Stop playing with our food

During boyhood drives to Denver, the lovely scent of baking bread would waft into our car. After a number of trips I discovered the source: a large Wonder Bread factory.

I consumed Wonder Bread in two ways. One was as the covering for my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The other was in advertisements: "Wonder Bread Helps Build Strong Bodies in 12 Ways!" I didn't know what this meant, but I sure loved squishing two or three slices into a ball and popping it into my mouth.

Only later did I learn that Wonder Bread had nearly all of wheat's natural nutrition processed out, only to receive the wondrous 12-fold enrichment conceived by nutrition scientists and industry marketeers.

As have most other Americans, I grew up with this kind of subliminal infection: Food is composed of individual nutrients, and each one does something different for you. Just take in enough of the right kinds and you'll be fine.

With the advent of genetic engineering, the All-American food processing industry takes on a new dimension. Instead of adding ingredients to foods in the factory, we will "enrich" the plants themselves by inserting genes from other organisms.

The first genetically modified plants -- mainly corn, soybeans, canola and cotton -- were altered to produce their own pesticides or to be resistant to herbicides. The next generation, under development in industry and university labs around the globe, will be nutritionally enhanced, such as lettuce enriched with vitamin C.

An illusion of genetic engineering improvements is that we can alter one specific trait in a plant without changing anything else. The truth is that any time new genes are incorporated into an organism, they have multiple effects.

For example, in an experiment that caused tomatoes to produce extra carotene, researchers found that the more of this vitamin A compound a plant produced, the smaller it became. In some unknown way the extra carotene was linked to reduction of a particular hormone related to growth.

Although the idea is to produce clearly defined, discrete alterations, plants produce thousands of different substances in ways much more complex and dynamic than our manipulative schemes can envision. The genetic engineer discovers only the most glaring changes. We want to make plants function the way we desire, and yet we do not know the larger consequences of our intrusions.

If our desire is solely an array of different nutrients, we will have no problem doing this. In fact, as one Ivy League biologist imagines, the dream crop will be one that contains as many as possible of the 13 essential vitamins and 14 minerals required in our diet.

It's Wonder Bread all over again, except that the fruit or vegetable itself will be the vehicle to transport all those substances into our bodies.

But maybe it's not desirable to turn lettuce, bananas and tomatoes into fortified wonder foods. Individual plant species have evolved very different qualities and substances that make them special. What makes them healthful might be the unified and harmonious interplay of the diverse substances each produces uniquely.

In contrast, the biotech wonder crops could lead to less food variety as the food industry focuses on production of the "enhanced" versions of major crops to capitalize on consumers' assumption that "fortified" food must be better food. And on the path toward ever-greater “enrichment” of lettuce or bananas, no one will know what is getting lost.

There's no need for such super foods. For enriching the diet of people in all parts of the globe, we should look to a bountiful and nutritious quality we already have -- variety.

Craig Holdrege, biologist and director of The Nature Institute in Ghent, N.Y., is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle, a project of the Land Institute in Salina, Kan. He is the author of “Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context.”

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