Fresh from the Lab

By Harris, Mark | Vegetarian Times, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Fresh from the Lab


Harris, Mark, Vegetarian Times


WILL GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOODS FEED A STARVING PLANET-OR CAUSE IT IRREVOCABLE DAMAGE?

It's dinnertime in the new millennium, and here's what's on the menu: fresh-picked corn on the cob, ripe juicy strawberries that never need the sugar bowl, bananas that don't mush and a cornucopia of "pharm-foods" that provide a week's worth of vitamins, insulin for diabetics and cancerfighting agents to one and all.

Agriculture of the next century promises to produce enouqh food to sustain the 9 billion souls expected to inhabit the planet by 2050-nearly double the number today-and to do so without resorting to the bug and weed killers that are a constant threat to our health and the environment.

Viewed from this side of the kitchen table, the future of food has never looked more appetizing, earth-friendly or extraordinary. And extra-ordinary it is. This New Age feast is made possible by a powerful technology called genetic engineeringand it's being brought to us by the folks who gave the world hormone-laced milk and Dolly the cloned sheep.

Today, a genetic engineer can insert foreign genes into the DNA of plants and overhaul the genetic makeup of nearly everything we eat. Traditional horticulturalists have been doing something similar for decades, like combining the genes of a tangerine with a grapefruit's to create a tangelo. But what's different-and so frightening-about this new wave of manipula tion is where they're getting the genes from. Up until now, breeders have only been able to move genes between similar plant species. With genetic engineering, scientists working for agribusiness giants like Monsanto, DuPont and Novartis can pluck genes from all over creation and splice them into any plant they want. And from all over is exactly whence they're coming-not just from wildly dissimilar plants, but from animals, bugs, viruses and bacteria that offer qualities not found in the genetic soup of the plant kingdom.

This weird science may sound like something out of The X-Files, but it's far from fiction. Genetic engineering is here, now, and it's playing at a grocery store near you. As much as 70 percent of all foods sitting on supermarket shelves-fresh, frozen and processed-may contain engineered ingredients, according to Mothers for Natural Law (MNL), a Fairfield, Iowa, organization that's campaigning against genetic engineering. Worse, they say, there's much more on the way.

If the thought of chomping into a tomato spiked with, say, flounder genes triggers your gag reflex-and for what vegetarian wouldn't it?-you're not alone. The introduction of genetically engineered, or transgenic, food has set off a vicious food fight that's uniting environmentalists, scientists, farmers, consumer activists and foodies of all stripes against this emergent technology. "Genetic engineering is the largest food experiment in history, and the verdict is out on it," says Laura Ticciati, coauthor of Genetically Engineered Foods (Keats, 1998) and executive director of MNL. "None of the foods have been tested for safety over time, and none have been tested on humans. It's risking the genetic pollution of the environment." (See "Who's Minding the Store?" p. 62.)

There are plenty of good reasons to be concerned. Researchers have found that eating engineered foods could trigger allergic reactions in millions of people, since engineering can import allergens into a food as easily as it can genes for rot resistance. We're learning, too, that the technology may produce foods that have less nutritional value than their natural counterparts. Transgenic plants may also upset the delicate balance of nature, with potentially disastrous consequences for our food supply and environment. Finally, there's the danger of what we don't know. After all, who can predict the repercussions of eating life forms that have never been taken into the human body or of releasing them into the environment for the first time ever? …

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