Thomas Beller Smells a Rat (Or At Least A Fish)"
ELLE, July, 2000
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 issue?"
"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 vegetables.
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 profit."
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 worries her.
"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 planted 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 isn't software.
"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.
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Last Updated on 7/15/00
By Dan Ellis