New York Times: The Gene Foods Debate
Comes to the USA "What Took So Long?"

Feeding Frenzy
Americans are suddenly outraged about biotech food. What took so long?


The New York Times Sunday Magazine December 12, 1999

A sampling of slogans that Friends of the Earth protesters have been
chanting at recent demonstrations against genetically engineered food:

"Natural feast, not G.E. beast!"
"Trick or treat, trick or treat! No G.E. foods in what I eat!"
"Take a page from Mary Shelley, no Frankenfoods in my belly!"
"Frankenfoods on my table: take them off until they're labeled."
"Hey hey, ho ho, Frankenfoods have got to go!"

Photograph by J. Scott Applewhite


Gazing nervously across the Atlantic at European outrage over genetically
modified food, industry and government leaders have been quick to reach
for words like "hysteria" and "madness." How else to explain the
uprooting of biotech crops in English fields? Or naked protesters in
Rome pelting American cabinet secretaries with genetically engineered
("G.E.") soybeans? It's irrational, surely, to reject out of hand such a
shiny new technology, especially one that comes with the seal of
approval of American regulators (the vaunted Food and Drug
Administration, no less).

Stylistically, too, the European protests seem so old. There they go,
those Brits, indulging their Luddite fear of the new, actually taking
seriously a prince (a prince!) who declares that this technology lacks
the sanction of God. And the French! Hopelessly sentimental, urinating
in protest on shipments of high-tech seed and nattering on about
"culinary dispossession" as if this were 1968. "Europe seems to be
gripped right now by a collective madness," Senator Richard Lugar
suggested during a visit to Germany last summer. "And we don't want that
to spread to the rest of the world."

Since then, of course, the "madness" has spread; witness the events in
Seattle. In a global economy, protest moves as easily across borders as

In recent months, activists dressed as monarch butterflies have popped
up in London, Chicago and Washington (as well as Seattle), reminders of
a famous recent study at Cornell that found biotech corn may pose a
threat to the beloved insect. A cliche of chaos theory holds that the
flutter of a butterfly's wing in, say, Timbuktu, can set off a hurricane
half a world away. So it was with these butterflies in Ithaca, who moved
the biotech story from the business pages to the front pages. For most
Americans, it came as news that there were already some 20 million acres
of biotech corn planted in the United States. You mean we're already
eating this stuff? And how come nobody thought of doing these tests 20
million acres ago?

Michael Pollan is a contributing writer for the magazine. He recently
received an award from Reuters and the World Conservation Union for
"Playing God in the Garden," which appeared here in October 1998.


The wonder is that it has taken so long for the political debate about
G.E. food to reach our shores. One theory about why Europeans got so
hysterical so quickly about G.E. food is that they lack a trusted
regulator like the F.D.A. protecting their food supply. Sounds rational
enough, until you discover that the F.D.A.'s "regulation" of biotech is
voluntary; companies decide for themselves whether to submit a new
biotech food to the agency for review. In other words, the agency's
oversight of biotech food has been based less on law and science than on

Last year, the Center for Food Safety, a public-interest group, sued the
F.D.A., charging that its 1992 rules covering biotech food were illegal
because the agency had failed to seek public comment or conduct a
thorough scientific review. The agency's response was alarming: since we
have no regulations concerning biotech food, they can't be illegal. Just
last month, seven years after first approving G.E. food, the F.D.A. held
its first public hearings about it.

The industry and its regulators evidently didn't think we needed to be
informed that our entire food supply was about to be transformed. After
all, Americans are by now so far removed from the farm that we know
remarkably little--at least compared with the Europeans--about the
processes by which food finds its way to our plates. Food? That comes
from the supermarket. So who was going to notice or care if one more
high-tech link was quietly added to a food chain already so long and
intricate? We are the people who eat Olestra, after all.

Labeling was rejected out of hand--too cumbersome and too risky. For
who, given the choice, would reach for the spuds with the biotech label?

Right there, in the produce section, lurks the question that goes to the
heart of what it means to be rational or hysterical about biotech food.
What if I approach the matter as rationally as possible and decide which
vegetables to buy based on a strict "cost-benefit analysis"? First, I'll
need a little information--a label (which we may yet get: last month a
bill was introduced in Congress calling for the labeling of biotech
food). Next, I'll need to know what benefits these novel foods offer.
According to the industry that makes them, today's biotech crops (like
Round-Up Ready soybeans that resist herbicides, and potatoes and corn
that produce their own pesticide) offer plenty of advantages to farmers.
They acknowledge, however, that the benefits to consumers are
negligible. The food is no cheaper, safer or tastier.

Now add to this calculus what we know about the risks. None to my health
have been established, but then, no one's looked very long or hard,
either. So: probably safe, but no guarantee. As for risks to the
environment, several have already been identified--the threat to
butterflies, the prospect of superweeds and superbugs.

The cost-benefit analysis seems clear: I'd have to be crazy to buy this

The industry realizes that, in its case, an educated consumer is not its
best customer, so lately it has adopted a new tack--suggesting my
produce-aisle calculus is shortsighted and selfish. That's because the
real benefits of genetically engineered food will be reaped in the
future by hungry people in the third world. Some day, "golden rice" will
nourish the malnourished and bananas will be re-engineered to deliver

The industry, in other words, is asking consumers to do something it has
yet to do itself: Forget rational self-interest, and act on faith. Maybe
Monsanto and the others are sincere. So bring on the golden rice! And
what will they say about this epiphany in the aisles of my supermarket
or on Wall Street? A word leaps to mind: hysterical.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company