Genetically engineered potato more than just `Frankenfood'
Concern lingers over promise of `supercrops'


(Idaho Statesman; 11/24/98)

Genetically engineered crops are no longer the stuff of science fiction.
They are a fact of life.

Throughout most of the 1990s, "biotech" commodities such as corn,
soybeans,
potatoes and tomatoes have been entering the world's food chain.

Critics use such terms as "Frankenfood" to describe such products as
**Monsanto**'s New Leaf Potato, which has been grown in Idaho since 1995.
Splicing DNA from one species to another could have unexpected
consequences to
human health and the environment, they say.

But researchers are holding out the promise of "supercrops" as the next
significant improvement to the world's agricultural production methods.

Today, all the farmland in the world would cover an area the size of
North
America. But the world's population is expected to double in 50 years, and
to
feed 10 billion people using today's methods it would take an area the size
of
North and South America.

"We need to grow more food on less land, using less chemicals," said
Steve
Love, a potato breeder for the University of Idaho at Aberdeen, who helped
develop the New Leaf.

The potato has DNA from bacteria spliced into its genetic coding to
protect
against Colorado potato beetles. Simply put, when the beetles munch the
leaves,
they die.

A New Leaf can be a russet burbank, a russet norkotah, a shepody, or any
variety.

"Nutritionally and compositionally, they're the same," said Alyssa
Hollier,
spokeswoman for **Monsanto**'s Naturemark division in Boise. "If they
weren't,
they'd have to be labeled."

Hollier said the New Leaf has received the endorsement of such groups as
the
World Health Organization and the American Dietetic Association.

But groups like the Organic Consumers Association in Little Marais, Minn., are
calling for government regulations that would require genetically engineered
crops, or products that use them, to be labeled.

"Consumers have a fundamental right to know what they're eating," said
Ronnie Cummins, the group's executive director.

But unless a product has the possibility of causing an allergic reaction,
the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires no labeling of genetically
engineered foodstuffs.

A New Leaf potato is different because it contains Bacillus
thuringiensis,
commonly known as Bt, a bacterial toxin often used by organic farmers and
gardeners to kill insects. Although classified as a pesticide, Love said
that
term is misleading because Bt is actually a protein. In the case of the New
Leaf, the protein binds to receptors in a beetle's stomach, inhibiting its
ability to digest food.

Should consumers worry about Bt in their french fries?

"Not unless you've been crossbred with a potato beetle," Love said.
"Chances
are we are eating similar bacteria when we eat a lot of different foods."

Because growers don't segregate genetically engineered potatoes from the
rest of their crop, there is no way to estimate how many pounds of New Leafs
were harvested in Idaho this year. But this past summer, 1,761 acres of New
Leaf seed were registered in the state.

Across the nation, New Leafs have been planted on about 50,000 acres,
said
Hollier, much of it in the East and Midwest, where the Colorado potato
beetle
is more of a problem. That represents about 3.5 percent of the nation's
potato
acreage.

Representatives from companies like **Monsanto**, DuPont and Novartis -
the
huge Swiss pharmaceutical conglomerate - are quick to assure the public that
their biotech products are safe and based on sound science. Hollier said
biotech crops are grown on 50 million acres around the world.

The selling point for potato farmers is they can avoid costly pesticide
applications by growing New Leafs. Suffering through a prolonged price
slump,
farmers are looking for ways to cut expenses.

Another New Leaf has been developed to resist viruses, and **Monsanto**
is
developing "Roundup ready" crops that can withstand its widely used
weedkiller.

It remains to be seen whether bioengineered crops are the answer to
farmers'
woes, said Paul Patterson, economist for the University of Idaho extension
office in Idaho Falls.

"Genetic engineering is being viewed as a salvation," he said. "They're
saying, `Here's a system that allows us to reduce those pesticides.' But
what's
the trade-off? We haven't had a rational debate about that."

One question being asked is whether supercrops are going to improve the
small farmer's bottom line or work in favor of mega-operators.

Patterson helped **Monsanto** with economic analyses of farming
operations,
as the company was determining what would make the New Leaf marketable.

(Copyright 1998 The Idaho Statesman)

_____via IntellX_____

{A5:IdahoStatesman-1125.01032} 11/24/98


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