Eating in the Dark: America's Experiment with Genetically Engineered Foodby Kathleen Hart
Most Americans eat genetically modified food on a daily basis, but few of us are aware we’re eating something that has been altered. Meanwhile, consumers abroad refuse to buy our engineered crops; their groceries are labeled so that everyone knows if the contents have been modified. What’s going on here? Why does the U.S. government treat engineered foods so differently from the rest of the world?
Eating in the Dark tells the story of how these new foods quietly entered America’s food supply. Kathleen Hart explores biotechnology’s real potential to enhance nutrition and cut farmers’ expenses. She also reveals the process by which American government agencies decided not to label genetically modified food, and not to require biotech companies to perform even basic safety tests on their products. Combining a balanced perspective with a sense of urgency, Eating in the Dark is a captivating and important story account of the science and politics propelling the genetic alteration of our food.
“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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Read an Excerpt
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.
Meet the Author
Kathleen Hart is a journalist who has been writing about health and the environment for more than sixteen years. She has covered agriculture and biotechnology for Food Chemical News and has reported on nuclear power and nonproliferation for McGraw-Hill’s Nucleonics Week. Her articles have appeared in the Boston Globe and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and other publications. She has been a guest on numerous television and radio stations, including National Public Radio and C-SPAN. She lives in Washington, D.C.
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