Genetically Modified Organisms-Exploring the science, politics, and
economics behind GMOs
--Choose a character to represent and read aloud during class. There are 2
articles you may choose from.
High Tech Foods
April 4, 2000
PAUL SOLMAN: In Iowa, a grain train lugs corn and soybeans to
market. It looks innocent enough, but riding in those cars is the stuff of
controversy, because nearly half of America's corn and soybeans are
now genetically modified organisms-- GMOs. The GMO controversy
pits Europe against the U.S., activists against agribusiness, skeptics like
Greenpeace against corporations like Monsanto. And the controversy
raises key questions as to how we as a society weigh the risks and
benefits of new technology in general. Now, when you look back in
history, it turns out we've been toying with plant genetics for quite a
SPOKESMAN: In Adair County, Iowa, an energetic young high school
student named Henry Agard Wallace accepts a challenge.
PAUL SOLMAN: Already by the 1920s,
budding agronomist Henry Wallace was
mating different strains of corn to produce the
best traits of both, crossing a high-yield plant
with one that didn't need much water, say, to
create a new high-yield breed for dry climates.
Wallace himself went on to become secretary
of agriculture, then FDR's vice president. Hybridization, rejected at first
as a risky and radical agri-technology, became "the" standard way to
SPOKESMAN: Don't get poked in the eye.
Plant breeding is unpredicatable
PAUL SOLMAN: Even today, though, plant
breeding retains a certain sex appeal. At
Pioneer Hi-Bred, the now-giant seed company
that Wallace himself started, corn is still often
created intimately. Pioneer's Andrew Waber
showed us. That's the male part?
ANDREW WABER: That's the male. We call it the tassel.
PAUL SOLMAN: Tassel.
ANDREW WABER: Within the tassel, it will actually shed pollen. This
is what blows around in corn fields in Iowa. This is your female. This is
the female receptacle, or as we call it, the silk. You simply just pour the
pollen directly on that silk, and now you've created the pollination.
PAUL SOLMAN: When different corn plants mate, the results are as
unpredictable as with humans. Traits from each parent will pass to the
offspring, but you never know which. The breakthrough of genetic
modification is that the plant's DNA can now be manipulated in the lab,
a huge leap forward, according to the company.
Pioneer Hi-Bred: Instead of hoping that the
random combination of all of the genes brings
forth what you want, you can specifically go in
and say, 'This is the part of the plant that I want
to change,' and go in and specifically do that.
Gene alteration worries some farmers, others
PAUL SOLMAN: So where's the controversy?
Well, for certain traits, genes from entirely
different types of organisms are put into the
plant's DNA. America's most common seed
corn now boasts bacteria genes which trigger a
toxin against corn's archenemy, the corn borer.
It seems to work, looks just like the old corn,
may even mean farmers can use less pesticide, but it's arguably a brand-
new entity, a genetically modified organism, or GMO; and that has
some folks worried.
Nutrition consultant Sue Roberts:
SUE ROBERTS, Dietician: The new genetic engineering is crossing
species lines, and that is a completely different process than what we've
PAUL SOLMAN: With GMOs, says Roberts, come unknowable
dangers to our food.
SUE ROBERTS: One is toxins that the food
might potentially produce; one is allergens that
the food might potentially have; another issue
is antibiotic resistance. Another one is just are
there other potential viruses that could be
harmful that can be formed from this process?
PAUL SOLMAN: To skeptics, the key is not that GMOs have been
proved to cause these dangers, but haven't been proved not to. They
point to the fact that GMOs were fast-tracked by the Food & Drug
Administration despite the misgivings of some FDA -- scientists. So the
manufacturers do all the testing-- tests which may be rigorous, but not at
the level required for new drugs or food additives.
SUE ROBERTS: There haven't been enough studies done in humans;
there haven't been enough done in animals, or whatever the progression
should be to test these products like we would with a food additive or
with a drug.
PAUL SOLMAN: Farmer George Naylor is similarly skeptical about
genetically modified organisms-- GMOs.
GEORGE NAYLOR, Farmer: We live in a sea
of corn and soybeans out here in Iowa, and we
don't know what we're producing and we don't
know the effects on the land, we don't know
the effects on human health or the health of the
animals that eat this feed.
PAUL SOLMAN: In this age of agribusiness, Naylor's trying to
maintain, with his wife and two boys, a family farm with family values.
He raises non-GMO grain, and hopes to sell it at a premium to those
who share his antipathy to agri-tech. But Naylor feels that farmers like
himself are isolated, up against a corporate GMO juggernaut that
threatens to lay waste to their plans. One of his fears: Contamination
from GMO corn the next field over.
GEORGE NAYLOR: As the pollen drifts from
his field to my field, it's going to pollinate
some of my corn, so that the genes from his
crop will be transferred into my crop.
PAUL SOLMAN: The point is, if a non-GMO
were impregnated by a GMO, its purity, says
Naylor, would be compromised.
PAUL SOLMAN: So this is non-GMO corn?
GEORGE NAYLOR: I hope it is. The only reason that it wouldn't be is
because either the seed was contaminated when I bought it, or my
neighbor's pollen has pollinated some of my corn.
PAUL SOLMAN: Even if he could vouch for his grain, however,
Naylor would have another problem. He'd be hard-pressed to keep his
corn separate from its GMO look-alikes.
GEORGE NAYLOR: Now, this is where farmers bring their grain to
store, and it was impossible to really segregate the GMO from the non-
GMO grain this last year, so now it's just all blended together in here.
PAUL SOLMAN: So you mean even though
you're doing non-GMO grain, by the time it
goes to market from here --
GEORGE NAYLOR: Right, it's the same. No,
it's all the same. The consumer's going to get
GMO grain whether they want it or not.
PAUL SOLMAN: It's this lack of choice that's
helped fuel the anti-GMO movement,
especially in Europe and the UK, where there's
widespread objection to America's so-called
Frankenfoods, and Prime Minister Tony Blair's
unwillingness to oppose them. Perhaps fearing
similar protests at home, companies like Heinz,
Frito-Lay, and Gerber have now promised they won't use GMOs to
make their products.
Agricultural Law Professor Neil Hamilton:
NEIL HAMILTON, Drake University: Frito-
Lay and Gerber and other people that may have
made those same decisions are consumer
companies, and they have made some type of
calculation of two things: One, that there may
be some concern on the part of consumers, or
alternatively that the benefits of whatever this
technology is don't inure it enough to them to take a bullet for it.
Some say gene- altered foods have great benefits
PAUL SOLMAN: So what are the benefits of
genetically modified organisms? Some say
they're enormous: Cheap rice with enough
Vitamin A built into it to cure blindness in the
Third World; crops so productive we can feed
millions more people without leveling the rain
forest. Promises like these are what led
Monsanto Chemical to transform itself into a life sciences agri-tech
company in the early '90s.
To investors, GMOs and agri-tech promised huge future returns, not
unlike the Internet. Monsanto's stock soared. Money to nurture the new
technology poured in. But then came the protest movement, charging
that GMO corn, for instance, would lead to super weeds; would kill
monarch butterflies. Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro responded, as here
to a Greenpeace conference in the late '90s.
ROBERT SHAPIRO, Monsanto CEO (film):
Now, we continue to believe in this
technology. We think it can bring important
benefits to people around the world, and we
remain committed to developing good, safe,
useful products. But we are no longer going to
be engaged in a debate.
PAUL SOLMAN: But opposition to Monsanto only grew. The
company's stock sank. Agri-tech research and development slowed. To
economist Dermot Hayes, it was an outrage.
DERMOT HAYES, Iowa State University: Can you imagine how Bill
Gates would feel if somebody had said that microchips cause cancer?
And then the argument was we can't prove they don't cause cancer, so
the stock of Microsoft collapses. Imagine how you would feel,
especially if it wasn't true.
PAUL SOLMAN: And you think that's how Bob Shapiro feels.
DERMOT HAYES: I think that's how he
should feel. He was doing something that was
potentially of great advantage to the human
race. Some arguments were made against the
technologies; they were not based on science.
The technology is now stalled, and the
company, as a result, has fallen in value.
Risks are easier to sell than benefits
PAUL SOLMAN: So if genetic technology is
so promising, why are opponents making as
much headway as they are? Perhaps because
the first GMO products don't benefit the public so much as the industry
itself. Take GMO soybeans called Roundup Ready, the patent for which
is owned by Monsanto. They're designed to be used exclusively with the
popular herbicide Roundup, also made by Monsanto. The company,
says Neil Hamilton, went first for quick returns.
NEIL HAMILTON: It shouldn't be any
surprise that one of the main reasons that you
would develop Roundup Ready technology for
soybeans is so that you can sell more Roundup.
PAUL SOLMAN: So when the industry
promises higher-yielding plants that will feed
the world's poor, critics respond, 'That's not what you're using GMOs
for now.' Moreover, American farmers already produce more food than
they can sell, as evidenced by this corn overflow we happened on in
And GMOs are now actually hurting sales of
American grain because Europeans don't want
them. So to many consumers, the benefits of
GMOs seem remote, while the risks of this
unknown technology can be made to seem
threatening. 'Remember nuclear power,' say
critics. In the '50s, we were told that it was
cheap and safe, the answer to our energy future. But today, we know
how much we didn't know then.
SUE ROBERTS: There's a quote that really
captures my feeling about the issue of
genetically engineered food, and that quote is,
'Nature is not only more complicated than we
think, it is more complicated than we can
think.' And we should err on the side of
precaution rather than plowing ahead and
putting those foods into our food supply until definitely the safety is
PAUL SOLMAN: Caution sounds reasonable. But years of study, say
GMO proponents, will stall a technology that promises to feed the
world. To Dermot Hayes, the benefits of GMOs dwarf the risks, but the
risks are a lot easier to sell.
DERMOT HAYES: The consumer in a store
will give you about a second to make your
case. And if somebody says, 'We can't prove
that this food does not cause cancer,' you will
not consume that food. And that's essentially
what's happened in Ireland and the UK. People
just won't -- they don't want this food, not
because they've looked into the science, but because they have heard
something on the TV from some source that may or may not be good
that there's something wrong with this food.
PAUL SOLMAN: In other words, until the public can be persuaded of
the benefits and safety of GMOs, this latest in a long line of new
technologies may continue to meet resistance in the streets, on the stock
market and on the shelves.
RAY SUAREZ: On another front in the GMO
controversy, a much- anticipated report on the
adequacy of government regulation of
genetically modified crops is due to be released
tomorrow by a National Academies of Science
Seeding the Future
Aug. 12, 1999
TOM BEARDEN: Corn farmer Tim Hume is
up to his ears in hope. After years of battling
farm pests, Hume planted a new kind of corn
this year, a genetically altered variety that
actually kills invading insects. It's called BT
corn. Scientists took a gene from a common soil
bacteria called bacillus thuringiensis, and
combined it with corn. The result is a sort of built-in pesticide. Hume
says it's a godsend when it comes to fighting corn borers.
The battle against insects
TIM HUME, Farmer: The corn-borer insects, the damage can be
amazing. It can be up to 70 bushels per acre, which is 40 percent of
our yield in this area.
TOM BEARDEN: The bioengineered seeds cost more but Hume
hopes they will more than pay for themselves by resisting insects.
TIM HUME: They're simply less scouting for
insects. And we have to spend less money on
sprays that are costly.
TOM BEARDEN: A lot of farmers have jumped on the
bioengineered corn bandwagon because corn borers cost them more
than $1 billion a year in lost yields. Although BT corn has only been
on the market for three years, it's now growing on 20 million acres, a
quarter of the entire U.S. corn crop. But critics of bioengineered food
products are worried the new seeds threaten
human health and the environment. The
biggest outcry is in Europe, where protesters
who want to halt U.S. imports dumped
genetically altered seeds on government
officials' doorsteps. British tabloids refer to
the products as "frankenfood," and the
European Union has refused entry of any new
genetically-modified crops. Fueling much of the current debate is a
study published last may in the journal "Nature." Researchers from
Cornell University reported that BT corn pollen can kill not just pets
but also the larvae of Monarch butterflies. John Losey was the lead
author for the study.
JOHN LOSEY, Cornell University: All of the
caterpillars on the no-pollen treatment and all
of the caterpillars on the regular-pollen
treatment were still alive. Forty-four percent
or almost half of the caterpillars feeding on
the BT pollen treatment were dead. And those that weren't dead were
TOM BEARDEN: Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on
JOHN LOSEY: This is milkweed with the pink flowers. And, if you
notice, if you break off a leaf or a stem, it
produces a latex sort of substance, and it looks
like milk. And that's where it gets its name:
milkweed. And what will happen -- when this
corn grows up and sheds pollen -- is these
milkweed right here on the edge, they are the
ones that are going to get the highest dose of
the pollen, and so the female monarchs will
come in, and they will lay their eggs right on the bottom of leaves,
and when the larvae hatch out, they'll start eating, and if it's been
dusted with pollen, then they'll consume that and they'll get a dose.
TOM BEARDEN: Losey says the risk to the butterflies is
significant, because they breed mostly in U.S. corn belt states. But
the industry says Losey's laboratory study doesn't reflect real life.
Val Giddings is a vice president of BIO, the Biotechnology Industry
VAL GIDDINGS: The crucial thing to look at is would Monarch
larvae in the wild be exposed to corn pollen, and if so, how much
effect would there be? The corn pollen is only around for an
extremely short period of time during the growing season, so the
potential for exposure is extremely low. Therefore, the probability of
a negative impact is commensurately low.
TOM BEARDEN: Both the industry and Losey agree that more
fieldwork is needed. Losey and his team are now measuring how
pollen migrates from real cornfields, and what impact it has on
JOHN LOSEY: That's one of the behaviors that
we're looking for, when it sort of does that head
TOM BEARDEN: Because the Cornell study is
the first evidence that pollen blowing from a
genetically- modified plant can kill non-target
insects, Losey says it should be seen as a heads-up for any
bioengineering in the future.
JOHN LOSEY: It's not just Monarchs. If you look above them on
the food chain, there's a lot of animals like bats, birds, other insects
that eat either the caterpillars or the butterflies and moths. And so, if
you start really having an impact on these populations, it's going to
ripple both up and down the food chain. And it's really hard to
predict what impact that's going to have on the total ecosystem. So I
guess why you should be concerned about the
Monarch is that the Monarch is sort of like the
canary in the mine. And if the Monarch is
going to be impacted, we know other
butterflies and moths are going to be impacted,
and that could be a real problem for the
ecosystem as a whole.
TOM BEARDEN: Bioengineering critics also worry that
genetically-modified crops could pose a threat to people, particularly
those with uncommon allergies. Jane Rissler is with the Union of
JANE RISSLER: If someone were allergic to bananas, she wouldn't
buy foods with bananas. But if a banana gene were transferred to
tomatoes, let's say, to give a yellow color, and that tomato were not
labeled or processed-- tomatoes were not labeled-- then she could
well get the protein from bananas, and she might be allergic to it.
TOM BEARDEN: The FDA already requires that foods which
contain a gene from a common allergen, like peanuts, to be labeled.
The biotech community says agriculture is being unfairly singled
out, even as other bioengineered products are highly praised.
AL GIDDINGS: Some critics of biotechnology
have argued that this takes man into realms
best left to God and God alone, that it is
unnatural to meddle with nature. But then they
say that it's okay to use biotechnology for
pharmaceutical applications. Well, you know,
this starts out as a fundamental statement of principle but all of a
sudden mutates into one which is flexible. And, you know, we can
ignore it when it suits us. I mean, if you're opposed to biotechnology
in food, on a matter of principle, then why are you not opposed to
biotechnology in terms of pharmaceuticals? Are you going to tell a
patient suffering from breast cancer that she cannot have access to
Herceptin, or the breast cancer cystability diagnoses that
biotechnology makes possible? There is a fundamental inconsistency
here philosophically in the minds of those who find biotech in
pharmaceuticals okay but not in agriculture.
TOM BEARDEN: But Rissler says people with health problems are
willing to take risks on bioengineered drugs.
JANE RISSLER: In Ag-biotech, let's look at
who's benefiting and who's taking the risk.
Biotech companies are benefiting; some
farmers are benefiting. Consumers are eating
the food -- are they benefiting? Should they be
asked to take any risk, if they are not getting
any benefits? Whereas if I take a drug that
might prevent breast cancer, I'm benefiting directly.
TOM BEARDEN: But agriculture says consumer benefits are clear:
Cheaper food crops that are much more friendly to the environment
because they don't require pesticide to be sprayed. In fact, industry
giants like Monsanto tout their DNA innovations as a green
revolution. They've invested millions in gene splicing technologies
for other crops like cotton and soybeans that also reduce the use of
chemical pesticides. The huge expense of developing these new
plants has started another argument, this time with farmers.
Monsanto requires farmers who buy bioengineered seeds to sign a
contract agreeing not to save seeds from their crops for replanting
the following year. They say it's an intellectual property rights issue.
VAL GIDDINGS: It costs a good deal of
money to develop these new products.
Farmers can save seed every year, and what
that means then is that for a company to
invest a vast amount of research and
development money into that, they would
have to recoup all of their R&D costs from
the first generation of seed sales. You know, and you just can't do
that. You'd price yourself out of the market.
TOM BEARDEN: Ohio farmers Dan and Roger Peters resent
Monsanto's claim of ownership. The father and son operate a seed
cleaning business. Farmers bring plants to them to extract the seeds
for use the next year. It's an age-old farming practice. The Peters go
so far as to say it's a right.
DAN PETERS: Farmers have saved seed for
years. And I mean, what the difference is, is --
I mean, a guy went out here and had a good
field that yielded good - I can't save that for
seed. I've got to haul it to town. I've got to go
buy new. I mean golly, that's going to cost a lot
TOM BEARDEN: Monsanto asked the Peters and other cleaners to
post signs warning legal action against farmers planning to reuse
genetically modified seeds, and the company has hired investigators
to sample crops, looking for violators. It has a hot line; it encourages
people to call to report others, and has taken some farmers to court.
But a private company's ability to patent a gene-modified plant is
now being challenged in an Iowa Federal Appeals Court. The issue
is bound to get even more contentious when Monsanto introduces a
seed now in development. Called the "terminator seed," it becomes
sterile after one harvest.
JOHN LOSEY: So it definitely looks like they're eating less of the
ones with pollen.
TOM BEARDEN: Since the Cornell
Butterfly Study, members of Congress have
proposed increased funding for further
research on bioengineered food crops. The
industry has also pledged more money for
GMO’s in practice
ACTIVITY 2: First brainstorm on your own. After five minutes get into base
groups and discuss your ideas for a brief poster presentation that EACH member
must contribute either in construction or presentation.
#1. Produce a list of the steps a biotechnologist would need to conduct in order to create a GMO. You could
use corn or soybeans as a concrete example.
#2. Generate a list of the benefits and potential risks of GMO foods to farmers, consumers and the
environment. They could place these into a simple table.
GMO’s and Zamibia conflict
Choose one of the news websites and read the article:
Answer the following based on your internet reading:
1. Approximately how many people need food in Zambia? Why?
2. What is genetically modified food? Why is it grown?
3. What do critics of GM foods believe?
4. Why has President Mwanawasa rejected the food aid? What are some of the
concerns about GM food?
5. What does the EU believe?
6. What are other countries that are receiving GM corn doing with the food?