An announcement came last month: Kansas is going to help solve the world's diarrhea problems by hosting a crop of pharmaceutical rice near Junction City.
Two-hundred-fifty acres this year, and up to 3,200 acres later on. The rice contains a protein that could be used in drugs to treat diarrhea and dehydration in developing countries.
Scott Deeter-president and CEO of Ventria Bioscience, the Sacramento, Calif.-based company planting the rice-wrote in an email statement that he was "extremely impressed by the state's clear commitment to biotechnology."
Governor Kathleen Sebelius released a statement saying she was on board. Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Adrian Polansky said the project bespoke of the state's "pioneer spirit."
And Dan Nagengast-executive director of the Kansas Rural Center, a non-profit farmer advocacy group-talked from the basement office of his farmhouse southwest of Lawrence with the alarming intensity of someone who knows he's right and wants somebody to listen before it's too late.
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Nature, he says, is not a closed laboratory. This pharmaceutical rice-which Ventria assures will be completely contained to the site where it is grown and harvested-will make its way to the food supply, he says. There are too many uncontrollable variables: migrating birds, flooding, tornadoes, and everyday wind.
The result, he says: One day you or I could be eating diarrhea medicine.
"I can guarantee it's going to happen," Nagengast says. "And everybody knows it's going to happen. But they're willing to look the other way."
Larger harvest, less variety
Critics of genetically modified crops, like Nagengast, are quick to question the motives of biotechnology companies.
Are the companies trying to do what's best for the farmer and the consumer, or do they want to seize control of the market to push dubiously tested crops at the expense of natural varieties?
Genetically modified (GM) crops have been on the market for more than a decade, and today they are far more common in some crops than their natural counterparts.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recorded 68 percent of corn and 85 percent of soybean crops grown in Kansas last year as GM-engineered with genes that are resistant to herbicides or insects.
Biotechnology companies and their supporters say GM crops lead to more efficient farms-farms, for instance, on which farmers spend less time spraying pesticides-and to a larger, more stable food supply for a growing world.
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But Ignacio Chapela-a microbial ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley-says biotech companies are pushing varieties of crops into extinction, which will hurt the world's food supply in the long run.
Chapela points to a controversial study he co-authored that appeared in the journal "Nature" in 2001. He found genetically engineered DNA had infiltrated corn crops in the remote mountains of southern Mexico-the place where corn was first domesticated and where large varieties are still grown and harvested.
The study was rigorously challenged, and some of its findings concerning the behavior of genetically engineered DNA were arguably discredited by other scientists. But Chapela's his key point has gone largely unchallenged: genetically engineered DNA was found at the supposedly pure site.
"We found it where we were not supposed to find it," he says. "Up to that point some people believed that these organisms could be contained. : This is where we have the world's reserves of genetic diversity for corn. Having that compromised is something that I believe is a very important, very troublesome problem."
He says that with GM crops taking over the market, combined with their genetic advantages-for instance, having pesticides engineered into their composition-less common varieties stand a slim chance of surviving intact. And less diversity would lead to fewer alternatives for farmers down the line if growing conditions change.
But Polansky, the Kansas secretary of agriculture, says farmers have been genetically enhancing crops through selective breeding-growing only those that cope best with growing conditions-for thousands of years. He describes genetic engineering as an extension of that process. Farmers are simply trying to plant crops with the highest possible yield.
He says people need not fear crop varieties being wiped out. He points to "gene banks" around the world that store seeds of every variety researchers can get their hands on. At K-State, for example, a gene bank houses 2,500 wheat species.
If some unforeseen blight wipes out the predominant variety of a crop, he says, farmers still have thousands of species to choose from as replacements.
But Chapela draws a distinction between varieties maintained in gene banks and the shrinking diversity of crops grown on farms. Without crops growing in their natural conditions, he says, there's no guarantee that they can be simply pulled from gene banks and expected to hold up in nature.
Paul Johnson, an organic farmer outside of Perry, says the reason for the quick rise of GM crops is simple: More GM crops equal more money for the corporations that own the patents to them.
There was a time when plants weren't patented; nobody but God could claim credit for an entire species of corn or canola. Over the past several decades, however, courts have ruled that certain new varieties of plants and, later, GM plants can be patented.
This means that if Monsanto, the world's largest seed company, can make its genetically engineered seeds the most widely used seeds in the world, it can corner its competition. No one else can sell those seeds because no one else has the patent.
In fact, GM corn, GM soybeans and GM cotton have gone from comprising virtually no share of their U.S. markets to the majority in just the last decade.
Critics of GM crops say biotech companies have been so eager to make money from their highly marketable and profitable varieties that they've pressured the government into allowing them into the market before researchers had determined their safety.
The Food and Drug Administration's stance is that GM foods have "substantial equivalence" to their traditional counterparts, meaning they're essentially the same and don't have to undergo the rigorous testing of an entirely new product.
"An honest statement about this is that we really do not know enough," Chapela says. "The problem is that nobody tested these things seriously before planting them onto, you know, 100 million acres around the world. Nobody did serious research on them."
But people leery about the possible health risks of GM foods have trouble avoiding them. For one, they're not required to be labeled. And they're so prevalent-with so much food containing corn or soy products-that even grocery stores that don't want to carry them find it impossible, such as Lawrence's Community Mercantile.
"Consumers shouldn't think because we're a natural food store that they can come here and have no GMOs (GM organisms)," says Nancy O'Connor, director of education and outreach at the Merc. "Because even for a store like the Merc, if we chose to go GMO-free, we wouldn't need a store nearly this size. Consumers should know the prevalence of GMOs is almost daunting."
And because GM foods aren't labeled, she says, allergic reactions or health problems they may cause are essentially untraceable.
"To the average consumer, it's an invisible technology," she says. ": They're put in a system where recall isn't an option."