Salad Genes

Menu writing is an art. Savvy restaurateurs go to great lengths to make their dishes sound appealing, waxing poetic about the virtues of even the commonest hamburger, meat loaf or macaroni and cheese. The more adjectives, usually, the more expensive the meal.

I'm waiting for the day when it's also a science. How long will it be before our dining choices read like this?:

• Appetizer -- salad of mixed greens with bruise-proof tomatoes and soy-free zucchini in a zesty, Round-Up herbicide vinaigrette.

• Entree -- filet mignon (a choice cut of DNA-altered corn-fed beef), with insulin truffle risotto.

• Dessert -- homemade ice cream, with just a hint of Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (RBGH).

Think it's far-fetched? Not anymore, it isn't. Genetically modified (GM) foods are here, and until the FDA enacts labeling laws, it's anyone's guess what's in them. Over the past two years, GM foods have been creeping from the lab to the market, and soon consumers everywhere, including restaurateurs, may not be aware of what they're buying.

Perhaps it's a good thing they don't. What they don't know can help them. While there's been a lot of publicity lately about the dangers of so-called "Frankenfoods," the new products actually are bred to be better for us, the experts say.

To combat such anxiety, the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension College of Agriculture is hosting a "Safe Food 2000" public conference July 26 and 27 addressing the impact of biotechnology in our lives. Nationally known speakers will educate the public about "food safety from the field to the table," including offering tips to restaurateurs on how to communicate with consumers about food safety.

Food biotechnology is practical science, according to Epicurious Dictionary. It involves removing genes with desirable traits from the DNA of one plant or animal cell and splicing them into that of another. The process, say supporters, provides agriculture with the means to grow cheaper, more healthful, more stable foods. Inserting genes from one source into another also can improve a crop's resistance to insects or weeds. Such beneficial genes, Epicurious adds, might come from animals, friendly bacteria, fish, insects, plants and even humans.

Salad greens is people!

Currently harvested commodities of curious ancestry include potatoes, corn, tomatoes, zucchini, sugar beets, rice, soy, lettuce, canola, rapeseed, milk and salmon. Bio vegetables typically are exposed to Round-Up, the commercial weed poison. Arizona farmers, while not heavily into high-tech produce, have experienced greatly improved cotton yields from the technology, says Bryan Hurley, spokesman for Monsanto, the world's leading producer of genetically modified staples.

Modified dairy products are more prevalent, although neither the United Dairy Council of Arizona nor the United Dairy Association endorses using growth hormones. Spokespeople at both organizations said that there is no way to test for hormone use, and it's not illegal, so use is up to individual dairy farmers.

Should we be frightened of our food? It depends on whom you ask. Hurley assures me that our health is protected, even enhanced. But environmental activists around the world are having a hard time swallowing it. My favorite display: In San Francisco last October, Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro was assaulted by anti-GMers who smashed a cream pie in his face (surely it was made with organic milk).

Fears here and abroad include the possible evolution of insects resistant to natural insecticides; unplanned cross-pollination that unleashes a new breed of Super Weeds that normal chemicals cannot destroy, and physical damage to the population.

Yet few claims of health risk have been substantiated (one glorious British experiment this past January, hoping to prove toxicity in GM potatoes, was abandoned after six weeks when the only conclusion reached was that rats hate potatoes. They won't eat them.).

If it takes a mad scientist to create foods with better shelf life, richer nutrients, improved taste and stronger resistance to pests and disease while conserving the environment, I'm all for it.

No product is released without stringent testing by the FDA, after all. In some cases, problem-causing genes (like the natural softening of a tomato) are simply removed. Other splicings are to our direct benefit, notes Kai Umeda, area agent for vegetable crops at the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, including experimental plants crossed with insulin for diabetics and potatoes enriched with hepatitis vaccines for Third World countries. And no, he hasn't heard of any human DNA being transferred to plants or animals -- unless it's contained in the vaccine-injected produce.

Vegetable guru Jeffrey Beeson thinks industrial-strength produce is a good thing, even as it affects fine dining. As premier chef at Different Pointe of View, Beeson is in charge of the 10,000-square-foot private garden serving the upscale restaurant. He grows exotic, hard-to-find vegetables, but also buys regular produce wholesale. "[GM food] is out there a lot more than we probably know," says Beeson, whose father is a farmer in the Midwest. "I think it's downplayed, because people aren't ready for the issue yet. But from what I've read, concerns are 99 percent emotional and 1 percent fact."

Consumer resistance stems from misinformation, Hurley agrees, but he's found that the more people know about biotechnology, the more they not only accept the technology, but also embrace it.

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