EVER SINCE THE controversy over synthetic Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) three years ago, the companies working to introduce genetically engineered organisms into the world's food system have been keeping something of a low profile, hoping to bring new products to market without public scrutiny. Now they're facing the first big test of that strategy. Last spring, farmers around the country for the first time planted soybean crops spliced with genes that make them resistant to a popular herbicide. The harvest is in now, making its way from processing plants into products in virtually every aisle at the grocery store: chocolate, pastries, bread, salad dressing, french fries, mayonnaise, baby formula, veggie burgers, cereal, margarine--in all, the list takes in about 60 percent of American grocery-store foodstuffs.
The interesting thing is that while U.S. media have barely taken notice of the development, it's caused a veritable firestorm in Europe. Though the soybean has been certified as safe by U.S. and European agencies, it's so unpopular that Europe's largest trade organization has begged American exporters to keep it out of their shipments for the time being. Several of the continent's biggest food processors and grocery chains have vowed to keep the modified beans off their shelves, canceling millions of dollars' worth of contracts in the process.
But so far, the multinationals that run the world grain trade--the biggest among them being Minnetonka-based Cargill Inc.--haven't blinked. It was a Cargill-chartered ship that became stuck in the harbor of Antwerp, Belgium, for 24 hours while Greenpeace protesters bobbed in rubber dinghies tied to its rudder. But the company, says spokesman Allan Holberg, isn't planning to give in to Greenpeace's or anyone else's demands. The beans, he says, "have been tested and found safe. They are virtually the same as other soybeans, and there's no reason to pull them out."
Critics counter that the safety of the new soybean and other gene-altered products is far from proven. Some scientists contend that genes designed to make crops extra sturdy could jump to wild species or disease organisms, creating "superweeds" and "superbugs." Government regulation is spotty, and in at least one case--a soybean spliced with genes from Brazil nuts that could have triggered life-threatening allergies in some people--serious risks were almost missed.
Despite such occasional setbacks, the push to market is on. Many of the companies involved have invested millions in research and development, and are anxious to see a payoff. They also need to reassure the stock market, whose love affair with biotech shares has been fading lately. The new soybean, analysts have speculated, might be just the shot in the arm the business needs.
The bean's trademark property is resistance to the herbicide Roundup. Farmers who plant it can kill every weed in sight with one spray while leaving the crop intact. Roundup is also produced by Monsanto, and its sales are supposed to skyrocket once the new soybean comes into wide use. Stock analysts have suggested that Monsanto's profits could grow by 25 percent for each of the next four years.
Large-scale grain traders have resisted the European call to segregate the engineered soybeans from the rest of the soybean yield, calling it impractical. But there's a larger issue at stake for them: Segregating Roundup-ready beans from the rest could not only increase prices, but might also set a far-reaching precedent that would open the door to demands for labels on all gene-altered products. According to one recent survey by a food trade publication, some 92 percent of Americans believe genetically altered products should be clearly identified as such.
But corporate and government officials say that's not in the cards--and that it's too late anyway. As a U.S. envoy to the European Union recently put it, "the barn door has been blown wide open and the horse is gone. Genetically modified enzymes are now present in all cheese, yogurt and yeast products [people] consume. [And] there is a slew of new products out there, everything from corn to tomatoes to the ink in the ballpoint pen, that have genetically changed material. It would be impossible to label them all."
Of course, most of the products the envoy was referring to are not sold in stores yet. But they're about to be, which is why the next year or two are likely to prove critical. The next battle has already begun. This year U.S. farmers planted a seed corn genetically engineered to resist certain insects. So far, the Europeans have refused to accept shipments of the new corn; a European Commission vote on the matter is set for this week. But in the United States the corn has been given the green light, which means it's probably making its way into soft drinks right now.