Modifications Needed

Open a menu in London and you’ll probably notice a statement assuring diners that no genetically modified (G.M.) foods are used in the restaurant. Mention G.M. foods in the United States and people will wonder if Detroit has diversified into the food business.

From a European perspective, the American public is mind-bogglingly apathetic about the implications of new science, especially bioscience. Americans apparently don’t have a problem with their carrots being genetically modified so they’re resistant to powerful herbicides. They don’t mind if the sweet crunch of that ear of corn or bunch of seedless grapes is the result of years of tinkering in a lab. This way of thinking has given rise to a powerful industry that, with the collusion of the government, thwarts any attempt to control, test or label genetically modified foods.

This attitude needs to change. Americans can no longer ignore the G.M. issue. Although there is a shocking dearth of clinical and agricultural testing, the few results we do have don’t look good. Double-blind trials have shown that the StarLink variety of corn, developed by Monsanto, causes allergic reactions in some subjects, while a Royal Society report, commissioned by the British Food Standards Agency, shows that a significant proportion of people who ate genetically modified soybeans had picked up antibiotic resistance from the food.

In an era when newly antibiotic resistant bacteria have resurrected diseases previously thought to have been eradicated or at least controlled, this is an alarming prospect. Imagine one of those bacteria in your gut happens to be strep or staph or tuberculosis—something nasty, but controllable with standard antibiotics. Now imagine that they pick up a plasmid from a genetically modified piece of corn. What happens? The antibiotics don’t work any more. At this point it might be worth buying some life insurance and making sure your will is in order.

Although there’s plenty of scare-mongering going on on both sides of the debate, nothing will get resolved without more testing. The problem in the United States is that most of the testing seems to be done under the aegis of huge biotech firms, either in-house or through funding at large universities with flagrant disregard for any conflict-of-interest considerations. This fact seems to have slipped under the radar of most U.S. commentators and watchdog groups.

But just because the United States public is apathetic and ill-informed about the potential costs of growing and disseminating G.M. foods, this doesn’t mean that the United States has a right to inflict it on other countries that may not be so sure, especially when those countries have very few other options. The recent food shortages in Zambia—and now in India—are a case in point.

When Zambia ran short of food in 2002, it appealed to the World Food Program (WFP) to help it gather food donations from richer countries. The U.S., as a member nation of the WFP, offered a large shipment of corn and maize to Zambia, which was gratefully accepted. However, when asked for a guarantee that the corn had not been genetically modified, the U.S. first refused to provide the information, and then finally admitted that the entire shipment was genetically modified. This corn was not only meant for food consumption, but was shipped as seeds to be planted by Zambian farmers.

And here the plot thickens. Zambia’s export economy is built around exports of grain to the European Union (E.U.), that region of skeptics that is deeply suspicious of G.M. foods. Quite apart from any potential health and environmental risks, forcing Zambia to accept genetically modified corn would cause its export economy to collapse: the E.U. would either refuse the corn altogether, or accept it, label it, and have consumers leave it on the shelf. And it’s not as if the U.S. was shipping Zambia the bargain-basement corn that nobody wanted—G.M. corn is more expensive for the U.S. to send than regular corn. If the farmers of Zambia grew it they would have to pay royalties every year to the companies that engineered the crop. At this point any self-respecting conspiracy theorist would be asking if this was a cynical ploy to get G.M. foods under the E.U.’s radar, and create a cash cow for the biotech business. And this is not an isolated incident either. Just this month, India refused a shipment of 1,000 tons of corn-soya mix when the U.S. again refused to guarantee that no G.M. foods were contained in the shipment.

It is not that G.M. foods are necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I hope that Europe is being too cautious with their draconian labelling and fear of frankenfoods. These space-age crops have the potential to end famine, cure endemic nutritional diseases and even reduce ecosystem damage caused by pesticide use. But without more rigorous testing and additional research we simply do not know enough about them. U.S. companies have not yet earned the right to impose genetically modified foods on other countries or the U.S. public itself.

Zoe T. VanderWolk ’05, is a statistics concentrator in Kirkland House.