11 September 1998

Genetically Altered Food Hits The Prime Time

Genetic engineering, long the focus of anticipation and discussion in agriculture, entered the realm of reality in a big way in 1998. The fact is that if in the past year you've topped a sandwich with cheese, gobbled down a bowl of cereal, or guzzled a soft drink, chances are that you've eaten foods from genetically modified crops.

Although people in agriculture have been heralding the promise of genetically enhanced crops for 20 years, few products made it to market. Quietly, over the past three years, that has changed in a major way. Marshall Martin, professor of agricultural economics and director of Purdue University's Center for Agricultural Policy and Technology Assessment, says that many common foods now use biotechnology in their production and processing.

"The genetically engineered enzyme chymosin is used in two-thirds to three-quarters of the cheese produced," Martin says. "Bt-corn, which allows the corn plants to resist the corn borer, has found wide acceptance. So everyone is already eating foods produced through biotechnology."

In fact, the use of genetically enhanced corn has increased from 400,000 acres in 1996 to three million acres in 1997 to an estimated 17 million acres planted in 1998. Each year, total corn acreage in the United States is about 80 million acres.

Biotechnology is used to produce some of our most common foods:

Peter Goldsbrough, professor of horticulture at Purdue, says that recent well-publicized failures of biotech crops have led some people to mistakenly think that agricultural biotechnology is struggling to gain acceptance. That isn't the case, he says.

"Biotechnology has had setbacks recently," Goldsbrough says. "Flavr-Savr tomatoes, which were the best-known biotech product, were pulled from the market, and so was a virus-resistant squash. But this is not the death knell of agricultural biotechnology."

According to Goldsbrough and Martin, Flavr-Savr tomatoes failed not because of concerns over biotechnology but because of the unexpected requirements of a new product.

Introduced in 1994, the Flavr-Savr tomatoes promised the taste of home-grown tomatoes from the grocer's cooler. Typical store-bought tomatoes are picked while they are green and hard so that they will not spoil while they are shipped. The tomatoes then have their red color brought out by spraying them with the plant hormone ethylene, but they still have the lackluster flavor of unripe tomatoes.

Flavr-Savr was supposed to change that. Because it had a longer shelf-life, it could ripen on the vine and then be shipped to the supermarkets. "The problem was that they were using the same equipment to pick and ship the ripe, soft Flavr-Savr tomato has they had the hard, green tomatoes," Martin says. "The loss from damage to the crop was as much as 30 percent. By the time they tried to adapt peach-packaging equipment to handle the tomatoes, it was too late."

Biotechnology holds great promise for agriculture, Goldsbrough says, and for that reason biotech-derived foods will continue to appear on the market. "Biological processes are so complex and diverse that somewhere there's an organism that is able to inhibit the growth of the soybean cyst nematode, the leading soybean pest," he says. "We will find that organism, identify the gene or genes that are involved, and put them into our soybeans."