While the first transgenic plants sparked fear and controversy, suspicion seemed to stop at the fields’ edge. The same basic methods are used to coax bacteria and algae to synthesize plastics and biofuel. The pharmaceutical industry uses genetically modified bacteria and animals to produce insulin, vaccines, and a wide variety of drugs. Such applications, Paarlberg argues, are widely accepted because they provide clear benefit to consumers in the form of green fuel or reliable medicine.
“We have no problem with genomics,” says Kirtana Chandrasekaran, a campaigner for the London-based Friends of the Earth. “Our problem is with their application in GMOs.”
Perhaps that is because genetically modified crops, which boost productivity and lower cost of chemicals and fuel, benefit multinational corporations and farmers, but not consumers themselves. And to scientists like Jacobsen and van Montagu, that is most frustrating of all.
While the European Union has spent some $400 million in the past 25 years on biotech crop research, the vast majority has gone toward risk-assessment studies and not improving the crops themselves. Between legal expenses and the high-security field trials needed to comply with European safety laws—not to mention the risk that field trials will be destroyed—bringing a product to market can cost over $100 million, making developing GMOs so expensive only profit-driven agribusiness can afford it.
If they’re going to fulfill their promise, next-generation transgenics will have to do more than just protect plants from pests or weeds: The race is on to create super crops that will be more fruitful while resisting droughts or floods. Others might be engineered to include nutrients like beta carotene, iron, and vitamin A. Instead of one gene to fight off insects or disease, crops will be engineered with “stacks” of resistance genes to prevent pests from evolving resistance to a single approach.
All that will require far more knowledge about how genetic modification changes a plant. In the effort to get there, Europe could still be a hub. On a frosty March day, I pull up to a sprawling, nondescript greenhouse in Ghent. Piotr Puzio, an amiable Polish biologist, asks me to leave my camera in the car. He hands me a lab coat, safety glasses, and disposable paper booties and ushers me into what may be the world’s most sophisticated greenhouse.
As we step inside, I’m hit by a blast of tropical heat. Plastic conveyor belts running along waist-high steel platforms wind through the 32,000-square-foot facility. A small boombox plays Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” as workers in blue coveralls transplant fragile rice seedlings to transparent plastic pots filled with a proprietary soil mixture. Despite the chill outside, I soon find myself sweating as I follow Puzio down rows of grass-green plants. Inside, it’s at least 82 degrees Fahrenheit, ideal for genetically modified rice.
The biotech facility belongs to a subsidiary of BASF Plant Science, and despite the European locale, the chemical giant has not pulled out. Around the clock, 365 days a year, about 8,000 plants at a time make their way through the greenhouse, each individually tracked with radio-frequency ID chips tucked into their transparent containers.
The plants periodically snake through dresser-size cabinets, where a suite of imaging equipment captures the plants’ growth from seven angles. “Every week they’re photographed from every corner and every side, like models on the catwalk,” Puzio says with pride.
Each year, the facility can analyze the changes wrought by tweaking up to 1,300 genes, each one expressed and evaluated in over 100 different model plants. Cleverly named the TraitMill, it is the centerpiece of BASF’s effort to breed the next generation of genetically modified crops.
The information gathered from these rice plants will be used to create drought-resistant corn and crops that will grow in depleted soil, perhaps on marginal land in the United States or Asia. If the dice roll the right way, BASF will make a lot of money.
But outside, a cold wind is blowing. Whatever comes out of this lab will likely never drink a Belgian rain, or spread its leaves under the German sun. And someday soon, the researchers here—along with their colleagues across the continent—will switch off the lights and move on to greener pastures.
Correction: This article was amended on March 29, 2013, to reflect the corrected figure for the cost of bringing a GM product to market.