Genetically modified agriculture holds both the promise of drought- and virus-resistant crops and the peril of unraveling the natural food chain. But like it or not, it's one genie that's already out of the bottle.
Yet no one knows exactly what will happen when transgenic products are released into the environment. After decades of dependence on Roundup, an herbicide applied to transgenic crops ranging from sugar beets to cotton, it has come to light that one of the world's most popular pesticides is lethal to amphibians. Then there's the controversy surrounding the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Organic farmers use it as a natural pesticide against bugs like the European corn borer. Biotech companies have engineered Bt crops that produce the protein themselves, negating the need to spray. After laboratory studies in 1999 indicated that Bt corn pollen is toxic to monarch butterfly caterpillars, extensive field investigations determined that the threat was negligible. "One variety of corn, Bt-176, had high enough toxin levels to cause impacts on larvae, but fortuitously that one wasn't commercially successful," says Gurian-Sherman. A 2007 lab study found that pollen from Bt corn was harmful to caddisflies, leading researchers to posit that it "may have negative effects on the biota of streams in agricultural areas." Today organic farmers fear that Bt crops will spur pests to become resistant; in 2008 researchers reported some of the first such populations: bollworms in Bt cotton fields in Arkansas and Mississippi. According to the Organic Trade Association, "Without Bt, organic farmers will be left with far fewer effective strategies, while conventional farmers, who also have relied on Bt sprays, will have to turn to pesticides that are more toxic."
The debate over genetic engineering's ecological dangers has been raging since farmers planted the first transgenic crops 15 years ago. Their use has since skyrocketed; today they account for a whopping 92 percent of U.S. soybean crops and more than 80 percent of corn and cotton. That means that as much as three-quarters of the processed foods in U.S. grocery stores--soda and hot dogs, bread and frozen pizza--contain ingredients from GE plants, the Grocery Manufacturers of America estimates. At the same time, polls show that most Americans prefer not to eat GE foods and support labeling of GE products, which the government doesn't require--a bone of contention with consumer groups, activists, and some politicians. The government, for its part, hasn't seen any significant environmental risks to date in approved plants, says Jack Okamuro, one of eight U.S. Department of Agriculture national program leaders of crop production and protection.
Still, there have been mishaps. In 2002 experimental corn plants engineered by ProdiGene to make a pig vaccine sprouted in a soybean field. The USDA fined the company $250,000 and forced it to purchase and destroy tainted crops at the cost of approximately $3.5 million. The agency also tightened its rules on field-testing GE pharmaceutical crops. GE sugar beet planting is restricted until the USDA completes its environmental impact statement in May 2012. Several environmental groups sued the agency, alleging it issued permits without adequate environmental study. (Depending on how they're used, all genetically modified organisms must get the green light from up to three agencies: USDA-APHIS, which oversees GE crop planting; the FDA, if the GMOs are food sources; and the EPA, which regulates all GE plants that have resistance to something, like a disease, an insect, or a weed.)
Now GE products that have raised concerns among activists and scientists may be nearing approval, including salmon that grow twice as fast and soybeans that can withstand multiple herbicides. Plenty is at stake--products with traits like these can take more than a decade and $100 million to bring to market.
"There's a lot of debate about the cost and the technology and the need for new products," says Gurian-Sherman. "We need to start with the bigger picture and ask, 'Will this harm people or animals or the environment?' "
While HoneySweet plums haven't received much attention, "Frankenfish" have caused a huge stir, in part because they're poised to be the first transgenic animal sold as food. This past September hundreds of people gathered outside the White House to protest biotech company Aquabounty's fast-growing Atlantic salmon, and more than 160,000 sent comments to the FDA urging the agency not to approve the fish, trademarked as AquAdvantage salmon.
The fish are grown entirely outside U.S. borders. At Aqua-bounty's Prince Edward Island facility, millions of fertilized pink eggs sit in vertical incubators reminiscent of the pneumatic tubes at drive-through banks. Spliced into each egg is a promoter from the eel-shaped ocean pout that turns on a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon. Presto: an Atlantic salmon that grows year-round instead of only in the warmer months. The eggs are shipped to a farm in Panama's highlands where thousands of fish in green tanks grow to market size in 18 months instead of three years.