In an attempt to get to grips with genetically modified food, the American author Michael Pollan planted one of Monsanto's New Leaf potatoes in his garden
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The Independent Culture
RECENTLY I planted something new in my vegetable garden - something very new, as a matter of fact. It's a potato called the New Leaf Superior, which has been genetically engineered by Monsanto, the chemical giant recently turned "life sciences" giant, to produce its own insecticide. This it can do in every cell of every leaf, stem, flower, root and (here's the creepy part) spud. The scourge of potatoes has always been the Colorado potato beetle, a handsome and voracious insect that can pick a plant clean of its leaves virtually overnight. Any Colorado potato beetle that takes so much as a nibble of my New Leafs will supposedly keel over and die, its digestive tract pulped, in effect, by the bacterial toxin manufactured in the leaves of these otherwise ordinary Superiors. You may be wondering if I plan to eat these potatoes, or serve them to my family. That's still up in the air.

Last year, the fourth year that genetically altered seed had been on the market, some 45 million acres of American farmland were planted with biotech crops, most of it corn, soybeans, cotton and potatoes that had been engineered to either produce their own pesticides or withstand herbicides. The biotech industry, with the concurrence of the US Food and Drug Administration, has decided we don't need to know it, so biotech foods carry no identifying labels. In a dazzling feat of positioning, the industry has succeeded in depicting these plants simultaneously as the linchpins of a biological revolution - part of a "new agricultural paradigm" that will make farming more sustainable, feed the world and improve health and nutrition - and, oddly enough, as the same old stuff, at least so far as those of us at the eating end of the food chain should be concerned.

This convenient version of reality has been roundly rejected by consumers and farmers across the Atlantic. Biotech food has emerged as the most explosive environmental issue in Europe. Protesters have destroyed dozens of field trials of the same "frankenplants" (as they are sometimes called) that Americans are serving for dinner, and throughout Europe the public has demanded that biotech food be labelled as such.

By growing my own transgenic crop - and talking to scientists and farmers involved with biotech - I hoped to discover which of us was crazy. Are the Europeans overreacting or is it possible that we've been underreacting to genetically engineered food?

AFTER DIGGING two shallow trenches in my garden and lining them with compost, I untied the purple mesh bag of seed potatoes that Monsanto had sent and opened up the Grower Guide tied around its neck. (Potatoes, you may recall from schoolroom experiments, are grown not from seed but from the eye of other potatoes.) The guide put me in mind not so much of planting potatoes as booting up a new software release. By "opening and using this product" the card stated, I was now "licensed" to grow these potatoes, but only for a single generation; the crop I would water and tend and harvest was mine, yet also not mine. That is, the potatoes I will harvest in August are mine to eat or sell, but their genes remain the intellectual property of Monsanto, protected under numerous United States patents, including Nos 5,196,525, 5,164,316, 5,322,938 and 5,352,605. Were I to save even one of them to plant next year - something I've routinely done with potatoes in the past - I would be breaking the law. The small print in the Grower Guide also brought the news that my plants were themselves a pesticide, registered with the Environmental Protection Agency.

If proof were needed that the intricate industrial food chain that begins with seeds and ends on our dinner plates is in the throes of profound change, the small print that accompanied my New Leaf will do. That food chain has been unrivalled for its productivity - on average, a single American farmer today grows enough food each year to feed 100 people. But this accomplishment has come at a price. The modern industrial farmer cannot achieve such yields without enormous amounts of chemical fertiliser, pesticide, machinery and fuel, a set of capital-intensive inputs, as they're called, that saddle the farmer with debt, threaten his health, erode his soil and destroy its fertility, pollute the ground water and compromise the safety of the food we eat.

We've heard all this before, of course, but usually from environmentalists and organic farmers; what is new is to hear the same critique from conventional farmers, government officials and even many agribusiness corporations, all of whom now acknowledge that our food chain stands in need of reform. Monsanto declared in its most recent annual report that "current agricultural technology is not sustainable".

What is supposed to rescue the Western food chain is biotechnology - the replacement of expensive and toxic chemical inputs with expensive but apparently benign genetic information: crops that, like my New Leafs, can protect themselves from insects and disease without being sprayed with pesticides. With the advent of biotechnology, agriculture is entering the information age, and more than any other company, Monsanto is positioning itself to become its Microsoft, supplying the proprietary "operating systems" - the metaphor is theirs - to run this new generation of plants.

There is, of course, a second food chain in America: organic agriculture. And while it is still only a fraction of the size of the conventional food chain, it has been growing in leaps and bounds - in large part because of concerns over the safety of conventional agriculture. Organic farmers have been among biotechnology's fiercest critics, regarding crops like my New Leafs as inimical to their principles and, potentially, a threat to their survival. That's because Bt, the bacterial toxin produced in my New Leafs (and in many other biotech plants) happens to be the same insecticide organic growers have relied on for decades. Instead of being flattered by the imitation, however, organic farmers are up in arms: the widespread use of Bt in biotech crops is likely to lead to insect resistance, thus robbing organic growers of one of their most critical tools. Monsanto's version of sustainable agriculture may threaten precisely those farmers who pioneered sustainable farming.

AFTER SEVERAL days of drenching rain, the sun appeared on 15 May, and so did my New Leafs. A dozen deep-green shoots pushed up out of the soil and began to grow, faster and more robustly than any of the other potatoes in my garden. Apart from their vigour, though, my New Leafs looked perfectly normal. And yet as I watched their lustrous dark green leaves multiply in those first few days, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the first doomed beetle, I couldn't help thinking of them as existentially different to the rest of my plants.

All domesticated plants are in some sense artificial - living archives of both cultural and natural information that we in some sense "design". A given type of potato reflects the values we've bred into it - one that has been selected to yield long, handsome chips or unblemished round crisps is the expression of a national food chain that likes its potatoes highly processed. At the same time, some of the more delicate European fingerlings I'm growing alongside my New Leafs imply an economy of small market growers and a taste for eating potatoes fresh. Yet all these qualities already existed in the potato, somewhere within the range of genetic possibilities presented by Solanum tuberosum. Since distant species in nature cannot be crossed, the breeder's art has always run up against a natural limit of what a potato is willing, or able, to do. Nature, in effect, has exercised a kind of veto on what culture can do with a potato.

My New Leafs are different. Although Monsanto likes to depict biotechnology as one more in an ancient line of human modifications of nature going back to fermentation, in fact genetic engineering overthrows the old rules governing the relationship of nature and culture in a plant. For the first time, breeders can bring qualities from anywhere in nature into the genome of a plant - from flounders (frost tolerance), from viruses (disease resistance) and, in the case of my potatoes, from Bacillus thuringiensis, the soil bacterium that produces the organic insecticide known as Bt. The introduction into a plant of genes transported not only across species but whole phyla means that the wall of that plant's essential identity - its irreducible wildness, you might say - has been breached.

But what is perhaps most astonishing about the New Leafs coming up in my garden is the human intelligence that the inclusion of the Bt gene represents. In the past, that intelligence resided outside the plant, in the mind of the organic farmers who deployed Bt (in the form of a spray) to manipulate the ecological relationship of certain insects and a certain bacterium as a way to foil those insects. The irony about the New Leafs is that the cultural information they encode happens to be knowledge that resides in the heads of the very sort of people - that is, organic growers - who most distrust high technology.

One way to look at biotechnology is that it allows a larger portion of human intelligence to be incorporated into the plant itself. In this sense, my New Leafs are just plain cleverer than the rest of my potatoes. The others will depend on my knowledge and experience when the Colorado potato beetles strike; the New Leafs, knowing what I know about bugs and Bt, will take care of themselves. So while my biotech plants might seem like alien beings, that's not quite right. They're more like us than other plants because there's more of us in them.

TO FIND out how my potatoes got that way, I travelled to suburban St Louis in early June. My New Leafs are clones of clones of plants that were first engineered seven years ago in Monsanto's $150m research facility, a long, low-slung brick building on the banks of the Missouri that would look like any other corporate complex, were it not for the 26 greenhouses that crown its roof like shimmering crenellations of glass.

Dave Stark, a molecular biologist and co-director of Naturemark, Monsanto's potato subsidiary, escorted me through the clean rooms where potatoes are genetically engineered. Technicians sat at lab benches before petri dishes in which fingernail-size sections of potato stem had been placed in a nutrient mixture. To this the technicians added a solution of agrobacterium, a disease bacterium whose modus operandi is to break into a plant cell's nucleus and insert some of its own DNA. Essentially, scientists smuggle the Bt gene into the agrobacterium's payload, and then the bacterium splices it into the potato's DNA. The technicians also add a "marker" gene, a kind of universal product code that allows Monsanto to identify its plants after they leave the lab.

A few days later, once the slips of potato stem have put down roots, they're moved to the potato greenhouse up on the roof. Here Glenda DeBrecht, a horticulturist, invited me to don latex gloves and help her transplant plantlets from their petri dish to small pots. The whole operation is performed thousands of times, largely because there is so much uncertainty about the outcome. There's no way of telling where in the genome the new DNA will land, and if it winds up in the wrong place, the new gene won't be expressed, or it will be poorly expressed, or the plant may be a freak. I was struck by how the technology could be astoundingly sophisticated while also being a shot in the genetic dark.

A great many factors influence whether, or to what extent, a new gene will do what it's supposed to, including the environment. In one early German experiment, scientists succeeded in splicing the gene for redness into petunias. All went according to plan until the weather turned hot and an entire field of red petunias suddenly and inexplicably lost their pigment. The process didn't seem nearly as simple as Monsanto's cherished software metaphor would suggest.

When I got home from St Louis, I phoned Richard Lewontin, a Harvard geneticist, to ask him what he thought of the software metaphor. "From an intellectual- property standpoint, it's exactly right," he said. "But it's a bad one in terms of biology. It implies you feed a program into a machine and get predictable results. But the genome is very noisy. If my computer made as many mistakes as an organism does" - in interpreting its DNA, he meant - "I'd throw it out."

I asked him for a better metaphor. "An ecosystem," he offered. "You can always intervene and change something in it, but there's no way of knowing what all the downstream effects will be or how it might affect the environment. We have such a miserably poor understanding of how the organism develops from its DNA that I would be surprised if we don't get one rude shock after another."

MY OWN crop was thriving when I got home from St Louis. The New Leafs were as big as bushes, crowned with slender flower stalks. Potato flowers are actually quite pretty, at least by vegetable standards - five-petalled pink stars with yellow centres that give off a faint rose perfume. One sultry afternoon I watched the bumblebees making their lazy rounds of my potato blossoms, thoughtlessly powdering their thighs with yellow pollen grains before lumbering off to appointments with other blossoms, other species.

Uncertainty is the theme that unifies much of the criticism levelled against biotech agriculture by scientists and environmentalists. By planting millions of acres of genetically altered plants, we have introduced something novel into the environment and the food chain, the consequences of which are not - and, at this point, cannot be - completely understood. One of the uncertainties has to do with those grains of pollen bumblebees are carting off from my potatoes. That pollen contains Bt genes that may wind up in some other related plant, possibly conferring a new evolutionary advantage on that species. "Gene flow", the scientific term for this phenomenon, occurs only between closely related species, and since the potato evolved in South America, the chances are slim that my Bt potato genes will escape into the wilds of Connecticut. (It's interesting to note that while biotechnology depends for its power on the ability to move genes freely among species and even phyla, its environmental safety depends on the very opposite phenomenon: on the integrity of species in nature and their rejection of foreign genetic material.)

Yet what happens if and when Peruvian farmers plant Bt potatoes? Or when I plant a biotech crop that does have local relatives? A recent study reported in Nature found that plant traits introduced by genetic engineering were more likely to escape into the wild than the same traits introduced conventionally. Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Technology Assessment in Washington, told me he believes such escapes are inevitable. "Biological pollution will be the environmental nightmare of the 21st century," he said. "This is not like chemical pollution - an oil spill - that eventually disperses. Biological pollution is an entirely different model, more like a disease. Is Monsanto going to be held legally responsible when one of its transgenes creates a superweed or resistant insect?"

MY COLORADO potato beetle vigil came to an end in the first week of July. I spied a single mature beetle sitting on a New Leaf leaf; when I reached to pick it up, the beetle fell drunkenly to the ground. It had been sickened by the plant and would soon be dead. My New Leafs were working.

From where a typical American potato-grower stands, the New Leaf looks very much like a godsend. That's because where the typical potato grower stands is in the middle of a bright green field that has been doused with so much pesticide that his plants wear a dull white chemical bloom that troubles him as much as it does the rest of us. Out there, at least, the calculation is not complex: a product that promises to eliminate the need for even a single spraying of pesticide is, very simply, an economic and environmental boon.

Like the silver bullets that preceded them - the modern hybrids, the pesticides and the chemical fertilisers - the new biotech crops will probably, as advertised, increase yields. But, equally important, they will speed the process by which agriculture is being concentrated in a shrinking number of corporate hands. If that process has advanced more slowly in farming than in other sectors of the economy, it is only because nature itself - its complexity, diversity and sheer intractability in the face of our best efforts at control - has acted as a check on it. But biotechnology promises to remedy this "problem", too.

Consider, for example, the seed, perhaps the ultimate "means of production" in any agriculture. It is only in the last few decades that farmers have begun buying their seed from big companies, and even today many farmers still save some every autumn to replant in spring. Brown-bagging, as it is called, allows farmers to select strains particularly well adapted to their needs. Since these seeds are often traded, the practice advances the state of the genetic art - indeed, has given us most of our crop plants. Seeds by their very nature don't lend themselves to commodification: they produce of themselves ad infinitum (with the exception of certain modern hybrids), and for this reason the genetics of most major crop plants have traditionally been regarded as a common heritage. In the case of the potato, the genetics of most important varieties - the Burbanks, the Superiors, the Atlantics - have always been in the public domain. Before Monsanto released the New Leaf, there had never been a multinational seed corporation in the potato business - there was no money in it.

Biotechnology changes all that. By adding a new gene or two to a Russet Burbank or Superior, Monsanto can now patent the improved variety. Legally, it has been possible to patent a plant for years, but biologically these patents have been almost impossible to enforce. Biotechnology partly solves that problem. A Monsanto agent can perform a simple test in my garden and prove that my plants are the company's intellectual property. The contract that farmers sign with Monsanto allows company representatives to perform such tests in their fields at will. According to Progressive Farmer, a trade journal, Monsanto is using informants and private detectives to enforce its patents. It has already brought legal action against hundreds of farmers for patent infringement.

Soon the company may not have to go to the trouble. It is expected to acquire the patent to a powerful new biotechnology called the Terminator, which will, in effect, allow the company to enforce its patents biologically. Developed by the USDA in partnership with Delta and Pine Land, a seed company in the process of being purchased by Monsanto, the Terminator is a complex of genes that, theoretically, can be spliced into any crop plant, where it will cause every seed produced by that plant to be sterile. Once the Terminator becomes the industry standard, control over the genetics of crop plants will complete its move from the farmer's field to the seed company - to which the farmer will have no choice but to return year after year. The Terminator will allow companies like Monsanto to privatise one of the last great commons in nature - the genetics of the crop plants that civilisation has developed over the past 10,000 years.

A FEW weeks after I returned home from talking to farmers in Idaho, I dug my New Leafs, harvesting a gorgeous-looking pile of white spuds, including some real lunkers. The plants had performed brilliantly, though so had all my other potatoes. The beetle problem never got serious, probably because the diversity of species in my (otherwise organic) garden had attracted enough beneficial insects to keep the beetles in cheek. By the time I harvested my crop, the question of eating the New Leafs was moot. Whatever I thought about the soundness of the process that had declared these potatoes safe didn't matter. Monsanto and the FDA and the EPA had long ago taken the decision of whether or not to eat a biotech potato out of my - out of all of our - hands. Chances are, I've eaten New Leafs already in a bag of chips at a fast-food chain, though without a label there can be no way of knowing for sure.

So if I've probably eaten New Leafs already, why was it that I kept on putting off eating mine? Maybe because it was August, and there were so many more-interesting fresh potatoes around - fingerlings with dense, luscious flesh, Yukon Golds that tasted as though they had been pre- buttered - that the idea of cooking with a bland commercial variety like the Superior seemed beside the point.

There was this, too: I had called Margaret Mellon at the Union of Concerned Scientists to ask her advice. Mellon is a molecular biologist and lawyer and a leading critic of biotech agriculture. She couldn't offer any hard scientific evidence that my New Leafs were unsafe, though she emphasised how little we know about the effects of Bt in the human diet. "That research simply hasn't been done," she said.

I pressed. Is there any reason why I shouldn't eat these spuds?

"Let me turn that round. Why would you want to?"

It was a good question. So for a while I kept my New Leafs in a bag on the porch. Then I took the bag with me on holiday, thinking maybe I'd sample them there, but the bag came home untouched.

The bag sat on my porch until the other day, when I was invited to an end-of-summer potluck supper at the town beach. Perfect. I signed up to make a potato salad. I brought the bag into the kitchen and set a pan of water on the stove. But before it boiled I was stricken by this thought: I'd have to tell people at the picnic what they were eating. I'm sure (well, almost sure) the potatoes are safe, but if the idea of eating biotech food without knowing it bothered me, how could I possibly ask my neighbours to? So I'd tell them about the New Leafs - and then, no doubt, lug home a big bowl of untouched potato salad. For surely there would be other potato salads at the potluck and who, given the choice, was ever going to opt for the bowl with the biotech spuds?

So there they sit, a bag of biotech spuds on my porch. I'm sure they're absolutely fine. I pass the bag every day, thinking I really should try one, but I'm beginning to think that what I like best about these particular biotech potatoes - what makes them different - is that I have this choice. And until I know more, I choose not to.

This is an edited version of an article published in the `New York Times Magazine'