Eating in the Dark: America's Experiment with Genetically Engineered Food

Eating in the Dark: America's Experiment with Genetically Engineered Food

by Kathleen Hart

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"Most Americans Eat Genetically Modified food on a daily basis. Yet many of us are barely aware that we're eating something that has been altered; food labels do not include information on ingredients that have been genetically modified, and the subject has received surprisingly little media coverage." "Even as genetically engineered foods spread throughout America,… See more details below


"Most Americans Eat Genetically Modified food on a daily basis. Yet many of us are barely aware that we're eating something that has been altered; food labels do not include information on ingredients that have been genetically modified, and the subject has received surprisingly little media coverage." "Even as genetically engineered foods spread throughout America, most consumers abroad have refused to eat them. Opposition to genetically engineered food is now beginning to surface in the United States, where biotechnology is becoming a major issue for the new century." Eating in the Dark tells the story of how these new foods, most of which are engineered either to produce or to withstand heavy doses of pesticides, quietly entered America's food supply. Kathleen Hart explores the potential of this new technology to enhance nutrition and cut farmers' expenses. She also reveals the process by which regulatory agencies decided to allow the biotechnology industry to sell its products without first submitting them to thorough testing for possible long-term threats to consumer health and the environment.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
In 1998, just as the battle over genetically modified food was heating up, the Monsanto C.E.O. Robert Shapiro—one of the men who represented O. J. Simpson—was struck in the face by a tofu cream pie hurled by enraged eco-protesters in San Francisco. Shapiro has moved on from Monsanto, the chemical giant that created Agent Orange and that, since the nineteen-eighties, has become a powerhouse in transgenic crop technology—the practice of inserting foreign genes (from, say, fireflies or chicken) into corn, potatoes, and rice. In Food, Inc., the veteran reporter Peter Pringle offers a refreshingly measured look at this brave new world of “gene guns,” Flavr Savr tomatoes, contaminated taco shells, lax regulatory oversight, dwindling crop diversity, rapacious “biopirates,” and geneticists toiling in grenade-proof greenhouses (opponents have been known to resort to tougher tactics than tofu pies). It’s possible that the pie that hit Shapiro was created from modified soybeans, which are eaten by millions of people every day.

The potential upside of genetically modified foods is huge: making pesticides obsolete, creating huge yields, and ending world hunger. But the opposition from environmentalists and creationists—fuelled by superstition as much as science—has focussed on the potential for disaster, such as new human allergies. Kathleen Hart’s Eating in the Dark is a concerned-citizen approach to the ongoing controversy that cites such respected scientific journals as Lancet for support. Whether these so-called “Frankenfoods” lead to a well-fed Utopia or to an ecological Armageddon, the G.M. revolution is, at least, helping to boost sales of organic food. (Mark Rozzo)
Publishers Weekly
If we are what we eat, then we may be ingesting our way toward a sick new world: that's the gist of Hart's cautionary examination of how "Frankenstein food" genetically modified food, particularly corn- and soy-based products has come to fill grocery store shelves in the past decade. Hart, a health and environment writer for 15 years, is aghast that produce modified by biotech companies is not labeled. She is bewildered that consumer resistance has been much slower to develop in the United States than in Japan and in Europe, where test fields of modified sugar beets and oilseed have been destroyed by scythe-wielding "croppers." She worries about the impact of altered plants on pollinating bees and butterflies, and she fears the long-term health consequences of an uninformed and unsuspecting population becoming guinea pigs for an untested agricultural technology. For all her concerns, however, Hart is no one-note alarmist; the book is admirable for its exhaustive, balanced presentation and in its grasp of the science and the politics propelling the biotech industry. Some readers may find it a little dry. There are scattered colorful quotes from British protestors and angry American farmers, and there's the tale of a San Francisco woman who may have had a life-threatening allergic reaction to modified corn, but otherwise Hart's book is short on human-interest hooks and the storytelling punch carried by last fall's less fact-laden but more sprightly Lords of the Harvest, by Daniel Charles. (May 14) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
The issue of genetically engineered food is very controversial and Kathleen Hart's experience as a science and health writer makes her well qualified to deal with its complexity. While it is apparent that she is not convinced that such techniques and manipulation of America's food are entirely safe, she presents all arguments and points of view. Her thesis is that not enough testing and public education was done before the processes were introduced and that there may be many unintended consequences of altering the genes of basic foodstuffs such as corn and soybeans. She gives many examples of possible human allergies and poisoning of wildlife, including monarch butterflies, which feed on milkweed often covered by the pollen of affected corn. The scientific material is presented in such a way that any high school student or adult who has taken chemistry and biology can understand it. Overall, the book covers a topic that most informed Americans should understand as it affects us all. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Vintage, 344p. notes. index., Ages 15 to adult.
—Nola Theiss
Library Journal
Public debate still rages regarding the quality and safety of the genetic engineering (GE) of food. Proponents believe that GE foods are safe and have the potential to decrease insect and disease damage to crops, improve nutritional quality, and provide an abundant source of food for the world's exploding population. Critics contend that consumers are being used as testing grounds for new foods that are produced with no government oversight, no research studies, and little knowledge about the effects on consumers and the environment. Hart and Pence both present fact-filled accounts of what works, what went wrong, and what lessons have been learned regarding GE. Hart, a journalist who writes on health and the environment, analyzes the topic via interviews with farmers, scientists, politicians, industry representatives, and officials from countries that have banned the import of GE foods. She explains how biotech corporations use their clout by pressuring the EPA and FDA to stifle testing and regulation. Pence (Flesh of My Flesh: The Ethics of Cloning Humans), a medical ethicist at the University of Alabama, categorizes the issue into four perspectives: naturalism, scientific progressivism, egalitarianism, and libertarian globalism. Although Pence agrees that more research and sound policy is important, he has little patience for the motives of environmentalists, antitechnology activists, and proponents of organic farming, who he claims are deceiving the public with erroneous information and bad science. Pence's chapter on mad cow disease and the public-health consequences of the livestock industry's careless use of biotechnology and lax safety and inspection standards is particularly disturbing. Both books offer a good analysis of the issues in this complex debate; choose Hart if you want journalistic reportage and Pence if you prefer a scholarly and scientific approach. Those who want more commentary regarding the opinions of all players in this complex debate should read Bill Lambrecht's Dinner at the New Gene Caf or Martin Teitel and others' Genetically Engineered Food. For nonpolitical discourse on the achievements of genetic engineering through the ages, don't overlook Sue Hubbell's Shrinking the Cat. Irwin Weintraub, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Washington-based journalist Hart, who has tracked the genetic altering of grains and plants for years, argues that this branch of biotechnology has in effect used American consumers as the subjects of perhaps the biggest food experiment ever. There may not be too many simple truths about injecting genes from, say, spider venom or alfalfa mold into a soybean or canola seed except that, weird as it sounds, it can work. It has been just this kind of splicing of foreign genes on a mass scale, Hart recounts, that has resulted in corn that generates its own pesticides internally or soybeans that can stand up with no ill effects to regular dousings of the world's leading herbicide, Monsanto Company's Roundup. But has it worked so well under tacit encouragement from the US government, she asks, that it now poses a threat to the public? The bias against probing for potential problems is so pronounced at the regulatory level as well as in the scientific establishment, Hart concludes, that some of the simplest questions about gene-altered foods "remain not just unanswered but unasked." Food products containing bioengineered ingredients are so labeled in every developed country but here, and officials overseas, the author warns, find it increasingly difficult to understand the US government's assumption that genetic engineering poses no unique risks to the food supply. The occasional "low-probability event," like the illegal use of gene-altered StarLink corn (approved only as animal food) to make taco shells that apparently made some people sick two years ago, barely dents US public awareness. The bottom line: Even if regulators tighten up and gene splicers back off, contamination of seed stocks bybiotech variants is already so pervasive that so-called organic growers in the US can no longer guarantee the purity of their products. Chillingly evocative of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
From the Publisher
“Panoramic . . .evenhanded. . . .To read Hart's book is to experience a growing sense of alarm and outrage.” —The Washington Post Book World

“This book lays bare a scandal bigger than Enron.” —Bill McKibben

“Important . . . Incredibly timely . . . The surprise of this well-reported book is that so many genetically modified foods, with uncertain long-term effects, are already being loaded into America’s grocery carts every day.” —Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“This in-depth look at genetically modified foods is fascinating.” —Natural Health

“Chillingly evocative of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.” —Kirkus

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Pantheon Books
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Chapter 1


In the early morning hours of Sunday, September 28, 1997, a small band of citizens crept into a field in County Carlow, fifty miles south of Dublin. Illuminated by the glow of yellow lights from a nearby industrial plant, they set about slashing and digging up every genetically modified sugar beet that had been planted by Monsanto on the one-acre plot. The following morning an anonymous caller from a previously unknown group identifying itself as the Gaelic Earth Liberation Front left a message with the Genetic Engineering Network in London. The caller said, "This was the first genetically engineered crop in Ireland, and hopefully it will be the last."

Word of the sabotage against Monsanto's experimental crop spread quickly across Ireland. Patricia McKenna, Ireland's Green Party member of the European Parliament, applauded the activists, telling The Irish Times that they deserved "full praise." Officials at the government-sponsored research site in Carlow condemned the vandalism. The nation's relatively young biotechnology organization, the Irish BioIndustry Association (IBIA), also deplored the act and noted that it is not the sort of thing that happens very often in Ireland.

One of the "Carlow diggers," as the activists became known, later said the Gaelic Earth Liberation Front was "not a group with a constituted membership." Rather, several concerned citizens had come together somewhat spontaneously to rid the countryside of mutant plants that they believed posed an immediate and unacceptable threat to their future security. "At the end of the action there was no sudden senseof great achievement and no real celebrations, instead there was something simpler, a feeling that we came, we dug and we made Ireland GE free again," a self-proclaimed participant said in a letter posted on the Internet. "We all believe that a future untainted by runaway biological pollution is a future worth fighting for. This isn't terrorism, it's realism."

Many law-abiding Irish consumers supported the Carlow action. Five months earlier, on May 1, 1997, the Irish Environmental Protection Agency had granted Monsanto the first license in Ireland for a deliberate release of genetically modified organisms into the environment. Theretofore research on genetically engineered bacteria and plants had been performed indoors, under tightly controlled conditions, to prevent birds, bees, butterflies, and breezes from spreading pollen and seeds produced by gene-altered crops into the countryside.

Clare Watson had started the anti-genetic engineering group Genetic Concern! in April 1997 to fight Monsanto's proposed outdoor field experiment through legal channels. She immediately sought a high court review of the Irish EPA's decision. The court granted her request for a review but declined to issue an injunction preventing Monsanto from planting its sugar beets, which were genetically engineered to resist dousing by the company's weed-killer Roundup. Monsanto put its experimental sugar beet crop into the ground on May 27, 1997. The high court's legal review of the EPA's license decision was not scheduled to begin until December 10, 1997, by which time the genetically modified sugar beets would have been harvested. Sugar is a biennial crop and doesn't generally flower in its first year, although it does occasionally happen (when it is called "bolting"). This was the risk that worried Genetic Concern!

"Why are the Irish so passionate about this issue?" I later asked Clare Watson and Quentin Gargan, a spokesperson for Genetic Concern! and owner of a health food business.

"The public is frightened by the complexity of the issue," answered Watson, who grew up on an organic farm in Cork. "The issue of control over the food supply, too, grows out of the history of the potato famine. Who's controlling our agriculture? Our history tells us that who controls the food supply is a life and death matter," she explained. Foreign ownership of agriculture is a subject that touches an emotional chord with the Irish. While 1.5 million people died of starvation or diseases caused by hunger and poverty in Ireland during the potato famine between 1845 and 1850, barley and oats were being shipped out of the country to England.

"Ireland regards itself as a country of tourism, and its green image has to be real," added Gargan. The Irish boast of having the purest water in the European Union–and some of the most beautiful landscapes. Genetic engineering would encourage large tracts of monoculture sugar beets, which in turn could transform the look of the countryside and the social fabric of small farming communities.

"Also related is the need for genetic diversity," Clare said, "and Monsanto's intensive agriculture–promoting one strain–is opposed to that." Rather than genetically engineering artificial strains and having just a few varieties available for each crop, as the multinational chemical corporations that have been acquiring seed companies are doing, she believes future food security depends on preserving and improving the hundreds of varieties that already exist. "We should be going back and looking at what we had. But there's no profit for the multinational companies in just allowing farmers to go back to the old varieties."

Gargan, whose company, Wholefoods Wholesale, provides health food stores with tofu and other natural products, described his initial reaction to the arrival of Monsanto's gene-altered soybeans in Ireland. "We went berserk when we found out about the genetically modified soya mixed in with the soybean shipments coming from the States!" he exclaimed. His company responded by finding soymilk and tofu suppliers who would guarantee GM-free sources of soybeans.

"We're getting raisin producers in California to use coconut oil instead of soy oil to coat the raisins. The same with fruits from Australian growers," Gargan continued. "Monsanto made a grave mistake in choosing to genetically modify soya first, because it's the icon of the food industry."

"What is your greatest personal concern about genetically engineered foods?" I asked them.

"You wait for another thalidomide, or something terrible to go wrong," Gargan answered. "I think the allergies problem is real. There will be no time to trace the cause back if people start developing allergies. We don't have a database on who's allergic to petunia."

"How do you know, in the genetic manipulation, you're not displacing a gene that's supposed to be expressed?" Clare asked. She paused for a moment, then added, "The problem with all of this unlabeled genetically modified food is that if something goes wrong, it goes wrong badly."

In November 1997 I traveled to England to learn more about the millions of acres of genetically modified crops growing in the United States. I was eager to talk to scientists, shopkeepers, and regular consumers to find out firsthand why they opposed gene-altered crops and the foods made from them. I came from a country where farmers had just harvested millions of bushels of gene-altered corn and soybeans, yet very few of the people who would eat the foods had any idea they were genetically modified. U.S. food industry leaders seemed unfazed by the notion of corn engineered to make its own pesticide and soybeans designed to soak up chemical weed-killers. But the insistence of American bureaucrats that gene-altered crops are essentially the same as normal crops seemed to gloss over what might be important biological differences.

My first stop was Greenpeace, the nerve center of a nascent movement to keep the United Kingdom–and Europe–free of genetically engineered plants and foods. The London office of the international environmental group is housed in a large, airy building in Islington, a chic village in the north of the city. I met with Douglas Parr, one of the chief UK campaigners against genetically modified food. A soft-spoken man with a serious demeanor, Parr displayed a solid command of the science issues that lie at the heart of the public's worries about genetic engineering. He gave me a report he had just published, entitled "Genetic Engineering: Too Good to Go Wrong?" In it he laid out, in spare yet chilling scientific detail, twelve case studies of genetic engineering experiments that have gone terribly wrong.

The main problem with genetically engineered plants, animals, and microorganisms, Parr found, is their unpredictability. They are not stable, and often the inserted genes do not behave as expected. In one experiment to change the coloration of petunias, scientists genetically engineered the flowers to change their color from white to salmon pink. Quite unexpectedly, several weeks into the growing season, a majority of the petunias lost their salmon color and returned to white–a phenomenon the scientists chalked up to a three-week period of extremely high temperatures. In another case, a single gene that enhances the production of growth hormone was inserted into various farm animals, with hopes of making them grow faster. The inserted gene gave sheep diabetes and made them die young. A genetically engineered ram failed to mature sexually. In pigs the elevated levels of growth hormone caused arthritis, stomach ulcers, and heart and skin abnormalities. These and other examples showed that genes are not constant and fixed attributes of living things; they interact with other genes in the organism and are affected by their environment.

"There's a lot of unease about genetically engineered food here, and a great deal of concern about food integrity in general. The public has a distrust of science and a distrust of food authorities because of mad cow disease," Parr told me. A devastating epidemic of mad cow disease swept across the UK in the 1980s and early 1990s. The gruesome disease, called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, leaves holes in the brains of infected cows. The epidemic led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of cattle.

From the first diagnosis of BSE in cows in 1986, British officials assured the public that there was no evidence to suggest the disease could spread to humans. In 1996 authorities finally acknowledged that ten deaths in people under the age of forty-two from a deadly brain disease were likely linked to exposure to BSE in beef. The individuals were diagnosed with a variant strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a rare syndrome that ordinarily strikes people in middle age.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a horrifying, rapidly progressive, fatal disease with no treatment and no cure. Victims often suffer vision problems, jerky movements, and dementia before they die. CJD has a long incubation period between exposure to the infective agent and appearance of symptoms–from eighteen months to as many as twenty-five years, scientists believe. By the end of the century, dozens more Britons were diagnosed with variant CJD. In May 2001 the number of cases in the UK reached one hundred, and no one knows how many victims will eventually succumb to the disease.

Scientists now believe the British BSE epidemic resulted from changes in animal feed production methods: the feed industry began to process rendered brains and carcasses of cows and sheep into ground meal and then add the meal to cattle feed. Many cows became infected before the source of contamination was discovered.

Through this long, painful experience with mad cow disease, the British public has developed a great deal of mistrust about the pronouncements of scientists and government officials who assert that "there is no evidence of harm" from a new food product or an unproven food production method.

Parr believes that the risks from genetically modified organisms mirror those of mad cow disease. In each case the food industry embarked on a new food production technique before its ramifications for public health were entirely understood. In each case, scientists argued that because they had not found any problems with the food, it was safe for humans to eat.

"People are upset because they see no need for this new genetically engineered food. It's being pushed ahead blindly by the government, yet the hazards are potentially colossal, and irreversible," Parr said. "Once these organisms are released to the environment, they most likely will be uncontainable."

Like the Carlow activists, some British citizens were worried that by allowing biotech companies to test their experimental crops outside, the government was taking unacceptable risks with their food supply and environment. In the fall of 1997, anonymous citizens in the UK had pulled up a field of gene-altered potatoes and a field of engineered oilseed rape. Parr was quick to disassociate Greenpeace from those actions. In fact, a large number of grassroots anti-genetic engineering networks were springing up around the country.

"Do you think you will be able to stop genetically engineered crops from being grown in Great Britain?" I asked. "And do you think you can stop the import of genetically modified foods from the United States?"

On that afternoon Parr did not seem optimistic about the chances of keeping the United Kingdom free of genetically modified organisms. "If it were a Europe-only issue, it could possibly be stopped, but there's the U.S. You've got a huge institutional lineup for it–the biotechnology companies, the government, the food industry, the farmers," he replied. "There's a juggernaut."

He paused a moment, then concluded, "It's a difficult campaign, because there are no bodies in the streets to point to with genetic engineering. It's more the feeling of uneasiness, a worry about the unknown risks."

I considered Parr's use of the word "juggernaut" to describe the onslaught of agricultural biotechnology. The institutions, money, and power lined up behind agricultural biotechnology in the United States do indeed seem unstoppable. For more than two decades, pharmaceutical and agricultural chemical companies have been promoting biotechnology as a way to speed the development of new drugs and farm chemicals, as well as to increase their profitability. Just as physicists rocked the world in the mid-1940s when they split the atom and unleashed its awesome destructive force, biologists probing the inner workings of genes would have a chance, three decades later, to demonstrate their power to change the shape of life itself. In 1973, when two California scientists inserted a gene from a toad into bacteria–creating a novel form of life–biotechnology became a potent new force in America. By the early 1980s business leaders from a broad spectrum of industries had become convinced that biotechnology would open new doors to future inventions and earnings.

Food processing companies were among the earliest investors in biotechnology research. In 1982 Campbell Soup Company contracted with DNA Plant Technology Corporation to conduct research on ways to improve the solids content of tomatoes. Heinz enlisted the Atlantic Richfield Company's Plant Cell Research Institute for similar research. Because every one-percent increase in the solids content of tomatoes was estimated at the time to be worth $80 million a year in savings on processing costs, both companies hoped to realize hefty returns on their research investments.

Copyright 2002 by Kathleen Hart

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