Designing the Garden: Food in the Age of Biotechnology

Transcript Text: 

The DNA Files:
Unraveling the Mysteries of Genetics

As heard on National Public Radio

Designing The Garden:
Food in The Age of Biotechnology

Hosted by John Hockenberry


SoundVision Productions
2991 Shattuck Avenue, Suite 304
Berkeley, California 94705-1872
(510) 486-1185

For further information about genetics and these programs, as well as the producers who brought
you this series, visit the project web site at
Send your questions about genetics and this project to

Funding for this series was made possible by generous grants from The National Science
Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health,
and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: It can be tough to decide what to buy at the supermarket these days. We hear a lot about genetically modified foods, but do you know which foods are modified or not? And what does genetically modified mean, anyway? This is The DNA Files. I'm John Hockenberry. Today's program is called, "Designing the Garden: Food in the Age of Biotechnology." Over the next hour, we'll visit coffee connoisseurs in California, soybean farmers in Ohio, and nutritionists in Southern India.

LAKSHMAN: So we are looking at the ultimate objective of "Are we able to reduce child mortality down to numbers, which are far lower than the kind of unimaginable numbers that we have today?"

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: We'll hear about scientists putting genes from daffodils into rice, DNA from mice into pigs, and a gene from bacteria into corn, all to better understand food created for the dinner table, coming up after the news.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Welcome to The DNA Files. I'm John Hockenberry. And if there was like a theme park to food, it would be right here at the Fairway Market in Brooklyn, New York. I'm surrounded by produce--plums like an ocean of--oh, man, those are--yeah, I need this--and everybody's summer favorite, corn. Look at that. Look at that. Oh, man. Dinner.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Is this real yellow?

WOMAN 1: Is that real yellow?

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Do they grow like this?

WOMAN 1: Yeah. Are you worried that it's like been genetically altered or something?

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: No. Do you worry about that?

WOMAN 1: I don't know. I don't really think about it so much, but that's--that's good.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: That’s the real deal.

WOMAN 1: That's the real deal. [laughs]

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Yeah, all right, thank you.

WOMAN 1: You're welcome.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Genetically modified foods, also called GM foods. That's when scientists modify a plant or an animal's genes in the lab. Sometimes they'll add new genes. Sometimes they'll turn off a gene so it stops working. Hardly any genetically altered plants wind up here in the produce aisle, maybe some yellow crookneck squash, an occasional papaya, but more than 70% of the corn grown in the U.S., and 90% of soybeans are genetically modified. And a lot of corn and soy shows up in processed foods.

Come with me. I'm going to head over to the cereal aisle here. We got Special K Protein Plus here, wheat bran soy grits, rice, wheat gluten, soybean oil, whole grain wheat, soy protein isolate, sugar, salt, high fructose corn syrup, malt flavor, natural ...

A lot of GM corn and soy is processed into these kinds of things--soy protein isolate, high fructose corn syrup, and it ends up in cereals, juice drinks, frozen pizzas, you name it.

LEE SILVER: So what? [laughs] I guess is the question.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Lee Silver is a professor of molecular biology and public policy at Princeton University. He's on one side of the GM food debate. He says pretty much everything we eat, processed or not, has been manipulated by humans. For example, he says corn as we know it today is essentially a human invention.

LEE SILVER: If you go out into the Midwest and you go outside of a farm, corn doesn't grow in the woods. It didn't exist before people in Central America took a weed, and began to select characteristics, which are actually bad for the corn, but good for people.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Ten thousand years ago, an ear of corn had no more than 12 little kernels. This ear of Silver Queen at the market today--umm, it's got to be 500 kernels. In Lee Silver's view, genetic engineering is just an extension of the plant breeding that's been going on for thousands of years. But another scientist says, "Unh unh, no. Selective breeding and genetic modification are very different. Mardi Mellon is with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

MARDI MELLON: I would argue that that's a radical departure from the technology of traditional or conventional breeding that's based on the selection of organisms and the controlled mating between organisms.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Mellon says traditional breeders work with plants that are closely related to those they're manipulating.

MARDI MELLON: Over time, we have accumulated an immense amount of experience with selective breeding, and one of the things we've learned is that if you stick with the set of genes that can be accessed through traditional breeding, i.e., the wheat that you want to modify can only be done by breeding the wheat plant with wheat or a near relative, that we have an idea of what kind of outcomes those limited genetic combinations produce.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Genetic engineers put daffodil genes into rice and bacteria genes into corn. Mellon says adding genes from unrelated species could create new risks to the environment and perhaps to people.

LEE SILVER: I think that's misleading.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Here's Lee Silver again.

LEE SILVER: The culture is such that people think GM food is dangerous. Now, the products that are on the market right now in the United States, there's no evidence that they've caused any detectable harm.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: It's been more than a decade since GM products began making their way on to our dinner tables. In 1994, the Food and Drug Administration approved the “Flavor Saver” tomato. Consumers didn't like it. So you won't find it at the supermarket any more. But in 1996, the Monsanto Corporation came out with something that started a revolution in American farming. Today, more than 100 million acres of American farmland are planted with GM soy, corn, cotton, and a few other crops.

MAN 1: Today, agriculture is going far beyond Nature to produce new miracles for an even better, more abundant life.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Monsanto's innovation was the Roundup Ready soybean seed. Roundup is a well-known weed killer for homeowners and farmers alike. Monsanto came out with it more than 30 years ago, but now the company is selling is with a biotech seed that works together with the weed killer. Eric Sachs is chief of Monsanto's global scientific affairs group. He says that when someone sprays the Roundup weed killer, it binds with an essential enzyme in plants.

ERIC SACHS: That enzyme is critical for the production of certain amino acids.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: And Roundup makes the enzyme inactive.

ERIC SACHS: So when it's inactivated in the weed, the weed eventually dies, because it's starved for those critical amino acids.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: To create Roundup Ready seeds, scientists took a gene from a bacteria and added it to a plant's DNA. The new gene alters the shape of that critical enzyme.

ERIC SACHS: Think of something like a little kidney bean, where it has a small, little space in it where the Roundup molecule might fit. In the Roundup Ready gene, that space is altered slightly so that the molecule doesn't fit any more.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So in Roundup Ready plants, the weed killer can't bind, and it can't kill the plant. Farmers can spray all over a field of Roundup Ready corn or soy, and kill the weeds, not the crops. This Roundup Ready technology has been a huge boon for Monsanto. Sales of GM corn and soybean seeds totaled more than two billion dollars in the first half of 2007. That's in addition to almost 1.2 billion dollars in sales for the weed killer alone. But some U.S. farmers want to keep genetically modified plants out of their fields. These farmers worry that GM plants growing nearby could contaminate their fields and ruin their markets, and they think it's the government's responsibility to protect them. One of the biggest victories for anti-GM forces came in May, 2007. For the first time, farmers were forced to stop planting a biotech crop, because of a federal court ruling. DNA File's producer, Julie Grant, brings us the story of Roundup Ready alfalfa.

JULIE GRANT: Except for a few sprouts, most of us don't eat alfalfa, but cows do, and we drink milk and eat meat from those cows. If you want your milk and meat to be organic, your cows can't be eating genetically modified plants. The national organic rules are strict about that. In 2005, Monsanto put Roundup Ready alfalfa seeds on the market, and in just two years, nearly half of all alfalfa farmers switched to it.

A river flows around this farm in Northern California. Glenn Nakagawa has the trim build of a man who's worked a lifetime in these fields, but now Nakagawa's getting older. He wants a crop that won't take a lot of tending. He decided to plant Monsanto's new genetically modified alfalfa, because the Roundup Ready seeds are supposed to make it easier to keep weeds, such as lamb's quarters or wild mustard at bay.

GLENN NAKAGAWA: What's left is nice, green, thick stand of alfalfa.

JULIE GRANT: He's glad he chose Roundup Ready alfalfa.

GLENN NAKAGAWA: The nice thing is, you're paid on cleanliness of your hay. The more alfalfa you have in the bale, the more money you're going to get paid for that hay. If you have a lot of weeds [laughs], you're going to get paid for the weeds, and it won't be as much money.

JULIE GRANT: Nakagawa paid two to three times more for the biotech seeds, but he expects to use less herbicide. That will save him 30 to 50 dollars per acre. It also means less chemical run-off into the river. But ever since Roundup Ready alfalfa went on the market, it's pitted farmer against farmer. Glenn Nakagawa got his Roundup Ready alfalfa planted before the ban. Farmer Albert Straus wishes sales had been halted sooner. Nearly 15 years ago, Straus decided to have his family's farm certified organic.

ALBERT STRAUS: We do glass bottle organic milk, organic butter, yogurt. We make ice cream as well.

JULIE GRANT: In order to get the little round seal--the organic certification on his milk bottles and other products, everything he feeds his 270 cows also needs to be certified organic.

ALBERT STRAUS: We buy about 50% of our feeds every year. We probably buy about 3,500 tons of alfalfa a year, and that comes from either Northern California or Nevada.

JULIE GRANT: But when Straus tested the so-called organic corn in the feed he bought, more than a quarter of it was genetically modified.

ALBERT STRAUS: I was shocked. We verified with this higher standard test. I sent the sample to the lab, and they found that it was contaminated with three traits of genetically modified organisms.

JULIE GRANT: Straus was worried when he heard more farmers were starting to plant Roundup Ready alfalfa.

ALBERT STRAUS: They're not able to control the GM corn. They're not going to be able to control the GM alfalfa.

JULIE GRANT: But corn and alfalfa don't carry the same risk of cross-pollination. Each corn plant can produce millions of pollen. On a breezy day, corn can cross-pollinate plants hundreds of feet away. Alfalfa often pollinates itself, and when it does cross-pollinate, it's by bees. Honeybees don't spread pollen as far as the wind.

Dan Putnam is an alfalfa expert at the University of California at Davis. He wrote a brief to the court that was used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Monsanto to argue that alfalfa has low risk of gene flow. He and his colleagues tested non-genetically modified alfalfa growing 165 feet from GM alfalfa. The contamination levels were one-quarter of 1%. Putnam said bees just aren't very interested in alfalfa.

DAN PUTNAM: They do not like alfalfa, because it trips and hits them in the head.

JULIE GRANT: Putnam explains that when a bee lands on the flower, one of the petals tenses, jerks forward, and strikes the bees. He says there's another reason that cross-pollination or gene flow is unlikely from a field of alfalfa grown for hay.

DAN PUTNAM: Most growers manage gene flow just because of what they do with hay fields. They cut them frequently, and they don't allow them to flower very much, and they certainly don't allow them to set seed.

JULIE GRANT: Hay farmers want the plants' energy to go into making thick, green leaves, not into flowers. Putnam says that, coupled with the bees' dislike of alfalfa, make the potential for contamination in hay fields close to nil. But even the tiniest amount is too much for many organic farmers. The federal court that banned the GM alfalfa wanted more evidence. The judge instructed the USDA to prepare an environmental impact statement, something it hadn't done on any Roundup Ready crops. The study is expected to take up to two years. In the meantime, Monsanto has had to recall all the seeds from its distribution chain. For The DNA Files, I'm Julie Grant.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Coming up, how to reduce pollution with a genetically altered pig and how one scientist stops the coffee plant from making caffeine when we continue with "Designing the Garden: Food in the Age of Biotechnology" on The DNA Files.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Welcome back to The DNA Files. I'm John Hockenberry. We just heard how the courts are forcing government agencies to do better research on the environmental effects of one GM crop. There's a lot at stake for biotech companies, for farmers, and consumers. So now, let's go back to the studio with Mardi Mellon and Lee Silver, our two experts who in some ways are acres apart on the subject of GM foods. All right, Mardi Mellon, who regulates genetically modified foods and crops?

MARDI MELLON: Three agencies do--the Food and Drug Administration, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency all have some piece of the biotech regulatory pie.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: And they're all in total agreement about everything, Lee?

LEE SILVER: No. They're supposed to regulate different aspects of the process. Obviously the Environmental Protection Agency is looking at impact of growing crops on the environment, and you have the USDA, which is looking at agricultural levels. The Food and Drug Administration is looking at the outcome, the product.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Do you think genetically modified foods and crops are well regulated in the United States?

LEE SILVER: In the United States, I think they're well regulated, meaning the unlikelihood that something will reach the commercial market that is harmful to people, I think yes, in that sense, they're well regulated.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Mardi? Are you satisfied with the regulatory process as it exists now?

MARDI MELLON: I'm not satisfied with the regulatory process as it now exists. I think it is fundamentally ill conceived. It's far too voluntary. The FDA regulations really require nothing of any company in terms of providing evidence to the government before a product goes on the market to establish whether it is one of the safe products of biotechnology or perhaps one of the few--and I agree that they're not likely to be many--that's not safe.

LEE SILVER: The regulations are based on agency mandates that existed before biotechnology matured into what it is today, and I think that they can all be brought together in a way that's much, much less cumbersome.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So far, we've been talking about food from genetically modified plants, but what about animals? The U.S. doesn't have specific regulations for GM animals. You won't find any GM salmon at the fish counter yet or hamburger at the meat case or bacon either. Canadian scientist Cecil Forsberg has been working for years to market his ““Enviropig”s.” They would have a tough time getting to market in the U.S., because they've been engineered using e-coli. In Canada, GM animals are called "novel foods," and even there, the ““Enviropig” have been stuck in the pen. The DNA Files producer Brian Mann has the story.

BRIAN MANN: A mile outside of Guelph, Ontario, the tree lined streets give way to fields and stretches of wood. Microbiologist Cecil Forsberg points me down a gravel drive towards what looks like a modern industrial farm.

CECIL FORSBERG: You make a left turn. I'd stay away from the front door where your vehicle can pick up the smell.

BRIAN MANN: It's a rental. So I don't mind the smell. [Cecil laughs.]

BRIAN MANN: We park a safe distance away. Despite the wind, there is an odor--cows and mowed grass, but overwhelming it all, the sickly sweet stench of pig manure. Forsberg opens the door to a sprawling barn operated by the University of Guelph. The building is part pigsty, part high tech laboratory. Massive fans churn constantly, maintaining the temperature and easing the odor. Pigs are famous for eating a lot, and it turns out they're not very efficient at digesting the kind of corn and soybeans that make the cheapest livestock feed. As a consequence, their poop is thick with undigested waste products, including phosphorous. For 11 years, this has been Cecil Forsberg's obsession.

CECIL FORSBERG: We thought this would be an ideal project to undertake, because of the extensive phosphorous pollution one finds within areas where there's very intensive livestock production.

BRIAN MANN: The phosphorous problem is a conundrum of modern agriculture. As the human population grows, we require more and more food. That means more cows and pigs, which industrial farmers have supplied pretty handily. But the side effects of those huge factory farms can be devastating.

MARY WATZIN: Oh, we have a creme de la creme spot. We're right on the waterfront in Burlington.

BRIAN MANN: Mary Watzin is director of the Rubinstein Ecosystems Science Laboratory on Lake Champlain. The lake is beautiful, a huge craggy waterway that cuts between Vermont, New York State, and Canada. But phosphorous run-off from large pig and dairy farms has triggered disgusting algae blooms.

MARY WATZIN: You wouldn't miss it, if you saw it. The water looks like there's green stuff in scums on the surface.

BRIAN MANN: Algae can create conditions that gobble up a lake's oxygen, Watzin says, suffocating fish, and throwing the natural ecology into a tailspin. In recent years, toxic concentrations have risen, and several animals exposed to the algae have died.

MARY WATZIN: There are two toxins, actually, produced in Lake Champlain. One is the neurotoxin or brain toxin, and that's been responsible for most of the dog deaths.

BRIAN MANN: Half a dozen dogs have died, Watzin says. The other toxin found during autopsies destroys liver tissue. No humans have been affected so far, because the algae looks so gross that people won't go near it. But a lot of towns along the shore still draw their drinking water from the lake, and as industrial agriculture spreads around the world, producing more and more phosphorous, Watzin says precious water sources are gumming up with this algae soup, which brings us back to Cecil Forsberg's “Enviropig”.

Forsberg wades into a pigpen, waist deep in what looked like everyday Yorkshires, pale skinned, rubbery nosed pigs. The unique thing about these animals isn't their voracious appetites, but a genetic modification with their salivary glands. Remember how pigs aren't very good at digesting the phosphorous in corn and soybeans? Well, it happens that some bacteria are great at it. They naturally produce an enzyme that dissolves the phosphorous.

Forsberg's team managed to introduce this clever enzyme from the bacterium into these animals. They even managed to arrange the DNA so that the gene is expressed in the pig's salivary glands. So when an “Enviropig” munches corn, the enzyme in its saliva digests the phosphorous. As a result, Forsberg says, the “Enviropig” produces 60% less phosphorous than a normal pig. That's twice the reduction that farmers achieve even when they use better and more expensive grains, and when they feed their pigs costly dietary supplements. Even better, Forsberg says, these pigs seem normal in every other way.

CECIL FORSBERG: Although we haven't eaten any of the pork--in fact, it's illegal until there's regulatory approval--I am 99.9% confident that the flavor of the pork from these pigs will be equivalent to that from conventional pigs.

BRIAN MANN: But there's a wrinkle. Pig farmers in Ontario helped to fund the first round of “Enviropig” research, but the project still faces years of testing and regulatory hurdles, and the big grants from an industry group called Ontario Pork have dried up.

CECIL FORSBERG: I'm embarrassed to admit it, but we have no genuine commercial interest in these pigs.

BRIAN MANN: Could I have a ham and swiss? Actually I'd rather have a BLT, please.

BRIAN MANN: After touring the farm, he takes me to a Tim Horton's restaurant. The fast food chain is everywhere in Canada, one more link in our industrial food economy. Forsberg looks around at the crowd grabbing a quick lunch. As the world's population grows, so will our hunger for those BLT and ham sandwiches, which means more pigs, more polluted waterways, and more toxic algae blooms.

CECIL FORSBERG: I don't view this scientific advancement as being one to increase the quantity of food. I view it as a trait within an animal that reduces its environmental impact. Sustainability, I think, is the key issue, which I would raise.

BRIAN MANN: For The DNA Files, I'm Brian Mann.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: “Enviropig”. This gives new meaning to the term "green eggs and ham." I mean, you've got a pig that helps the environment. You can have your bacon. Come on, this sounds like a great idea. Lee?
LEE SILVER: I think it is a great idea.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Mardi? Come on, you've got to be pro “Enviropig”, right?

MARDI MELLON: I'm underwhelmed by the pig. I'm definitely pro environment, but before I signed on to this one, I wanted to know what impact it might have on the pig, and then I'd want to see what the alternatives are. Is it possible to just adjust the feeding ratio of how much corn to other components of the food, and reduce phosphate that way? The other thing I'd want to look at is the system. Concentrating so many pigs in such small spaces and ask if we couldn't think about environmental benefits that we might achieve by changing the system.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So the “Enviropig” might help reduce pollution, and genetically modified crops are supposed to ease the farmer's work load. But what's in this genetic engineering for us, consumers? Scientists are trying to create cows that will have more marbling in their beef. That's for us. They're developing soybean oil that's lower in trans fats, allergy-free peanuts, and gluten-free wheat, and for people who just want a good cup of--get this--decaffeinated coffee, DNA Files producer Julie Grant tells us about scientists who are genetically modifying coffee plants to grow without caffeine.

JULIE GRANT: If you want to know the best ways to grow, roast, and serve coffee, or if you just want a really good cup, this is the place. It's the Specialty Coffee Association of America's annual conference. This year, it's at the Long Beach Convention Center in California. The center floor is lined with row after row of more than 500 vendors, looking to buy and sell their gourmet coffee goods. Some are showing off different beans they grow--a rainbow of pale greens, caramel colors, and deep browns. Some vendors are displaying huge stainless steel roasting machines, and others are serving up coffee--drink after drink after drink. It's enough stimulation to make you reach for a decaf--that's unless you're wary of the chemicals used to decaffeinate coffee beans.

JOSEPH RIVERA: We're going to talk about what goes on with roasting --

JULIE GRANT: Joseph Rivera is director of science and technology for the Coffee Association. He's teaching a class in decaffeination. Here's how it works. The green beans are steamed to soften and swell them. Then they're mixed in big stainless steel chambers with solvents.

JOSEPH RIVERA: It's just kind of a big laundry mat, if you will. Things are being mixed up and swirled around.

JULIE GRANT: During all of that swirling, the caffeine molecules separate from the beans and attach to the solvents. They're siphoned out of the chamber, and what's left inside are the decaffeinated beans.

JOSEPH RIVERA: You have to realize that these beans have gone through a lot. They've been stressed out. They've been steamed. They've been beat up in these containers. They've been subjected to chemicals.

JULIE GRANT: Rivera says the chemical used in 60% of coffee decaffeinated in the U.S. is methylene chloride, the same stuff used in paint strippers and degreasers.

JOSEPH RIVERA: People don't like to hear that. [laughs] They don't like to hear that it's in paint remover. It's used in a number of different things.

JULIE GRANT: And Rivera says there's no denying that once you change the chemical make-up of the beans like this, you change the flavor of the coffee. That's where one scientist walking around the coffee conference sees his opening.

JOHN STILES: I'm John Stiles. I'm chief scientific officer for Integrated Coffee Technologies.

JULIE GRANT: What is Integrated Coffee Technologies?

JOHN STILES: We're a small--I guess you'd say a boutique biotechnology company that focuses on coffee and a few other tropical crops.

JULIE GRANT: Stiles says he prefers regular coffee to the decaf on the market today, including the decaf that's processed with water.

JOHN STILES: There's some really good methods for decaffeinating coffee now, but all of them change the flavor. There's no method that can take out just caffeine. You're never going to have the full flavor we all really love about really good coffee using a chemical process to take out the caffeine. Our approach--well, let's just not make caffeine, have everything else the same.

JULIE GRANT: Apparently, it's not as easy as it sounds. So far, it's taken more than 15 years of development in the lab. Stiles grinds up the leaves of the coffee plants and extracts strands of a plant's DNA. From that, he says they've been able to locate the one gene that begins the plant's process of making caffeine.

JOHN STILES: We take the gene, and sort of turn it around backwards, and make it work in reverse.

JULIE GRANT: Normally, that caffeine-making gene sends out what's called messenger RNA, which goes from the nucleus into the body of the cell. There it's translated into the key enzyme that starts the caffeine making process. Flipping the gene around stops the process.

JOHN STILES: And so the enzyme doesn't get made. No enzyme, it can't do that first step, so no caffeine can be made.

JULIE GRANT: Stiles hopes to plant his decaf coffee trees in the field next year, and that's the next step in getting them approved for market. For The DNA Files, I'm Julie Grant.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: No one knows yet whether coffee connoisseurs will go for the GM decaf. If it gets to market, it may go the way of the “Flavor Save” tomato, which only lasted about three years. But as long as GM crops like corn and soybeans make life easier for farmers, they'll keep turning up in the form of high fructose corn syrup and other additives on the supermarket shelves. It's the cost benefit analysis for farmers though that may be in for a change, as evidence emerges that GM groups may be creating a problem. If you use a chemical weed killer on your lawn, you may have noticed the ingredient, glyphosate.

MARK LOUX: Glyphosate may be the best herbicide we've ever had to work with.

JEFF STACHLER: Glyphosate is the best herbicide ever discovered.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Jeff Stachler and Mark Loux are specialists in weed science at the Ohio State University. They love glyphosate, because it kills nearly everything green. Even Charles Benbrook, chief scientist for an organization called The Organic Center in Oregon thinks it's not a bad weedkiller.

CHARLES BENBROOK: It's not acutely toxic. It has not been shown to cause cancer or birth defects. It breaks down fairly quickly in the environment to benign chemicals.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Lots of companies sell products with glyphosate. Monsanto's brand is called Roundup. The company also created genetically altered seeds. The seeds grow into plants that can survive Roundup. This is called the Roundup Ready system. Ohio State's Jeff Stachler says the Roundup Ready package is supposed to make work easier for farmers. They can spray glyphosate all over a field. The weeds die; the crops live.

JEFF STACHLER: It's a very good system.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Which brings us to where we are today. Stachler and Loux are walking through a field of yellow flowers as high as their shins, weeds. The yellow flowers are Cressleaf Groundsel. They're mixed in with Giant Ragweed. The owner of this Ohio soybean farm contacted Stachler and Loux in 2004, because his weedkiller didn't seem to be working any more.

JEFF STACHLER: One of the things we want to determine is whether these plants are truly surviving from the glyphosate.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: The scientists sectioned off part of the field and planted 1,400 pink flags, each marking a Giant Ragweed plant. They sprayed the area with glyphosate. Stachler says it killed all the Cressleaf Groundsel, but what about the Giant Ragweed?

JEFF STACHLER: You can see that this plant here that was flagged is dead. There's some others around it that are dead, but if we take a look at some of these others, and some that were flagged, you can see that they are still alive.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Stachler says that this was the only farm in Ohio reporting glyphosate resistance in Giant Ragweed in 2004. By the end of the 2006 growing season, they'd confirmed sites in ten Ohio counties. That doesn't surprise Charles Benbrook. Before he came to The Organic Center, he headed up the National Academy of Sciences board on agriculture.

CHARLES BENBROOK: Farmers typically rotate soybeans, cotton, and often corn, but in recent years, it's been Roundup Ready soybeans followed by Roundup Ready cotton followed by Roundup Ready corn, back to Roundup Ready soybeans. Well, obviously those weed populations were getting hammered year in and year out with a single herbicide active ingredient.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: But all that glyphosate favors the growth of those few weeds that aren't susceptible to the chemical. The next year, those weeds have more seedlings. When the farmer applies more Roundup, those weeds do well again. And so they have even more seedlings and so on and so on until we're looking at a field full of weeds.

JEFF STACHLER: It's the same way with antibiotics or anything. When you do the same thing over and over again and take the easy way out, Mother Nature's going to find a way to combat that, and that's really what we're dealing with here. It's no different from any other type of resistance. We've just done the wrong thing too long, and we need to do more things.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: There are now seven weeds in the U.S. that have become glyphosate resistant, and according to USDA data, in the last ten years farmers are reacting by spraying the chemical more often, almost doubling the amount they spray on each acre. But Monsanto's Eric Sachs says weeds become resistant to any herbicide that works well and becomes popular.

ERIC SACHS: It still controls more than 100 weeds, and that's why farmers continue to use the Roundup Ready system even though they do face some resistant weed problems in some areas in the United States or other parts of the world.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Sachs and other GM proponents argue that these technologies will become more and more important. We'll tell you why in a moment, when we return with The DNA Files.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Welcome back. You're listening to The DNA Files. I'm John Hockenberry. Our show today is called, "Designing the Garden: Food in the Age of Biotechnology." One of the biggest claims made in favor of genetically modified foods is that they can offer better diets to people in the developing world. Eric Sachs is chief of the global scientific affairs group at Monsanto.

ERIC SACHS: We will be able to make crops more nutritious. We'll also be able to increase the productivity of those crops by helping to resist not only diseases, pests, and weeds, but also to help them resist drought and temperature stress, and salt stress, and other conditions that limit the development of crops in different areas around the world. So I think in 10, 20, 30 years, we'll see agriculture much more productive. We'll see the food crops being developed more nutritious and healthier for us, and in the end, hopefully we'll be seeing a reduction in people around the world that are hungry, because there's more healthy and prevalent food available to feed the world.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Sachs is talking about the future, but genetically engineered crops have been around for more than a decade. Have any of them begun to live up to this potential? And if the answer is no, why not?

Let's take one example, rice, the staple crop of hundreds of millions of people around the world. Plant geneticist Ingo Potrykus grew up struggling in postwar Germany, and had to steal food to survive. That's one reason why he set out more than 15 years ago to create a rice plant, which would help nourish people in poor countries. He wanted it to be fortified with beta-carotene, an essential nutrient that our bodies convert to Vitamin A. Without it, people can go blind, and even die. This isn't a big problem in the U.S. We've got lots of nice orange vegetables--carrots, sweet potatoes, along with leafy greens that provide beta-carotene. But around the world, 250 million preschool children don't get enough Vitamin A. Potrykus began to look at rice plants, which already make beta-carotene, but only in the outer green stems, and leaves. He says the grain, the part we eat, also has genes for beta-carotene, but they're turned off. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, he spent most of the 1990s figuring out how to turn them on.

INGO POTRYKUS: And you can imagine a staircase of, say, ten steps, and four of these steps were not there. So we had to rebuild these four steps. For this purpose, you need four enzymes, and for these enzymes, you need four genes.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Potrykus and his team took the genes from a daffodil and from a soil bacterium. After more than seven years of work, they were making rice that was slightly orange in color, an outward sign that the grain was now producing beta-carotene. They called it "Golden Rice."

INGO POTRYKUS: Golden Rice, when it could be used, could save millions of lives, and prevent blindness in hundreds of thousands of cases.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Potrykus and his colleagues were hailed for their breakthrough, but it's been another seven years since then, and Golden Rice still isn't available in developing nations. DNA Files producer Julie Grant traveled to India to find out why.

JULIE GRANT: Just a few minutes drive outside the southern Indian city of Madurai, the crowded streets of food vendors, auto rickshaws, and cars give way to small villages and green countryside. It's a patchwork of farm after farm. There are no barns or outbuildings. There's hardly any tractors. People here do most of their farm work by hand. 77-year-old Dr. Lakshmi Rahmathullah has been working with people in these villages for most of her career. Today, she's gathered some of the children in Arasakulam village. Six-year-old Karthik Kumar bravely walks to the front of the group as an adult holds his head steady for Dr. Lakshmi.

DR. LAKSHMI RAHMATHULLAH: If you look at his eyes, you will see brownish folds on the white part of the eye, which shows that is an indication of Vitamin A deficiency.

JULIE GRANT: Another child here, a 10-year-old girl said she couldn't see at night. She said it was scary. Everyone looked like ghosts. These symptoms, if left untreated, can lead to much worse problems. Her cornea could have literally shriveled away, leaving her totally blind. But the kids here were lucky. They got high dose Vitamin A supplements. This 10-year-old girl got her eyesight back within four months.

International aid organizations estimate that fully a third of children under age 5 in India and Southeast Asia have some level of Vitamin A deficiency. Anand Lakshman is manager of Child Survival Interventions for an aid agency called The Micronutrient Initiative with an office in New Delhi. He says Vitamin A deficiency can lead to diarrhea and make otherwise minor illnesses into life threatening problems.

ANAND LAKSHMAN: So we are looking at the ultimate objective of are we able to impact on child mortality? Are we able to reduce child mortality down to numbers which are far lower than the kind of absolutely unimaginable numbers that we have today.

JULIE GRANT: About two-thirds of Indian children under age five get Vitamin A supplements. They line up twice each year at health clinics to receive a spoonful of the serum. A mega dose of Vitamin A is stored in the child's liver, and is slowly released through the months. Lakshman says it's reduced the child mortality rate 23%. But there's debate in India over the need to continue the supplementation program. Dr. HPS Sachdev is former president of the Indian Academy of Pediatrics. He's a small man in a dark blue turban. Sitting in his medical office, he says most children these days don't need the mega doses

DR. HPS SACHDEV: I view it as a medicine. God did not intend us to take a pill off and on.

JULIE GRANT: Sachdev says many Indian families have gained the education and financial means to meet their Vitamin A needs the way people in richer countries do--through those orange vegetables and leafy greens. So children should only get the mega doses if there's an obvious lack of Vitamin A in their diet. Sachdev says there's another way to meet low level needs - golden rice. That's the rice genetically engineered to express beta-carotene. Sachdev says children could just eat a little rice regularly.

DR. HPS SACHDEV: A small lower dose mimics the daily requirements or is much closer to the daily requirements and its chances of toxicity are much lower as compared to a huge pill based on the mega dose approach.

JULIE GRANT: Ten years ago, Dr. S.R. Rao, director of India's department of biotechnology, was touring laboratories in Switzerland, and met geneticist Ingo Potrykus. Potrykus was still experimenting then, trying to make rice express beta-carotene. Rao says he wanted that rice for India, because he thought it could go a long way to reduce Vitamin A deficiency in regions where rice is a staple in the diet.

DR. S.R. RAO: So I'm from the southern part of India, and we only eat rice and rice and rice.

JULIE GRANT: Rao says they often eat rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But why would farmers in India want to plant Golden Rice? Dr. Rao is a leader in efforts to transfer the genes for Golden Rice into varieties Indians already eat. Dr. Rao takes us to what's called a phytotron. It's a building used to grow plants, but it doesn't receive natural light like a greenhouse. That sound is a sterilizer. Before you enter the phytotron, you've got to spend a couple of minutes in this chamber. It blows super high air pressure to clean off contaminants that could ruin the experiments.

DR. S.R. RAO: To really get clear of your dust and all the organisms and you just come to this side. Now they're coming out. Okay? So Julie's smiling, that you are sterile, Julie.

JULIE GRANT: Sterilized. He means sterilized. It's just air.

DR. S.R. RAO: Sterilized. Yeah, that's the correct thing. [laughs] I am sorry. You are sterilized.

JULIE GRANT: The phytotron's main room has row after row of huge aqua colored refrigerators that keep the young plants at a constant temperature. Inside are Indian hybrids of Golden Rice. The genetic modification, the beta-carotene, was originally bred into a Japanese rice variety. Rao says in his phytotron they bred the Golden trait into some popular Indian varieties.

DR. S.R. RAO: That is in terms of their yield, in terms of resistance to diseases and pests. Such varieties have been taken, and where we put this traditional trait of Golden Rice.

JULIE GRANT: So traits that farmers like?

DR. S.R. RAO: Traits farmers like.

JULIE GRANT: Because they're going to grow better. They're not going to have as many pests.

DR. S.R. RAO: Yes, exactly.

JULIE GRANT: What he expects farmers to like even more is that the government plans to give Golden Rice seeds free to those making under $10,000 a year. This is possible, because of a deal struck between Ingo Potrykus, the scientist who created Golden Rice, and the seed company, Zeneca. There are some 70 patents on the various technologies involved in making Golden Rice. Zeneca, which is now part of Syngenta, owns many of those patents. The company was interested in selling Golden Rice to the U.S. and European health food markets. So in exchange for the right to do that, the company agreed to give the seeds away free to developing nations. But those free seeds are making some people angry. Vandana Shiva is famous worldwide for her opposition to genetically modified foods and the companies that pervade GM seeds. She calls Golden Rice a hoax, and says there are more natural ways for Indians to get Vitamin A.

VANDANA SHIVA: You can add a few micrograms of Vitamin A to a white, polished rice, and be thrilled that you have added nutrition. But again, food is not just rice, and definitely for anyone who has even a kindergarten knowledge of nutrition, polished rice is not where you turn to for meeting your Vitamin A needs. You turn to your greens. You turn to your coriander, your curry leaves, something very, very central to our eating.

JULIE GRANT: 60% of Indians are farmers, but many don't grow food for themselves any more. Ever since the Green Revolution brought pesticides and fertilizers to India in the 1960's, Shiva says farmers have been growing cotton and rice for the commodities market instead of food for their families. She says they need to be reeducated to grow and eat those leafy greens and other vegetables rich in Vitamin A.

But farmers aren't unified in what will be the best future for Indian agriculture. Some are clamoring for the latest technologies. There's a black market for genetically modified cotton seeds. But other farmers and activists agree with Shiva. Last year, GM opponents convinced the Indian Supreme Court to temporarily ban any new genetically modified crops from being planted, saying the crops were bad for human health and the environment. The ban has since been lifted. Some farmers worry GM crops could destroy their export market.

Northern India in the shadow of the Himalayas is the main world region for growing basmati rice. Basmati is a huge export crop for Indian farmers. Gurnam Singh is leader of the BKU Farm Union in this state, Haryana. Last year, he got wind that one of the multinational biotech companies had planted an experimental plot of genetically modified rice in the midst of the basmati region. Today, he rides up to that plot on his motorcycle, but there's no genetically modified rice here any more. Singh rallied a group of farmers, at least 100 by some counts. They piled straw over the small test site, poured some kerosene, and basked in the heat of the message they were sending to Monsanto.


TRANSLATOR: He's saying they met here basically as a sign of protest towards the company, because they were doing something--something which would harm the farmers, and so basically this was supposed to be a sign of protest for them by burning.

JULIE GRANT: That same day, Monsanto telephoned Dr. MS Swaminathan to tell him what had happened. Swaminathan is largely credited for bringing modern farming to India in the 1960s, and for leading efforts to bringing genetically modified crops here today. But when he heard farmers had burned the GM rice plot --

DR. MS SWAMINATHAN: I was happy, because I thought it was wrong.

JULIE GRANT: He says the company shouldn't have planted genetically modified rice in India's basmati rice region, because of the possibility of cross-pollination.

DR. MS SWAMINATHAN: It was foolish to have gone there, in the heartland of the rice exporting region, basmati rice, because we all know genetic pollution, gene flow, genetic contamination.

JULIE GRANT: Swaminathan says contamination could ruin India's rice trade with Europe, Japan, and other countries that don't accept genetically modified imports. But he says there are many places in India where genetically modified crops do make sense, and will be necessary to grow enough food for India's growing population.

DR. MS SWAMINATHAN: Genetic modification is one more tool, which can help you to overcome certain problems.

JULIE GRANT: He remembers when his family couldn't get rice. It was rationed by the government. People were asked to fast one day a week, because there wasn't enough food in India. He says it's time for the government to make policies that will provide enough food.

DR. MS SWAMINATHAN: Why, because we've got 1.1 billion people today--it will be 1.5 billion--the largest population in the world. Who is going to feed us? A country like India cannot depend on others to feed this population. And I think it's the fundamental duty of a government to ensure the daily bread to everybody.

JULIE GRANT: If Syngenta is serious about giving away Golden Rice for free, Swaminathan says it should drop its patents. Syngenta says poor farmers in India will never have to pay for Golden Rice, but the company may want to use the technology elsewhere. So it's holding on to its patents.

There are also questions about how much it will cost to complete development, to distribute seeds, to ensure children actually eat it, and that it provides enough Vitamin A. Back in Araskulam Village in southern India, Dr. Lakshmi Rahmathullah wouldn't mind seeing Golden Rice on these small farms, but she says for the sake of its children, it's too soon for the Indian government to stop offering Vitamin A supplements.

DR. LAKSHMI RAHMATHULLAH: There is no best solution. Offer families fortified rice, offer families fortified salt, offer families Vitamin A solution. Multiple solutions are the best answer.

JULIE GRANT: Dr. Lakshmi says the most important thing to offer malnourished families is food they can afford. For The DNA Files, I'm Julie Grant.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: You know, in India, some people greet visitors to their home by placing a smear of rice mixed with turmeric on their forehead. It's a sign of respect and welcome. In all cultures, there are different ideas about what is sacred, about the meaning of food, and what it symbolizes. So the debate over genetically modified food is informed by culture, our values and beliefs as well as by science. That's true for all of us, including our scientists, Mardi Mellon and Lee Silver, who with their very different viewpoints helped us navigate the debate over GM foods. Hey, what kind of foods do you guys eat, by the way? Lee?

LEE SILVER: I could answer it very quickly. I only eat inorganic food.

MARDI MELLON: And I am a strong supporter of organic agriculture as a scientifically advanced vanguard of the kind of agriculture I think we're going to need if we're going to deal with global warming in the future.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: I'm not hearing hot dogs and Twinkies on your table. Am I right about that? Mardi?

MARDI MELLON: You're right, but someday, I hope Lee and I can sit down and have ourselves a nice cup of strongly caffeinated coffee.

LEE SILVER: Fair trade.


LEE SILVER: That's right.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: We'll hold you to that. I'm John Hockenberry. Thanks for listening to The DNA Files.

To find out more about genetically altered food, visit our website at where you can download a podcast of this program. This series, The DNA Files, was produced by SoundVision Productions with funding by the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. This program, "Designing the Garden: Food in the Age of Biotechnology" was produced by Julie Giant and Elizabeth Kulata. The field producer in India was Adam Burke. The DNA Files is managing editor, Loretta Williams, editor, Deborah George, science content editor, Sally Lehrman. Research director is Adi Gevins. Production support by Noah Miller, Julie Caine, and Jenn Jongsma. Office support provided by Steve Nuñez and Beverly Fitzgerald. Our web director is Ginna Allison. Technical engineer and music director is Robin Wise. Our host is John Hockenberry. Our theme music was composed and performed by Steve White. Additional music by Conrad Praetzel and Robert Powell. Marketing of The DNA Files is by Schardt Media. Legal services by Cooper, White and Cooper, and Spencer Weisbroth. Special thanks to Murray Street Productions. Send your responses and letters to For CDs and transcripts, call 888-303-0022. That's 888-303-0022. The executive producer is Bari Scott. This has been a SoundVision production.