What’s Food Got to Do with It?

A host of deeper and broader concerns are the real motivation behind the genetically modified food ruckus.

Displacement is the common psychological practice of redirecting an emotional response from the original person or event to a different person or event that an individual believes is a more acceptable object of the emotion. Understanding this concept should be helpful to those, particularly evidence-loving scientists, unable to understand the vehemence of the public response to genetically engineered foods. Why–after thousands of years of haphazard genetic engineering through traditional breeding practices, not to mention the quirks and accidents of nature–are so many people so convinced that some danger lurks in the more deliberate and precise selection of genetic traits made possible by developments in genetics and biotechnology?

In this issue Patrice Laget and Mark Cantley defend their fellow Europeans against the charge that they are antiscience because of their seemingly irrational opposition to all GM food. They argue that much more is involved: “The price of sugar, the patentability of genes, and the ethics of stem cell research are among the issues related in some way to biotechnology.” In Great Britain, Julia Moore finds that the animus against GM food can be traced to the crisis surrounding mad cow disease, even though that problem has nothing to do with biotechnology. Indeed, she fears that the opposition to GM food is actually a manifestation of a deeper lack of confidence in the authority of government and science, which is related to the threat of diminishing national autonomy that could accompany the growth in size and influence of the European Union.

In a recent article in the New York Review of Books (“Genes in the Food,” June 21, 2001), Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin reflects on the puzzling dimensions of “a public reaction unprecedented in the history of technology.” Although he is a frequent critic of the political and scientific establishments, Lewontin cannot align himself with the outsiders in this case, when the purported dangers remain hypothetical. In fact, he professes to be less concerned about his allergic reactions to GM food than about his “allergies to the quality of arguments about GM food.” And in the spirit of fairness, he provides examples of woefully flawed arguments on both sides of the debate. He marvels that the same people who rave about the dangers of GM food express no concern over the large number of diabetics taking twice-a-day doses of genetically engineered insulin. He also wonders why a physicist chooses to base her argument on Hindu scripture rather than rigorous analysis. He then chastises the proponents of GM food who celebrate the benefits of Vitamin A golden rice to the malnourished residents of developing countries, when they should know that the rice is actually rich in beta carotene, which is converted to vitamin A only when consumed by an otherwise well-nourished person. Golden rice alone will be of little value to the world’s malnourished. And he points out that the purported precision of genetic engineering is exaggerated, because although it is possible to transfer a specific gene into a crop species, it is not possible to control the effect that process will have on regulatory genes. Perhaps the reason that the discussion of GM food is so sloppy is that most of the participants realize, at least subconsciously, that this is not a debate about GM food itself.

Lewontin sees the struggle over GM food as actually being a battle over five major themes: direct threats to human health; disturbance of the natural environments; the evolution of new, more robust pests that will undermine agricultural productivity; a disaster for third world agriculture; and a violation of a quasi-philosophical notion of the natural order. Even though GM food has not caused any real problems yet, Lewontin believes that it should be carefully scrutinized by regulators. He is little concerned about the gene escape into wild plants to produce “superweeds,” because a cross between a GM crop and a wild relative will involve all of the GM crop’s genome, including the characteristics that make it dependent on the tender loving care of the farmer for survival. These are not the characteristics of a superweed.

The fate of third world farmers leads Lewontin to what he sees as the real issue: the industrialization of agriculture. He is dismissive of those who pine for the days of the independent family farmer. That bridge was crossed a century ago. For Lewontin, the problem of agriculture is the problem of all industry in an era global capitalism and its accompanying abuses of power. This a real issue that deserves attention, but that is not the hidden force that is driving the food fight.

The vast majority of the critics of GM food do not share Lewontin’s concern about the developing world’s farmers or his view of capitalism. Likewise, only small minorities of the anti-GM movement believe strongly in the health threat or superweeds or ecological imbalance. The problem with all of these contentions is that they can be tested, and so far there isn’t much evidence to support their alarm. But the vague suspicion that this is somehow unnatural cannot really be tested, and my impression is that it is shared by many of the anti-GM forces.

What is intriguing is the notion that anything that could be called a natural order actually exists. Since it is human intervention that is typically considered the source of the unnatural, does it make any sense to talk about “natural” food crops that are the result of thousands of years of human husbandry? Is there some transcendental wisdom in a human-shaped food system that produces many food allergens, depends on crops that are susceptible to a wide host of pests, and often fails to provide the nutrients that people need? Is this the best of all possible worlds? Why are so many people wary of a technology that has great potential to improve what we have?

A front page story in the June 10, 2001, New York Times suggests that the game may be over except for the shouting. GM crops are already planted widely, and their altered genes are becoming ubiquitous. Consider soybeans. The United States, Argentina, and Brazil produce about 90 percent of the world’s exported soybeans. GM soybeans already dominate U.S. and Argentine production, and Brazil, which does not allow the planting of GM soybeans, is believed to have an active black market in GM seeds. With the difficulty of preventing the mixing of GM and non-GM beans in storage and shipping, it may already be impossible to import non-GM soybeans. The debate over GM foods may soon be moot. Then perhaps we can confront directly the more important questions that have fired the passions of the food fight.

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “What’s Food Got to Do with It?” Issues in Science and Technology 17, no. 4 (Summer 2001).

Vol. XVII, No. 4, Summer 2001