In the quiet beauty of America's heartland, where farmers grow food that helps feed the world, it's hard to imagine that crops like corn and soybeans are provoking a wave of angry demonstrations.
The protests began in Europe, but now the fight has made its way to the United States. The reason? Genetically modified crops, or GMOs. Correspondent Rita Braver reports for CBS News Sunday Morning.
GMOs are new plants designed in the laboratory using the latest genetic engineering techniques to make them stronger, better at withstanding pests and drought.
And farmers who grow these crops, like Stan Blunier of Forrest, Ill., suddenly find themselves in the middle of a global food fight.
Through gene splicing, Blunier's GMO corn, used for livestock feed, has a bacterium poisonous to insects but harmless to animals; it's corn with a built-in pesticide.
Blunier, who has been farming for 28 years, says 50 percent to 60 percent of his corn is genetically modified. "Every year, I've been adding more and more acres," he adds.
So far, despite the protests, he has been able to sell his GMO crops, he says. But he was worried.
"All the farmers were in there saying, 'Can we raise these?'" Blunier recalls. "'Do we have a market for them?'"
"I may have backed off even this summer if I wasn't going to have a market for them," the farmer adds.
But in the neighboring town of Chatsworth, Tom Schlatter is not taking any chances. In recent years, he put about a third of his crop into genetically modified seeds. But he is not planting GMO crops on his farm this year.
What changed his mind?
"I think it was primarily the concerns of our foreign markets," he says.
This year, for the first time since GMO crops were introduced in the early 1990s, farmers worried about the European backlash are pulling back on some GMOs. In figures just released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, after five years of steady increases, farmers planted 24 percent less GMO corn this year than last.
"I want to have a product that's acceptable to as many people as I can find," Schlatter says.
The problem is that right now there is growing controversy over what is acceptable. Those demonstrations in Europe have led to a virtual halt on sales of GMO corn in the European Union, and Japan has new rules requiring labels on all genetically modified food.
In the United States, there even has been eco-terrorism. Underground groups have claimed responsibility for destroying crops in a field at the University of California and for setting a fire at a Michigan State University laboratory where work is being done on genetically modified foods.
"I think we're seeing here really a classic, very dramatic battle,...food wars, if you will," says Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety, one of the chief critics of GMOs. "I'm very concerned that these genetically engieered foods could create toxic effects in consumers, could create some very serious allergenic effects to people who are allergic to a variety of different types of foods, could lower the nutrition in our foods and could create antibiotic resistance to some of our important antibiotics."
But whether Americans realize it or not, they're already consuming thousands of foods containing GMO products, mostly in processed foods containing corn and soybean oil. That includes corn-fed steak, Coca-Cola, corn flakes and cake mixes, and GMO advocates insist there are no long-term health risks.
"There is not a single solitary report of so much as a sniffle associated with consumption of these foods," says Val Giddings, a spokesman for the biotechnology industry.
Presented with the fact that there are people who claim Giddings is helping to create a kind of Frankenstein, that there is a monster in these foods somewhere and that there will be some kind of havoc created on the land, he replies, "There are people who think that. To them, I would say, 'Bring me a credible scenario, and we'll address it.'"
There are conflicting scientific studies on environmental impact. One often cited report suggested that monarch butterflies might be harmed by exposure to genetically modified corn, while another seemed to refute that finding.
But the American food industry is worried about consumers' perception. Huge corporations like McDonald's, Frito-Lay and Gerber Baby Food have announced that they will restrict their use of GMOs.
Does that indicate to Giddings that Americans are concerned about GMOs?
"It tells me that McDonald's is being cautious and conservative," he replies. "And I do not expect McDonald's to be,...a few years from now, in the same position on these issues as they are right now."
So far, the U.S. government is not requiring long-term studies on human health risks of genetically modified foods or even labels that identify products containing GMOs.
Also troubling to some opponents is the fact that there are no clear-cut limits on what foods can be modified. In one experiment, for instance, a gene from another fish was spliced into the DNA of salmon to make them grow twice as fast as they would otherwise.
While U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman acknowledges that "food safety is one of the most important functions that the government can do," critics are suggesting that the administration was asleep at the wheel and that just now it is beginning to take a closer look at GMOs.
"Well, let me put it to you like this: The science probably was ahead of the regulatory process," Glickman says. "But, at the same time, I think that we have moved to try to address those concerns that are out there."
"A lot of the opponents just want to see this industry killed. Dead. No development," Glickman adds. "And that is a stupid thing for the human race to do. Hw will we be ever,...ever able to feed a hungry world in a sustainable way without using new technologies?"
So what's the future for genetically modified foods? Are we about to enter a brave new world of agriculture, or will the protest movement cause this new technology to wither on the vine?
Scientists like Dr. Schuyler Korban at the University of Illinois are working to develop GMO foods with clear-cut benefits for consumers. The possibilities include tomatoes that may someday be able to prevent a common respiratory virus that causes pneumonia, potatoes that can prevent animal viruses and broccoli packed with cancer-fighting nutrients.
Add to that list, according to Korban, "other vegetables with higher vitamins, such as vitamin E and vitamin A."
"You can even think of seeing fruits that have higher levels of anti-oxidants," he says.
But until consumers have some reason to demand genetically modified foods, the debate continues.
"America has a love affair with progress. Other parts of the world don't. We do," Glickman argues. "We kind of have this mission to make things better."
"And done properly, these technologies can make the world better," he says.
"Progress is not an automatic," Kimbrell counters. "And I think the jury is still out on these foods...on whether they are actual progress or whether this is just one big...experiment that failed."
But in America's heartland, farmers like Stan Blunier are betting that the experiment will succeed.
Says he, "I see it as just the same as when we went to hybrid corn. There were people who resisted that."
"There were people that resisted going from a horse and buggy to a tractor," Blunier says. "And I just see this as the next evolution in farming."
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