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A few miles outside Sacramento, several large greenhouses sit behind a fence. In the summer the familiar heads of sunflowers are visible through the glass and in the fields surrounding the greenhouses. The plants are tall, straight and healthy, with thick leaves that reach for the California sunlight. They look exactly like sunflower plants grown throughout the United States-except for the plastic cages around each flower.

The flowers are covered by biologists at Pioneer Hi-Bred’s research facility in Woodland, Calif., which owns the greenhouses, the fields around them, and the sunflowers in both. The plants are transgenic-that is, genes from other organisms have been inserted into their chromosomes. Caging the sunflower heads helps prevent the breeze from wafting genetically engineered pollen around the area, which would violate federal laws banning release of unapproved transgenic organisms.

To protect Pioneer’s trade secrets, the researchers are chary of discussing their work, but government permits suggest that the sunflowers in Woodland have been subjected to the full armamentarium of contemporary biotechnology. Pumped up by genes from as many as a half a dozen other species, the plants repel moths and viruses, fight off fungus diseases, and produce seed with a shelf life beyond that of their nonengineered cousins. To Pioneer, these super-sunflowers, as they are sometimes called, will be a small but significant step forward in the struggle to feed the world’s exploding population, which is projected to level off at 10 billion or so. But to critics, they-and the agricultural biotechnology that created them-are an ecological menace that will wreck the natural systems on which human life depends.

The battle between these entrenched views is fierce. In the last year, farmers and activists ruined five metric tons of transgenic seed in France, trashed fields of genetically altered crops in Germany, and convinced seven European supermarket chains to stop selling store-brand goods containing bioengineered products. This February, a coalition of 70 groups and individuals sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to block the use of a dozen transgenic crops as an “imminent” threat to the environment.

Even as the U.S. government promotes agricultural biotechnology, European countries are backing away from what activists call “Frankenfoods.” Austria and Luxembourg have banned genetically modified corn; Norway has also outlawed the corn as well as five other biotech crops; France has prohibited all transgenic plants. To push the British government to enact a moratorium, Greenpeace dumped four tons of genetically modified soybeans outside 10 Downing Street in February.

Biotech’s supporters, on the other hand, argue that it will create nothing less than a second Green Revolution. In the first, agricultural scientists used conventional breeding techniques to create the high-yielding strains of wheat and rice that have doubled world grain harvests since the 1950s. During that time the number of hungry people fell by three-quarters, according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, despite a huge population increase. But global population numbers continue to rise, and researchers now must do it all over again. According to a projection released last August by the International Food Policy Research Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., world demand for rice, wheat and maize will increase 40 percent by 2020-and the only way to feed those mouths is through biotechnology. If activists succeed in banning transgenic crops, argues Robert L. Evenson, an agricultural economist at Yale University, they will end up “hurting the poor of three continents.”

Caught between these extremes is a group of agricultural ecologists and plant geneticists who are trying to understand the implications of the new technology. Although some activists claim genetically altered crops are a direct threat to human health, researchers generally dismiss such fears: There is little evidence that transgenic genes, in and of themselves, are likely to be toxic or promote disease. However, biologists do believe that in some cases foreign genes in crops can pass into other, nonagricultural species, with potentially dangerous effects. “It’s inevitable that they will get out,” says ecologist Joy Bergelson of the University of Chicago. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be negative repercussions. But there could be some. And right now we don’t know enough about what they could be and when they could occur.”

“The technology is brilliant,” says Paul Arriola, a plant geneticist at Elmhurst College, in Elmhurst, Ill. “In many respects, it’s a godsend.” Nonetheless, Arriola believes biotech is outpacing both the scientific understanding of its risks and the development of a regulatory apparatus to supervise its use. Because, in Arriola’s view, “we don’t really know what to regulate, or how to do it,” the world is in the middle of “a huge, ongoing experiment. We could create a real environmental mess. And that could stop this technology from doing some real good.”

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