Jimmy Hill has been raising tobacco since he harvested his first crop as a high- school freshman in 1950. With his 360 acres in eastern North Carolina bringing in more than $1 million a year, he's the kind of farmer who tends to support scientific advances designed to create more profitable plants. So it comes as something of a surprise that Hill and other growers are not pleased at the news that a manufacturer is about to market the world's first cigarette made from tobacco that has been genetically engineered.
In March, Vector Tobacco plans to introduce a new line of cigarettes that have been genetically altered to reduce nicotine. With only trace amounts of nicotine at what it claims are nonaddictive levels, Vector says its new product can help smokers control the habit while reducing smoking-related illness. "We think there is potentially a very big market for these," says Vector spokes-man Paul Caminiti.
But while the cigarettes may be good news for smokers, they have effectively turned Hill and other tobacco farmers into anti-GE activists. Their concern is not as much for the health of smokers as for the health of their market: Growers fear that genetically engineered tobacco will commingle in the fields with traditional varieties, creating hybrids that could not be sold overseas.
In Asia and Europe, which buy roughly half of North Carolina's leaf, environmental protests have prompted bulk purchasers to reject any shipments containing genetically altered material.
"What's the point of losing 50 percent of the market just to have Vector grow 4 or 5 million pounds of tobacco?" asks Hill, voicing the concern of many farmers. "We have to close the door."
The GE tobacco even has Big Tobacco switching sides in the debate over genetic engineering. "A lot of companies like Philip Morris are rejecting buying genetically modified tobacco, afraid if it gets into the chain with other tobacco, it could ruin what's left of the tobacco industry," says Charlie Zink of the Farm Service Agency in Madison County, North Carolina.
Pressure from the state prompted Vector to grow its first genetically modified crop in the nontraditional tobacco states of Mississippi, Iowa, Louisiana, and Illinois. Amish farmers, who traditionally shun modern technology, are also raising the controversial crop in Pennsylvania.
In addition, growers in North Carolina tried to prevent Vector from opening a plant to manufacture the altered cigarettes in the town of Roxboro. They backed a bill in the state legislature that would have required companies dealing with genetically altered or "experimental" tobacco to carry $1 million in liability to ensure that no GE leaf inadvertently winds up mixed in with cigarettes that are shipped overseas. "We were concerned it might get commingled with other tobacco," explains state Rep. Dewey Hill, who sponsored the measure.
Hill eventually withdrew his bill after he was called to a meeting with the governor and Bennett LeBow, the CEO of the tobacco firm's parent company, Vector Group. LeBow assured Hill that production of the altered cigarettes would be kept separate from its GE-free brands. But the company, which primarily produces discount brands, remains vague about how it will prevent contamination. Asked how Vector would segregate the processing of its nicotine-free cigarette from another brand produced at its Roxboro plant, the company says only that it remains a "high priority."