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Healthier Frankenfoods?

When Swiss scientists reported earlier this year a genetically engineered strain of rice that produces beta-carotene, a source of vitamin A, it was hailed as a breakthrough that could help save the lives of an estimated 1 million to 2 million children each year in the developing world. It also came as a much-needed shot in the arm for the beleaguered agricultural biotech industry.

The growing opposition to biotech foods around the world is threatening the future of the technology. And a number of industry executives now acknowledge that the problem with first-generation products-for example, Monsanto’s herbicide-resistant soybeans and insect-tolerant corn-is that while they may save farmers money and cut down on chemical use, they lack a visible payoff for the average shopper. “There may be risks with no benefit. So the consumer says ‘why should I put up with it?’,” says David Wheat, an industry analyst at the Bowditch Group in Boston, Mass.

While nutrition in developing countries has never topped the biotech industry’s to-do list, companies hope their next generation of products gets a warmer reception. That generation will include many crops with genetically engineered “output traits” that improve a plant’s taste, size or nutritional value. One of the first to reach market is a DuPont soybean engineered to produce a frying oil without trans-fatty acids, a current villain in public health circles. “The consumer won’t know quite what kind of oil was used to make the donut, but the consumer can read a label that says zero trans-fats and that’s what matters,” says Wheat. According to Virginia Tech’s Information Systems for Biotechnology, about 16 percent of the 800 biotech plants currently in field testing are aimed at improving such output traits.

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