Ken Hartman Jr. is growing more than 1,000 acres of soybeans this year from seed that has been genetically modified to withstand a weedkiller that would wipe out most crops.
He also is cultivating several hundred acres of corn whose doctored DNA enables the plants to produce a toxin that wards off a particularly destructive pest.
And the 44-year-old would like to introduce crops engineered with additional traits, such as resistance to drought, onto his 3,500 acres of farmland.
“I think we are just on the edge of biotechnology, versus where we will be in 20 or 30 years. There are a lot of traits coming about that will be not only beneficial to the farmer, but also to the consumer,” said Mr. Hartman, who lives on his farm about 35 miles southeast of St. Louis with his wife and three daughters.
A new generation of genetically engineered plants and animals is moving from laboratories to fields and farms. Scientists are enhancing the nutrition and heartiness of some crops. Pharmaceutical companies are increasingly looking to mass-produce drugs in plants and animals. And scientific advances may soon allow herds across the U.S. to grow faster and feature novel traits.
Already, biotechnology has dramatically changed agriculture across the land. No genetically modified crops were grown commercially in the U.S. before 1996.
This year, 89 percent of all soybeans, 83 percent of cotton and 61 percent corn planted in the country is genetically altered, usually to withstand herbicides or repel pests, according to U.S. Agriculture Department data.
But biotechnology also raises an array of long-term environmental, health and economic questions that are often ignored by the American public.
“Despite the rapid increase in the adoption of [genetically engineered] corn, soybean, and cotton varieties by U.S. farmers, questions remain regarding the impact of agricultural biotechnology. These issues range from the economic and environmental impacts to consumer acceptance,” Jorge Fernandez-Cornejo, an economist in the USDA’s Resource Economics Division, said in an April report.
Origin of species
Biotech plants and animals have had their genetic material altered in ways that do not occur in nature.
Scientists Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen in 1973 perfected a technique that allowed DNA from separate organisms to be cut and pasted together, and then reproduced.
The breakthrough allowed the production of human proteins in bacteria and laid the groundwork for the first modern biotech company, Genentech, co-founded by Mr. Boyer in 1976. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the company successfully developed synthetic insulin to treat diabetes, a growth hormone for underdeveloped children and a product that helps dissolve blood clots.
Other scientists quickly applied the recombinant DNA techniques to other organisms, including plants and animals. Researchers grew the first biotech plant, a petunia, in 1982. Plant testing moved from labs and greenhouses to open fields in 1987. And in 1996, genetically modified crops became commercially available.
“Starting out, I thought we could do some things that would be interesting, difficult, challenging and have some benefits to [farmers],” said David Fischhoff, a molecular biologist who in the 1980s worked to develop some of the first biotech crops for industry pioneer Monsanto Co.
“I don’t think I imagined I would drive around St. Louis and literally all I could see of a particular crop would have a trait that I had a hand in developing,” he said at the company’s St. Louis headquarters.
Mr. Fischhoff helped develop Bt corn, which incorporates DNA from Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium, into the corn plant. The new gene produces a protein that is toxic to the European corn borer. The borer is the most damaging insect pest for corn in the U.S. and Canada, causing losses in excess of $1 billion a year, according to a 2002 report published by Iowa State University.
Soybeans and cotton are most often genetically engineered to withstand application of Roundup, a weed killer originally patented by Monsanto but now available as a generic product.
Genetically modified seeds are more expensive than conventional seeds, but farmers have adopted biotech crops because they sometimes help increase yields and cut back on other costs.
The crops, when properly managed, require smaller amounts and fewer applications of herbicides and pesticides, allowing farmers to handle fewer chemicals, cut time spent in fields and burn less fuel in farm equipment, said Graham Brookes, director of PG Economics and author of an industry-funded study that examined the economics of biotech crops.
Mr. Brookes said genetically modified crops have reduced worldwide pesticide use, by volume, by 6 percent and cut greenhouse-gas emissions significantly because farmers spend less time using heavy equipment to control weeds and pests.
“It is equivalent of taking 5 million cars off the road for a year,” he said.
‘A risk for society’
Despite the popularity of biotech among farmers, most consumers don’t know that the technology is so prevalent, while environmental groups and some health advocates warn it may be dangerous.
“Obviously, these crops are out there and pretty ubiquitous. Most Americans are unaware of that,” said Michael Fernandez, director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.
A 2005 Pew survey found that 58 percent of Americans are unaware that genetically modified foods are sold in grocery stores, though 70 percent to 75 percent of all processed food contains genetically modified ingredients, the Grocery Manufacturers of America estimates. Corn- and soy-based ingredients — such as the high-fructose corn syrup in soda and vegetable oil in snacks — most likely have been genetically modified.
Other parts of the world are much more averse to the science.
Europeans, for example, generally oppose agricultural biotechnology and reject food containing genetically modified ingredients, George Gaskell, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics, found in a survey published in May.
“GM food is widely seen as not being useful, as morally unacceptable and as a risk for society,” Mr. Gaskell wrote.
Consumers are resistant because they see few benefits from agricultural biotechnology. Meanwhile, health and environmental groups — who call genetically modified crops “Frankenfood” — warn that introducing novel organisms into the wild constitutes a giant genetic experiment with unknown consequences for the ecosystem and humans.
“We are creating new organisms whose behavior we are absolutely unable to predict. They cannot be contained, and if a gene has a negative impact on the environment, we won’t be able to stop this pollution,” said Arnaud Apoteker, a Greenpeace campaigner based in Paris.
Joe Mendelson, legal director at the Center for Food Safety, a Washington nonprofit group, said concerns include possible creation of weeds or grasses resistant to herbicides widely used alongside genetically modified crops, evolution of insects immune to pesticides created in genetically modified crops, and possible allergic reactions in humans.
Already, the technology has had unintended consequences. Pollen from biotech crops has drifted to nonbiotech fields, creating new hybrids, and ingredients not approved for human consumption have made their way into food.
In one of the most notorious cases, the Environmental Protection Agency approved a corn variety for use only as animal feed because it may cause allergic reactions in humans, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.
But in September 2000 the corn, then manufactured by France’s Aventis and grown in the U.S. under the brand name StarLink, was found in taco shells sold in U.S. stores.
Congress, following the initial public outcry, considered legislation that would require special labels on food containing genetically modified ingredients.
But public concern soon abated, and the legislation died. Today, the USDA, Food and Drug Administration and EPA regulate biotech crops and food, though USDA has been cited for lax oversight and FDA consultations are only voluntary.
A federal district judge this month ruled that the USDA violated the Endangered Species Act when it granted permits to grow biotech crops in Hawaii in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner.
Cure for cancer
While Americans appear to have largely accepted the biotech plants and foods that are now widely in use, a new generation of products in the labs may give rise to questions about the safety and desirability of certain genetic modifications. Those include introduction of new traits into crops, the use of genetically altered plants to produce pharmaceuticals and the commercialization of genetically modified animals.
“I think every new application [of biotechnology] will bring new complications and controversy,” said Roger Beachy, president of the Danforth Plant Science Center, a not-for-profit research institute in St. Louis that is working to develop heartier crops and healthier foods.
“I think the issue of how we discuss our research will be important for how consumers accept it,” he said.
Mr. Beachy said biotech companies should make more products available and encourage broader discussion of the technology. But biotech companies have shied away from pushing for commercial growth of some major crops. The reluctance stems in part from concern that they may not sell overseas but also that American customers — corporate and consumer — may resist certain genetically modified food.
“This is when you get into crops that have direct food use. There is a gentleman’s agreement not to commercialize them until there is more consumer acceptance around the world,” said Michael J. Phillips, vice president for food and agriculture science at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), an industry group.
Genetically modified soy and yellow corn, for example, are typically used in animal feed or processed before making their way into the human food chain. But white corn, wheat and rice, as well as fruits and vegetables, are a different story.
Anheuser-Busch, for example, last year said it would boycott Missouri rice farmers if Ventria Bioscience field-tested rice genetically altered to produce therapeutic human proteins in the state.
The St. Louis brewer said it was concerned the pharmaceutical crops could contaminate conventionally grown rice, a key ingredient in Budweiser. The sides settled when Ventria, headquartered in Sacramento, Calif., agreed to isolate the crops from other rice fields.
A week ago, federal officials said long-grain rice samples tested positive for trace amounts of a genetically modified strain not approved for consumption. The rice, developed to resist a herbicide, is not approved for sale in the United States, but two other strains of rice with the same genetically engineered protein are.
Some biotech companies are turning to nonfood crops to avoid concerns about food contamination.
Scientists at Chlorogen, a St. Louis startup, are introducing new genetic material into tobacco-plant cells. The altered tobacco leaves, if the technology progresses, will mass-produce a protein that attacks certain types of cancer cells. Eventually, it could treat ovarian, uterine, breast and other cancers.
David Duncan, Chlorogen’s president and chief executive, emphasized that the protein would be produced from a nonfood crop.
“The public perception might be different if we were in corn or rice,” he said.
One of the most controversial fields for genetic modification is animals, with Americans citing moral and ethical concerns, according to a Pew Initiative survey.
“The reaction to animals is definitely different. There is more opposition to it,” said Pew’s Michael Fernandez.
That has slowed commercialization but not research. The USDA reports that labs have created livestock and fish with increased growth rates, more meat, enhanced resistance to disease or improved use of dietary phosphorus to lessen the environmental impact of animal manure.
Poultry, swine, goats and cattle also have been engineered to generate human proteins in eggs, milk, blood or urine, USDA said. The proteins would be used in pharmaceuticals.
Still, there is limited commercial application for the technology.
“We realize consumer acceptance is probably the Number One challenge,” said Barbara Glenn, managing director for animal biotechnology at BIO.
Cecil W. Forsberg, lead scientist for the department of molecular and cellular biology at Canada’s University of Guelph, helped create the Enviropig.
The animal is genetically modified to digest phosphate, which allows farmers to forgo some dietary supplements and lowers phosphorus content in the pigs’ manure. Phosphorus in water runoff is a major environmental problem on industrial farms, and can eliminate fish habitat in streams and lakes.
Mr. Forsberg said the pig is the food equivalent to a conventional animal, though he hasn’t eaten one.
“The reason we haven’t is because it’s illegal,” he said, noting that Canada’s regulatory agencies had not approved it for human consumption. Public opinion, driven by ethical considerations, will have to change before public policy allows such an animal in North America, he acknowledged.
“There are a whole range of things are going to come into play that will bring focus on more efficient production of food — global warming, the availability of fossil fuels, clean water. When you bring all these things into play and come to ethical issues, I expect there would be some compromises there,” he said.
“I think as we move into the next generation of people … the acceptance of biotech will become quite common,” Mr. Forsberg said.