Eating In the Dark: America's Experiment With Genetically Engineered Foods




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What's for Dinner?
'Eating in the Dark: America's Experiment With Genetically Engineered Food'
by Kathleen Hart

Reviewed by Nicols Fox Sunday, June 16, 2002; Page BW09

America's Experiment With Genetically Engineered Food
By Kathleen Hart
Pantheon. 338 pp. $25

Many Americans are either unaware or unconcerned that a high proportion of what they eat -- estimates run as high as 60 percent of processed food -- contains genetically modified ingredients. Europe and Japanese consumers, on the other hand, will have none of it, and retailers overseas were quick to reject genetically engineered (GE) imports and alert consumers to foods containing these ingredients. Some large American food producers prepare GE-free foods for Europe without giving Americans that option.

This American nonchalance tends to be viewed from abroad with a mixture of amusement and amazement. As Alan Simpson, a British member of Parliament, said, "From the European perspective, it's almost as if we've looked in awe at what's happening in the U.S., either as an act of madness or with huge admiration that the society is willing to offer its entire population as a human laboratory."

Is this cautious stance abroad merely a cultural difference, or do Europeans know something we don't know? In Eating in the Dark, journalist Kathleen Hart suggests it is the latter. In 1997, to find out why America was virtually indifferent to the inclusion in its food supply of millions of bushels of gene-altered corn and soy beans -- corn designed to produce its own pesticide and soy designed to endure drenching with herbicides -- she went to England. There she found a lively debate over the issue -- in stark contrast to the resounding silence on the subject here. Back in the United States, she pieced together a panoramic image of a powerful industry, an easily influenced bureaucracy, decisions that left the introduction of these foods under- regulated, safety studies that were missing or of questionable relevance, and a seduced or sleepy press -- all of which left consumers under-informed.

Hart's book is a careful documentation of that seemingly overnight journey from sweet corn to scary corn -- which she attributes to the artfulness with which these products were quietly slipped into the food supply. She climbs the mountainous layers of industry PR for a clearer view of a process that to some represents a fantastic future and to others an unmitigated disaster.

The technique of transferring genetic material from one organism to another is now almost routine, although the results are not entirely dependable, completely predictable or guaranteed to be stable. In fact, scientists tell Hart that the premise that one gene equals one protein equals one trait is vastly oversimplified and needs revision. Genetic material will react synergistically with what is around it, which accounts for the unpredictability. Scientists found that cows eating Roundup Ready soybeans produced milk with slightly more fat content than did those eating ordinary soybeans -- an unexpected consequence. The question that has not been answered -- or even asked - is what consuming the same soy does to humans.

It will surprise some to learn that the Food and Drug Administration had not required notification that companies planned to introduce these foods precisely because it didn't consider them new foods. (It now proposes to mandate notification, although not testing.) The criterion has been that if a product was "substantially equivalent" to the traditional food, it was acceptable under the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) standard, meaning that if a tomato looked and tasted like a tomato it was, essentially, a tomato, whether it contained genetic material from a flounder or a firefly. Testing is done by the companies themselves, and there is no foolproof test to detect potential allergens in proteins that humans have never before encountered.

This hands-off approach was a boon to corporations that envisioned a fabulous future for themselves, dominating food production worldwide with patented seeds that farmers would have to buy anew each year. When the engineered crop was tied to an herbicide produced by the same company, it was a marriage made on Wall Street. Resistance to this notion in Europe and beyond came as a rude surprise.

Hart reconstructs the industry strategy -- which was to deny that these foods could possibly be unsafe, deny that they were substantially different and then deny that they could be segregated from traditional varieties within the food supply. Attempts in the United States to label foods containing genetically engineered ingredients have been successfully foiled by fierce lobbying. Yet she is sufficiently even-handed in her treatment to make one believe that the contest between those who promote and those who resist genetically engineered foods has been even-handed as well. Only a whiff of the intense political and professional pressures -- the vilification of those scientists who speak out against the process, the silencing of opponents -- makes it into her pages.

The industry's strategy was likely a stalling tactic. As wind and insects do their pollination work, organic farmers are finding their crops contaminated with these altered genes, and multi-herbicide- resistant superweeds are growing in Canada near fields of genetically modified canola. As genes spread, segregating GE from non-GE foods will undoubtedly become even more of a challenge.

It has always been recognized by proponents and opponents, however, that if something went wrong with a genetically modified food, it would go terribly wrong. What if it turned out to be toxic and ended up being widely distributed throughout the food supply?

StarLink corn was never approved for human consumption because there were sufficient hints in certain characteristics of its unique protein that it might cause trouble. The FDA limited its use to animal feed. No single event has been more revealing of the vulnerability of the U.S. food supply, and the inadequacy of recall, than its introduction, for StarLink found its way easily into supplies of corn meant for humans, a story Hart relates in detail. Our vast and efficient processing and distribution system then enabled StarLink to contaminate taco shells, tortillas and corn chips across the country. Allergic responses to StarLink have been well documented, yet even now this corn's unique genetic material continues to show up in tests. It could have been much worse. Nevertheless, says Hart, although some major food companies are backing away from genetically altered ingredients, organic farmers complain that it may soon be nearly impossible to grow, buy or sell uncontaminated corn and soybeans.

The problem is that the industry went too far too fast. The present techniques for creating these novel foods are relatively primitive. Approaches now in the research stage would re-sort and reshuffle an organism's own genetic material rather than introduce genetic material from a foreign organism -- a far safer proposition and one likely to work better in any case. In the meantime, how our bodies, and especially our children's bodies, will react over the long term to these novel foods will be an interesting experiment. "Yet no one has signed a consent form," says Hart.

To read Hart's book is to experience a growing sense of alarm and outrage. Precisely how much risk should we be asked to take on for the sake of corporate profit? Or is this something else that patriotism requires?

Nicols Fox is the author of "Spoiled: Why Our Food Is Making Us Sick" and, forthcoming this fall, "Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art and Individual Lives."

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