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 blind alleys, they thought they might have done it: The researchers had created 100 seedlings that contained 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 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.
Five years in, there are signs that the rapid spread of transgenic crops might 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. The soy appeared in processed food before the manufacturers knew it was there. And although 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.
Monsanto dominates the biotech market: Well over 90 percent of all transgenic crops planted worldwide were developed at the company'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 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 percent of processed foods have biotech ingredients. Despite bitter European protests, the crops are popular overseas as well, especially in parts of Asia and South America.
In creating a soybean resistant to herbicide, Padgette's team created the first transgenic soybean. Monsanto called it "Roundup Ready," because it could be sprayed with its herbicide Roundup and suffer no harm. Just one hurdle remained before taking it to market.
Although the Food and Drug Administration did not require any safety tests, Monsanto executives wanted to be sure they had a seal of approval from that agency, as well as from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. But there was no regulatory process in place.
Roy Fuchs, Monsanto's director of regulatory science, was called upon to invent one. He came up with a list of tests he thought Monsanto should run to prove the soybeans safe. Then he compared notes with government regulators. Although the FDA did not require any specific safety tests of biotech food, other agencies around the world did. Monsanto plunged ahead.
Roundup Ready soybeans were fed to quail, cattle and rats, to catfish in Mississippi and chickens in Missouri. Toxicity tests were conducted to make sure the bean wasn't dangerous even in huge quantities. There were feed tests to make sure animals gained as much weight on a transgenic diet.
The foreign protein in Roundup Ready soy was matched against a computer database to make sure it did not resemble any known allergen. It was plunked into simulated intestinal juice to see how the human gut would react. Every nutritional component of the biotech bean was analyzed and matched against conventional varieties. The goal was to show a "reasonable certainty" that the beans would do no harm - the FDA standard used for ordinary food.
Monsanto aimed to show that its transgenic crops were "substantially equivalent" to conventional ones. The FDA and several international groups, including the World Health Organization, have approved this standard. Using it, Monsanto has won approval for its soy from 30 regulatory agencies in 18 countries. Opponents, however, are not reassured.
"You're producing combinations of genes that cannot be made in nature. You're putting bits of DNA, in some cases whole proteins, into crops when they've never been in the food system before. It seems to me that level of novelty is enough to merit an extra degree of scrutiny," says Margaret Mellon, a molecular biologist and prominent foe of biotechnology.