Every once in a while the NEW YORK TIMES knocks your socks off showing
how the world got the way it is. This past Sunday the TIMES ran
"Playing God in the Garden" by Michael Pollan --the cover story in the
magazine section. It explains why many of us are already eating
genetically engineered foods like corn and potatoes without knowing it,
and why there is a lot more genetically engineered food in our future
whether we like it or not. It's the story of a powerful corporation on
a dangerous mission and a huge government too feeble to intercede. The
TIMES story makes these points:
** Genetically engineered food crops have been on the market in the
U.S. for four years now. Some brands of corn, potatoes and soybeans are
now genetically engineered.
** The nation's food safety authority --the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) --does not require genetically engineered food
crops to be labeled as such, so none of us can know whether the food we
are eating is genetically engineered or not. Chances are pretty good
that if you eat french fries at McDonald's, or if you eat Frito-Lay
potato chips, you've eaten a genetically-engineered potato patented by
Monsanto, the St. Louis chemical giant. The TIMES story focuses on
Monsanto's New Leaf Superior potato, a thin-skinned white spud found
fresh in your supermarket.
** Monsanto's New Leaf Superior potato is, itself, legally registered
as a pesticide with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] because
it has been genetically engineered to poison any Colorado potato beetle
that might eat even a tiny portion of it. Every cell of Monsanto's New
Leaf Superior contains a gene snipped from a bacteria called BACILLUS
THURIENGENSIS, or Bt for short, which produces a protein that is highly
toxic to Colorado potato beetles. The Bt gene is present in every cell
of a Monsanto New Leaf Superior, which is why the potato itself is
registered as a pesticide.
** U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] has responsibility for
licensing new pesticides. EPA pesticide officials believe that the New
Leaf Superior potato is reasonably safe for humans. As a test, EPA fed
pure Bt to mice without harming them. Because humans have eaten old-
style New Leaf potatoes for a long time, and because mice are not
visibly harmed by eating pure Bt, potatoes containing Bt genes must be
safe for humans, EPA reasoned. The TIMES reported, "Some geneticists
believe this reasoning is flawed" because inserting foreign genes into
plants may cause subtle changes that are difficult to recognize. Only
time will tell.
** The label on a bag of Monsanto's pesticidal potatoes in the
supermarket lists all of the nutrients and micronutrients in the
potato, but fails to mention that the potatoes have been genetically
engineered or that they are legally a pesticide. Food labeling is
ordinarily the responsibility of FDA.
** An FDA official told the NEW YORK TIMES that FDA does not regulate
Monsanto's potato because FDA does not have the authority to regulate
pesticides. That is EPA's job.
** EPA-approved pesticides normally carry an EPA-approved warning
label. For example, a bottle of Bt bears a label that warns people to
avoid inhaling Bt and to avoid getting Bt in an open wound. However, in
the case of Monsanto's pesticidal potato, EPA says FDA has
responsibility for requiring a label because the potato is a food.
However, FDA told the TIMES that it only requires genetically-
engineered foods to be labeled if they contain allergens or have been
"materially changed" and FDA has determined that Monsanto did not
"materially change" the New Leaf potato by turning it into a pesticide.
Therefore no FDA label is required. Furthermore, the law that empowers
the FDA (the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act) forbids FDA from including
any information about pesticides on food labels. Pesticide labels are
EPA's responsibility, says FDA, and we come full circle.
** Some genetically-engineered food crops are NOT registered as
pesticides, and FDA DOES have the authority to regulate those. However,
according to the TIMES, FDA maintains a list of foods that need no
regulation because they are "generally recognized as safe" (or "GRAS").
Since 1992 FDA has allowed companies like Monsanto to decide for
themselves whether their new genetically-engineered foods should be
added to the GRAS list and thus escape regulation. In other words, FDA
regulation of genetically engineered foods is voluntary, not mandatory.
** A Monsanto official told the NEW YORK TIMES that the corporation
should not have to take responsibility for the safety of its food
products. "Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech
food," said Phil Angell, Monsanto's director of corporate
communications. "Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible.
Assuring its safety is the FDA's job," Angell said.
In sum, biotech is an industry in the grip of a frontier mentality.
Anything goes. Government is a willing and servile participant. If it
turns out worse than the chemical debacles of the last 50 years, will
anyone be surprised?
** Monsanto's New Leaf Superior potatoes will have major effects on
U.S. agriculture, regardless of their human health consequences (if
** Organic farmers --those who try to avoid synthetic chemical
pesticides and fertilizers to the extent possible --apply powdered Bt
sparingly to their crops from time to time, a natural pesticide of last
resort. In this powdered form, Bt is neither present in high
concentrations nor for very long because it degrades in sunlight.
Therefore, insects have not developed "resistance" to Bt.
** But now that Bt is continuously present in whole fields of Monsanto
potatoes, the insects in those field will be continuously exposed to
Bt. Therefore it is only a matter of time before they develop
"resistance" and become immune to Bt's toxic effects.
The mechanism of resistance is well understood because over 500 insects
have become resistant to one pesticide or another since 1945. Not every
potato beetle will be killed by eating Monsanto's pesticidal potatoes.
A few hardy beetles will survive. When those few resistant beetles mate
with other resistant beetles, a new variety of potato beetle will
spring into being and it will thrive by eating Monsanto's potatoes. At
that point, Bt will have lost its effectiveness as a pesticide. Then
Monsanto will start marketing some new "silver bullet" to control the
Colorado potato beetle. But what will the nation's organic farmers do?
For private gain, Monsanto will have destroyed a public good --the
natural pesticidal properties of Bt. Monsanto scientists acknowledged
to the NEW YORK TIMES that the Bt-containing potato will create Bt-
resistant potato beetles. They know exactly what they are trying to do.
They are hoping to make a mint selling Bt-laced potatoes and, in the
process, depriving their competitors (organic farmers) of an essential,
time-honored tool. The strategy is brilliant, and utterly ruthless.
** For decades, Monsanto and other agrichemical companies have
relentlessly promoted farming systems aimed at making farmers dependent
on synthetic chemicals. With the enthusiastic support and complicity of
USDA, the plan worked beautifully. In the U.S., the use of chemical
pesticides grew 33-fold from 1945, peaking at 1.1 billion pounds (about
4.4 pounds per year for each man, woman and child) in 1995.1 Now with
growing numbers of pesticide-resistant insects, and consumers better-
informed about the dangers of pesticide residues on food, Monsanto
acknowledges that "current agricultural technology is not sustainable,"
as their most recent annual report puts it. Now Monsanto is planning to
shift American farmers from the pesticide treadmill to a biotech
** For thousands of years, farmers have saved a portion of this year's
crop to provide seeds for next year's crop. Monsanto intends to end
that age-old practice by requiring farmers to come back to them each
year to purchase new seeds. Potatoes are not grown from seeds --they
are grown by planting "eyes" of other potatoes. Before you buy a bag of
Monsanto's pesticidal potatoes you must sign a contract promising that
you will not retain any of your potatoes toward next year's crop. This
will force you to purchase more potatoes from Monsanto next year.
According to the TIMES, Monsanto is using informants and Pinkertons,
and has brought legal action against hundreds of farmers, to enforce
its contract rights.
To tighten the noose on farmers, Monsanto has a new technology in the
pipeline, called "the Terminator." Terminator technology was
developed with public funds by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
and a seed company that Monsanto is in the process of buying. The
Terminator is a group of genes that can be spliced into any crop plant,
sterilizing all of the plant's seeds. Once Terminator technology has
been widely adopted, control of seed production will move from the
farmer's field to corporate headquarters and farmers will become wholly
dependent upon corporations for seeds. As the TIMES summarized it, "The
Terminator will allow companies like Monsanto to privatize one of the
last great commons in nature --the genetics of the crop plants that
civilization has developed over the past 10,000 years." Brilliant and
** In a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign in Europe, Africa and
the United States, Monsanto claims that its new emphasis on genetic
engineering is aimed at feeding the world's hungry and saving the
environment from pesticides of the kind it has produced in megaton
quantities for the past 40 years. However, the TIMES offered
insights into genetic engineering that make Monsanto's new path seem at
least as destructive as its old path, and perhaps considerably worse.
** Monsanto says that its genetic manipulations are providing the
"operating system" for running a new generation of plants. But the
analogy breaks down quickly. A computer operating system, like DOS or
Windows or Unix, is fully understandable by the programmers who wrote
the code. On the other hand, the genetic code was written by the
Creator and no human --or group of humans --understands even a small
fraction of it. Putting genetically-engineered plants and animals into
the natural environment is nothing more than a crap shoot --one with
potential consequences far greater than Monsanto's previous calamitous
experiments, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and Agent Orange.
** The TIMES says that, to create its New Leaf Superior pesticidal
potatoes, Monsanto has had to introduce the Bt gene into thousands of
potatoes to get it right because often the introduced gene ends up in
an unexpected place in the potato's DNA, creating a plant that doesn't
have the right pesticidal properties, or one that is an outright freak.
"There's still a lot we don't understand about gene expression," says
David Stark, co-director of Naturemark, Monsanto's potato subsidiary,
in a monumental understatement.
** Richard Lewontin, a Harvard geneticist, told the NEW YORK TIMES that
Monsanto's comparison of genetically engineered plants to an "operating
system" isn't the right comparison. Instead, Lewontin said, the genetic
code is more like an ecosystem. "You can always intervene and change
something in it, but there's no way of knowing what all the downstream
effects will be or how it might affect the environment. We have such a
miserably poor understanding of how the organism develops from its DNA
that I would be surprised if we don't get one rude shock after
another," Lewontin said.
--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 Michael Pollan, "Playing God in the Garden," NEW YORK TIMES October
25, 1998, pgs. 44-51, 62-63, 82, 92-93.
 David Pimentel and others, "Ecology of Increasing Disease,"
BIOSCIENCE Vol. 48, No. 10 (October 1998), pgs. 817-826.
 THE ECOLOGIST magazine devoted its most recent issue to Monsanto;
see "The Monsanto Files; Can We Survive Genetic Engineering?" THE
ECOLOGIST Vol. 28, No. 5 (Sept./Oct., 1998), pgs. 249-324. E-mail:
Descriptor terms: genetic engineering; biotechnology; agriculture;
farming; potatoes; corn; potatoes; pesticides; bt; organic farming;
fda; epa; terminator technology;