The genetically engineered pause that refreshes

Corn chips and sodas are just two examples of today's "Frankenfoods," says the author of "Dinner at the New Gene Caf

Published October 18, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

We're still waiting for extinct wooly mammoths to come back from the dead, and for that first human infant clone to creep us all out with its unearthly cry.

But impatient biopunks can take heart. There's one area of American life where fun with genes has already become not just a weird, sci-fi novelty of the future, but the norm. In fact, it's as ordinary as a bag of salty corn chips or a 32-oz. ice-cold soda.

In his new book, "Dinner at the New Gene Cafi," journalist Bill Lambrecht unravels the politics and polemics around genetically engineered food, already appearing in never-found-in-nature combinations on a plate near you.

A writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Lambrecht explains why the technology inspires protesters to rail against so-called Frankenfoods as a threat to the environment and public health, even as scientists claim they will one day help feed the world's hungry and give us foods that can cure disease.

To these food tinkers, the specter of a chocolate-chip cookie that could help prevent prostate cancer is not a guilty glutton's pipe dream, but a scientific possibility. And to Lambrecht it is rich fodder for a book that takes him as far afield as a Panamanian jungle to hang out with bioprospectors panning for rare plants and as close to home as his own backyard in Maryland where he grows genetically modified soybeans.

Lambrecht spoke with Salon about his views on the future of "genetically modified organisms" (GMOs) and why his own farming experiment didn't go exactly as planned.

Since there are no proven health risks yet from genetically modified foods, much less people getting sick or dying, why should we care about this? Why is it important?

There haven't been, in my estimation, credible threats or contentions about allergy or other health effects. But it seems to me that food, water and shelter are the most important parts of life. And that people might want to know what they're eating and where their food comes from. And there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to the environment when we are in effect planting new organisms in the soil.

As much as 70 percent of processed foods may already contain genetically modified foods in the U.S., according to one food industry spokesperson quoted in your book. How likely is it that people reading this have already eaten genetically modified foods?

Unless they restrict themselves to a diet of whole foods and by and large organic eating, there is a very good chance that the food they've consumed recently has had some ingredients derived from genetic engineering.

That would primarily be soybeans and corn, be it the chips they eat or the soda they consume with high fructose corn syrup or the cake mix or the muffins and until recently the French fries at fast-food outlets.

What is the purpose of these modifications? To fight insects and weeds or to enhance the quality and nutrition of the food?

The genetic applications so far have been almost solely for production ease. There is herbicide tolerance [sold in products such as "Roundup Ready"], which enables farmers to put heavy applications of proprietary chemicals directly over the top of plants without killing them, but killing the weeds.

That's the major application. Second is insect resistance in which a gene enables the plant to produce its own protein toxin that kills pests -- in effect turning the plant into a living insecticide.

Do you eat only organic food? Or do you think that fears about modified foods have been overblown?

I eat primarily whole foods, but not because of my fears about GMOs. I have more concerns about pesticides and chemicals than I do about GMOs, and if I'm hungry late some night and somebody sticks a bag of chips in front of me, I'm not about to pull my hand away at the prospect of there being a trace of modified ingredients in the bag.

Why haven't the chemical companies, like Monsanto, played up the fact that with plants genetically modified to be resistant to bugs, farmers would use fewer pesticides?

There was something schizophrenic on the part of the companies that had made their profits over the years selling chemicals to suddenly trumpet the value of the technologies in reducing chemicals. Had there been a little less concern about that conflict, they would have been able to make a better case earlier for the value of insect resistance in plants.

You visit these bioprospectors who scour jungles and rain forests looking for novel organisms to patent for medicinal use. How is it possible for a plant to be patented or thought of as intellectual property?

A patent would be for new use of a plant or for discovery of novel properties of the plant. There are a lot of people in rain forests around the world who wonder how something that they've used for centuries can suddenly be patented by someone in Washington, D.C., or New York.

One of the well-known cases has to do with Ayahuasca, which is a hallucinogen, which I actually saw growing in Ecuador. The patent on this by a Californian really enraged natives throughout South America and really became a cause-célèbre with regard to how their plants could be patented. In fact, they threatened his life. He was looking for anti-cancer properties and other types of medicinal purposes. He wasn't trying to market a hallucinogen. He insists that the plant was given to him and he did nothing untoward, but nonetheless his issue stands as one of the most prominent in this whole developing anger that we saw in the '90s to bioprospecting.

Bioprospectors are looking for enzymes, properties, genetic materials that might be engineered into crops and foods. For instance, I recall one bioprospector talking about how they were looking for populations that had very little incidence of prostate problems, and then trying to determine, for instance, what they eat, and if there might be any properties in those foods that are consumed heavily that could ward off prostate disease.

Parts of your book read like a case study of a massive public relations screw-up, with Monsanto as the poster child. Was the major blunder that the company didn't convince consumers that the products would actually benefit them, not just their own bottom line?

Even Monsanto's own pollster asserts that Monsanto left consumers out of the equation when introducing this technology in Europe. If they had calculated a strategy in which the first products of genetic modification had offered something for consumers [like health benefits], I think they would have avoided the turmoil that has engulfed this technology around the world.

Why doesn't the U.S. -- unlike Japan, Europe or Australia -- require the labeling of genetically engineered foods?

Mandatory labeling has been ordered in virtually every major democracy, except the U.S. and Canada. Americans have this abiding faith in science and progress, in the capacity of science to make life sweeter and more convenient that Europe, and indeed many countries, don't really have. In Japan, there was a recent outbreak of cases of mad cow disease, which erodes faith in science and regulation. In Europe, there's been the specter of mad cow that underlay the recent growing concern about GMOs that led to the de facto moratorium on them in 1998. Of course, GMOs have no relation to mad cow, but what mad cow did is that it undermined the trust not only in science, but in regulatory structures.

It sometimes seems that American consumers think their food grows in the back room of a grocery story. There's a disconnect between eating and where food comes from in this country that is not found in Europe and many parts of the world. In the U.S., we've become almost an island, and the sooner that companies realize that they're going to have accede to labeling, the quicker they will be able to get on to the types of genetic applications that they're promising, such as healthier food, even food that wards off disease.

Do you think that organic food producers and marketers are taking advantage of the controversy and uncertainty around genetically modified foods to increase market share and sell their products at a premium?

Organics have been growing in this country at a rate of more than 20 percent in recent years. There is no question that they are becoming a bigger part of the food supply. And I think that certainly they have attempted to make hay, so to speak, from the arrival of GMOs.

I do think too that there are some legitimate concerns, what they like to refer to as "genetic contamination." What happens when, say, the pollen from genetically modified corn blows onto a field of organic produce? Can the organic grower still claim to have grown her or his crops organically? There have been cases where they have had their wares returned after tests have shown genetically modified pollen. This is something that the U.S. government has not begun to contemplate. This is one of the issues that will need to be confronted in the coming years when we decide what is really organic and what is not, and what level of modified ingredients can still constitute "organic." These are thorny issues that cut to the heart of what organic farming is all about.

Do you think that's credible that there could be environmental problems because of genetically modified foods, and is there any way to test it? One of the ways that protesters denounce genetically modified foods is by saying something like, "We can't possibly know what effect this new organism will have on the ecosystem at large" -- sort of like saying, if a butterfly flaps its wings a hurricane happens somewhere else. Is it even possible to test for the effects on the environment at large, without releasing it into the environment?

There are some concerns with regard to the crossing of certain genetically modified crops with weedy relatives that might produce some superweeds -- that certainly is credible. I think what we're dealing with a lot here is the realm of the unknown, and because there has been so little public science involved up to now there is a lot of concern about what kinds of impact the vast acreages of genetically modified plants will have not only on the surrounding area but on the soils and indeed the ecosystem.

One of the ways in which the U.S. government has failed the consumers in this is that in thousands of test cases that the companies have conducted over the years, clinical trials with various kinds of modified plants, virtually every kind of plant has been tested; there's been very little requirement to maintain records or to develop more understanding on the impacts offsite.

This just hasn't been a part of the requirements of the clinical trials that are overseen by the Department of Agriculture. I think that the government has failed to develop the kind of information that they might use to counter the claims of the critics.

What did you learn from your own experiment growing genetically modified soybeans in your backyard?

I learned that even among fairly astute people, like those who live out in my part of the world in Southern Maryland, that apparently there are a lot of concerns about the unknown. I found that out the hard way.

When word got out in the neighborhood, and your plants mysteriously disappeared?

That's my only secret in the book. Yeah, that's what happened.

What is the next front in the genetically modified food controversy?

Right now virtually every public policy issue in America is knocked off the stage with the events of Sept. 11.

But I think that the politics of this will become more intense. With the Democrats controlling the Senate now, I think that we will be seeing a debate on labeling genetically modified foods. That's an issue I think will resonate with people whether or not they have concerns about health effects or the environmental ramifications of the technology. It's about the right to know.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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