Page 4


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 unintendedand apparently completely unexpectedconsequences 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 foodsa prospect the industry has fought tooth and nail consumers will not know that they are taking that risk. of 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. 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 pro 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3/30/01