WASHINGTON _ What Aldous Huxley might have called a "BraveNew Salad" _ made of the fruits of biotechnology _ inched nearer tothe nation's table Monday with a U.S. Department of Agriculture(USDA)-sponsored public meeting on the merits of the ZW-20 squash.The squash now ranks as a leader among the 30 genetically engineeredfruits and vegetables likely to follow Calgene Inc.'s Flavr Savr tomatoto market. The Flavr Savr, now being sold in the midwest under thename MacGregor's, was approved by the FDA last month.Designed by Asgrow Seed Company, of Kalamazoo, Mich., asubsidiary of the Upjohn Company, the squash resists infection by twoplant organisms, the yellow mosaic virus and the watermelon mosaicvirus, which can decimate squash crops."In approving the Flavr Savr for market, the FDA had to make a seriesof first-time decisions, said Dick Godown, senior vice president of theBiotechnology Industry Organization. "They had to make certain thatthe tomato was still a tomato even though it had been altered and had akanamycin gene in it."And they had to decide it was safe for human consumption," he said."Now that the FDA and the industry have been though this processonce, it will reduce the difficulty of getting subsequent products tomarket."In May, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service,which is charged with determining whether genetically altered plantscould prove harmful to the environment, ruled that the squash does notpresent a "plant pest risk" and should not be regulated.Critics initially argued that Asgrow's application for an assessment ofthe vegetable's regulatory status, submitted in July 1992, did notanswer all questions about the ZW-20's suitability for cultivation.The USDA decided that several of the critic's questions deservedfurther study, so the agency requested further information fromAsgrow and scheduled today's session for "an open discussion of theissues analyzed in the environmental assessment."Only two discussants turned up _ Dennis Gonsalves, a professor ofplant pathology at Cornell University's Geneva, N.Y., exstension, andJane Rissler, of the National Wildlife Federation _ indicating, perhaps,that controversy over genetically altered foods may be diminishing.Gonsalves said he favors approval of the squash. Gonsalves, andcolleague Marc Fuchs, said they field tested the squash by cultivating itin a field with ordinary squash plants and then exposing the entire fieldto the yellow and watermelon mosaic viruses.Gonsalves termed the results "dramatic." The ZW-20 squash had triplethe yield of the normal squash _ which was generally unsuitable formarket, he said.Rissler objected to the agency's ruling on the grounds that thegenetically altered plants, which rely on a bacteria to introduceresistance genes into the plant, could pose unanticipated hazards to theenvironment.The USDA response to Asgrow's petition cites Rissler's concern, butdismisses it as unfounded, based on the company's petition andextensive research.Eric Flamm, a biotechnology specialist at the FDA, said that the squashstill has several hurdles to surmount. The Environmental ProtectionAgency, which must rules on pesticides, must decide whether the virusresistant genes _ which are classified as pesticides _ present a dangerto the environment.The FDA then would be required to insure that the squash is "safe andwholesome" and that it does not exceed EPA-mandated levels ofpesticides, which in this case are virus-resistant genes.

-- Steve Sternberg Special to BioWorld Today

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.