The Way We Live Now: Feeding Frenzy

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 products.

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?

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 faith.

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 stuff.

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 vaccines.

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.