Published: June 6, 2006
Updated: June 6, 2006
By Huntington F. Willard, PhD
This Op-Ed appeared in the May 26, 2006, edition of the News & Observer (Raleigh, NC).
I have seen the future of the Genome Revolution. It lives on a farm in Missouri and looks like Porky Pig.
Recently, genome scientists at universities in Missouri and Pittsburgh cloned genetically modified pigs with high levels of something called omega-3 fatty acids, essential compounds that have been linked to reductions in heart disease and are found in oil-rich fish like tuna.
By inserting a gene that helps pigs make more omega-3s, the researchers have created what some might have considered a nutritional oxymoron -- a pig that's good for you. As a genome scientist who also cares about what I eat, this seems like good news.
So, pass the pork sausage? Well, not just yet. It's still not known whether eating omega-3-enhanced pork will confer the same nutritional benefits as eating fish.
But even if these piglets never grow up to yield a single heart-healthy ham, their existence is evidence that agricultural and animal biotechnologists have faced up to an economic reality: if you want to market genetically improved products in the American marketplace, they must appeal not just to farmers, but to consumers.
In the 1990s, Monsanto, the agricultural biotech giant, showed how not to win over the consumer. The company's first consumer product was a genetically engineered growth hormone that increases milk yield in cows. Activists, dairy farmers and even some supermarkets howled in protest. Ten years later, Ben & Jerry continue to rail against this doctored form of growth hormone on the label of every ice cream pint they sell.
Monsanto then came up with the Flavr-Savr tomato, which harbored a gene designed to make the fruit stay ripe longer. The Flavr-Savr was an unmitigated flop: the cost to grow and distribute it was prohibitive, but really, despite the name, its biggest disappointment may have been its lack of flavor. "It suggests more tomato than it actually delivers, taste-wise," wrote food critic Molly O'Neill in 1994. The Flavr-Savr was soon called home to that Great Vine in the Sky.
After the tomato fiasco, the biotech industry turned its attention to crops. And, at least in economic terms, genetically engineered soybeans, corn, cotton and canola have been hugely successful.
Clearly, farmers in North and South America want them. Most of the soybeans we eat and the cotton we wear come from plants genetically altered to resist insects and/or herbicides. Most consumers are probably blissfully unaware, as marketers have chosen not to emphasize the New Improved Genome! aspect of their products.
But in our post-Mad Cow world, in which consumers worry about food safety and the possible reactions our bodies may have to genetically altered products, creating a demand for modified livestock will not be an easy sell.
Regulation is an issue, too. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, has been sitting on an application to market transgenic salmon for almost a decade. And for its part, the USDA's biotechnology risk assessment research arm has a paltry $3 million at its disposal, inadequate to test the safety of more than a few products.
But if anything will drive the science, expedite the regulatory process and push agricultural biotech up a notch, it will be products that appeal directly to consumers, like omega-3 pork. While we may understand farmers' desire for high-tech corn that can fight pests and tolerate drought, it is still an abstraction to most consumers -- we can't taste it or see its positive effects when we visit our cardiologist.
Soybean oil without toxic trans fats, peanuts that don't cause allergic reactions and tomatoes that fight cancer are another story. If those types of products can be brought to market in a safe and controlled way, then the depth of public demand might finally match the power of the science.
One encouraging sign came earlier this year when an international collaboration was awarded $10 million to complete DNA sequencing of the pig genome by 2008. This follows the sequence of the chicken genome last year and an announcement from Brazil that scientists will use the coffee genome to help design and produce new improved "super-coffees." Agricultural biotechnology and the Genome Revolution may yet bring home the bacon -- along with eggs and your morning coffee.
-- Huntington F. Willard, PhD, is director of Duke University's Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy.