September, 1993

Fruits of Thought

Chocolate Flavored Bananas, Anyone?

The hit movie Jurassic Park is not really about dinosaurs. It is really a story that has long been a staple of science fiction, namely, what happens when mankind unleashes forces that mankind can’t completely control.

In this story, the dinosaur serves as a metaphor for mankind’s most horrifying nightmares. An exciting and intriguing project, using highly advanced genetic engineering techniques, produces ferocious creatures that are able to overcome all the carefully thought-out control systems. Fences fail, even defenses against propagation fail. And man is left to live with the horror he created.

This theme of releasing forces we can’t control runs through human history, mythology and literature, from Pandora’s Box to Frankenstein to our great feats of technology, such as the building of the Aswan Dam in Egypt. Over and over again we have both dreamt of and performed actions that led to results not anticipated by the actor.

I think all this is important to think about when considering the issues of genetic engineering and produce. To some the issue has been whether to do this at all. But I have seen this issue as something of a phony choice. Once a new technology has been developed, we have no examples of successfully suppressing its use forever. Even if the U.S. was to completely ban genetic engineering research, other countries would develop the technology, and when we noticed they had achieved important things and we were falling behind, we would change our policy.

The other major issue has been labeling. Should genetically engineered produce carry an identifying label? In our consumer-oriented world, the mantra has become that giving the consumer more information is inherently desirable. But labeling all genetically engineered fruits and vegetables, even when they pose no health issues for consumers, is sort of silly. A gene is a bunch of bio-chemicals. The initial source of those bio-chemicals is irrelevant. To say that a piece of fruit containing a certain gene must be labeled if it is produced via genetic engineering but not if it is produced by conventional plant breeding makes no sense. It is an attempt, totally separate from science and food safety, to create the basis for a political movement opposing genetically altered foods.

But having said that genetically engineered foods are inevitable and that there is no reason for trying to segregate them or oppose them, it is also important to say that we have no idea what we are getting into.

The science itself is mostly a mystery, even to those most intricately involved. It is a technical subject, and words are created to give phenoma a name. So you delve into genetic engineering and learn about “Anti-sense RNA” and “Co-Suppression,” but that doesn’t mean the scientists understand it. We are really still in the infancy of understanding the molecular biology of plants.

But beyond the uncertainties of the science, it is worth thinking about the unintended consequences of genetic engineering. The scientists concentrate on simple things, such as creating a better tasting tomato, creating a plant that doesn’t need nitrogen fertilizer, a plant that can naturally fight off insects or that requires minimal amounts of water.

Each decision like this can lead to changes in the world that the scientists never dreamed of. After all, if you change the water, fertilizer and maybe the weather needs of a plant, you open up new acreage, never before valuable for growing, to be used as produce land. Equally, if the plants can be changed so that climate isn’t as important, or so that the plants can have a natural insecticide, that former produce growing land might become less valuable or might become available for other uses.

And then what if genetic engineering can triple or quadruple our yields? Do we need that much produce? Dairy farmers are fighting the bovine growth hormone because it will increase milk supplies. It is not so farfetched to see produce farmers, now cooperating with biotech companies to bring genetically altered tomatoes to market, soon fighting against those same companies when they propose super-yielding plants.

And on the marketing end, maybe more local growers will thrive with longer seasons and the big national marketers will have trouble holding market share. Or perhaps the technology will be too expensive and only large integrated marketers will have it or they will have the best products and drive out small marketers around the country.

Perhaps imports will be reduced as domestic growers can produce crops year-round, or perhaps imports will increase as specialized plants enable tasty food to survive long journeys from places where labor is cheapest. Fresh produce from Bangladesh?

At retail, maybe genetic engineering will be the great boon to organics that this segment of the industry has been looking for. If organic is defined to include genetically engineered produce, quality and yield concerns might be resolved.

Perhaps, seed companies and others would sell exclusive rights to a variety for a given supermarket chain to use as a “House Brand” of produce. Principally stores use variety, display techniques and added services to achieve competitive differentiation. Carrying it one step further isn’t farfetched; could there be a “Safeway Seedless” grape variety in our future?

Or maybe genetic engineering will produce such a diversity of product that a given brand will be given space for thirty different types of banana, in much the way Campbell’s gets the space for many different types of soup. Chocolate-flavored bananas, anyone?

Nobody knows the real result of genetic engineering. But in almost every case, technological breakthroughs have consequences that are completely unanticipated when they are introduced. As we take the first tentative steps into genetic engineering, we should look around us carefully and take note. Because one day we’ll think back to this age as one in which we crossed a thin line, almost invisible to us now, and we entered what will surely prove to be a brave new world.  pb