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Too bad wiser heads prevailed upon the author to label this as the spoof it actually is. Just imagine the hue and cry that could have resulted had this been let loose somewhere else on the Internet as real. Think of the chain postings on email diet listgroups netwide, the barrage of protest letters to biotech firms and Congress--the panic, the fear, the mayhem! Coulda, woulda, SHOULDA. Read it and weep.

Top Biotech Firm Developing New "Applesteak" Fruit
Says Former Employee

Lab-cultured "bio-beef" also on the horizon.
Some predicting "plantimals" possible.

S P E C I A L   R E P O R T

by Ward Nicholson
Copyright © 2000 by Ward Nicholson. All rights reserved.
Contact author for permission to republish.

New fruit's taste/texture said to be indistinguishable from an apple
but with the genetics and nutrition of beef.

ONE OF THE UNITED STATES' TOP BIOTECHNOLOGY COMPANIES has been secretly developing a new kind of fruit over the last five years code-named the "applesteak," according to a former geneticist with the unidentified corporation. The new fruit is said to combine the nutrition of beef with the low cost and wide appeal of the common apple. Spokesmen for leading biotech companies in the industry have refused to comment in response to press inquiries other than denying the report as unfounded rumor.

Consumer protection advocates contacted, however, say other reports have also been surfacing of similar ongoing, confidential projects at several major biotech powerhouses. Government agricultural officials said they were surprised by the rumor and would make no comment. Under current U.S. law, genetically engineered foods are not required to be labeled as such.

Prime ingredients: secrecy
and shrewd marketing

New taste perception research. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the former employee at the company developing the applesteak said that pains had been taken to ensure the new fruit would be difficult if not impossible to distinguish from apples currently on the market by appearance or taste. The research necessary to accomplish that objective involved ground-breaking experiments in altering the taste perception of the genetically introduced animal fats and proteins, and apparently delayed development by over three years. It was deemed necessary, however, to pave the way for full market acceptance.

Tactic to preempt foes. Just as important was to prevent easy identification during growing and shipping, thus safeguarding against the possibility of applesteak opponents destroying crops destined for market. The former employee said the new fruit was controversial within the company itself. Procedures resulting in a prototype applesteak fruit reportedly came from a plant geneticist involved in early experiments at the company transplanting animal genes into plants. Subsequently, high-level meetings among executives took place to consider marketing strategies for the idea, over which opposing factions arose.

Public relations ploys. Veterans of previous battles with environmental protection groups were worried that a consumer backlash against the new fruit would ensue unless the company voluntarily worked in conjunction with environmentalists, as a way of allaying fears. An opposing group within the company believed that attempting to cooperate would only give fuel to opponents with little understanding of the genetics involved, and blow up in the company's face. A third faction argued that the ability to pack the nutrition of beef into an apple was a significant public relations opportunity. In the ongoing battle against negative publicity, the corporation's primary PR objective was to show concern for making high-grade but low-cost nutrition available to consumers who might not otherwise be able to afford enough animal-derived foods.

Secret lobbying efforts. Reportedly, the latter two groups inside the company eventually prevailed. Winning the day was confidence among most executives that efforts by consumer advocates to require labeling of genetically modified foods would continue to be defeated in Congress. As a precautionary measure, however, the corporation's lobbying budget was said to have been doubled.

Appealing to the masses with robust nutrition for low price. The market strategy mapped out for the product reportedly hinges on acceptance by the mass consumer market. The appeal: huge price savings to consumers for a product with nutritional value equivalent to meats. Prime also among the selling points would be the ability to genetically modify, customize, and control the fat profile for the applesteak. "Good fats" found in meats would be increased while minimizing or eliminating the detrimental ones.

Marginalization of opponents. Once significant market inroads have been made and the benefits are apparent, the company's marketing strategists believe that continued vocal resistance by such opponents as animal rights or vegetarian advocacy groups will further marginalize them in the eyes of the public, said the former employee. In addition, according to upcoming editorial opinions on bioethics questions scheduled for print in industry trade journals, the dilemma over animal welfare should be largely solved by the new genetic approach. Since crops like the applesteak would leverage the more-efficient economics of crop production over animal agriculture, the properties of genes would be exploited rather than the animals themselves. Industry observers willing to speculate, though, believe introduction of such a product as the applesteak is still at least another couple of years away.

Potential dangers ignored

Contamination and cross-pollination fears. Opponents of the applesteak warn that releasing such a fruit for widespread agricultural production could contaminate the genestock of apple trees already in use by orchard growers. The fear is that the applesteak gene would cross-pollinate and insert itself into increasing numbers of other apple crop varieties over time. Such occurrences could effectively remove orchard growers' choice about the properties of the crop line they may wish to raise for market.

Locking down the market with terminator genes. The former employee of the applesteak company said genestock contamination was probably not a real concern. As a safeguard, the new applesteak line would likely contain a "terminator gene" of the type recently developed in the biotech industry, and would prevent cross-pollination of already-existing apple trees. Terminator technology prevents genetically modified crops that contain the terminator gene from producing viable seed.

However, this scenario presents an alternate danger for those electing to grow applesteak trees--that of economically indentured relationships with vendors. For example, already, farmers growing genetically modified annual crops like corn have to obtain new seed from the parent company each growing season. Those raising perennial crops such as fruit trees eventually would have to return to the company for new starter trees as well, to replace trees reaching the end of their profitable fruit-bearing years. This time span also could theoretically be genetically determined by other types of terminator genes.

Health worries. Opponents of the applesteak include nutritional experts who are concerned about health ramifications. They say such new crop lines should wait until widespread consensus is reached among scientific researchers about the exact effects on cancer and heart disease of the various types of fats found in animal meats. Despite the potential ability to customize the fat profile in a fruit such as the rumored applesteak, critics of the idea say it is presumptuous to believe we know anything about the ultimate effects of such fats with certainty yet. Until that happens, they maintain it is premature to even consider transplanting the animal genes that govern these nutritional components into plants. Years of further clinical study, perhaps decades, are needed on the issue, they argue.

Questions remain over animal fats. The role of animal fats is currently controversial since saturated fat is widely believed to contribute to cancer and heart disease. But recent research also suggests other types of fats play essential roles, particularly omega-3 fats. Among these are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), as well as the "brain fat" docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The latter comprises a large percentage of structural fat tissue in the brain and is crucial in the developing nervous systems of infants. DHA is available in appreciable quantities only in animals (fish in particular), but can be synthesized from plants by the human body if adequate omega-3 precursors are consumed. Questions remain, however, as to whether such synthesis is adequate to promote optimum functioning or merely to prevent deficiency.

Cattle industry may compete against
applesteak with lab-produced "bio-beef"

Applesteak could squeeze profits from real beef. Also concerned about the applesteak but for different reasons is the cattle industry. Profits from real beef could be squeezed if the applesteak catches on. Wall Street analysts, however, said there have been reports of even newer genetic techniques nearing fruition that should bring about the ability to mass-produce "lab-cultured animal tissues" in scaled-up, warehouse-sized lab environments. In effect, this would be an alternative way to cheaply produce high-quality animal-derived food for consumers.

Succulent, shrink-wrapped bio-beef could be eaten raw as-is. The advantage to bio-beef over the applesteak would be the complete retention of all the texture, taste, smell, and appearance of real meat. The product would look and feel exactly like naturally raised, range-fed beef but be much cheaper than even beef from feedlotted cattle. Grown in sterile environments and vacuum-packed in convenient, disposable shrinkwrap, such "bio-beef" could even be eaten raw and uncooked if consumed immediately after opening if desired. There would be no need for controversial food irradiation, and no risk of bacterial contamination or other safety hazards.

Proponents say that for the carnivorously minded, this would open up new market demand for the gustatory experience of meat in its most primitive elemental form: fresh, red, dripping, nutritionally packed flesh. To complete the picture, such consumers would face no carcinogenic pyrolytic by-products from cooking, plus reap significant time-savings by eliminating preparation time.

Hostile corporate takeover attempts possible. Insiders say to watch for investments in new bio-beef startups by the large ranching conglomerates. Other potential moves to watch might be attempts to take over currently entrenched genetic engineering companies, though some may opt for joint ventures instead.

Disarray over applesteak and bio-beef
among vegetarian and animal rights groups

Appeal of vegetarianism could be diluted. Rumors about the applesteak and bio-beef already appear to be dividing various vegetarian organizations, who were splintered over the issue with no clear consensus in view. Vegetarian groups contacted about the transplantation of animal genes into plants, and vice versa, appeared widely divided. Some lamented that growing dissension in their ranks seemed the only common theme. Privately, spokespeople admitted they feared that the recent genetic developments would further lessen the appeal of vegetarianism to the wider public. They also worried about the impact on newer converts to vegetarianism as well.

Does gene exploitation solve animal rights equation? Some advocates are willing to go along with new foods such as the applesteak and bio-beef. This faction emphasizes that the central issue in vegetarianism comes down to compassion, which should mean embracing new ways, if necessary, to feed the hungry while saving the lives of animals. Strict animal rights advocates were opposed, stating that the very paradigm of genetics research is based on cheapening and exploiting life itself. By creating new lifeforms which are patentable, corporations extract profits at the expense of crowding out preexisting life in a limited ecosystem.

A "birthright" to native unaltered foods? "Natural foods" advocates, who may or may not be vegetarian, believe the choice to eat foods as they occur in nature is self-evident common sense and a spiritual right. This subgroup also clashes with the "compassion" advocates willing to embrace more artificial foods, but for a different reason. In their view, the central issue is the right of access to foods native to the human species--what they call "our spiritual birthright." Natural foods advocates also say that the most important question is a self-sustaining, more balanced ecosystem, and have no particular quarrel with omnivorism per se, as it has always been part of nature's overall design.

Can "Big Brother"
solve world hunger?

Genes and food choice: who gets to decide? Consumer advocates who were reached said that, ultimately, they fear a type of "Big Brother" food distribution system. They paint a picture of the future where decisions about the nation's food supply are driven not by personal freedom and consumer choice, but by corporate edict and the drive for maximum profitability through genetic manipulation. "The bottom line is that this is America and we should at least have the freedom to eat the foods we want to choose ourselves," said a representative for a consumer advocacy group now forming around the issue, who did not want the group's identity revealed as yet. "We should not have that choice made for us by faceless corporate behemoths who want us to eat what's best only for their own bottom lines. It is imperative that all of us fight for mandatory labeling of genetically produced foods if we are to combat unmitigated corporate greed and maintain the democratic base of our country."

Applesteak to the rescue. But proponents argue that the issue is more complex and involves larger issues. Biotech industry heads and others say that with the development of new crops like the applesteak, huge strides could be made toward reducing hunger and malnutrition among the world's poor. Not least among these are numerous forgotten low-income groups existing even in affluent countries such as the U.S. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a highly placed source familiar with reports surfacing about the development of the applesteak asked, "Where's the beef? I'll tell you where it is. If the reports circulating are accurate, the economics would suggest it can now be put into an apple for one-third the cost. That should be a boon for all those who say they are concerned with hunger issues and malnutrition. This technology is inevitable and should be welcomed by all."

What price free choice? Consumer watchdog groups counter, however, that if fruits like the applesteak are let loose on the market, they will drive up the price of natural fruits to the point they become increasingly unaffordable. In their minds, the question is how much longer we will have an affordable choice about what we eat or not.

 S I D E B A R :

Brave New World of "Plantimals"?

"Plantable" animals with roots instead of feet. Few in the biotech industry want to comment on the latest speculative genetic future becoming known as "plantimals." Even off-the-record comments about the plantimal concept are normally shunned, for fear of damaging hard-earned academic and scientific reputations. But this latest science-fiction-like idea of a new type of plant/animal hybrid has some geneticists talking despite their concerns. In this scenario, traditional livestock or factory-farmed animals such as chickens or veal calves would be modified with plant genes so as to cause them to grow roots rather than feet.

"Gardened" or "farmed" like crops. Such "rooted animals" could be intensively "planted" in soil according to biodynamic or organic gardening principles; raised hydroponically; or even grown in pots like house plants so that people could raise them at home like pets for their own consumption.

Self-fertilizing waste cycle. In agricultural applications, very high yields of animal tissue from minimum possible land use are expected, in part due to "self-fertilizing irrigation." This means that plantimals would defecate and urinate directly on the soil or hydroponic medium in which they are planted, reducing the necessity for exogenous fertilization or water use to a minimum. For maximum water conservation, incontinence genes might be part of a package aimed at efficient "drip-urination." Carbon/nitrogen ratios of plantimal wastes would be designed to catalyze quick composting cycles, initially breaking down into a mulch layer, and later to fully organic humus, thus continually replenishing the soil.

Plantimals might salvage depleted soils with aid of photosynthesis and superweed genes. To reduce economic inputs further and jump-start the process where topsoils have been severely eroded, plantimals could also be designed to pull up nutrients from deep subsoil and bedrock through the use of "superweed" genes. This would enable them to be planted in depleted soils, building up new topsoil and reclaiming vast tracts of arable land previously thought to have been irretrievably eroded. Transplanted chloroplast genes from plants could be inserted into plantimals, further potentiated by novel genes now on the drawing board but never before seen in nature. The proposed new genes would radically transform the power of photosynthesis so that rooted animals could utilize nitrogen directly from the air. The benefit: less need for expensive fertilizers, and the reversal of nitrogen depletion of the world's soils.

Plantimals could be stripped of consciousness, eliminating suffering. Plantimals would be much healthier than real factory-farmed animals since their wastes would immediately recycle into the growing medium, with high sanitation and little need for antibiotics to prevent disease. If breeding such closely confined rooted animals were to cause ethical outcry, it's said that plantimals could also be genetically modified not to be conscious or aware of their own existence, to preclude mental suffering.

How real is the prospect of plantimals? No one can say for certain yet if, or when, plantimals might be developed. However, geneticists who are privately lining up behind lab-produced bio-beef--a technology which most say should soon be reaching the proof-of-concept stage--belittle the idea of "plantimals," labeling it hypothetical and unproven at best. Said one such researcher, "While the possibility may be there, it's disturbing that anyone might be pursuing this line of development. Among people directly involved with research in these areas, it's regarded as misleading propaganda by animal rights activists meant only to incite consumer outrage against biotechnology companies."


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