Strange DNA creates killer veggies

I ate an obnoxiously huge apple last weekend. It was green and sweet and juicy — perfect in every way — except for the fact that I could hardly stretch my gaping mandible wide enough to take a bite out of the damn thing.
As I chewed and turned the fruit around in my hand, I thought of England, where this particular Granny Smith would be illegal. This prodigious pome was probably the product of the runaway biotech industry — genetically engineered to grow to the size of a grapefruit — and you can only get one in the United States, China, Canada or Argentina. For the rest of the world, feelings on that apple range somewhere between distrust and disgust.
Perusing the vegetable aisle at an American grocery store these days can be a bit like a trip to wonderland, where distorted dimensions fall just short of unnerving. Tumid tomatoes, each one as speciously ruby red as the next, sit on shelves for days on end, never going bad. Flawless, foot-long ears of sweet corn, despite never having been sprayed with insecticide, show no signs of insect damage. Almost all vegetables — from asparagus to zucchini — appear heftier and healthier than I ever remember.
And that apple o’ mine — so turgid and tart — seemed OK to eat. I mean, if it looks like an apple, smells like an apple and tastes like an apple, it must be an apple, right?
Indeed it was — but with a twist. Most likely, the apple’s DNA had been significantly altered somewhere along the line, crossbred with growth hormones or injected with proteins to produce its unusual size, resilience and shelf life. It’s a practice that is almost as common in this country as farming itself: the introduction of genetic materials from animals and other nonplant sources into the DNA of all kinds of whole foods.
Genetic material from scorpion venom is spliced into corn DNA, causing the kernels to contain internal insecticide. Soybeans — which make their way into many processed foods as filler (just read some labels) — are crossed with chicken growth hormones to produce weightier yields. According to a consultant to U.S. grocery producers, more than 60 percent of the whole-foods supply in this country has been genetically modified; that number is steadily growing. In 1997 alone, land acreage producing genetically modified foods quadrupled.
While we consumers shrug our shoulders and chomp away — completely trusting that sound science and federal regulations will keep our food supply safe — these “new and improved” plants and crops bespeak the kind of genetic meddling that has the rest of the world on high alert.
During a spring break trip to Europe, my girlfriend and I entertained ourselves on planes by poring over the London papers and tabloids. Every day, in almost every issue, a story, opinions piece or cartoon would appear addressing the seemingly inevitable invasion of genetically engineered plants into the food supply. It’s a hotter topic than Clinton/Lewinsky over there, and one about which legislators, columnists and citizens alike harbor strong opinions.
In other words, they’re terrified of this stuff.
Granted, alarmist sentiment is to be expected in the British scuttlebutt press, but one thing is clear: Over there, they have the opportunity to have a dialogue on biotech food before it hits the shelves. The British government is already considering a strict ban on the import of any transgenic foods.
On this side of the Atlantic, we have no such choice or voice. Transgenic foods are in our supermarkets, our cupboards and refrigerators — and are there to stay. The Food and Drug Administration does nothing to monitor the practices of the biotech industry, leaving it to “scientists” to “self-regulate” and “willingly report” any questionable alterations to whole foods. They claim that the benefits to the environment by cutting down on pesticides outweigh the risks of genetic interloping. To the FDA, if it looks like an apple …
So what’s the big deal? Why not utilize advances in genetic engineering to more cheaply produce foods that are higher yielding, taste better, contain more nutrients, resist insects without spraying and stay on shelves longer?
We have no idea what the long-term implications of modifying food through genetics are.
What happens when the seeds, pollen and never-before-seen chemical compounds of genetically altered vegetables get out of the food supply and into nature? Super-crops could disastrously upset the balance in any ecosystem. As a matter of fact, the pollen from a particular insect-resistant transgenic corn crop has killed Monarch butterflies; it’s happening on a small scale, but there’s no telling what can happen when such crops become widespread.
What happens when the drought-resistant properties of Brazil nuts are genetically insinuated into soybeans, which are in turn ground into processed meat and served to a man with a Brazil nut allergy? This has happened, too; it was an incident that caused the biotech industry to seriously reconsider the possibility of allergic properties of foods moving across genetic lines.
What happens when a woman whose religious diet strictures forbid her from eating animals ingests cornmeal made from corn that’s been injected with bovine growth hormones? It’s a question that religious leaders struggle with every day.
A coalition of scientists, religious leaders, health professionals, consumers and chefs filed suit against the FDA last year, demanding a change in policy that would require food growers and manufacturers to label genetically modified foods as such.
Of course, the change in policy would be expensive to not only the FDA and the biotech industry, but to consumers as well. But the cost of awareness and circumspect scrutiny of biotech engineering is minutia when you consider the possibly cataclysmic consequences of tinkering with nature from the inside. There’s nothing wrong with genetically manipulating plants for the betterment of the food supply. It is worrying, however, that the practice goes unchecked. Any scientist can change the genetic makeup of a plant in any way he sees fit; as long as he sows it as a seed, he can also sell it as food — without telling you how its genetic makeup has been changed.
Unfortunately for the United States, the biotech genie is already out of the bottle. Only time will tell if the federal government’s ambivalence has far-reaching ramifications. If things go awry, it will probably be too late to reverse them. It probably already is.
In the meantime, enjoy the apples.

Josh Dickey’s column appears on Tuesdays. He welcomes comments to [email protected]