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Dr. Frankenstein meets Mr. Potato Head.

Behold the lowly potato. How we love it. And with good reason. Sturdy, nutritious, and relatively healthy when unmolested by mounds of butter or sour cream, the potato may be the perfect food. Thousands of generations of human agricultural genius has been invested in this oh-so valiant of tubers.

Now a new expression of that genius is being applied to potatoes and other standard commodities like corn and soybeans that suggests the beginning of a radical new dawn across America's farm fields. While most of us have been indifferently prowling our supermarket aisles, the biotech elves over at Monsanto have been busy "perfecting" the potato. So before you grab that next bag of russets, you may want to take a closer look. Put your reading glasses away; you'll need a microscope.

Not content with the painstaking crossbreeding that once sufficed as agriculture, Monsanto has dug a little deeper for their high-tech spuds, putting their special genius to work at the cellular level and conducting transgenic gymnastics with the unsuspecting tuber. The next potato you retrieve as a french-fried specimen from your McDonalds' counter or select from an earthtoned pile at your grocery may represent the agricultural equivalent of a smart bomb. As Michael Pollan reports in a recent New York Times Magazine, this potato, the New Leaf Russet Burbank, has been genetically altered to include. Bt, a bacterial toxin meant to kill off the Colorado potato beetle, one of the potato's commonplace enemies in the growing fields of big agriculture. Call it Dr. Frankenstein meets Mr. Potato Head.

This particular organic pesticide reduces the esophagus of the Colorado potato beetle to mush. Monsanto assures that it won't have a similar effect on human physiology and points out that a potato that produces its own pesticide is a potato that doesn't require the slathering of toxins that most potato crops endure on the journey from the fields to your dinner table. Fair enough. Most folks would probably be happy to enjoy a food product that doesn't have to be scrubbed clean before consumption or whose production requires an almost incomprehensible chemical abuse of America's declining topsoil and the resulting collateral damage to water quality and farmworkers and their offspring.

But there are a few issues that remain troubling about Monsanto's uber-tuber. Among them is the simple fact that the marketing of such a genetically altered product represents nothing more than a scientific experiment on a breathtakingly grand scale. Monsanto is confident that their genetically altered potatoes will have no adverse physical result on its consumers, but others aren't so sure what might happen over the long-term. Mark Silbergeld is the codirector of the Washington Office of Consumers Union, the nonprofit publishers of Consumer Reports. He points out that the New Leaf, like other genetically altered products on the market, offers unknown allergen hazards. "We don't know what will happen when people eat Bt from this variety of potato consistently.... People don't eat Bt as far as we know."

Organic farmers have long used Bt on their potato fields as a natural pest remover and worry that Monsanto's potato will dramatically accelerate the evolution of Bt-resistant beetles. (Even under Monsanto's best-case scenario projections, such Bt-resistant beetles should make the scene within 30 years of the widespread use of their product. Less optimistic scientists think they may appear in as little as three to five years.) We have already endured the industrial by-products of air and water pollution, now the introduction of the New Leaf could herald the era of biological pollution when genetically altered commodities escape from their farm fields and make their way into the wild. The department of unintended results may have to field a pile of paperwork it the New Leaf ever becomes widely used by America's potato growers.

The Good Lord gave humankind dominion over the earth, but we bipeds seem unable to draw the distinction between that which we are capable of doing and that which we ought to do. This is the distance between a careless and unmindful dominion and a wise and generous stewardship. The choices we make in regard to the New Leaf and other transgenic products will reflect the tension between these two positions--that is, if we get to make a choice.

Monsanto's spuds will be indistinguishable from the other potatoes you'll encounter in your supermarket, and that's how it want its spuds to remain. There will likely be no special labeling on the genetically altered potato or on any of the genetically altered commodities that are already on their way to your kitchen table. You will literally not know what you are eating--how you might react to it and how it might react to you. And you won't have the opportunity to employ your dollars in determining the kind of agriculture that will command the field in America's future. Monsanto doesn't think you need to know. You may have a different opinion about the stuff you plan on putting in your mouth.

Dr. Frankenstein, this spud's for you.
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Title Annotation:Monsanto Co.'s genetically altered potato
Author:Clarke, Kevin
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jan 1, 1999
Previous Article:Dream Street.
Next Article:Let's not sleep through the millennium.

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