Who's Afraid of Frankenfood?

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If chief executives of leading U.S. agri-biotech companies have been suffering from heartburn lately, it isn't because of anything they've been eating. Rather, it's the unsettling knowledge that long-simmering European anxieties over genetically modified (g.m.) crops, like ocean-hopping viruses, are spreading across the world.

In Battle Creek, Michigan, Greenpeace recently invaded cereal maker Kellogg's headquarters, calling its use of genetically engineered grains a "monstrous experiment." One of the Greenpeaceniks even dressed as Kellogg's trademark Tony the Tiger, renamed FrankenTony--after what British tabloids call "Frankenfoods."

In Chicago the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), acknowledging growing public concern, held a public forum on g.m. foods late last month. FrankenTony showed up, along with a covey of kids dressed as monarch butterflies, feigning death before a mock cornstalk--an allusion to the discovery by scientists last spring that, at least in the lab, pollen from g.m. corn can kill the butterfly's caterpillars. Not to be left out, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman was said to be considering the appointment of a panel of experts to advise him on the pros and cons of biotech. And in the surest sign of shifting political winds, a bipartisan group of 20 members of Congress introduced legislation requiring labeling of all genetically engineered food.

Unlike Britons, whose concerns about what they eat have been on the rise ever since "mad cow disease" (even though it had nothing to do with genetic engineering), Americans have seemed indifferent to g.m. foods. Not that they have much choice: half of all soybeans, about a third of the corn crop and substantial quantities of the potatoes grown in the U.S. come from plants that have been genetically altered. And many more g.m.s are in the offing, including alfalfa, lettuce, broccoli and cabbage--if there's a market for them. Some skittish U.S. farmers now say they may plant fewer g.m. seeds next spring.

If foodmakers can no longer count on the public's unquestioning acceptance of their products, it's not just because of activist theatrics and shrill agitprop. To be sure, it was Greenpeace that pressured Gerber to drop genetically altered soybeans and corn from its baby foods and played a key role in forcing Monsanto to halt research on its self-sterilizing "terminator" seeds. But more measured voices have expressed doubts as well. Says Rebecca Goldburg of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF): "As a biologist, I find it hard to oppose genetically engineered crops or foods per se. [But] I also think that there are some genuine food-safety and ecological issues that have to be dealt with."

Not that any direct threat to health from genetically modified foods has been found, except by a lone British researcher who claimed--somewhat dubiously--that g.m. potatoes damaged his lab rats. On the contrary, as scientists told the FDA, genetically modified foods could carry clear health benefits, such as delivering more nutrients, reducing spoilage and curtailing the use of chemical pesticides. Besides, natural doesn't always mean good: cassava, for example, can be toxic if not properly prepared.

With billions of dollars at risk, the biotech industry has begun to fight back, forming corporate alliances and launching a major p.r. effort that includes lobbying, new research efforts to still public fears and TV, radio and newspaper ads. It is also beginning to listen more. "To brush off concern [about g.m. crops] as unfounded is to be arrogant and reckless," says DuPont chief executive Charles Holliday Jr. And even though it gave FrankenTony the cold shoulder, Kellogg's is already phasing out genetically modified products in Europe--not, it insists, for safety reasons but just to please consumers.

So far, the regulators have approved dozens of genetically modified plants for human consumption. But if public pressure grows, it may be forced to go slower in the future. One possibility: the FDA could begin applying to g.m. foods the powers it already has to regulate food additives. As EDF's Goldburg explains, the proteins produced by new genes are in a sense additives as well--"and while food manufacturers intend food additives to be safe, every now and then they screw up." Even more likely, food producers will respond to the changing public mood by labeling their products as g.m.-free, a trend already evident in Europe.

There's a downside to such actions, however. By overreacting to fears fanned by well-fed consumers in the industrialized world, food producers might uproot an industry that could someday provide billions of people in the rest of the world with crops they desperately need.