AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com
Date: Jul 13 2000 12:56:39 EDT
Subject: ELLE article in full
I'm sorry for not providing context before. Below is the full text of the
ridiculous Elle article I mentioned earlier. It seems like it came
straight from a British tabloid.
The author, targeting the educated, affluent women readers of ELLE,
suggests a range of concerns unbalanced by any responsible commentary.
Write ELLE TODAY, send your note via FAX, EMAIL or SNAIL MAIL as noted:
Elaina Richardson, Editor
FAX: 212 489-4216
email: ElleLetters@hfmmag.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
1633 Broadway, 44th Floor
New York, NY 10019-6708
GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT
WITHOUT WARNING, THE AMERICAN DIET HAS BEEN INFILTRATED BY DOZENS OF
GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS
THOMAS BELLER SMELLS A RAT (OR AT LEAST A FISH)
One day last summer I found myself vigorously defending America to an
English friend of mine, who was vigorously attacking it. The point of
conflict, generally speaking, was food. She had just flown in from London,
where that day's front-page headlines concerned genetically modified food
or, as the English like to call it, "Frankenfood." She stood over The New
York Times, furiously pointing at a tiny article on the same subject
buried on page seven, a footnote to the day's news.
"What's the matter with you people?" she said. "Are you so committed to
being ostriches that you don't want to admit that this is a serious
"Nothing is the matter with us people," I said rather indignantly (and
patriotically)."You people are just paranoid." Yes, I admitted, the ozone
is going to pieces, and sea turtles are becoming extinct, and I've heard
they are doing strange things with tomatoes. But if you get caught up in
every one of these causes, you won't be able to walk out the door without
thinking you've caught a fatal disease.
My argument, basically, was "Live a little!" When you pull off the road at
a truck-stop diner, enjoy your cheeseburger. Life will be better, if not
longer, if you're not so cautious.
The matter lay dormant in my mind until later that summer when I attended
a dinner with some people- mostly Europeans- who were very agitated about
genetically engineered food.
"They're splicing rat genes into tomatoes!" someone exclaimed. Fed up, I
burst out, "Can't you talk about some thing more important, like... the
Middle East!" Not that I have ever been all that passionate about foreign
policy, but at least it involved tangible human lives as opposed to
A man to my left then spent an insufferably long time explaining to me
this awful biotech creation called the "Terminator" seed, along with other
genetically engineered food worries. "The suicide rate amongst farmers in
India is at an all-time high," the man claimed, "because the way they have
survived for generations has been tampered with for the sake of corporate
I sat there unable to offer any expertise on the farmers in India, or on
farming of any kind. It dawned on me that my comprehension of farming
extended to my ability to go to a farmer's market and buy something from a
person who presumably grew it. I'm aware that farming has been
corporatized and industrialized and that the American farmer has been on
the wane for a long time. But I am also aware that I hardly think about
these things: Food is something that comes from restaurants and
supermarkets and all-night delis. My hostess passed the salad bowl and
sneered, "Would you like some rat with your tomato?"
A crisp fall day, three months later. My friend Joanna returns to her desk
with a brown bag and sits down for lunch. Out of the bag come a soda, a
sandwich, and a bag of Frito-Lay SunChips.
She opens the bag.
"Don't do it," I say.
"Do what?" she says with a distinct look of impatience. Her hand is poised
above the open bag.
"That has genetically modified food in it," I say. She looks at me like
I'm out of my mind, eats some chips, and says: "Is that a bad thing?"
I had become something of an authority on biotech food, or least compared
to most of the people I knew. Genetically modified corn, soy, and potatoes
now account for up to half of the crops produced in this country. And
though rat genes are not being spliced into tomatoes, I'm happy to report,
a few years back, one company field-tested a tomato containing a flounder
gene, meaning such a tomato might one day hit the market (since flounder
do well in cold water, the tomatoes would be frost resistant). Basically,
the stuff most of Europe is calling "Frankenfood" we in America call
chips. Or baby food. Or ketchup. Or the soy sauce we dip our sushi into.
Or about half the products on the supermarket shelf.
We've all read about some pretty extravagant experiments involving DNA and
gene splicing-Dolly, the cloned sheep, for example- but we thought such
activities were confined to scientific laboratories. In fact, the results
are on our tables. All this races through my mind as Joanna sits there
with her bag of SunChips. "Don't you want to know what it is, exactly,
that you're putting in your body?" I say.
She eats some more chips, says "No," and hands me the bag, on which is
printed a toll-free number you can call with questions. I dial. A nice
woman picks up the phone, and, when I ask if there is any genetically
modified food in SunChips, puts me on hold.
While holding, I become sorely tempted to eat a SunChip myself. I take one
out of the bag and inspect it. A crispy little shard. What harm could it
do? I pop one in my mouth. Delicious. While I'm on hold, abysmal soft rock
croons in my ear. In the end, I'm told that someone will have to call me
back. No one calls me back.
Thus begins an absurd ritual: Every day that week I buy some SunChips, get
put on hold, and proceed to devour them while waiting to find out if they
are bad for me. I buy the "small" single-serving bag, which had
mysteriously ballooned to the size of a throw pillow a few years ago.
Finally a woman from the Frito Lay Customer Hotline retums my my call. "I
just wanted to know if there is any genetically modified food in these
SunChips," I ask.
"To tell you the truth, I don't know," says the woman. "There's no way to
tell. About half of the corn crop is genetically modified, and we buy from
various contractors. Whether a given batch has genetically modified
components or not varies from one to the next."
She is a nice woman, a nutritionalist, and I ask her if biotech food
"Not really, not on a health level," she says. "I don't think they should
have sneaked it into the food supply without telling any one. But for the
most part, the only thing I'm not comfortable with is the soy crop."
The soy crop?
"It's Roundup Ready. Roundup is an extremely powerful herbicide," she
says. "Basically, whatever you put it on will die and stay dead for a long
time. If you want to edge your driveway, you use Roundup, and nothing
will grow there. And what they've done with the soy crop is splice it with
a gene that makes it resistant to Roundup, so the soy crop can be sprayed
with the herbicide. It's just something I'm not that comfortable with. It
seems a little..
I half expect her to say fishy, but she just trails off.
A month later, something interesting happens on the subject of genetically
modified food: The outcry that had for years been a thunderous roar in
Europe begins to show signs of transplanting itself here. It's an odd
feeling to take the cultural temperature on an issue and notice, against
all odds, that the temperature is rising.
Even The New York Times, the famous "ostrich" of my friend's rant,
suddenly begins running front-page reports on the emerging biotech-food
industry. In Europe, the media coverage had followed public outrage. In
America, it seems to be the other way around. And stoking that outrage
becomes a priority for environmental groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra
Club, who support full-page ads saying that genetically modified corn
pollen could be fatal to the Monarch butterfly. In the face of growing
public concern, biotech giant Monsanto announces that it will not market
the "Terminator" seed. That guy who had been lecturing me about the perils
of biotech food was onto something. Raising concern at dinner parties -
and elsewhere - can produce tangible results in the marketplace.
Then, in December, comes the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle.
Just before demonstrators there rally against globalization, Third World
debt, and genetically engineered food (among other issues), the FDA holds
one of three public hearings on its policy on biotech food in Washington,
DC. Protesters build a thirty-foot ear of corn out of milk jugs and paint
on it SAFETY NOW. People carry signs that read UNLABELED, UNTESTED, AND
YOU'RE EATING IT and MUTANT CORN. Some of them wear butterfly wings.
Apparently, the seed of public concern has drifted across the Atlantic and
itself firmly into the consciousness of America's alternative culture.
So what we're faced with now, in supermarkets across the land, is not much
less absurd than those futuristic visions of food from '70s movies. On one
end of the spectrum there is Woody Allen's Sleeper, in which he stumbles
onto a field of giant vegetables and is shortly seen absconding across the
field carrying a banana the size of himself. On the other end of the
spectrum, there is the grim vision of Soylent Green, in which Charlton
Heston makes his way through a paper strewn city so overpopulated it can
barely house or feed its inhabitants. The people get their sustenance from
a kind of supercracker the size and shape of a Wheat Thin, which
miraculously contains all the nutrition of a day's worth of healthy
eating. At the end of
the movie, Heston discovers that these crackers are made from the remains
of dead bodies.
The movie is prescient up to a point. One day soon, an apple a day will
literally keep the doctor away. Antibiotics will be added to eggs; when
you have a headache, you'll reach for a banana. Already, farm animals are
being turned into "pharm" animals, bred to be living chemical factories.
The bottom line is this: Should you care that the salmon you're served for
dinner grew to adult size in twice the normal speed, thanks to DNA from an
entirely different species? And if this bothers you (as it does me, though
I should also point our that it is not, at the time of this writing,
dinnertime), is it out of concern for your own health, or out of concern
that some freaky fish could escape its little genetically modified growing
pen, mate with a giant clam, and the next thing you know, we'll all be
marveling that those Japanese horror movies turned out to be so accurate?
The answer to these questions has a lot to do with how you feel about the
role of technology in your life. Food, like everything else, is slowly
being integrated into the technological revolution. What was once a seed
that sprang from nature is now a piece of intellectual property. But food
"Business and consumer, nothing in between- that's what created this boom
in the '90s," said a friend of mine. "Maybe that model works well for an
Internet company" he said, "but I don't know if I want to have the latest
research-untested, unregulated-in my mouth."
Personally, I view technology as a positive force. It has given us the
longest-sustained economic expansion since World War II. So how do you
complain about one aspect of the tech revolution without sounding like a
Luddite? How do you challenge the new order of things and still manage to
enjoy its fruits- genetically modified or not?
Biotech food is only the most obvious and viscerally personal
manifestation of the speed with which technology is changing our lives,
and our world. Nearly a year after the subject first came to my attention,
I'm still asking questions. In my mind, this is the most patriotic thing a
citizen can do. And maybe by questioning, we'll preserve that other great
American ideal: a choice.