Originally created 09/08/01

Growing less addictive tobacco



EVANSVILLE, Ind. - It's in an area where tobacco has never been grown, and it's being nurtured by farmers who have no experience with the crop.

But Vector Tobacco Limited is betting on Southern Illinois' farmers to raise a new, genetically engineered tobacco, called VT, that the company hopes will revolutionize the tobacco industry.

The new tobacco has nonaddictive levels of nicotine and no tobacco-specific nitrosamines, the chemical agent some scientists believe is among the most potent carcinogens in cigarette smoke.

Because it is a genetically modified crop, it has to be kept away from other tobacco crops to avoid inadvertent crossbreeding. To accomplish this, company representatives traveled to White County, Ill., and signed up farmers willing to try their hand at growing tobacco.

Bruce and Marcy Fechtig and their 8-year-old son, Cole, are one farm family that tackled the project with enthusiasm.

They found out what seasoned tobacco growers have always known - it takes a lot of work.

They also found out that there is - at least the first time out - a surprise around every corner.

Worms, for instance. Big green ones. "They're horny looking, like tomato worms," said Marcy Fechtig.

"People used to have to pick them off. Thank God we have chemicals now."

The Fechtigs' crop of tobacco is doing well, exactly as the company predicted.

The company's field tests indicated yields for VT tobacco would be higher than yields of Burley 21, the variety modified to produce VT. The modification involved changing a gene within the cell structure. No foreign genes were added.

The higher yield was predicted because the modified VT variety diverts plant energy from production of nicotine to production of leaves.

The company faced many challenges in getting VT tobacco from conception to field testing, but the most important test - public acceptance - lies ahead.