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2005 Essays - June

Photographs courtesy of the USDA, Agricultural Research Service. See below for credits.


     Few of today's technologies have as great a potential to impact human existence as biotechnology. Whether through new medical treatments, pharmaceuticals or new or improved foods, advances in the field have begun reshaping some of the plains of the past into the frontiers of the future. The debate over genetically modified (GM) foods is one segment of the broader debate over biotechnology. It is a debate, however, which touches an important part of daily life -- the foods which fill cupboards and feed families both here and around the world. It is also a debate which goes well beyond the basic science of creating a genetically modified seed to include aspects of law, science, custom, culture, religion, industry, government, international trade and more. Much of this was discussed in the 2004 three-part essay series. The June 2005 essay will be the last on the subject. It is a short update covering some significant developments in the field as well as a status update on some of the materials covered last summer. The 2004 essays began with a trip to the grocery store. This year will be the same, but instead of the produce section, the first stop will be the snack food aisles . . .

     As it was last summer, the article will be interactive in the sense that the reader can go back and forth between the essay text and the links embedded within it. By clicking a link you can read more about the particular topic being discussed, then return to the essay by clicking your browser's "back" arrow. (The links are included for information purposes only. No guarantees are made as to the accuracy of the materials presented on the sites, although every effort has been made to search out reliable and respected sources of information.) Footnotes, bibliography and a list of internal links are also included at the end. The materials represented here are only a small fraction of what is available on this very complicated issue. The glossary link below has been provided as a reference for use as needed. If your browser does not allow you to see text in the box, click here to reach the glossary.*

     America is a nation that loves its snack foods. Candies, cookies, crackers, pastries, chips, baked goods and the like can fill shelf upon shelf along grocery store aisles with gooey, crunchy, sweet and chewy delights. Unfortunately, some of these products also are high in trans fats. Trans fats, like saturated fats and dietary cholesterol, can raise LDL (or "bad") cholesterol levels which can lead to an increased risk for coronary heart disease.

     Back in 1994, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (http://cspinet.org/) petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to have the country's food labels amended to include trans fats in addition to saturated fats to more adequately reflect the amounts of "heart-unhealthy" fats in foods. This process culminated with a final ruling by the FDA in July of 2003 requiring mandatory labeling for products containing .5 grams of trans fats or more. Although some manufacturers of food products have already begun including the notation on their labels, all manufacturers are required to do so by January 1, 2006. [More details on the process leading to this outcome can be found in the Federal Register, Vol. 68, No. 133, Friday July 11, 2003, beginning on page 41434.]

     What exactly is a trans fat and what does it have to do with GM foods? In an FDA consumer website explaining the trans fat labeling it is stated that "the majority of trans fats [are] formed when liquid oils are made into solid fats like shortening and hard margarine. . . Essentially a trans fat is made when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil -- a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation increases the shelf life and flavor stability of foods containing those fats, of which "approximately 80% are from soybean oil" (n1). [The FDA site materials are available in both English and Spanish and can be reached by clicking here.]

     Among the topics covered last summer was a "next generation" of genetically modified products carrying benefits not only for farmers but also for consumers. One such product has arrived this year with Monsanto's introduction of its new VISTIVE soybeans. According to information available on the Monsanto company website (http://www.monsanto.com/monsanto/us_ag/layout/pub/news_media/09-01-04.asp), the VISTIVE soybeans "contain less than 3% linolenic acid, compared to 8% for traditional soybeans, resulting in a more stable soybean oil with a better flavor profile and less need for hydrogenation. Because soybeans with less linolenic acid reduce or eliminate the need for partial hydrogenation, trans fats in processed soybean oil can be reduced or eliminated." (n2) This, presumably, could lead to "healthier" or lower-fat foods for consumers.

     What is interesting about the low-linolenic trait, however, was that is was developed through traditional means. "The low-linolenic trait was created using conventional breeding, and the resulting plants were cross-bred with herbicide-resistant GM soya to produce the new variety," (n3) which is a Roundup-Ready plant (for a further explanation of this GM trait, please see Part I of the 2004 series.). If this new soybean is a success, the future could bring other products currently in the Monsanto pipeline such as soybeans yielding oils free of saturated fats and trans fats, and ones enriched with higher levels of heart-healty Omega-3 fatty acids. (n4).

A "Growing" Trend

     These developments are all part of the growing global shift toward genetically modified crops, particularly soy, corn, cotton and canola. In the U.S., annual acreage reports for 2003 - 2004 indicate that 45% of all corn, 76% of all upland cotton, and 85% of all soybeans were grown from GM seeds, each up a few percentage points from the prior year. (n5) Globally, transgenic crops were grown "by approximately 8.25 million farmers in 17 countries." (n6) These countries include (in order of acres sown): The U.S.A., Argentina, Canada, Brazil, China, Paraguay, India, South Africa, Uruguay, Australia, Romania, Mexico, Spain and the Phillipines." (n7)

     Despite the extent to which genetically modified crops have spread globally, reports of problems associated with them have been scattered. Some, like the StarLink incident in which genes from a variety of GM corn not approved for human consumption were found in items on grocery store shelves, were discussed last summer. Other issues which have emerged in the press since that time, as cited in the journal Nature Biotechnology, have included:

1) Sygenta's accidental distribution of unapproved corn (April 2005, p. 395). Between 2001 - 2004, the Swiss company Syngenta mistakenly distributed small amounts of an unapproved GM corn containing an ampicillin resistance marker gene. The company paid a fine to the USDA and agreed to abide by certain other terms. (See both Aphis/USDA and syngenta.com.)

2) A market for illegal cotton seeds (November 2004, p. 1333). In India, "agriculture minister Sharad Pawar admitted 'there is a flourishing illegal market in GM cotton seeds.'" It is estimated that "80% of all Bt (GM) cotton growing in India [is from] nameless unapproved varieties and not from one of the four government-approved varieties carrying the proprietary Monsanto insect-resistance gene."

3) Accidental release of GM grass seed in Oregon (January 2005, p. 6). USDA officials "have been investigating an accidental release from a test plot in Oregon of seeds of a GM grass (Roundup-Ready creeping bentgrass, a type of grass frequently used on golf courses). Critics of the grass (which is not yet deregulated and available to the public) claim that "the species spread aggressively and is likely to transmit herbicide-resistant genes to wild and weedy (plant) relatives." (See also wwwdata.forestry.oregonstate.edu/orb/RRGrass.htm.)

4) Gene flow to organic papayas (November 2004, p. 1333). In Hawaii, transgenic papaya virtually saved the state's papaya crop from a devastating virus. Now, organic papaya growers "have increasingly found their trees to have transgenes that confer resistance to [the] ringspot virus."

     To date, there have been no confirmed reports of harm to human health attributed to GM foods. More of a concern, as illustrated above, is containment, or preventing the uncontrolled spread of the genes of transgenic plants either to other GM or non-GM crops or to the general environment. This can occur in a number of ways, most commonly through cross pollination. Although GM crops are usually grown within specified buffer zones, wind, birds or animals can carry pollen from one plant to another where fertilization can occur. Seeds can also "wander" in the sense that "they can persist in the soil seed bank. They can mix in the nooks and crannies of harvesting equipment. They can bounce out of vehicles transporting them and germinate on roadsides . . . [all of] which can frustrate attempts at containment." (n8). In the case of transgenes found in corn in Mexico (see last section of essay below), the New York Times reported that the "wandering" genes "probably came from American food imports distributed in government stores for the poor and planted by curious farmers." (n9) This is an issue of concern not only for the genetically modified crops in existence, but also for the next generation of plants which will be modified to produce pharmaceuticals or specialty chemicals. (For a more in-depth explanation of the subject, visit http://www.plantpharma.org/ or The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology's "Pharming the Fields" conference page and report.)

From Courts to the Court of Public Opinion

     When the first transgenic crops began to be sown, it was not uncommon to find entire fields vandalized or burned to the ground by opponents of genetic modification technologies. Now, opponents as well as proponents of agricultural biotechnology are increasingly turning to courts, legislatures and voters to plead their cases.

     Hawaii is a good example of a state in which all the issues mentioned above are coming into play. According to the information available from the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, the state's "fertile land and year-round growing season provide an attractive economic and geographic climate for companies engaged in the development, production and commercialization of new crops. Those advantages, in combination with its remote location, are in large part why more applications for field trials of GM crops include Hawaii as a site than any other state in the nation." (n10) The state is home to one of the major success stories in GM food, the papaya (see Part II of the 2004 essays), and in 2003 - 2004 its state legislators introduced more bills dealing with agricultural biotechnology than in any other state in the nation. (n11) Hawaii has also become a growing ground for trials of next-generation "pharm" crops, the exact locations of which generally were never revealed.

     This year the federal government was forced for the first time to disclose the locations of field tests for some of those GM crops. In a recent decision in Center For Food Safety v. Veneman (Westlaw #WL831379, soon to be indexed in FSupp2nd), the USDA was ordered by District Judge David Ezra to reveal locations of the growing sites of certain "pharm" crops in Hawaii. Although the information was given to the plaintiffs, a decision is still due as to whether that information will be available to the general public. (See also http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/press_release2.8.05.cfm)

     In California, foes and proponents of genetically modified crops and foods have taken their cases to the voters in several parts of the state. Last summer news of Mendocino County's March 2004 measure banning GM organisms was included in Part I of the essay series. In November of 2004, similar measures were on the ballot in Butte, Humboldt, Marin and San Luis Obispo Counties. (Direct links to all county websites can be found at http://www.ca.gov/ on the right side of the home page.) While only the measure in Marin County passed, "anti-GMO measures are in the works in 12 more counties in the state." (n12) [The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology maintains a full database of state and federal legislation dealing with agricultural biotechnology. Click here to view the database.]

Wheat, Corn and Rice: Staples in the U.S., Mexico and Asia

     "Consumer acceptance and the readiness of commercial markets are as important as food and environmental safety for biotech crops these days." (n13)

     Although there are many more aspects of the GM foods debate that could be discussed, the series will close with a brief look at one of the major hurdles still facing the industry: consumer acceptance of GM staple food items like wheat (in the U.S. and Europe), corn (in Mexico), and rice (in Asia).

     Despite the extent to which soybeans dominate much of the GM crop market, many consumers may associate dietary soy with "tofu," soy milk, and other similar food items. However, the edible uses and industrial uses of soy go well beyond those basic products. Still, for most people soy is not a dietary staple, at least not in the way that wheat, corn and rice are in places like the U.S., Mexico and Asia.


     After many years of development, Monsanto announced last year that it was temporarily shelving its efforts to introduce "the world's first genetically engineered wheat, bowing to the concerns of American farmers that the crop would endanger billions of dollars of exports." (n14) Although the company didn't abandon the wheat project, Monsanto representative said "it might introduce the wheat perhaps in 4 - 8 years when other genetically-engineered wheat might be ready for the market." (n15)

     While it is unknown what the reaction of Americans might be to the genetic modification of the ingredients of their "daily bread" might be, there are also other reasons that the genetic modification of the grain has lagged behind soy and corn. "Wheat genetics are more complex; wheat is a smaller crop; exports are of greater relative importance; import country regulations are less well defined; and competition among exporting countries is more intense." (n16) American farmers, generally accepting of other GM crops, did not appear ready to risk ceding any portion of overseas sales which "account for half the nation's crop" (n17) by planting GM wheat.

Maize and Mexico

     In the Zapotec Indian region around Oaxaca, Mexico, an alarm was raised in 2001 when strains of transgenic corn were found in the area along with native varieties. Why? According to the New York Times, the area is "the birthplace of maize, where people took thousands of years to domesticate its wild ancestor, where pre-Hispanic myths describe it as a gift from the gods, and where cooks prepare it in dozens of ways to be served at every meal . . . [The] . . . discovery of genetically modified corn in the tiny plots [there] set off a national furor over what many . . . [saw] as an assault by American agribusiness on the crop that is at the core of Mexico's identity . . . [something] . . . sacred." (n18)

     Shortly after the finding, a coalition of Mexican organizations requested "a study of the effects of GM corn on native maize and related plants such as teosinte." (n19) The results of the study were published last year by the Commission on Environmental Cooperation, an organization established under one of the offshoots of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

     Among the recommendations contained in the report (available at www.cec.org/maize, were calls "for enforcing the current de facto moratorium on commercial planting of GM corn in Mexico and for milling corn that is imported for feed to keep it from being planted as acceptable ways for preserving the integrity of the wild races of corn and teosinte, which are deemed of special importance . . ." (n20). Findings also stressed the importance of cultural as well as scientific considerations in bringing GM corn into the country. The report was called "fundamentally flawed . . . [with] recommendations [which] did not flow from the panel's own scientific conclusions" (n21) by the U.S. government and in conflict with U.S. policies.

     Since the report's publication, Mexican legislators have passed laws regulating GM crops and biosecurity, but "the ban on commercial planting of GM corn is still in effect." (n22)

Rice and Asia

     As a part of last summer's series, the idea of genetic modification being used to adapt crops to combat hunger and malnutrition in the poorest regions of the world was touched on briefly. One crop designed exclusively to meet such goals was Golden, or proVitamin A-enriched rice. Critics of the rice claimed, among other things, that proVitamin-A levels in the rice were not sufficient to meet daily requirements in a standard diet.

     Earlier this year, Swiss company Syngenta announced that it had created a new variety of Golden Rice, Syngenta GR2, which contains "37 micrograms of proVitamin A per gram, 23 times as much as the first variety." (n23) According to statements on the company's website, Syngenta has no plans to develop the rice commercially. Instead, it has donated the rice to the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board to make it accessible to some of the world's poorest farmers. (Go to http://www.syngenta.com/en/media/position_inv.aspx for more details.)

     On a broader scale, the ISAAA says in their Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops 2004 report that "the one single event that is likely to have the greatest impact (globally) is the approval and adoption of Bt rice in China . . . probably in 2005. The adoption of biotech rice by China not only involves the most important food crop in the world but [also] the culture of Asia." (n24) As with corn in Mexico, rice is part of the fabric of rural existence and vital to the culture of many countries within Asia. Some believe that opening the door to GM rice - and other products - may very well determine the future of GM food globally. (To read an article on the subject by Stanford scholar John Feffer, click here.)

*           *           *

     The debate on genetically modified food will undoubtedly continue for years to come, especially as new generations of products move from the lab to the market. The material here has been presented with the hope of sparking interest in this complex but important subject, and readers are encouraged to continue to learn more about the subject on their own. Please visit the "Essays" section again in July when a new topic will be introduced: "Gas Wars, Green Cars and The Road Ahead: A Clear Future?"

     A special word of thanks to University of California Riverside Professor Norman Ellstrand for his assistance during the preparation of this article. Professor Ellstrand is Director of the school's Biotechnology Impacts Center. He is also author of the 2003 book "Dangerous Liaisons: When Cultivated Plants Mate With Their Wild Relatives" (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Photo credits: Lemont Rice by David Nance, US Long Grain Rice by Keith Weller, Healthy Wheat Field (Nebraska) by Stephen Ausmus, and Corn by Doug Wilson. All from the United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.


  • Glossary: www.fao.org/biotech/index-glossary.asp

  • Center for Science in the Public Interest: http://cspinet.org

  • FDA TransFat Page: www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/transfat.html

  • Monsanto VISTIVE Soybeans: www.monsanto.com/monsanto/us_ag/layout/pub/news_media/09-01-04.asp

  • Aphis/USDA Compliance: www.aphis.usda.gov/brs/compliance12.html

  • Syngenta/Bt10 Media Release: www.syngenta.com/en/media/article.aspx?pr=040805&lang=en

  • Creeping Bentgrass: wwwdata.forestry.oregonstate.edu/orb/RRGrass.htm

  • Plant Pharmaceuticals: www.plantpharma.org

  • Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology/"Pharming the Fields": http://pewagbiotech.org/events/0717

  • Center for Food Safety Press Release: www.centerforfoodsafety.org/press_release2.8.05.cfm

  • State of CA County Links: www.ca.gov

  • Legislative Database, Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology: http://pewagbiotech.org/resources/factsheets/legislation

  • Edible Uses of Soy: www.soystats.com/2004/edibleuses.htm

  • Industrial Uses of Soy: www.soystats.com/2004/industrialuses.htm

  • CEC Maize in Mexico Report: www.cec.org/maize

  • Syngenta/Golden Rice: www.syngenta.com/en/media/position_inv.aspx

  • ISAAA Report: www.isaaa.org (Click ISAAA Brief 32-2004)

  • Feffer Article "Asia to Determine the Future of GM Food": http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/display.article?id=4956

FOOTNOTES - The following are the footnotes indicated in the text in parentheses with the letter "n" and a number. If you click the asterisk at the end of the footnote, it will take you back to the paragraph where you left off.

n1 - "VISTIVE Low-Linolenic Soybeans - Consumer Benefits." Available online at www.monsanto.com/monsanto/us_ag/layout/enhanced_value/vistive/consumer_benefits.asp. Viewed 5/12/2005. (*)

n2 - "Monsanto Launches VISTIVE Soybeans; Will Provide a Trans Fats Solution for the Food Industry." Available online at www.monsanto.com/monsanto/layout/media/04/09-01-04.asp. Viewed 5/12/2005. (*)

n3 - "A Question of Breeding," New Scientist, Vol. 185, No. 2491, 19 March 2005, p. 5. (*)

n4 - Monsanto Company, "A Clear Focus: 2003 Annual Report." St. Louis: Monsanto Company, November 2003, p. 13. (*)

n5 - United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Acreage Report, Washington D.C., June 2004, pp. 24-25(*)

n6 - James, Dr. Clive, ISAAA, Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2004, Executive Summary. ISAAA Publication 32-2004. Ithaca, New York: ISAAA, 2004, p. 3.(*)

n7 - Ibid. (*)

n8 - Ellstrand, Norman, "Going to Great Lengths to Prevent the Escape of Genes That Produce Specialty Chemicals," reprint from Plant Physiology, Vol. 132, Aug. 2003, pp. 1770 - 1774, p. 2. (*)

n9 - Malkin, Elisabeth, "Science and Culture Clash in a Mexican Staple: Corn," New York Times, March 27, 2005, p. A10. (*)

n10 - "State Legislative and Local Activities Related to Agricultural Biotechnology Continue to Grow in 2003 - 2004," Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, online Factsheet. Available at http://pewagbiotech.org/resources/factsheets/legislation/factsheet.php. View May and June 2005. (*)

n11 - Ibid.(*)

n12 - Meadows, Robin, "Three of Four County Anti-GMO Measures Fail," California Agriculture, Vol. 59, No. 1, January - March 2005, p. 6. (*)

n13 - Jaffe, Gregory, as quoted in "Monsanto Shelves Plans for Modified Wheat," New York Times, May 11, 2004, p. C1. (*)

n14 - Pollack, Andrew, "Monsanto Shelves Plan for Modified Wheat," New York Times, May 11, 2004, p. C1. (*)

n15 - Ibid.(*)

n16 - Wilson, William W., Janzen, Edward L., and Dahl, Bruce L. "Issues in the Development and Adoption of Genetically Modified (GM) Wheat," AgBioForum 6 (3) 2003, p. 101. (*)

n17 - Pollack, p. C1(*)

n18 - Malkin, p. A10.(*)

n19 - Ibid.(*)

n20 - Ibid.(*)

n21 - Ibid.(*)

n22 - Ibid.(*)

n23 - "News In Perspective - Trials of Rice," New Scientist, Vol. 186, No. 493, April 2005, p. 7(*)

n24 - James, p. 11. (*)


"A Question of Breeding," New Scientist, Vol. 185, No. 2491, March 19, 2005, p. 5

Bouchie, Aaron, and KSJ, "GM Containment Problems Around the Globe," Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 22, No. 11, November 2004, p. 1333

Center for Food Safety, "Government Forced to Disclose Locations of Test Sites of Biopharmaceutical Crops," on-line news release available at www.centerforfoodsafety.org/press_release2.8.05.cfm. Viewed 5/12/2005.

Ellstrand, Norman, personal interview, May 2005

Ellstrand, Norman, "Going to 'Great Lengths' to Prevent the Escape of Genes that Produce Specialty Chemicals," Plant Physiology, Vol. 132, August 2003, pp. 1770 - 1774

Federal Register, "Food Labeling: Trans Fatty Acids in Nutrition Labeling, Nutrient Content Claims, and Health Claims." Final Rule. Vol 68, No. 133, Friday July 11, 2003, pp. 41434 - 41466+.

Fox, Jeffrey, "USDA Scrutinizes GM Organism Regulations," Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 23, No. 1, January 2005, p. 6

James, Dr. Clive, Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2004. Ithaca, New York: ISAAA, 2004

Laurence, Stacy, "Agbio Keeps on Growing," Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 23, No. 3, March 2005, p. 281

Malkin, Elisabeth. "Science and Culture Clash in a Mexican Staple: Corn," New York Times, March 27, 2005, p. A10

Meadows, Robin, "Three of Four County Anti-GMO Measures Fail," California Agriculture, Vol. 59, No. 1, January - March 2005, p. 6

Monsanto Company, A Clear Focus: 2003 Annual Report. St. Louis: Monsanto Company, November 2003

Monsanto Company, "VISTIVE Low-linoleic Soybeans - Consumer Benefits." On-line document at Monsanto Company website: www.monsanto.com/monsanto/us_ag/layout/enhanced_value/vistive/consumer_benefits.asp. Viewed May 12, 2005.

Monsanto Company, "Monsanto launches VISTIVE Soybeans; Will Provide a Trans Fat Solution for the Food Industry." On-line document at Monsanto Company website: www.monsanto.com/monsanto/layout/media/04/09-01-04.asp. Viewed May 12, 2005.

"News in Perspective - Trials of Rice," New Scientist, Vol. 186, No. 493, April 2005, p. 7

Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, "Factsheet: State Legislative and Local Activities Related to Agricultural Biotechnology Continue to Grow in 2003 - 2004." On-line document available at http://pewagbiotech.org/resources/factsheets/legislation/factsheet.php. Viewed May and June 2005.

Pollack, Andrew. "Monsanto Shelves Plans for Modified Wheat," New York Times, May 11, 2004, p. C1 and C8

Postman, Neil. Technolopoly. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

"Reburnishing Golden Rice," Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 23, No. 4, April 2005, p. 395

Sanchez, Cory, telephone interview with Florigene representative, May 2005

United States Code, Title 36, Section 187 (Public Law 99-449, October 7, 1986, 100 Stat. 1128), "National Floral Emblem."

United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Statistics Service, Acreage Report. Washington D.C.: USDA, June 2004

Wilson, William, Janzen, Edward L. and Dahl, Bruce L. "Issues in Development and Adoption of Genetically Modified (GM) Wheats," AgBioForum 6 (3) 2003, pp. 101 - 112

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