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Food Fight

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 11/15/2000

As you Taco Bell aficionados know by now, a genetically modified animal feed called StarLink found its way into taco shells and other products even though it had not been approved for human consumption. While this one product has created scandal, our grocery shelves are lined top to bottom with products containing genetically modified foods, usually corn, soy, or canola (rapeseed)--biotech ingredients that aren't labeled and that, according to critics, have not been sufficiently tested for human allergens, toxicity, or long-range environmental impacts.

It's been estimated that 70 percent of the processed food found in your supermarket is likely to contain genetically modified ingredients. Greenpeace publishes a long list of name-brand items that are likely, though not necessarily verified, to contain biotech ingredients, including such everyday favorites as Thomas' English Muffins, Pepperidge Farm Mint Milanos, Kellogg's Corn Flakes, lemon-lime Gatorade, and Beech Nut baby foods (see for the entire list). While there's no scientific proof that these products will cause problems for humans or the environment, critics argue that there's also no proof that they won't.

In other words, the Taco Bell scandal is only one piece of a very large and complicated picture pitting consumer groups and environmental watchdogs against multinational biotechnology firms (Monsanto, Aventis, etc.) and regulatory agencies, with struggling independent farmers caught somewhere in the mix. For a few years now, I have vaguely been aware of the outlines of this larger picture. So far, American protesters against genetically engineered foods are not nearly as prominent (or, perhaps, not as prominently covered in the mainstream press) as their European and Japanese counterparts. In the wake of the StarLink revelation, maybe we'll be hearing more on this vital issue.

I've had to fight a kind of internal battle to force myself to learn more. On one hand, I have lots of reasons to be concerned about unknown DNA-level additives (e.g., fish genes in tomato plants) in the food I eat. I'm a highly allergic person (my eyes start to water if I just think about cats) who's ended up in the emergency room three times over the years after experiencing severe, life-threatening anaphylactic reactions to some mystery substance I've eaten. (Through a painful and protracted trial-and-error process, I've managed to narrow down the likely culprits to one or more of the following: eggplant, reduced-calorie turkey-bacon, and some kind of dicey fry oil used in the lower echelons of the short-order universe.) On the other hand, I also have an intellectual allergy to the hyperbole, hysteria, and groupthink that sometimes accompany grass-roots protest movements, no matter how sympathetic I am to the causes themselves. With this particular issue, I'd been harboring a low-level suspicion that the reaction against biotechnology was fueled by anti-science bias--that protesters were distant cousins to the people who've made creationism the only teachable "science" in Kansas.

It was useful for me, then, to attend a recent conference on the issue and learn that there are apparently some very thoughtful, nonhysterical, and ultimately pro-science people in this movement. On Oct. 28, the Maryland-based group Consumers Against Food Engineering (CAFE) held a one-day gathering at Goucher College. I was only able to attend for a few hours in the morning, but I heard some really interesting speakers with a variety of perspectives.

Some of them, such as Chris Bedford of the Sierra Club's Maryland chapter, discussed the broader political and ethical issues involved when huge profit-oriented companies screw around with the basic genetic makeup of our food and feed it to unwitting consumers. Others addressed more practical issues, such as the ongoing effort to get these foods labeled, properly tested, and stringently regulated. As with all political speech, there were moments of hyperbole--a reference to President Jefferson's idea that "independent farmers are the key to our democracy" led to a somewhat untethered discussion of the entire haves-vs.-have-nots power structure of the nation--but there was not much in the way of hysteria or anti-science bias. State Delegate Dan Morhaim (D-Baltimore County), a physician by training, represented the general tenor of the event when he noted that "former gospel truths [often] have turned out not to be the case." In this case, the "gospel truth" is the blithe pronouncement by profit-driven megaliths and lackadaisical federal agencies that genetically modified foods are safe.

CAFE makes some broad claims against the GMO (genetically modified organisms) industry in its platform, but I have no independent knowledge that any of these claims are true. For one, CAFE counters the industry position that genetic engineering is merely an extension of traditional breeding methods, arguing instead that gene-splicing techniques are radically novel enough to pose all sorts of unforeseen risks. It also claims that the vast majority of the 70 million acres of GMO crops grown in the United States today have not been engineered for taste, nutrition, or any other consumer benefit, but to tolerate high doses of insecticides and chemical fertilizers. In the coming months, I plan to look into some of these rather damning assessments, and will let you know what I find.

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