Designing the Garden: Food in the Age of Biotechnology

Woman at a produce market in the city of Chennai, India.

PRODUCERS: Julie Grant, Elizabeth Culotta

Some say manipulating genes in plants and animals is the solution to world hunger; others say genetically modified organisms are neither safe to eat or to grow. How do we understand what’s really on our dinner plate?

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It's dinnertime, and our host John Hockenberry is at his local market to shop for his supper. As he fills his cart with produce, reveling in the cornucopia of fresh fruit and vegetables on display, he starts to consider that what's he's looking at might not be as "natural" as it seems.

Most of our food crops have undergone centuries of selective breeding—either to make plants tastier or to give them another desirable quality such as the familiar orange carrot, which was actually bred to reflect the colors of the Dutch Royal House. Researchers, farmers, and herders continue to produce hybrids, like the perfect ears of corn in John's grocery cart, by understanding the mechanics of gene inheritance introduced by Gregor Mendel in the mid-1800's.

In this episode of The DNA Files, we'll take you from the frontiers of genetic research all the way to your dinner table. We'll hear about scientists putting genes from daffodils into rice, DNA from mice into pigs, and a gene from bacteria into corn.

Genetically Modified Food: Risks and Rewards
Moving on to the cereal aisle, John tells us that seventy percent of the corn and ninety percent of the soybeans in this country are genetically modified, but not to make them tastier or more colorful. They are engineered with a bacterial gene that allows them to resist the herbicide Roundup making it easier for farmers to grow and harvest the plants. Some, like Princeton's Lee Silver, say this genetic tinkering is an extension of the plant breeding that's gone on for years; others, like Mardi Mellon, of the Union for Concerned Scientists, say this is a new and potentially dangerous process.

Over the hour we consider the various ways genetically modified food is being produced, and the debate over the risks and rewards.

Many biotech foods are developed in the United States, but not every American embraces genetically modified food. We travel to California to follow the court case of alfalfa farmers who sued the USDA in the spring of 2007 for allowing Roundup Ready alfalfa to be planted without an environmental impact statement. They and many other farmers, like organic dairyman Albert Strauss, who found GMO traits in the organic corn feed he feeds to his milk cows, are worried about possible genetic contamination of their unengineered crops.

Even farmers who like their Roundup Ready crops are beginning to see a downside. Ohio State University weed specialists Jeff Stachler and Mark Loux are finding that weeds are becoming resistant to the herbicide; and some researchers, like Charles Benbrook, of The Organic Center in Troy, Oregon, are asking when the advantage of genetically modified crop tips over to a liability.

What do consumers think of all this genetic modification? It depends on where you live. Europe and Japan currently ban many genetically modified foods from not only being grown but also imported. On the other hand, as John Hockenberry notices from reading ingredient lists on the products on his grocery shelves, Americans are barely aware of genetically modified food because U.S. labeling laws don't require disclosure.

The Enviro-Pig and Other Uses for GMOs
But not all genetically modified food is designed to help just farmers. Brian Mann visits Cecil Forsberg to learn about his EnviropigTM, a genetically modified animal designed to produce less phosphorus, making pig farming less harmful to the environment.

And what about food genetically modified for consumers? Producer Julie Grant considers a genetic modification that alters the gene that creates caffeine in coffee.

Golden Rice
Some people also hope that food biotechnology may solve some of the more pressing problems of disease and malnutrition. Our final segment in the program takes us to India to explore rice genetically manipulated to produce beta-carotene in the rice kernel—so-called "Golden Rice." Supporters, like Golden Rice creator Ingo Potrykus and Dr. S.R. Rao, India's director of the Department of Biotechnology, hope this and other bio-fortified foods can reduce Vitamin A-related blindness and disease in the developing world—a vitamin deficiency that contributes to tens of thousands of deaths a year. Opponents, like anti-GM activist, Vandana Shiva, say there are better ways to solve India's problems and have fought against genetically modified food crops in that country.