Frankenstein Food

Perhaps a little dramatic, but not altogether off the mark. We’re talking about food that has had certain characteristics cut out, and others, perhaps from a different species, pasted in. How appropriate for the end of the 20th Century! We certainly know how to eat at nice fine dining restaurants and cut and paste on our computers, how to do heart and kidney and liver transplants, why not extend the metaphor to plants and animals?

Genetic engineering is a hot topic, although the industry does not want to call attention to it. Preferably, it should proceed quietly and inexorably, so that by the time we notice, it’s already here and inescapable. In fact, that’s what already has happened. According to the New York Times, some 45 million acres of farmland have been planted with biotech crops. At least 38 different crop species have been genetically engineered for specific traits, crops that include soy, cotton, corn, wheat, and potatoes. Your favorite miso, tempeh, soy sauce, cookies, and chips could have been manufactured from these “transgenic” crops. Or not. But, unless you buy organic food always, you have no way of knowing, because these foods are not labeled. Not only that, by law foods that are NOT genetically engineered may not say so. The idea is that if they advertise themselves as not genetically manipulated, that implies that genetically engineered foods are inferior — and the courts have held that such an implication interferes with a newly minted “right” of free speech by corporations. Isn’t our language wonderful?

Genetic engineering consists of snipping certain genes out of the DNA of one organism and insert them into the DNA of another. For example, fish genes that are believed to confer resistance to cold are pasted into strawberries to help them resist frost. In order to do this correctly, it seems to me that scientists need at least the following: they need to know exactly which genes carry a certain trait, how to remove them from one organism, how to insert them in another organism, and how to determine whether the new genes need to replace other genes or simply be added to the mix. This knowledge appears to already be here to some extent, although I’m not sure about the last bit.

Here is what scientists don’t know:

1) The impact of genetically engineered crops on the ecosystem. For example, it seems that plants, like bacteria, can exchange genetic material through spontaneous cross-fertilization. Canola plants that have been genetically engineered to resist the damaging effects of a certain herbicide have cross-fertilized with weeds that the herbicide is supposed to target. Result: the herbicide cannot eradicate the now-resistant weeds. I call that perfect justice.

2) The effect on animals and people of consuming genetically engineered foods over months, years, or a lifetime. The multinational companies that market genetically engineered seeds say they are perfectly safe. The FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assume they are safe. However, no long term tests have been conducted. The fact that products can be deemed safe for the world if they have not been tested for two or three generations (75 years) is, it seems to me, a bona fide scientific miracle. Or perhaps just wishful thinking.

3) The effect of animals and people of consuming foodstuffs produced through the application of bioengineered products. For example, rBGH, which stands for recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (meaning genetically engineered BGH), is given to cows to increase their milk production. (Never mind that we already have a surplus of milk in this country, subsidized by our government with our tax dollars). This practice is about 4 years old, to the best of my knowledge. Where are the studies that show that it is safe to give it to children and adults for 20 years or longer? How about whether it is safe for the cows? Reports from farmers indicate that cows get sick, especially with udder infections, from this drug. This means they must be given antibiotics to stop the infection. Antibiotics have been vastly overused, and most bacteria have become resistant to them. And so the drugs and the money go round and round.

When The New York Times starts writing about this kind of thing, you know it’s getting serious. In its Sunday October 25 issue, the New York Times Magazine cover story was “Fried, Mashed, or Zapped with DNA?”, by Michael Pollan. It paints an astonishing picture of where we’re heading. Do you think Bill Gates is monopolistic? We ain’t seen nothing yet. Mr Pollan decided to test genetically engineered seed potatoes from Monsanto that have been given a gene from an insecticide to repel and kill certain pests. He reports that when he opened the package containing the potatoes, it was akin to booting up software. The package stated that he was now “licensed” to grow one generation of these potatoes, but that if he kept even one to grow another batch, he would be breaking Federal Law and thereby subject to fines. Instead, he would have to buy a whole new batch — with the attendant “royalties” to Monsanto — the following year. This is what is happening with all biotech seeds. Farmers will be squeezed in a vise of fees and royalties.

In addition, this biotech potato is not exactly a potato. It is classified as a pesticide and registered as such with the Environmental Protection Agency. Usually pesticides are not recommended for direct consumption, and carry serious warning labels, which Mr Pollan says these potatoes did not. However, as the FDA is not supposed to mention pesticides in food labels, the fact that a potato is a food is a pesticide is a food leaves no one in charge of determining and monitoring its safety.

What to do if you don’t wish to participate in this vast agricultural and dietary experiment? 1) Choose organic. At least for now the legislation that tried to include genetic engineering in the definition of organic was defeated. 2) Avoid fast and mass market foods, which are more likely to be made with biotech crops. 3) Stay alert. Communicate with your elected officials and express your views. 4) Support the organizations fighting this issue, contact them, get involved. Here are two:

– Greenpeace – Charles Margulis, local phone no. 212-865-5645 – E-mail:

– Food and Water, RRI Box 68 D, Walden VT 05873

Keep your sense of wonder, and try this recipe with organic potatoes:

Leek and Potato Soup

1 large (or 2 small) leek, sliced, washed

1 Tbs.. extra virgin olive oil

1 lb potatoes, peeled and diced

6 cups water or stock

salt and pepper to taste

2 Tbs. freshly chopped parsley

Use as much of the leek greens as possible. Saute the leeks in the olive oil, add the potatoes, water or stock, and salt (about ½ to 1 tsp if liquid is unsalted), and simmer for 30 minutes. Puree in batches in a blender until creamy. Adjust seasonings, serve hot with a sprinkle of parsley. Makes 6 servings.