SAN ANSELMO - Raised an Army brat, Cami Loft had never protested anything in her life. She was a conservative mother of two -- an accountant, even -- living quietly in a beautiful home in this woodsy Marin County suburb.
Then she read in a magazine last fall that the formula she used to feed to her infant daughter contained genetically engineered soybeans. Overnight, she became an impassioned activist against biotechnology, marching in protests, distributing leaflets at supermarkets, buttonholing other moms at playgrounds.
"It's like a bear," said Loft, 38. "You don't mess with my children."
Until recently, the opposition to genetically engineered foods in America consisted mainly of a small cadre of environmentalists and liberal activists -- a group grossly outnumbered by the formidable pro-biotech coalition of federal regulators, multinational corporations and most mainstream scientists.
Now Loft and her friends represent potentially powerful reinforcements for the anti-biotech movement -- shock troops with babes in arms, ready to turn the fear of so-called "Frankenfoods" into a Main Street concern.
Biotech is "beginning to worry the broad population -- the soccer moms and so forth," said Christine Bruhn, who researches consumer attitudes toward biotech at the University of California, Davis. "They're hearing, "There's something in your food and you don't know about it.' "
As grocery shelves fill up with genetically engineered foods -- from infant formula to cheese to tortilla chips, totaling nearly 70 percent of all supermarket foods -- the general public is becoming increasingly wary of the technology and the tangle of scientific, economic and ethical issues it embodies.
While genetic engineering in America hasn't triggered anywhere near the protests it has in Europe, opposition here is creeping up and support is sliding. A recent poll taken for the industry's International Food Information Council says 59 percent of Americans believe biotech will benefit them, down from 78 percent three years ago.
Moreover, a resounding 68 percent believe biotech foods should be labeled, according to a Gallup poll, and bills to require labeling have been introduced in Congress and some state legislatures.
"People have a right to know what's in their foodstuffs," said biotech critic Marc Lappe, a genetics researcher who has consulted with state Sen. Tom Hayden, D-Los Angeles, on a bill to force food labeling in California.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said it won't require labels, but pressure is building from various sources. Even U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has said "some sort of labeling is necessary."
Food manufacturers and biotech companies are skittish: The Biotechnology Industry Organization says labels would serve as a red flag, scaring shoppers into believing "these products are less safe."
Biotech's troubles have implications for Sacramento, where business leaders hope that a major biotech industry can be hatched from the wealth of expertise at UC Davis. The backlash could dry up the investment dollars needed to nourish the region's biotech start-up companies, said Sano Shimoda, president of the BioSciences Securities Inc. investment firm in Orinda.
"It's having a horrendous impact," Shimoda said. "It's a serious, serious showstopper."
It didn't take a disaster to fan fears of biotech, just a note in a science journal last year about a laboratory study at Cornell University.
The Cornell study indicated that the pollen from biotech corn -- which creates its own pesticide -- was killing monarch butterflies.
Never mind that several scientists dismissed the study as flawed, or that the study's own author called the results inconclusive. The monarch became the Bambi of the anti-biotech movement, an instant symbol of the assorted ills of genetic engineering in agriculture. Activists began showing up at protests wearing giant plastic butterfly wings.
The Cornell biotech report resonated with mainstream consumers like nothing before, Bruhn said. Millions who don't know a thing about biotech "have heard it kills butterflies," the UC Davis researcher said. "We all care about butterflies."
As consumer anxiety grows, some food companies have banned biotech ingredients -- not to address their own safety concerns, but to placate nervous customers.
Kellogg Co. won't use biotech grains in many foreign markets, although it's sticking with biotech ingredients in the United States. Gerber won't use biotech foods in its baby food -- and it's owned by a major biotech company, Novartis. McDonald's Corp. has told its supplier of french fries to stay away from biotech potatoes, but is still cooking those fries in vegetable oil made with biotech soybeans and corn.
The companies acknowledge they're basing these decisions on market forces, not scientific research. "We are a consumer products company," said spokeswoman Lynn Markley of Frito-Lay, which is swearing off biotech corn. "We were getting consumer calls saying, "What is this?' We thought it was a prudent business decision."
The backlash has stunned the members of the biotech community, who believe that by transferring genes from one organism to another they can improve on the work of Mother Nature. To them, biotech science has the power to increase crop yields to feed an exploding world population, reduce pesticide use and, in some cases, deliver foods with less fat. Eventually, scientists believe they can increase the nutritional content of some foods, and even use plants to manufacture pharmaceuticals.
"We feel misunderstood," said Vic Knauf, who researches genetically engineered canola oil at the Davis biotech firm Calgene. "We like to think when we come to work in the morning, we're doing good work. But we get painted as the Great Satan."
Emboldened by the broadening resistance to this technology, the more extreme elements of the anti-biotech brigade have stepped up their efforts to forcefully cripple biotech research, root by root.
When a group calling itself the Future Farmers uprooted biotech test crops at Seminis Vegetable Seeds' research center in Woodland, it marked a resumption of guerrilla crop violence that created mayhem last summer from Maine to California.
"This is the year to bury ag (agriculture) biotech, and I'm very excited that the growing season has finally arrived in this country," said a Future Farmers member identified as Judith E. in an Internet communique bragging about the Seminis attack.
Working in the dead of night, these groups have struck three times at UC Davis and three times at private facilities in Woodland. One band tried to break into a Calgene greenhouse recently but was thwarted by a burglar alarm.
The groups have gone after a U.S. Department of Agriculture center in Albany, a vineyard in Petaluma and a strawberry field in Watsonville. They've hit research facilities in Maine, Minnesota and Hawaii; the extremist group Earth Liberation Front set fire to biotech facilities at Michigan State University.
Often these groups have wrecked non-biotech plantings as well, an action for which they make no apology; if they think a facility conducts biotech research, then all its crops are fair game.
Among their victims: a 20-foot-long swath of sugar beets growing on the outskirts of UC Davis. A group called Reclaim the Seeds uprooted them one night last September, damaging research overseen by UC Davis plant scientist Robert Norris. Most of the wrecked beets were conventionally bred, but a few were genetically engineered to withstand the weedkiller Roundup, Norris said.
Norris shares the vandals' concerns about the potential ecological harm from genetic engineering. That's why he plants biotech crops, and will continue to do so.
"I very much believe that we should evaluate a new technology and not summarily discard it," said Norris, 62, a kind-faced native of England. "We need to do the research. This technology is coming along; I need to know about it."
He called the vandalism infuriating, "the luxury of a well-fed society. If you were starving, wondering where your next meal is coming from, you would be embracing this technology."
The opposition to food biotech hasn't spread to the pharmaceutical industry, which churns out billions of dollars worth of futuristic drugs made from genetic engineering.
"People are always telling me, "If I'm sick, I don't care where the medicine's coming from, but don't mess with my food,' " said Judith Kjelstrom, associate director of UC Davis' Biotechnology Program.
Unlike the drug industry, the biotech food industry hasn't delivered much in the way of obvious benefits to consumers, analysts say. Most of the biotech crops offer value only to farmers, such as higher yields.
"It hasn't supplied consumers with anything they want -- it's all risk and no benefits," said biotech critic Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. "People might say, "I might be willing to give this a chance if it does something for me.' "
The leading biotech players -- Monsanto, DuPont, Novartis and others -- are so worried that they recently launched a three-year, $50 million advertising campaign, "Good Ideas are Growing," to try to win over the American public.
Perhaps the most striking signal of the industry's funk came last fall in a most unlikely arena. Biotech's leading apostle, Robert Shapiro, then Monsanto's chief executive, apologized for the industry's approach at a conference sponsored by Greenpeace, the environmental group and major biotech critic.
Monsanto led the charge into food biotech, gobbling up seed companies and aggressively marketing such best-selling biotech products as Roundup Ready soybeans, capable of surviving Monsanto's own Roundup weedkilling chemical spray. But Shapiro was anything but triumphant in his Greenpeace speech.
While declaring he still believed in biotech, Shapiro said his company was guilty of "condescension or indeed arrogance" in its efforts to spread biotech around the world. Soon after that speech, its stock price sunk by its agricultural woes, Monsanto was taken over by New Jersey drugmaker Pharmacia Corp.
Monsanto's stumbles underscored what a humbling few months it had been for an industry that until recently believed it had nothing to apologize for.
Its confidence seemed justified. Just four years ago, when Monsanto and other companies put the first biotech seeds on the market, American farmers took to the new technology with relish, planting millions of acres of corn, soybeans and cotton that could ward off insects and weedkilling chemicals.
But the planting came just as a serious anti-biotech movement began to take hold in Europe, where the mad cow disease fiasco of 1995 put consumers and government officials on high alert for anything that seemed suspicious in their food supply. Before long, Europe was requiring labels on all biotech foods, and major supermarket chains were banning the products. The European Union has slapped a moratorium on approving any new biotech food products for importation.
Since then, American farmers have seen exports to Europe drop, amid accusations by U.S. trade officials that the Europeans were using biotech as an excuse to engage in protectionism.
Not so, say the Europeans: "It's a new technology, and you're dealing with a continent that went through a number of food-safety scares," said Charlotte Hebebrand, special trade assistant in the European Union's Washington office.
Concern over biotech food has spread to Asia. Japan, a major buyer of U.S. farm goods, will require labels on biotech foods starting next spring. South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand are drawing up labeling requirements.
For several years, the fight against biotech in the United States was being waged by a lonely band of scientists and activists, who warned that scrambling plant genes could lead to health hazards and environmental damage. They said, for instance, that pollen drifting from biotech crops could foster new families of weeds that would be nearly impossible to kill.
"We are creating so-called superweeds," said Ignacio Chapela, an assistant professor of environmental science at UC Berkeley.
The critics also raised ethical concerns, pointing to research projects such as efforts to engineer faster-growing salmon as evidence that humans shouldn't tread on God's realm.
Biotech's foes, many of them supporters of various liberal causes, also linked the technology to the alleged ills of industrialized agriculture and the clout of large multinational corporations. The marches at the World Trade Organization in Seattle in December included protests against genetic engineering. To these activists, biotech means "profits for a few large corporations -- it's not benefiting anyone else," said Dave Henson, founder of an activist group called the Sonoma County Green Genes.
Until recently, the criticisms went largely unheeded. The FDA maintained that biotech foods are essentially no different from conventionally bred products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said pollen drift poses minimal risk to the environment. The general public was "comfortable with it," said Bruhn, the consumer-attitude expert.
Then the concerns that were being voiced abroad began having an impact in the United States. Spurred by the monarch butterfly imbroglio, biotech's foes are more visible.
At the behest of renowned biotech critic Jeremy Rifkin, a group of farmers sued Monsanto for fraud in December, saying that the agribusiness giant had fooled them into buying biotech seeds that Monsanto said would gain public acceptance.
A coalition of organic farmers sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in February 1999 in an attempt to force the agency to ban cultivation of biotech crops. Their argument: Pollen from biotech crops will contaminate their fields.
Anti-biotech bills turned up in Congress and state legislatures, and shareholder groups started petitioning food makers and grocery chains -- so far unsuccessfully -- to ban genetically engineered foods.
What caught Cami Loft's eye was a magazine article in October mentioning the presence of genetically engineered soybeans in the Isomil infant formula she used to give to her daughter Devan.
"I was outraged, because it hadn't been labeled," Loft said. "There's something un-American about that."
Isomil's manufacturer, Ross Products, referred all questions to a trade association called the International Formula Council, which said it has received "extremely little" protest from U.S. consumers.
Loft switched her family's diet to organic foods and, after studying anti-biotech news on the Internet, went to work. She staged a rally in the Bay Area and flew to Boston, at her own expense, to attend an anti-biotech conference. She enlisted the women in her investment club to take up the cause.
"She's made a difference in a small way, like educating our friends," said her husband, Andrew, a vice president of a Bay Area company that buys and sells used aircraft and machinery. The two of them occasionally hand out anti-biotech leaflets in front of supermarkets.
Loft's newfound cause can make for strange bedfellows, like the time in May when she and three female friends, one of whom brought her toddler in a stroller, joined a group of activists dressed in radiation suits and butterfly wings to protest biotech foods at Safeway Inc.'s annual shareholder meeting in San Ramon.
Loft said she's simply doing what must be done.
"This issue just struck a chord," she said. "I'm not a radical person at all. This is not a radical issue. This is an issue for every mother."
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Last Updated on 6/28/00
By Dan Ellis