CNN/Time Impact

This Edition of IMPACT Focuses on Sexual Harrassment Charges Against Eveleth Mines in Minnesota, Beverly Hills Cops, Genetically Altered Foods and A Vietnam War Hero

Aired July 13, 1997 - 9:00 p.m. ET

CNN ANNOUNCER: IMPACT, CNN and "Time" on special assignment, with Bernard Shaw and Stephen Frazier.

IMPACT, a collaboration of two of the world's leading news organizations: CNN and "Time." From Washington, D.C., here's Bernard Shaw.

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SHAW: Genetic engineering, it's coming into your kitchen and into the food you eat, if it's not there already. Why? With crop land disappearing, this powerful technology offers what many scientists believe is the tool that could feed more people and make us healthier, if it doesn't inadvertently make things worse.

"Time" Magazine Science Editor Phil Elmer-Dewitt reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIP ELMER-DEWITT, "TIME" MAGAZINE (voice-over): Farming has always been a solitary, labor-intensive pursuit, trying to coax sustenance from the soil. Now farmers are turning to a new kind of agricultural worker: the genetic engineer, who creates new plants by tinkering with their DNA.

(on-camera): For most of man's history, the only way to improve plants was the slow, hit-or-miss method of crossing and recrossing one generation with another. Gene splicing cuts through all that plant husbandry. It's a new agricultural revolution that can create potatoes that absorb less fat; tomatoes that lower your cholesterol; coffee beans that are decaffeinated right on the vine. The technology itself is not new. What is new is the precision with which genes can now be transferred. Scientists today can cut a gene out of one kind of plant and pop it into an entirely different one. They can even take genes from a fish, a winter flounder, for example, and put it into a tomato to make the tomato more resistant to cold.

ROBERT HORSCH, MONSANTO: This whole new area of industry reaches not just food quantity, but food quality, the nutritional content, the dietary healthfulness of diets.

ELMER-DEWITT (voice-over): Monsanto is the world leader in biotechnology. The company was founded in 1901 to make saccharine, and grew into one of the world's largest producers of chemicals and pesticides. But last year, it spun off its entire chemical division to concentrate exclusively on genetically engineered food and drugs. So far, it seems to be working.

HORSCH: Personally, I was always a pessimist. I always thought things would be more difficult than they've turned out to be.

ELMER-DEWITT (voice-over): Companies like Monsanto are developing products that range from pest-resistant soybeans, to super sweet strawberries. Scientists hope, one day, to grow foods that make future generations healthier.

HORSCH: They'll eat healthier, maybe even without even intending to. Because more nutritious food will look more appealing and taste better.

ELMER-DEWITT (voice-over): So say the optimists. But there is a darker side.

JEREMY RIFKIN, FOUNDATION ON ECONOMIC TREND: This is revolutionary, but it's also very radical. It is going to pose tremendous risk for our food crops all over the world.

ELMER-DEWITT (voice-over): Critics of biotechnology say scientists must take extra precautions when doing experiments on plants that could end up on our plates.

RIFKIN: What should alarm the American consumer and consumers around the world is the potential health impacts of eating foods, either raw or processed, in which novel genes which have never been part of the food chain, we've never consumed them, we've never eaten them, are now in those plants, in those products.

ELMER-DEWITT (voice-over): Field experiments show that genes introduced into one plant, spread quickly to surrounding species. Critics are alarmed at that bits of DNA from bacteria and viruses are being introduced into plants and could end up getting into our food.

HORSCH: Bacterium and people actually share the same genetic code, share a lot of the same, basic genes. And when you get down to that minute a level, you can't really distinguish people genes very easily from bacterial genes, from petunia genes.

ELMER-DEWITT (voice-over): So far, the U.S. Government has not been persuaded that the new foods are unsafe.

JAMES MARYANSKI, FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION: The standard that is applied is that these foods must be as safe as the foods that we already have.

PROTESTERS: FDA, label food now!

ELMER-DEWITT (voice-over): The pundits of biotechnology want gene-altered foods clearly labeled.

PROTESTORS: FDA, don't clone around!

ELMER-DEWITT (voice-over): But the FDA has ruled that unless there is a real difference between a designer food, and food grown the old-fashioned way, any labeling would be misleading.

RIFKIN: The consumer should be saying loud and clear, look, even if it's a small health risk, shouldn't we be well-informed? Shouldn't we be able to make an intelligent decision at the supermarket as to whether to buy a product or not, based on understanding of whether it's genetically engineered or not.

ELMER-DEWITT (voice-over): Criticism of biotechnology in the U.S. has been relatively muted. But in Europe, genetic engineering is viewed as scientific adventurism. The European Commission recently ruled that all genetically engineered foods must be labeled. This could spell trouble for U.S. biotech companies.

More than 50 percent of our soya crop is exported to Europe, and soya is the most widely-grown, gene-altered food. U.S. officials are now negotiating with their European counterparts to lift the labeling requirements.

For now, the food and drug administration is content to keep a close eye on the new, gene-altered foods as they appear, approving only 27 products in the past three years.

MARYANSKI: You can see this is not an avalanche of hundreds or thousands of products that are coming.

HORSCH: My hope is that with enough answering of people's questions, that the concerns will be taken care of, and that the benefits of the products to consumers and to the environment will show true and carry the day.

ELMER-DEWITT (voice-over): Polls show that most U.S. consumers believe they have already benefited from biotechnology. Eight out of ten say they expect a benefit within the next five years. Steve Koeller, like many other farmers, also like the new products. Plants resistant to pests and herbicides make their jobs easier, and save them money.

STEVE KOELLER, FARMER: Last year, on some acreage, we did some experiments. We saved $20 an acre on our herbicide spray, which is considerable savings.

ELMER-DEWITT (voice-over): Koeller does not share the concerns of the biotech critics. He has already put in an order for some new herbicide-resistant corn seeds; seeds that have yet to hit the market.

KOELLER: Most of the public don't understand what agriculture is all about yet, and it's changing so fast. You take a little gamble with anything new.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHAW: Some of the gene-altered products you can expect to see over the next few years include: virus-protected tomatoes, insect- resistant corn, and cooking oils lower in saturated fats. About five years from now, you can start looking for those sweeter strawberries and naturally colored cotton, eliminating the need for some dyes.

CNN ANNOUNCER: For more reporting of this kind and other stories, read "Time" magazine this week.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHAW: Stephen, and I'm Bernard Shaw in Washington. We'll see you next week, on IMPACT.

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