A Mystery In Your Lunchbox

Hungry? Sit right down, we're having catfish, corn on the cob, baked potatoes and fresh tomatoes. might turn out to be the most nutritious meal of your life. It might even be the best-tasting dinner you ever had. On the other hand, it might expose your body to a toxic combination no human has ever experienced before. Or it might induce an allergic reaction--even though you're not allergic to any of these foods. Still hungry? Bon appetit!

Last week's announcement that the federal government would impose no special regulations on bioengineered foods, in effect permitting them to be marketed exactly like nature's own, heralds a potentially vast change in our food supply. Virtually any characteristic of a living organism may now be transferred to another organism; with a few exceptions, the resulting product may be placed on supermarket shelves without federally mandated testing or special labeling. "We will not compromise safety one bit," Vice President Dan Quayle told the press. "[And] the consumer will enjoy better, healthier food products at lower prices." Many specialists in biotechnology agree--in fact, they see consumers around the world benefiting from a new, genetically engineered green revolution-but critics are urging the government to move ahead more cautiously. A potato that resists disease with the help of a chicken gene? A catfish that grows like lightning, thanks to a gene from a virus? Some believe new products like these, which maybe on the market by the end of the decade, call for a new regulatory system. "We should have learned from the history of regulating pesticides that we never knew the long-term consequences until it was too late," says Ellen Haas, executive director of Public Voice for Food and Healthy Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. Drug Administration maintains that most bioengineered foods present no special safety issues. "We're saying this is just another plant-breeding technique," says Eric Flamm, deputy director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.

Here's how bioengineering works: all cells contain DNA, the long molecule shaped like a double helix. A gene is a swatch of DNA that controls a certain characteristic of the organism. In the 1970s scientists discovered they could clip off a gene-length swatch from a DNA molecule, and later they learned to affix it to a different DNA molecule-a cut-and-paste job that became known as gene splicing and results in what's called recombinant DNA. Immediately, visions of carrots with the flavor of peanut butter began dancing in the imaginations of scientists and food writers alike. But most current experiments are less exotic. In many ways the new technology differs little from traditional crossbreeding. "One of the powers of the technology is that you make simple and direct changes and alter the food as little as possible," says William Belknap, a plant physiologist at the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service in Albany, Calif. The first example of recombinant DNA in a form suitable for lunch makes its debut next summer: the Flavr Savr tomato (chart). Scientists at Calgene, Inc., a biotech company based in Davis, Calif., isolated the gene in the tomato that triggers the enzyme responsible for rotting and rendered it inactive. Rather than having to be picked hard and green for easy shipping, the tomatoes stay on the vine about five days longer than usual. They can be shipped without refrigeration, which also helps retain flavor, and they'll resist rotting for more than three weeks, twice as long as their conventionally grown cousins. They aren't perfect: like other supermarket tomatoes they're grown with pesticides, they may be waxed, and they still lack the last three to five days of vine-ripening that homegrown tomatoes enjoy. Sampled at Calgene's headquarters, the Flavr Savr tasted fine; whether consumers will find it worth a dollar more per pound remains to be seen.

Several companies are hard at work on plants that will repel pests. Monsanto, a St. Louis chemical company, expects to put many such products on the market before the end of the decade, including cotton resistant to the cotton bollworm and a potato that kills the Colorado potato beetle. The weapon of choice is Bacillus thuringiensis, or BT, a soil-dwelling bacterium that creates a protein crystal that is toxic to certain insects but harmlessly digested by humans. BT has been used for 30 years as an organic pesticide. Scientists can transfer the gene for the toxin into plant cells, and the new plants will produce their own insecticide. Like traditional insecticides, however, these may simply spur the creation of new, more resistant pests. According to Belknap, the solution will be to splice several toxins into a given plant, thus lessening the potential for insects to develop resistance (or inviting the birth of some pretty amazing insects).

Monsanto is also developing herbicide-resistant plants, specifically Roundup-resistant plants. Roundup is one of Monsanto's most lucrative products, a herbicide with sales of a billion dollars a year. It has been recognized as noncarcinogenic by the Environmental Protection Agency, though it's toxic to fish. Roundup is used as a weed-killer, but it will kill everything else it touches in the field, so farmers have had to apply it carefully. Now, however, Monsanto can isolate the enzyme in, say, corn, that is fatally vulnerable to Roundup. A corn plant engineered to have twice as much of that enzyme can lose a chunk of it to Roundup and still survive. Critics charge that this technology simply invites farmers to use more Roundup. Jim Altemus, manager of public affairs for plant/science research at Monsanto, says the aim is to help farmers manage their crops. "Some herbicides are better than others; they can't all be classified as bad," he says.

Biotechnology companies were delighted by the FDA's green light, but not surprised; research conducted by the International Food Biotechnology Council, an industry-funded consortium of scientists, found no safety problems with biotech foods. Environmentalists and other consumer advocates don't claim the new foods are unsafe by definition, but they do call for tougher scrutiny than the FDA believes is necessary. " The regulations do a lot more to protect the industry than they do to protect the American consumer," says Rebecca Goldburg, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group. "The public has a right to know what's in its food."

Goldburg and other critics are especially concerned about potential allergens that may be hiding in new products-an orange touched up with a gene from a cherry, for instance. The FDA requires no special testing or labeling unless the new food is substantially different from its traditional version. If the new orange had no vitamin C, for example, it would have to be labeled. A new food containing a "common allergen" would also have to be labeled, but as examples of common allergens the FDA suggests only eggs, milk, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat and legumes. The truth is, almost any food is an allergen to someone; just because the FDA doesn't cite zucchini as a frequent danger to the public doesn't mean a consumer biting into an apple might not get a very unwelcome surprise. According to the FDA, it's up to the biotechnology industry to police itself on potential allergene. "If you move a gene, you have to prove it is not allergenic or you will have to label it," says Flamm.

Other critics are uneasy about making such dramatic changes with such speed. "We ought to be testing these changes in large populations over large periods of time," says Greg Drescher, a director of Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, a Boston-based think tank for food issues. He also questions how useful the new foods really are. "We don't need to play sorcerer's apprentice with agriculture," he says. "We know how to produce good-tasting food in this country. There are much better ways to eat healthfully than a food supply based on techno-foods." Jeremy Rifkin, the activist who has been fighting biotechnology for years, promises lawsuits and a massive publicity campaign, and he thinks the public will be on his side. "If people don't want foods pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, they are never going to go along with genetically engineered foods," he says. At the very least, these critics may persuade the FDA to require more labeling of the new foods. A smiling double helix?

How to Build a Better Tomato, Step by Stop

1 The DNA of tomato cells contains one segment that causes the fruit to soften.

2 This softening segment is isolated and chemically defined.

3 An exact mirror image is constructed (the new Flavr Savr gene).

4 Introduced into tomato plant tissue (via bacterium), the new gene and the softening gene co-exist. Both produce messenger RNA.

5 Since opposite RNAs are attracted to one another the two bind together, preventing the delivery of softening instructions.