San Francisco Chronicle
May 24, 1999
Around the corner from the biotech trade show I attended last week in Seattle, counterculture activists staged their own tiny gathering, ``Biodevastation.'' Guys with Rastafarian hair and women in hemp skirts gathered in a church to proselytize against bioengineered crops.
The short walk between those two shows encapsulated the yawning gulf between the believers and naysayers in agricultural biotechnology.
The division has been most evident in Europe, where authorities in several countries have slowed or halted the import of genetically modified seeds or foodstuffs for fear of health or environmental risks.
The controversy also flared in the United States last week after scientists at Cornell University reported on a laboratory experiment involving a strain of corn that has been modified to carry certain insecticide genes. The study showed that pollen from the plants could be toxic to Monarch butterfly larvae.
The leading biotech trade group, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, returned scientific fire, noting that lab experiments don't equate to the real world, where Monarch caterpillars don't normally habituate cornfields.
And so these arguments go, each side touting its science and accusing the other side of myopia. But the butterfly spat and the broader controversy in Europe aren't about science or safety as much as they are about two wholly incompatible views of agriculture.
I caught a whiff of the counterculture view at the Seattle church where the biodevastated spread their literature on blankets and card tables. Author Brewster Kneen was there selling ``Farmaggeddon''
(New Society Publishers, British Columbia), his new polemic linking bioengineered seeds with mechanized agriculture, world trade and other bugaboos of those who wish for a time when farming was less an industry than a lifestyle.
By coincidence, I spent that night with a friend who tracks sales of farm equipment, seeds and agricultural commodities for Wall Street. We talked about how genetically modified crops and computer-driven farm machines are just two of the factors driving the trend toward fewer, larger farms that produce more food with less labor. Farmageddon's worst fears turn out to be Wall Street's fondest wishes.
In this agricultural clash, genetically modified crops become a convenient flashpoint. They're new enough to cause suspicion, even among people who don't normally get political about the food supply.
But I doubt that Americans are ready to question a system of agriculture that has produced the cheapest foodstuffs in the world. As a society, we've pretty much said goodbye to the land and hello to the supermarket and warehouse checkout line. We like our food shrink- wrapped and on sale, and if that means genetic seed, million-dollar tractors and Brobdingnagian farms, my bet is a majority would opt to sacrifice the occasional butterfly.
In Europe, however, the vote might tilt the other way. At last week's industry trade show in Seattle, I sat through two hours of the dullest seminar I've ever endured just so I could hear European industry, government and environmental experts explain why people on that side of the pond seem so exercised about this genetic harvest.
If I heard correctly, attitudes in Europe have far less to do with science or safety than with national pride and economics. Many European countries still subsidize small farmers. Suspicion of genetic crops is bound up with a certain resentment of American-style agriculture. Even the way Europeans buy food is different. The French, for instance, still favor local markets even if they charge higher prices.
All of this suggests that the resistance to bioengineered foods in Europe is unlikely to become popular in the United States. The ground here just isn't as fertile, you might say. Likewise, I suspect that European acceptance of such crops will depend on gradual changes in the whole food economy, starting with the farmer, under pressure to compete with his efficient American cousin.
Opinions are always influenced by experience, so perhaps I should make a confession. I'm a reporter with a past. Once upon a time, I lived in the woods and harbored dreams of self-sufficiency. A silly move, to be sure, for a kid raised in Brooklyn.
Even now, after I've doubled back on a metropolitan path, I harbor quaint notions. Just before I flew up to Seattle, I finished planting a small corn bed in my back yard.
I spent the Sunday before the show spading the soil into rows and carefully transplanting the sprouts that I'd raised from seeds. No, not the genetically engineered variety, but heirloom seeds in a pretty package.
Even as I enjoyed the warm sun on my neck and the moist soil in my fingers, I knew I was performing a foolish and uneconomic act. Why that whole day's work surely couldn't yield the same rate of return as if I'd made a five-minute phone call, adjusting the asset allocation in my 401(k).
Still, in September, if all goes well, I might harvest a bushel of corn. Meanwhile, I'll derive whatever pleasure comes from watching butterflies land.
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Last Updated on 5/25/99
By Karen Lutz