field of genes

Natasha Mohorova inspects transgenic corn at CIMMYT, the international corn and wheat improvement center near Mexico City.
  Attack of the killer korn kobs:
Bounty harvest of transgenic crops

Posted 23 Apr 1998. As American farmers spring into their spring planting, they are taking part in a quiet agricultural revolution. inspectingSimply by planting genetically engineered seeds, these farmers are helping change the equation between weeds, insects, toxic agricultural chemicals and yields.

Fifteen years after the first gene was deliberately inserted into a plant, and just one year after their large-scale introduction, genetically engineered seeds are germinating on 65 million acres of prime farmland worldwide.

Here in the United States, 16 million acres of corn -- 20 percent of the U.S. crop -- are expected to receive transgenic seeds. Industry forecasts say farmers will plant 25 million acres of transgenic soybeans (about 40 percent of the crop), and more than 5 million acres of cotton (about one-third of that crop).

[Updated 20 May 1999] This just in: Killer corn may loose deadly pollen on monarch butterflies. A team from Cornell University reports in Nature this week that corn engineered to produce a natural insecticide may shed pollen that's toxic to non-target species like the caterpillars that become monarch butterflies. The study was conducted by dusting milkweed leaves, food of choice for monarchs, with pollen from corn that had received a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt, pollen from non-engineered corn, or no pollen at all. Half of the monarchs that ate the pollen from the Bt-laced corn died within four days. Although the study was conducted in the laboratory and may not realistically mirror conditions in the field, it raises a new concern about the potential environmental effects of a technology that's now deployed on millions of acres in the U.S. Midwest. For more on the human health effects of genetically engineered food, see our new coverage.

While no overall estimate of U.S. transgenic planting in 1998 was available in the United States, acreage planted with just biotech giant Monsanto's seeds accounts for more than 10 percent of all U.S. crop land.

These corn cells received an insect-resistance gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. When the plant matures, it may poison corn borers and other chewing insects. Photos © David Tenenbaum   tissue As American farmers eagerly plant the new seeds, proponents say agricultural genetic engineering is an ecologically sound way to defend plants against insects and weeds. They view transgenic plants as a step toward sustainable development, one of the only ways a soaring world population can feed itself on the limited supply of farmland.

  Been waiting for the other side of the story? Wait no longer. Critics contend that genetically engineered seeds are a vast, uncontrolled experiment being carried out on millions of acres. They fret that transgenic seeds will benefit mainly the corporate giants selling the new seeds, like Monsanto, Novartis (the Swiss owner of CIBA-Geigy seeds), and Pioneer Hi-Bred. These critics warn that while big farmers may benefit for a time, organic farmers, the environment and consumers may suffer long-term damage.

Who's right? In this edition, The Why Files plans to ask the big question: Is agricultural genetic engineering wise?

The Why Files Staff includes: Terry Devitt, editor; Darrell Schulte, webmaster; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Susan Trebach, team leader.

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