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Biotech Soybeans Plant Seed of Risky Revolution

The genetically altered plant, a wildly successful marketing ploy, has changed farming. Critics fear health dangers and an ecosystem changed forever too.


CHESTERFIELD, Mo. — For nine years, two dozen genetic engineers struggled to create a simple soybean that would stand up to a killer herbicide.

After tens of thousands of mistakes, they thought they might have done it: They had created 100 seedlings laced with DNA from soil bacteria, a cauliflower virus and a petunia plant. They planned to test them cautiously in their Monsanto Co. labs. But an eager executive decided to test them all, to douse every plant with a highly potent concentration of the herbicide.

The team leader, Stephen Padgette, raced to the greenhouse to plead that some seedlings be spared. But he was too late; the plants were sprayed.

Every one of them survived.

They would go on to become the first blockbuster biotech crop, sweeping across America's farms and into America's diet with astounding speed.

Genetically modified soy has been on the market just five years. Yet it already accounts for two-thirds of the U.S. soybean harvest. Soy products are used in hundreds of processed foods, often to add texture and protein. So the biotech beans end up in pancake mix and baby formula, chicken soup and margarine, crackers and salad dressing, ice cream and granola bars.

From lab to field to table, the story of engineered soy offers a window into the biotechnology revolution. It was the first staple crop to be successfully engineered and widely planted. And it offers the longest-running case study of the biotech experiment.

Five years in, there are signs that the rapid spread of transgenic crops may be upending agricultural ecosystems--throwing colonies of soil microbes out of balance and shifting the types of weeds that crop up most often on fertile fields.

The experience of biotech soy also points up the lack of federal regulation, especially compared with other countries. The soy appeared in processed food even before the manufacturers knew it was there. And though Monsanto conducted extensive safety tests, critics warn that they were inadequate and raise questions about the enormous economic power that a company such as Monsanto wields in this new world.

The United States has not seen the same type of anti-biotech protests that have roiled Europe in recent years. But vandals protesting genetic engineering have destroyed some labs and test fields in their fury.

And there is a small but fierce rebellion brewing among farmers who contend that the biotech business model is strangling the heartland by giving Monsanto too much power over global agriculture.

Though competitors such as DuPont Co. and Dow Chemical Co. are working to catch up, Monsanto dominates the biotech market: Well over 90% of all transgenic crops planted worldwide were developed at the firm's high-tech labs here in suburban St. Louis. Monsanto's scientists have engineered not only two-thirds of the soy crop, but also two-thirds of all the cotton and a quarter of all the corn grown in the United States.

The reason for Monsanto's success is straightforward: The new seed is easier and often cheaper to grow. It can reduce the need for chemicals to control weeds and pests.

Transgenic soy, cotton and corn are now planted on more than 75 million acres in every state except Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada and Rhode Island. Most U.S. livestock eat feed made with biotech grain. And 70% of processed foods have biotech ingredients. Despite bitter European protests, the crops are increasingly popular overseas as well, especially in parts of Asia and South America.

Monsanto executives see genetic engineering as a wonder tool that can help alleviate hunger by making food more nutritious and easier to grow. They take their triumph with these first few crops as proof that they can change the world. Their critics fear just that.

The Search

Biotech soy was born of a business brainstorm.

In the late 1970s, as today, Monsanto's leading product was a herbicide called Roundup, which is made from glyphosate, an incredibly effective chemical that kills almost everything green. Farmers worldwide relied on Roundup to clear their fields before planting. But they could not spray it once their seeds sprouted, because it would kill their crop along with the weeds.

Monsanto set out to boost sales of Roundup by creating crops that would tolerate glyphosate.

It would take 700,000 hours of work.

Padgette's team spent the first seven years on the wrong track altogether, trying to rearrange soybean DNA by hand. "At a certain point," Padgette recalled, "we decided we needed to think outside the box."

Instead of toying with soy's existing genes, they decided to try to add new ones. Glyphosate works by binding to an enzyme in plants that produces proteins critical for growth. With the glyphosate clinging to it, the enzyme can't function and the plant dies. Bacteria have that same critical enzyme. So in 1987, Padgette's group began screening bacteria to see whether any had a natural resistance to glyphosate.

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