Banking on Biotech

Is the latest food science from Aggie-land a lemon?


Farms in Texas are not what they used to be. Small, self-sufficient family operations have given way to capital intensive, single-crop enterprises, where knowledge increasingly comes not from experience, but from reading labels on barrels of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Many of the crops, although they look the same, are not what they used to be, either. In 1994, the first genetically modified food product, a tomato, was approved for sale to the public. That tomato, infused with a fish gene to retard spoilage, was the product of a quiet revolution in agriculture—biotechnology—which has been underway in private laboratories since the mid-1970s. Now, just a few years after the first product hit the market, biotech crops—including such Texas staples as corn, cotton, and soybeans—are everywhere.

In 1999, fully one quarter of all crops planted in the U.S. were genetically modified, including 35 percent of corn, 55 percent of soybeans, and almost half of all cotton. Many of the world’s giant chemical companies have reinvented themselves as “life science” companies. Monsanto, for example, is now earning millions on its Roundup Ready soybeans, which can withstand direct applications of the company’s popular weed-killer, Roundup. New varieties of genetically modified corn and cotton products actually produce their own pesticide, a bacterium known as Bt, which kills harmful worms in the soil. Regulatory agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency, have all signed off on the technology, though no safety testing of these products has been done by any public agency. Proponents argue that the technology is no different than the age-old practice of breeding plants to create hybrid species. Critics charge that new products have been rushed into the food chain without adequate study of the long-term effects on human and animal health, as well as the unintended ecological impacts.

Corn and cotton are just the tip of the iceberg. The next generation of biotech research and development is being conducted in the country’s agricultural research universities, where public and private funds increasingly commingle in cooperative agreements with private industry. Texas A&M University is one of the leading institutions in the field, and several genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the market originated in College Station. As the coordinator of the state’s Agricultural Extension Service, Texas A&M is also charged with bringing new technology to the state’s farmers. Biotech is now a big part of extension’s message. “Genes are the raw material upon which new value is being created,” reads a report from a recent biotech summit held at Texas A&M. Texas, with its vast agricultural acreage and its well-funded researchers, is well-situated to ride the crest of the coming biotech boom, according to the report.

But what about the coming storm? Texas A&M, like the federal government, and many of the world’s top chemical companies, has staked its reputation on the safety and efficacy of a technology that has become the most controversial food safety issue to hit Europe since Mad Cow Disease. Unlike in the U.S., labeling of all genetically modified foods is required by law in Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Europe, where consumers are so averse to the technology that major American producers like Nestle, Kraft, and Frito-Lay are now producing GMO-free versions of many of their products for the European market. Foreign sales of U.S. grain, meanwhile, have plummeted. The U.S. public has come only lately to the debate, prodded by recent revelations about the industry, including the discovery that millions of dollars worth of tortilla shells and other corn products on store shelves were contaminated with StarLink, a variety of GMO corn approved only for animals. The patent holder, Aventis, has now conceded that much of the country’s 1999 corn crop is probably contaminated, an apparent result of inadequate warnings to farmers about the need to segregate the seeds and their harvest. Japan has recently begun rejecting grain shipments from the United States that show any evidence of GMO contamination. As the fight over labeling heats up in this country, a long-overdue debate is beginning to take shape over the desirability and safety of this new technology. In Texas, the debate offers a window into an ongoing battle in Texas agriculture between the scientists of Texas A&M and their critics in the world of sustainable agriculture. Texas farmers, many of whom were stung financially by the Starlink recall and other biotech mishaps, are at ground zero.

Since its founding as the state’s land-grant institution in 1876, Texas A&M has been the official repository of agricultural knowledge in Texas. The university disseminates research conducted in College Station or at one of 13 regional research stations to farmers (as well as to horticulturists, ranchers, and home gardeners) through the Texas Agricultural Extension Service. Virtually every county in Texas has an extension agent, and the vast majority of them are A&M graduates. Dr. Andy Vestal heads the extension’s biotech outreach efforts from his office at the Institute for Food Science and Engineering in College Station. “This is Not a Public Building,” reads the glass front door of the building that houses the Institute, which is located in the Research Park area of campus, an array of low, modern buildings with large black windows and vast, treeless lawns of well-fertilized Bermuda grass. Vestal explains that the building also serves as a “business incubator” for young biotech companies, which take advantage of low rents and access to laboratory facilities to develop their products on campus before taking them to market.

The son of a Panhandle farming family and a former extension agent from Lubbock, Vestal looks anything but earthy in his crisp black pants and loafers, familiar maroon Aggie sweater, and shiny A&M class ring, his ultra-slim laptop computer within easy reach. His recently completed dissertation examined journalists’ attitudes toward biotechnology, and his job—as he describes it—seems to have more in common with public relations than science. “I think our role as an extension service is to avoid promoting biotech products, but to share information—all that we know, both benefits and hazards—so the public will have the ability to participate in this discussion,” he says. To that end, Vestal has created a slide show, which he happily shows me on his laptop. There were no hazards mentioned in the portion I saw, although the benefits were listed in no uncertain terms, beginning with the potential for higher yield crops to feed the coming population explosion in the developing world. Higher yields, Vestal points out, means more food with less acreage planted, which might save pristine areas, like the Amazon rain forest, from being burned for farmland. “It’s interesting that much of the effort to regulate this technology is coming from Europe and the U.S., where food stores are fairly secure,” he notes. In fact, in 1998 farmers in India rioted and burned fields planted by Monsanto with grain containing an experimental Terminator gene, which prevents seeds from forming on plants. Other developing countries, such as Brazil, have also resisted the industry’s considerable overtures. Much to their credit: Brazil is now supplying an unprecedented portion of the European and Japanese markets with grain, while neighboring Argentina, which planted heavily in biotech, is losing market share.

Vestal’s show goes on to list a number of soon to be released biotech inventions, including a calorie-free super-sweetener developed by a Texas company, and some still on the drawing board, like a cotton plant being developed at Texas A&M that grows collagen, for Band-Aids that promote faster healing. “It’s more than just Roundup Ready soybeans and Bt corn, I keep telling people,” Vestal says. The real future, he says, is not in improved food crops, but in using crops like corn as “bio-factories” to produce enzymes or proteins needed in food processing or the manufacturing of medicines, such as insulin.

Thus far, Vestal has taken his pitch chiefly to producers, including large chemical and food companies, as well as associations of growers, grocers, and processors. He recognizes that the next battle will be in the court of public opinion, however. Vestal feels that much of biotech’s public relations problem stems from private industry’s insistence on keeping the technology secret during the development stage, because of the fierce competition between giants like Novartis, Monsanto, and Pioneer. “I urged Monsanto back in the early nineties, before any of this came out, to let us introduce the public to some of the technology coming down the pipeline,” he says, but Monsanto was not interested.

The result, he says, is a gap between what the public knows and what industry knows about the technology, which has increased the opportunities for what he calls “sensational” depictions of the technology. “I can tell you the exact date things went wrong,” he says: “May 20, 1999.” That was when the science magazine Nature published an alarming story: Bt corn pollen had killed Monarch butterflies in the laboratory, something Monsanto had never predicted. That prompted the first critical wave of coverage of what had previously been a very quiet revolution in agriculture. What caused the commotion wasn’t so much the potential harm to butterflies, though that side effect is alarming. Rather, it was the prospect of unintended—and apparently completely unexpected—consequences of a technology already widely in use, and largely untested, at least by objective researchers. All of the biotech products currently on the market have been judged by regulators to be “substantially equivalent” to the original organism, that is, no new potential allergens or toxic substances were created by the genetic modification. Thus the USDA requires no safety testing, or special labeling of the food. The Monarch deaths suggested that the USDA might not be asking the right questions about GMO’s.

It’s not just dead butterflies critics are worried about. In 1989, 37 Americans died and 1,500 were permanently disabled after taking a genetically engineered version of a dietary supplement called tryptophan. The disaster was apparently caused by toxins created during genetic modification. There is also the issue of allergens: Pioneer Hybrid had to abandon one soybean project when they discovered, to their surprise, that the infusion of a Brazil nut protein into the soybean’s genes also produced the allergen associated with the nut, which is deadly to some people. Such unanticipated consequences of unlabeled foods are what worries biotech critics. It’s left to industry, not the ill-equipped FDA, to detect such side effects. Genetic engineering, not surprisingly, is considered an “unquantifiable risk” by the insurance industry.

“We need to realize that we have accepted risks that are much greater,” than biotech, Vestal says. Cars, he points out, kill 35,000 people per year, yet people have no qualms about that technology. Of course, as long as there is no labeling of GM foods—a prospect the industry has fought tooth and nail—consumers will not know that they are taking that risk.

Not all of the state’s agricultural research is done at A&M’s research stations. A considerable amount of ground-breaking work has been done about 150 miles west of College Station, on a 100-acre plot of land at the end of a couple of miles of winding, cedar-lined county road just north of San Antonio. There sits Garden-Ville, the nerve center of organic agriculture in Texas and the home of Malcolm Beck, the “Grandfather of Compost” and Texas’s outlaw farming guru. Begun as a small organic farm in the late fifties, Garden-Ville is now a million dollar business, dispensing compost and other organic soil supplements, herbicides, and pesticides to buyers across the country. Beck, who prefers to call his method of farming “economical” instead of organic, is one of the pioneers of organic farming in America. He was one of the first to promote the idea of soil health, insisting against conventional wisdom that chemical fertilizers helped plants but damaged the soil, eventually leading to reduced yields. Now in his sixties, he travels the country delivering his message of healthy soil and healthy plants, with a healthy dose of A&M bashing to boot.

For Beck, biotech is just another example of Texas A&M’s folly, which he has spent a lifetime documenting. Beck, who never attended college, compiled his knowledge of Texas agriculture through experience, observation, and methodical research in his greenhouse and on his organic farm. His office is lined with books about organic agriculture, including several he authored himself. When he started farming without chemicals in the late 1950s, the A&M-trained extension agents laughed at him. Over the years he has carefully documented the number of times he has proven A&M wrong. “I’m up to thirteen,” he says. Beck has a slide show of his own, demonstrating side-by-side rows of the same crops grown his way, and what he calls “A&M’s way.” In the Garden-Ville model of science, seeing is believing, and he points enthusiastically at the large, healthy plants in the organic rows. “How you gonna argue with something like that?”

Beck says biotech is simply a bad deal for farmers. “The land-grant colleges are sellin’ farmers down the river. It’s not sustainable,” he says. He cites Bt corn as an example. Bacillus thuringiensis is a naturally occurring pesticide that organic farmers have been using sparingly for years. Sprinkling a bit around the roots of a corn plant will keep worms away. But massive application through genetically modified corn plants will flood the soil with Bt, and eventually, if past experience holds, the pests will become immune to the poison, Beck says. (A recent EPA paper has confirmed this threat.) When that happens, everyone’s investment, both farmers and industry, will be worthless. Sustainability is a concept that A&M has shown little interest in over the years, according to Beck. Though organic farming is now a multi-million-dollar business in Texas, with its own bureau at the Texas Department of Agriculture, you still cannot major in organic farming or horticulture at Texas A&M, and precious little funds are spent studying sustainable agriculture at the university’s extension research stations. “They’re not interested in anything that didn’t originate with them,” he says. “Now, when it comes to varieties, species, planting dates, stuff like that, A&M puts out a lot of good stuff. But when it comes to soil building, fertilizing, and pest control, they’ve been left way behind.”

In some cases, Texas A&M seems not just uninterested, but hostile to organic alternatives. Texas A&M has invested millions in fire ant-control research. When Garden-Ville came out with its own organic fire ant killer, using a citrus oil base, the product sold well and proved very effective. But Beck never got EPA approval, a fact pointed out to the Texas Department of Agriculture in a terse, unsolicited letter from Texas A&M professor Dr. Michael Merchant, the entomology extension expert for the North Texas region. The product was briefly pulled from store shelves in the Dallas area by TDA, though it continued to sell well elsewhere. That story is still frequently told by Merchant’s nemesis in North Texas, Howard Garrett. Known as the Dirt Doctor, Garrett broadcasts a daily show on one of the state’s most powerful stations, WBAP, in which he regularly lambastes A&M and biotechnology. The feud has become personal. Garrett says the extension service was convinced to send a representative to a recent holistic growers conference in Dallas only after being assured that Garrett would n
t be allowed to speak at the conference.

Few institutions have done more than Texas A&M to promote chemical-intensive agriculture, a model of farming exported to the developing world in the 1960s under a program known as the Green Revolution. (Norman Borlaug, known as the “Father of the Green Revolution” for his pioneering work in Mexico, is a professor emeritus at Texas A&M and still teaches one semester a year. He is now a big supporter of biotech.) Beck doesn’t blame A&M for buying into the new model. “It looked like the way to go. Yields were way higher than ever before,” he says. “But they didn’t realize that it was burning up the organic content of the soil and destroying the soil structure. And pretty soon they needed more and more fertilizer. And then the pests started showing up, because overusing the fertilizer has sapped the energy in the soil, which was stressing the plants,” he explains. “And they started coming out with more pesticides and pretty soon they’re caught on this treadmill where it’s hard to back up.”

The way research is funded today helps to perpetuate this cycle. “Follow the money,” says Dick Richardson, a former A&M student and now a professor of genetics at UT and a biotech critic. “Walk through the entomology building and see who the plaques are for, look at the cooperative agreements between industry and land grant research institutions.” Thirty-seven percent of the A&M system’s total royalties come from the commercialization of technology developed at A&M’s ag research stations. Biotech has come along at a particularly precarious time for university research. Basic research, that is, research with no direct application in the real world, is getting a smaller and smaller piece of the public funding pie. More and more USDA and state moneys go to projects with immediately marketable applications. And industry supplies a greater portion of the budget than ever. Under a deal worked out at Berkeley, for example, Novartis is now providing one-third of the total budget of the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology; in return it receives considerable control over the direction of research and first crack at a portion of the licenses for commercial applications developed by the professors and grad students of the department. Berkeley is singled out in A&M’s biotech summit report as a model in funding innovation.

Sustainable research, on the other hand, generates very little interest from funders, and consequently, Richardson says, there’s no encouragement to study sustainable farming at A&M. “There’s no money to be made in it. An ideal organic system has no inputs; it’s almost a closed cycle,” he says. No chemical fertilizer or pesticides to be applied, no expensive, patented seeds to buy from Monsanto. “Mother Nature doesn’t have an extension service or an ad man,” he says.

Yet common sense and experience is drawing many farmers away from the A&M model, according to Beck and Garrett. “They’d go broke following their own advice,” Beck says of the extension service. Yields are down and farmers are in trouble in Texas, though 10 years of drought and severe weather have played a large part. Yet biotech has not always delivered the promised high yields. A group of cotton farmers, including some from North Texas, filed a class action suit against Monsanto in 1999, when the company’s Bollguard brand of Bt cotton produced pathetically low yields. The stems were so weak, the bolls fell off before they could be harvested.

More often, it has been Monsanto suing the farmers. Farmers who purchase expensive biotech seeds are actually only “renting” the seeds, according to contracts they sign with Monsanto. Collecting the seeds from the subsequent harvest, a cycle followed by farmers for thousands of years, is expressly forbidden, and Monsanto has shown a willingness to sue even small producers suspected of re-planting second generation seeds. Some conventional farmers, either fed up with the seed giants, or seeking to capitalize on a growing market for organic or non-GMO products, have begun to explore other options. North Texas, for example, now has a sizable contingent of cotton growers producing for the GMO-free market.

Beck also notes that some A&M professors have come to see things his way, including one who brings Beck to his seminar twice a year. “They’re lettin’ ’em teach natural, but they still have to teach chemical at the same time,” he says. Some of the younger extension agents come to him for advice and recommend his products, Beck says. But they are the exception. “I have all respect for Malcolm,” Andy Vestal says. But from his viewpoint, Beck’s model represents the past. “If we completely regressed to organic methods,” he says, “we would have difficulty feeding the planet.” Ultimately, it’s a question of who has the authority to dispense agricultural knowledge in Texas: “Who is doing the research to back Malcolm Beck up?”

I think A&M recognizes that there are two different worlds,” in Texas agriculture, Vestal says. Until now, there has been room for both of those worlds in Texas. Biotech may put an end to that. One of the greatest concerns about biotech crops is contamination of conventional or organic crops through wind-borne pollination. This issue could render the debate over labeling, just now gaining steam in this country, a moot point. Already, according to Vestal, farmers in Iowa have conceded that wind-borne pollen from Bt corn has become so pervasive that no corn grown in those states can be certified GMO-free. Vestal even questions claims by Frito-Lay and others who sell GMO-free versions for the foreign market, pointing out that the oils, especially soybean and corn, contained in those products almost surely contain some GMO product. Even without wind-borne pollen, according to former Texas farmer Steve Sprinkle, now an organic certifier in Southern California, the very notion that produce and seeds could be kept separate in modern farming, when rented harvesting equipment is used on several different farms a day, and elevators, gins, and railroad cars are all used in common, is absurd. The StarLink disaster proved that.

What does that mean for organic or non-GM farmers? An international food standards group is currently meeting in Japan to determine what if any threshold of GMO can be present in internationally certified organic foods and, crucially, to determine ground rules for trade law with respect to labeling. Watching the proceedings closely is the World Trade Organization, which may soon weigh in on the labeling debate. If the biotech companies have their way, labeling could be declared an unfair trade barrier. “I’ll be frank with you,” says Sprinkle, “we’re sitting on the edge of our chair on this one.”