Dawson, curator of gardens at Copia, a museum and cultural center in Napa that celebrates food and wine. “I feel some personal freedom's been taken away from me.”

No labels required

The U.S. government maintains that the act of gene splicing doesn't significantly change a food. As long as an engineered food is nutritionally the same as its conventionally grown version - and has undergone a company analysis to rule out the presence of allergens - the government says labels aren't necessary.

Rejecting mandatory labeling sets the United States apart from most of the world's industrial countries.

More than 40 countries have labeling requirements, according to Colin Carter, a University of California, Davis, agricultural economist. In addition to the 25 countries of the European Union, they range from Australia to South Africa, Taiwan to Thailand - and even China, which spends the most public money of any country on biotech crop research.

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A profit from picky consumers

In Japanese soybean buyers' objections to biotech soy, Connell Brothers in San Francisco saw an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

Connell Brothers is the international trading division of Wilbur Ellis, one of the largest distributors of agricultural products in the United States. Company staff in Japan suggested finding growers who would plant conventional soybeans and make special efforts to keep those beans separate from engineered beans. From that idea, a niche market was carved.

Today, Connell Brothers specializes in soybeans known as “identity-preserved non-GMO.” By keeping a detailed record of their beans' origin and transport, the company promises buyers 99 percent non-biotech purity. In turn, their beans fetch a higher price. The premium fluctuates, running in the range of 20 percent to 40 percent per bushel, according to Kevin Hack, Connell Brothers corporate marketing manager for specialty grains.

A few of the shipments go to Europe, Hack said, but the majority are bound for Japan for use in miso, tofu, fish cakes and baby food.

Japanese people's wary reaction to genetically engineered food stems in part from a strong sense that what they eat reflects who they are. “Japanese food culture is our identity,” said Ryoko Shimizi, who studies biotech issues for the Seikatsu Club Consumers' Cooperative Union in Tokyo. “So food is not just nutrition.”

Shimizu said co-op members, who number 250,000, worry about the safety of biotech foods over the long term. “We didn't know the risk of pesticides or herbicides (right away), but we know now,” she said.

That attitude has induced a major change in the buying habits of Japanese tofu makers, said Kim Nill, technical issues director of the American Soybean Association. They've moved “upscale” - buying identity-preserved non-GMO soy or even more expensive organic soy. That shift affects not only Connell Brothers but the whole U.S. soybean industry.

“The real impact for my members,” said Nill cheerfully. “They make more profit.”

- Edie Lau

 


Britain, for one, has made consumer information a priority when it comes to biotech products.

“The government is neither pro nor anti,” said Sharima Rasanayagam, science and technology consul in the British Consulate in San Francisco. “We want decisions made on sound science; we want to protect the environment as much as possible; and we want to protect consumer choice.”

Some of the same companies that resist mandatory labeling here, arguing that it's costly and unnecessary to segregate crops, provide their overseas customers with non-engineered products.

Sarah Delea, a spokeswoman for Kraft Foods Inc., explained it this way: “In Europe, the regulations are evolving, and consumer acceptance of biotechnology remains lower than, say, in the United States. Therefore, in Europe, we do not use biotech ingredients. In the United States, the regulatory system has reviewed and assessed and approved the safety of biotech ingredients, and consumer interest in it remains stable.”

Even the makers of genetically engineered organisms play both sides of the fence. DuPont, a leading developer of biotech crops, is part-owner of a non-engineered soy business called Solae.

The reason is simple, said Paul Tebo, corporate vice president of safety, health and environment at DuPont: “Where there's a market demand for products, we produce the products.”

It may make perfect business sense, but Corey Nicholl finds it offensive. A stocker at a natural foods grocery in Berkeley who this past year has researched genetic modification and the food industry, Nicholl said the attitude seems to be, “Americans will eat anything, right? (So) they sell their trash here.”

British food and drink makers studiously avoid the products of genetic engineering, to the best of their ability. “The UK food and drink manufacturing industry does not (use) GM ingredients for its products, as they would not sell,” said Kate Snowden, a spokeswoman for the British Food and Drink Federation.

By contrast, the Grocery Manufacturers of America estimates that 70 to 75 percent of processed foods sold in the United States may contain genetically engineered ingredients.

The reason is not that so many sources of food are genetically engineered. So far, no engineered animals are sold as meat, and very few commercial crop types are bioengineered. Just four commodities dominate the biotech farmscape - corn, soybeans, canola and cotton - but they are valuable commodities broadly used in countless products. Corn and soy are ubiquitous in processed foods.

They show up on ingredient labels as high-fructose corn syrup. Corn syrup solids. Soy protein isolate. Soy lecithin. Corn oil. Soybean oil. Or generically, “vegetable oil.” There's also canola oil and cottonseed oil.

Common but invisible, these ingredients are produced by an expanding acreage of crops with engineered DNA that, in most instances, enables the plants to produce their own insecticide or withstand certain herbicides.

Because everyone eats, the shift affects everyone. Yet the revolution has happened largely unnoticed by the American public. Here, ignorance about genetic engineering in food is the norm.

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Household term: GMO

Filling the information void in her community was what Els Cooperrider had in mind when she dreamed up a ballot initiative to outlaw growing genetically modified organisms in Mendocino County.

To her amazement, the measure passed in March, making Mendocino the nation's first community to ban genetically modified organisms - GMOs.

“I wasn't thinking we could pass such a thing. I was just thinking about educating the public,” said Cooperrider, the snowy-haired matriarch of a family-owned .organic-foods restaurant and brew pub in Ukiah.

A former biology researcher who has watched the use of DNA splicing spread since its genesis in the 1970s, Cooperrider mistrusts the technology.

“You take a piece of DNA and forcibly insert it,” she said, “you're going to mess something up.”

Early on, people were mystified by the “GMO Free Mendocino” signs posted along roadsides and in shop windows. Campaign volunteer Adam Gaska remembers being asked, “What the hell is a guh-MOE?”

Gaska sagged. If residents of Mendocino, which prides itself on being socially progressive, don't know the ABCs of food biotechnology, he thought, what about the rest of America?

Over the next three months, Gaska and other volunteers by the scores spread out across the lush hills and valleys of the community, talking to their neighbors, hoping to tap the independent spirit that draws people to the North Coast. The fight was hot. The industry-supported opposition outspent proponents of the ban 5-to-1. Radio airwaves overflowed with advertisements. By the end, the combined letters G-M-O had become a household term. And, for 56 percent of voters, an unwelcome concept.

- Edie Lau

 


Little knowledge

A survey in January commissioned by the International FoodInformation Council - a public relations arm of the food, beverage and agriculture industry - found that 63 percent of adults had heard or read little to nothing about food biotechnology.

Talk to shoppers outside the Natomas Raley's supermarket and you'll hear a similar refrain.

Among a handful of people interviewed there by The Bee this spring, half said they knew nothing about food biotechnology, genetic engineering, genetically modified organisms or “Frankenfood,” the nickname popular among opponents.

Debra Hilton, a 27-year-old living in Rio Linda, said working three jobs leaves her too busy to pay attention to such things.

“They should have to label it,” said Angie Dickson, a 29-year-old, who at the time was an expectant mother on leave from her job at an insurance office. Dickson said she habitually reads the fine print on packaging to avoid hydrogenated oils and other unhealthy ingredients.

The absence of labels for bioengineered ingredients and low consumer awareness are inter.twined. Without labels, consumers tend not to know about the issue, so they are unlikely to press for labeling.

Efficiency lost

The standard food and biotechnology industry argument against labeling is that segregating biotech from conventional crops is too expensive. But segregation is happening anyway, driven by overseas regulations and the demands of foreign buyers.

The system for producing products in this new, awkwardly named category of “identity-preserved non-GMO” does cost some money. But it's nominal in the grand scheme of things, according to David Bullock, an associate professor specializing in agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois.

Bullock said the greatest expense - and one that's hard to quantify - comes from lost efficiency. Now there are two streams of soy products and two streams of corn products where once there was one of each. All of a sudden, storage containers, whether silos, grain elevators or the holds of ships, are too big.

“The infrastructure is not right,” Bullock said. But, he added, “It's not an economic disaster.”

The real barrier to labeling biotech crops in the United States may be more formidable than upfront cost: fear. The food industry fears that mandatory labels would act as scarlet letters, driving away fearful shoppers.

Bugles are a case in point.

The crunchy, salty snack shaped like a horn is made from corn by General Mills. In the United States, at least some of the corn likely is bioengineered. In Europe, the company pays extra to be sure the corn is not genetically modified, so the Bugles don't have to be labeled.

Ron Olson, General Mills vice president for grain operations, said he doesn't know what would happen if Bugles were labeled “contains GM” in the United States. Nor does he care to find out.

“At this point in time,” he said, “we're not willing to risk the brand.”

Shelf sleuths

On Gilman Street in Berkeley, a health-food store so small it doesn't have a parking lot is plotting a revolt against what its employees consider the force-feeding of genetically engineered foods in America.

It began when the telephone rang at Berkeley Natural Grocery shortly before Christmas 2002. The caller was a woman who regularly buys nutritional supplements, including soy lecithin, a form of fat believed to improve brain health. In Los Angeles, she'd seen a brand of lecithin labeled “non-GMO.” Couldn't the Berkeley store carry something similar?

Elizabeth Donsky got right on it. A vegan with a degree in holistic health from San Francisco State University, Donsky is in charge of vitamin sales. She shared the customer's concerns.

Donsky contacted suppliers. Sure enough, most of the lecithin was engineered.

Within a week, she found a lecithin without modified genes. It even cost less than some of the other brands.

The customer's request was satisfied, but now Donsky wasn't. Neither were some of her co-workers. They approached the owner. “We want to look into what in the store has GMOs, and we'd like them to be gone,” they said. “Gone or labeled.”

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Labeling debate

The food industry generally balks at labeling genetically modified foods in the United States, saying the logistics would be a nightmare. But a model already exists, in those little labels you find stubbornly attached to your fruits and vegetables.

The Produce Electronic Identification Board years ago established a code for biotech produce, believing at the time they would bring a higher price.

The code is part of a system known as PLU, for “price look-up.” Shoppers encounter the PLU every time they try to peel off those tiny stickers affixed to individual apples or tomatoes. The PLU is meant to help checkout clerks charge the correct price. Each type of produce is assigned a 4-digit number.

Organic versions of the same fruit or vegetable start with the numeral 9. And, under the system set up by the produce board, biotech versions can be preceded by the numeral 8. So a conventional banana is coded 4011, an organic banana 94011 and an engineered banana would be 84011. Theoretically.

In practice, no produce bears the coding for genetic engineering. For one thing, very little fresh commercial produce is genetically engineered right now. For another, use of the code is entirely voluntary.

“It isn't a matter of, do we want to tell you, or do people want to know,” said Dick Spezzano, who was chairman of the Produce Electronic Identification Board when the coding for genetic engineering was adopted in the mid-1990s. “(It's meant for) those who want to market differently. They could use the regular code. They're not obligated.”

In fact, Spezzano said Hawaiian papayas that have been genetically modified to resist a particular viral disease are coded just like conventional papayas. They're sold for the same price, so vendors have no incentive to make a distinction.

 


The issue was a natural for Berkeley, where food and politics go together like carrots and peas. Store founder and President Bob Gerner agreed to take action. He allowed three employees - Donsky, stocker Corey Nicholl and Roxanne Seraphin, a cashier - to each spend two hours a week on the project.

They became biotech sleuths, examining the shelves item by item, reading packaging for “hot” ingredients: corn, canola, soy or cottonseed oil, mostly, plus dairy products - which they reasoned could have come from cows treated with genetically engineered growth hormone.

A crunchy corn cereal made with canola and/or sunflower oil? Put it on the list. Chocolate with a touch of soy lecithin emulsifier to keep ingredients from separating? Check it out, too.

The job took months. Finally, arms aching from clutching clipboards, the team took to the computer. They logged 720 products onto a spreadsheet and began searching for contact information on the 300 companies that made the products.

Next, the team wrote to 6,000 health food stores and cooperatives nationwide, asking if they would like to sign letters to the manufacturers asking them to avoid biotech ingredients. By April, 161 stores were signed on and the letters went out.

“The main objective is to get information to the consumer,” Nicholl said, “so that they can make a real choice.”

Not so simple

Larger stores are struggling with the pro- or no-biotech issue, too. Coming under pressure from environmental and organic advocacy groups, Trader Joe's, for example, announced in March 2003 that all store-brand products would be made with non-engineered ingredients.

In doing so, the popular chain followed a trend set five years earlier in Britain. A medium-sized grocery chain, Iceland, was the first to announce it would not use engineered ingredients in its brand. By 1999, other supermarkets in Britain and elsewhere in Europe followed. Grocery companies even eliminated meat and dairy that came from animals raised on bioengineered feed.

But ousting genetically engineered ingredients completely is not as simple as just saying no - in the United Kingdom or the United States or anywhere else.

Randy Erickson learned that lesson in a most frustrating way.

Erickson is vice president of manufacturing and innovation at Clif Bar, a private Berkeley company founded by his brother, Gary. When he joined the energy bar maker in 1999, Erickson pressed for avoiding biotech ingredients. To him, it was not a matter of doubting the safety of the technology as much as rejecting the system that produces bioengineered products.

“I think it's a lie that's been perpetrated on us by big companies for the wrong reason,” Erickson said. “I'm not one that believes, 'Oh, Frankenfood' and all this other stuff.... (But) we're not feeding one person more because of this (technology). No lives have been saved. ... We've got it whether we want it or not, and we were never given the choice.”

Trying to wrest back that choice, he arranged for Clif Bar to buy certified non-engineered soybean ingredients. The company printed on its packages that Clif Bars contained no GM soy. Erickson and crew ordered DNA testing of the bars to verify the claim.

Results came in by e-mail and fax. Negative. Negative. Negative. Positive. Uh-oh.

“Damn low levels,” Erickson said. “But damn low levels ain't none.”

Where did it come from? Was somebody, the staff wondered suspiciously, slipping in ingredients they hadn't asked for? Or had they neglected to specify “GM-free” for an ingredient?

Clif Bar sent out individual ingredients for testing, trying to pinpoint the problem. They all came back negative. Was the science of testing a mess? After all, no uniform standards exist for biotech analysis. Or did the sample that tested positive happen to be made with a stray modified soybean?

About that time, Clif Bar got publicly dinged.

The Wall Street Journal hired a lab to test an assortment of foods claiming to be “GM-free.” It reported in 2001 that many of those foods weren't free of biotech ingredients, Clif Bar among them.

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Changing farm life

On the outskirts of Dixon, a 33-year-old farmer named Erik Freese grows alfalfa, sunflowers, wheat, a type of hay called Sudan grass, beans and corn. A graduate of the University of California, Davis, with a degree in agriculture management and economics, Freese began in 2001 to experiment with biotech corn.

He started with 70 acres, planting in an area where neighboring farms grow mostly tomatoes. Today, Freese is up to 1,000 acres a year of herbicide-resistant corn. He sells it as cattle feed. And he loves it.

Because he can kill weeds using the herbicide Roundup - which the biotech corn is created to withstand - Freese doesn't need to weed by plowing. That means he runs fossil-fuel burning, dust-raising farm machinery less often, and saves at least $20,000 a year in labor expenses.

He does pay more for seeds - the patented products cost about 10 percent more than conventional varieties. But bottom line, biotech corn saves Freese money.

The benefits are not merely financial.

“I am a fifth-generation farmer, and if this Roundup Ready corn wasn't available, I would be hard-pressed to stay in this industry,” said Freese, who has one child and another on the way. “I don't want to be the one that couldn't maintain this legacy.”

As important, Freese has more time now for his family. He has the luxury of taking his 3-year-old son to preschool in the morning, or picking him up in the afternoon. He can be home in time to eat dinner with the family.

“I have the opportunity to be a husband and a dad and all that good stuff that goes along with life, other than being married to my job,” he said.

- Edie Lau

 


Anxious that the company not be seen as deceptive, Erickson faxed the Journal documents showing how doggedly Clif Bar had tried to eliminate the engineered ingredients. The company could even cite the lot number of the seeds from which its soy was grown.

Then, Clif Bar removed the claim on its packaging. After spending tens of thousands of dollars in tests, Erickson resigned himself to tolerating low levels of biotech genes.

“We kind of have a limit where if it's under 1 percent, we really don't worry about it,” he said. “I'm still mad that I can't buy perfect GMO-free stuff. Why am I forced to do that? I should be able to get what I want.”

Clif Bar is shifting toward organic ingredients, which have become the refuge of biotech skeptics. By definition, organic foods cannot be produced using genetic engineering. But even they may not be totally “GM-free.”

That's because transgenes - the genetic material biologists insert into engineered organisms - don't stay put. They travel on the wind or hitch rides on insects' feet. They slip out on mis.labeled seeds. Biotech corn kernels or soybeans mix in silos or on shipping containers with conventional corn and soy. The system is full of leaks.

Every day, Frank Spiegelhalter sees how readily DNA roams. Spiegelhalter is executive vice president of Gene.Scan USA Inc., a leading laboratory offering biotech gene testing. Based in Louisiana, GeneScan USA is owned by a German company with labs on every major continent, reflecting the growing demand for analysis of genetic modification.

“There will always be a few GM beans in what is considered conventional or organic,” Spiegelhalter said. “It could be just one GM bean and 10,000 (regular) soybeans, but the product still tests positive.”

And if you wanted to peddle only GM-free products? Spiegelhalter gave a dry chuckle and said, “You would have nothing left to sell, basically.”

Nothing has ever been 100 percent pure in agriculture, according to Val Giddings, a vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization and a former branch chief for biotech science and policy coordination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“There's always, you know, rodent feces, (or) a little bit of grass seed here or there,” he said.

Moreover, with biotech genes, no fail-safe way exists to guarantee their absence. Even if every food were tested, which is neither practical nor affordable, some products of genetic engineering would escape detection. Oils extracted from corn, canola, soybeans and cotton seeds, for instance, contain little to no DNA. Without the genetic material or telltale proteins produced by the engineered genes, a food's relationship with biotechnology is invisible.

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Too early to tell about safety

The first thing most people want to know about genetically engineered foods is, are they safe to eat? The question may be obvious, but the answer isn't.

The U.S. government says there's no evidence that existing biotech food products are any riskier to eat than conventional foods. Skeptics say that lack of evidence isn't proof.

A few scattered studies and incidents over the years have raised alarms. But many scientists have disputed the findings.

In the best-known of the studies, researchers in Scotland fed young rats an experimental potato engineered with a flower gene to make it resist insects and nematodes. The rats ended up with suppressed immune systems and stunted growth. The results were published in 1999 in The Lancet, a respected journal, but the study widely was dismissed by other scientists as incomplete and sloppy.

More recently, a Norwegian scientist investigating illnesses in more than 30 people living near fields of engineered corn in the Philippines found that the people may have had an allergic reaction to the corn's insect-killing toxin. Those preliminary findings were issued in February and have not yet been confirmed.

You might expect the government to settle the score. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not independently test any food - including biotech food - for safety. It relies upon analyses conducted by the companies that make the products. A 2002 report on the process by the U.S. General Accounting Office noted that the FDA could improve its evaluation by randomly verifying the companies' test data.

People in the past worried about the safety of frozen foods and about microwave ovens, worries that time didn't seem to support. On the other hand, it took decades for science and society to recognize the health dangers of some new technologies, such as chemical pesticides and hydrogenated fats. In that context, it may be too soon to tell how genetically engineered foods will play out.

- Edie Lau

 


A voice for choice

The debate about genetically modified organisms usually is cast in scientific terms. Are engineered foods safe to eat? Will they harm the environment? But science addresses only a sliver of what concerns its critics.

It fell to Andrew Light to deliver that message to scientists last autumn in Mexico City.

An environmental ethicist at New York University, Light was invited to a conference about biotech corn and “gene flow,” the tendency of genes to migrate. Sequestered for two days in a hotel, Light listened as scientist after scientist talked about the world outside - about the taming of corn from the wild, about corn biology, about ways to detect biotech genes.

When it came time for Light to speak, it was as if someone had thrown open a door and invited in a gale wind.

World opinion, said the slender philosopher, seems intractably divided over biotech foods. “If we want to get anywhere in terms of overcoming some of the big divides that exist over this issue, I don't think that the right approach is to say, 'Well, that perspective is not a scientific perspective, so we shouldn't listen to it.' ... If everyone had a scientific perspective, the world would be incredibly boring.”

Light spoke in jest, but the crowd wasn't laughing.

He kept going. People, he said, have fundamentally different beliefs about what's natural and unnatural; no amount of scientific data will change that.

“If people simply don't want to ingest these materials, we ought to respect their autonomy in making that choice,” he said.

Finally, Light concluded, popular resistance to genetically modified foods is not just about biotechnology. Instead, it's “about how people have felt excluded from making decisions....If you don't like that,” he chided, “then fundamentally you don't like the democratic process.”

Luke Anderson could be the embodiment of Light's democratic world. He's a veteran of .anti-biotech activity from Europe to Russia, Australia to Mexico.

A Briton living in Northern California, Anderson may be the guy carrying the picket sign, but he's also often in the background giving pep talks, teaching protest strategy, dispensing data.

Anderson has made it his mission to study the social implications of biotechnology. So his mind plunges into the future, where he foresees people looking back on the early 21st century as a pivotal time for biotech.

Our descendants, he imagines, won't dwell on whether today's citizens were too busy to learn about genetic engineering or too distracted to form an educated opinion about whether it's good, bad or indifferent.

“They will say,” Anderson said, “these were the years, these were the decades, when people had the opportunity to make a choice.”


Intro | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Credits

Credits

Reporter

Tom Knudson has worked at The Bee since 1988. In 1992, he wrote a series of stories about the Sierra Nevada that received a Pulitzer Prize for public service. Knudson also won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting at the Des Moines Register in 1985. This spring, Knudson received a citation for excellence for international environmental reporting from the Overseas Press Club of America for the “State of Denial” series about California's global demand for natural resources. You can reach him at tknudson@sacbee.com or (530)582-5336.

Reporter

Edie Lau has written about science for The Bee since 1997. Her last special report followed a veterinary research team chasing a cure for brain cancer. A graduate of the University of California, UC Berkeley, Lau began covering biotechnology about the time Dolly the cloned sheep was born nearly eight years ago. Contact her at elau@sacbee.com or (916) 321-1098.

Reporter

Reporter Mike Lee covers agriculture and biotechnology for The Bee. Before coming to the newspaper in 2003, he worked for another newspaper owned by The McClatchy Co., the Tri-City (Wash.) Herald. While there, Lee reported on natural resources and won the Society of Professional Journalists award for top investigative reporting in the nation at a small newspaper. He is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. Reach Lee at mflee@sacbee.com or (916) 321-1102.

Photographer

Renée C. Byer, who joined The Bee in 2003 from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, is an award-winning photographer, designer and picture editor. She's taken honors from the National Press Photographers Association Pictures of the Year, Society of for News Design, Associated Press, and the Best of the West photo and design contest. Most recently, her feature photo “Nude Queen” captured the AP News Executives Council top honor, the Mark Twain Award. Contact her at rbyer@sacbee.com or (916)321-1167.

Artist

Nathaniel Levine previously produced the graphics for “Rising Risk,” The Bee's series on Sacramento's deteriorating levees and flood-control system. Levine, who has been at The Bee since December, earlier worked for the Army Times, where he distinguished himself with his visual reporting on the U.S. military services. He can be reached at nlevine@sacbee.com or (916)321-1026.

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