Now, after decades of biotech setbacks and controversy, consumers finally have something they can sink their teeth into. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week endorsed as safe the first genetically altered food to be sold to consumers -- a tomato called the Flavr Savr and billed as offering "summertime taste" all year long. Calgene, the Davis, California- based company that produced Flavr Savr (and came up with that silly name), says its new tomato will appear in selected supermarkets in California and the Midwest this week and should be available across the rest of the country before the end of the year.
The biotech industry immediately hailed the government's decision as the breakthrough it had been waiting for. "This is a real shot in the arm," says Roger Salquist, Calgene's chief executive officer. "It validates the company's science." Jim McCamant, editor of AgBioTech Stock Letter, agrees: "This removes the clouds and proves that agricultural biotechnology is going to make a major contribution to the food we eat over the next 20 years."
The gene splicers have shown no shortage of imagination. Products in the pipeline include chickens that grow faster on less feed, snap peas that stay sweeter longer, bell peppers with fewer seeds and longer shelf life, pineapples that ripen more uniformly, squash and cucumbers that need less water, corn that requires fewer pesticides and herbicides, grains that have more protein, vegetable oils that are lower in saturated fat, coffee beans that have less caffeine, French fries that absorb less cooking oil and kidney beans that don't cause flatulence.
Behind all these products is the same basic technology. A new gene is introduced (or an existing gene is suppressed) in a tissue culture in the hope that any resulting plants or animals will gain (or lose) the trait in question. Conventional plant and animal breeders might get the same outcome, but they often have to wait for several generations to mature and reproduce, and their techniques are more hit and miss. In the case of Calgene's new product, scientists zeroed in on a gene associated with an enzyme that makes the tomato rot. Then they reversed the effects, ensuring that the tomato stays fresher longer.
It was an inspired choice for Calgene's bioengineers. There is a huge gulf between the taste of fresh, garden-grown tomatoes and the tasteless, pulpy, tomato-like objects sold out of season in most U.S. supermarkets. Tomatoes don't travel well; to transport them cross-country, producers pick them while they are still green. To make matters worse, tomato middlemen often store the green tomatoes for weeks in refrigerator trucks, holding out for the best price. Then, just before they are sold, the tomatoes are gassed with ethylene to make them red. Even so, U.S. consumers buy $4 billion worth of tomatoes each year, and they may gladly pay a premium for one that is not picked prematurely. Calgene says its tomato can stay on the vine and ripen longer than ordinary varieties and stay fresh several days longer once it's on the grocery shelf.
But the new tomato is also a fat target for critics of biotechnology, who believe that the controls over genetic engineering should be especially tight for anything that people ingest. Calgene submitted the Flavr Savr for FDA approval and plans to post brochures in grocery stores explaining how the tomatoes were produced through genetic engineering, even though the law doesn't require either of those actions. Nonetheless, the company finds itself the target of "tomato-squashing" protests organized by the Pure Food Campaign, a Washington-based group headed by longtime biotech opponent Jeremy ) Rifkin. "The middle class is moving in the direction of organic, healthy, sustainable foods," says Rifkin. "The last thing they want to hear about is gene-spliced tomatoes." Rifkin and other critics fault the FDA for not requiring producers to notify the government before they bring bioengineered foods to market.
He concedes, however, that the Flavr Savr may be safe. It could even be safer than conventionally bred tomatoes, says Carl Winter, director of the independent, university-funded FoodSafe Program at the University of California at Davis. According to Winter, "modern genetic engineering techniques have less risk of undesirable traits than conventional breeding." Hybrid potatoes, for example, are tested for elevated levels of alkaloids, which in high enough concentrations can be toxic.
Consumers will probably be more worried about a different set of issues, like how Flavr Savr will taste and whether it will be worth the high prices (up to $2.50 per lb.) that Calgene is expected to charge. Alice Waters, chef and owner of Berkeley's famous Chez Panisse restaurant, and by her own description a "big, big tomato lover," sampled a Flavr Savr and decided it "tasted like a seasonally ripe commercial tomato. Not bad," she says, but not good enough for the diners at Chez Panisse.
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CREDIT: Source: Union of Concerned Scientists, AgBiotech Stock Letter, MonsantoCAPTION: WHAT'S IN THE WORKS