Image: World Wildlife Fund, Canada
Yet appearances can be deceiving. Indeed, there are quite a few people who would like to rip these super-ordinary looking plants out by their roots. These crops, being embraced by big agriculture in the U.S., carry genes that imbue them with resistance to herbicides and lace their tissues with a bacterial toxin harmless to humans but fatal to pests that may try to feed on them. For corporate farmers, the promise of such genetically modified crops seems clear--higher yields, superior quality, better nutrition and less need for spraying highly toxic and expensive pesticides.
Since the first genetically modified seeds were sold to farmers just a few years ago, the amount of acreage planted has grown exponentially. By the 1998 growing season, it was estimated that genetically altered crops planted in the U.S.--including tomatoes, squash, cotton, canola, corn, soybeans, rapeseed and potatoes--covered an area the size of Scotland. Corn alone, then in its first season after winning regulatory approval, accounted for some 15 million acres. The percentage of genetically modified seed, some experts estimate, is now approaching 40 to 60 percent of all U.S. plantings. More designer seeds are wending their way through the review and approval processes of the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates pesticides.
It is almost a certainty that practically everyone living in the U.S. has eaten some food that contained the produce of a gene-spliced plant. That's enough to make some people gag.
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On the front lines of the controversy these days is Monsanto Inc. The agrochemical giant has developed a line of seeds that are resistant to its multi-billion dollar a year herbicide, Roundup, and carry a gene from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis. The organism produces a toxin that makes plants the last repast of common insect pests.
In theory, at least, Monsanto's scheme would appear to be a boon to humanity. The gene conferring resistance to Roundup, a chemical known as glyphosate, allows farmers to spray fields with a broad-spectrum herbicide that will spare only the selected crop. And this ability in turn lets farmers optimize their use of "no-till" agriculture, a tactic that can reduce soil erosion by an estimated 70 percent.