The Future of Food: Frankenfood TO GMormet
Genetically modified veggies were a flop. With livestock, the bioengineers will get a second chance.
More than a decade after Monsanto and other biotech companies first introduced transgenic corn, soybeans, and canola seeds to American farmers, a second generation of genetically modified (GM) foods is poised to hit supermarket coolers: transgenic meat, milk and fish. In January, the Food and Drug Administration paved the way for GM meat to be sold in the U.S., announcing they would evaluate GM animals the same way they regulate new animal drugs. Since then a handful of applications for specific GM animals have been filed with the agency, including a fast-growing "AquaAdvantage" salmon. AquaBounty, the company behind the salmon, hopes for FDA approval of the technology sometime this year.
Ron Stotish, CEO of AquaBounty Technologies, knows two things about the coming trade in GM meat and fish. One is that they can potentially make biotech companies like his lots of money. The second is that the market can be stymied by consumers who equate GM organisms with Frankenfood. "I've been approached by people who say it's unethical and it's against God's will," says Stotish, a molecular biologist.
Back in 2000, McDonald's told its potato supplier J.R. Simplot to instruct its farmers to stop growing Monsanto's GM "New Leaf" potato, effectively killing the product. The much ballyhooed FlavrSavr tomato suffered a similar fate in the mid-'90s. Today the biotech crop market is just shy of $7 billion globally, but it could have been much larger if consumers had embraced more products.
Barbara Glenn, managing director of animal biotechnology at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group, thinks the prevalence of negative attitudes about GM plants was primarily a marketing failure. Monsanto's seeds made it easier for farmers to control pests and generate higher per-acre yields, but the average person doesn't care about that. "People want to know about direct consumer benefits," says Glenn.
So this time around the industry is emphasizing the ways in which transgenic animals can be good for both the environment and for consumers themselves. AquaBounty, for instance, is pitching its salmon as something that will require less feed and create less waste, thus producing more food with a lower impact on natural resources. "When you look at all the environmental problems fish farming has had in Chile, we're coming along with an animal that's a green alternative," insists Stotish. Similarly, the so-called "EnviroPig," developed by scientists at the University of Guelph in Canada, will produce waste with up to 60 percent less environmentally damaging phosphorous. Researchers are also working on pigs that produce beneficial omega-3 fatty acids (healthy bacon!), goats whose milk might help children ward off infections, cows that produce lactose-free milk, and cattle and chickens that are resistant to organisms that lead to nasty food-borne illnesses. The biotech and food industries are hoping that these products will be enough to convince American consumers to give transgenic eating a second chance.
Still, it's not going to be easy. When you're staring at six ounces of genetically modified top sirloin on your plate or a glass of milk from a cow grown with a mouse gene, it gets personal. Whether for moral or ethical reasons or just the yuck factor of consuming food dreamed up by people in white lab coats, 35 percent of Americans say they would be unlikely to purchase meat or milk from GM animals. (And this study comes from the International Food Information Council, an industry-funded group, so that number is probably low.)
For GM animal products to ever gain a mass market, large food companies will have to adopt this new technology. Today companies like McDonald's, as well as meat producers Smithfield Foods and Tyson and processed food companies like Kraft and General Mills, are cautiously optimistic, eager for new foods that can be marketed to the public on the basis of their health benefits and for foods that can be produced more efficiently (read: more cheaply). But for the moment, they're also keeping close tabs on consumer attitudes, hoping that Frankenfoods don't spawn Frankenfish and Frankenfilet-mignon.VisitÂ Portfolio.comÂ for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers.Â Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.
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