Martin Teitel & Kimberly Wilson
Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature

"...conspiracy theory provides an appropriate smoke screen for ignorance." -- Clark in Aliens (p. 195)
Biased? Hypocritical? Unfair? Absolutely. Genetically Engineered Food reads like your run-of-the-mill paranoid, conspiracy treatise. Is there then still cause for concern when it comes to the subject of genfood? Absolutely. The problem is that when writing is not balanced and fair two sorts of people emerge. On the one hand, you have those who take everything Teitel, Wilson, and Nader say in without any skepticism, and they perpetrate the conspiracy theory. The sky is falling. Governments and corporations are out to get us. Aliens are taking over. Witches are among us. Take your pick. On the other hand, you have those who can recognize the propaganda, see the poor reasoning, spot the omitted and/or contradictory facts, and then throw out the baby with the bath water. It's unfortunate that some authors can't be more objective. I really think these authors could have convinced more people had they not been as one sided as they castigate their opposition for being.

An assertion that is frequently repeated in the book can be found in Ralph Nader's Foreword as well as on page 2.

genetically engineered food confers no advantage to consumers: it doesn't look better, taste better, cost less, or provide better nutrition
While one or more of these contentions may be true for some genfoods, such a sweeping generalization simply can't be true in its entirety for every genfood ever conceived in the past, present, and future. The authors admit as much in places of the book when they talk about the added vitamins and minerals added to some genfoods (Chapter 8) and the higher cost of organic foods (Chapter 9). If none of the above things were possible then the corporations the authors despise wouldn't spend the money they do trying to develop genfoods.

Take rBGH (Bovine Growth Hormone) for example. It is a genetically engineered hormone that induces a cow's body into producing more milk than it otherwise would. If I go down to my grocery store and wish to purchase milk that has a label that says rBGH was not used I will pay more than a dollar more per gallon than I will for the milk without a label which I assume was produced by cows given rBGH. My family goes through four or five gallons a week. Over a year's time that adds up to over $250 extra in my grocery bill. Certainly it costs less to this consumer to drink milk from cows given rBGH. Would I spend the extra if I thought rBGH wasn't safe? Absolutely. However, chemical analysis shows no difference between milk from treated and untreated cows.

I need to step back a bit now from the book and explain a major omission when it comes to those who criticize big farming, genfoods, and the like. They long for a day when family farms are the name of the game. While this longing for the past may be noble in a sense, it is also short sighted. Small farms were the name of the game when the world population was much smaller than it is now. Big picture and realistic thinking today must be concerned with the question as to how six billion+ people are going to be fed for a price that most, if not all, can afford. Economies of scale and efficiencies unheard of prior to the 20th Century must be obtained to meet these goals. Genfoods and other non-organic means of farming are ways to achieve these objectives. In other words, if you have a problem with genfood and big agribusiness then don't address the symptoms. Address the root problem--overpopulation. The resources on this Earth are finite. To feed the ever growing world population we can't go looking for new farmland on other planets or rely solely on the farming methods of the past. We have to become more efficient with the land we already have. From what I can gather, this is a major goal of genfood.

Getting back to milk production... rBGH can produce up to eight times as much milk in a cow than organic means. How do opponents of rBGH propose that we meet milk demand? Should we turn the Amazon into a giant cow pasture/dairy farm? Should we let people starve to death?

In Chapter 4, entitled "Your Right to Know," Teitel and Wilson make their best arguments in the book. Genfood is not labeled in the United States. Whether or not genfood is potentially harmful or not is a separate issue from whether or not we should know if we are consuming it. Right now, with the exception of the frequently hard-to-find and costly "Certified Organic" food products, I am not able to walk into a supermarket and determine which tofu or corn or many other foods are genfood or not. There are no labels. If genfood allows a farm to grow more and/or better crops then they should have a competitive advantage in the supermarkets. The consumer could then choose to buy (say) the cheaper genfood or pay a little more to avoid any potential risks they perceive may exist. As it is, consumers aren't allowed to make as informed a decision as they should have the right to.

In general, the authors' arguments are one sided and sometimes completely illogical. Take the argument beginning on page 89 for instance.

Poor countries are unlikely to develop their own biotechnology because it requires massive capital investment. Once wealthy multinational corporations acquire monopolies on seed lines, those poor countries may become dependent upon seeds from foreign sources as they stop using traditional varieties that then go extinct. Thus, biotechnology promotes the dangerous consolidation of our global food supply as well as the exploitation and forced dependency of less-developed countries and their farmers.
So let me get this straight. (In other places in the book the authors discuss how small farmers, farmers in the good 'ol days, and poor farmers use their own, free, homegrown seeds to plant.) Biotechnology is "bad." Poor countries can't participate in this bad thing because it costs lots of money. Farmers in poor countries will suddenly be forced to pay for seeds. The species that came from the seeds they previously used for free will go extinct. Does this make sense? Why would a farmer pay for "bad" seeds when they have "good" ones available for free? How are these small farmers going to be forced to pay for seeds they don't want and can't afford?

The authors don't explain their logic at this point in the book. After all, if they did, they couldn't conclude as easily that biotechnology is "bad." Eight pages later, though, they let the possible answer slip. Small farmers, you see, are interested in genfood because the yields are so much higher. They don't have to remain poor anymore. They can grow more on less--something essentially mandated by the ever growing populations and ever shrinking farmable lands. Again, the authors ignore this key fact--we can't continue business as usual when things aren't as usual. Small, inefficient, organic farms were "fine" when there were less than a billion people to feed. That is no longer the case. By the end of this century there will likely be 12,000,000,000+ people to feed.

After six chapters, I wasn't convinced, and I imagine many other people won't be either. The authors seem to have sensed this. So in Chapter 7 they turn to religion in a feeble attempt to win over their religious readers.

Only a higher power is supposed to be able to create life... The creators of the Genesis stories did not know about or anticipate biotech or recombinant DNA techniques. (p. 104)
...yada, yada, yada... I've become more unconvinced than I was before.

Chapter 8, again, takes us down the road of the illogical. The discussion centers around foods that are engineered to contain certain vitamins and minerals that wouldn't normally be in a given food. So, for instance, you may be able to eat an orange for breakfast that gives you 100% of the recommended daily allowances of all the basic nutrients instead of taking a multi-vitamin or eating a bowl of Total. Do the authors think this is a good idea? Of course not. They are opposed to any and all genfood regardless of the possible benefits. What could be the problem you ask? Well, they are concerned that people will eat too many of these nutrient rich crops and have a vitamin overdose. I suppose they could have the same fear and be just as against multi-vitamins and other food products with vitamin additives. They don't say so even though those products are already available and pose the same risk. They ask the question, "How can the public be assured of protection against vitamin overdose?" Please.

Finally, the reader is instructed as to what they can do. We are encouraged to break the law since "unjust laws need to be broken." Which unjust laws are those? It turns out from the examples given that they are laws against assault, trespassing, theft, and vandalism. Hmmmm.... In my book those are pretty just laws. The trespassing example, by the way, didn't involve a "friendly" trespassing protest. Rather it was trespassing to steal and destroy the property of another--a controlled, scientific test no less.

Although my above review is largely negative, there are concerns that should be taken seriously with regard to genfoods. "Superbugs" created through pesticides and pesticide resistant crops will be a huge problem in the future just as vaccines are creating ever more deadly viruses. (Children, for example, are much more likely to die from chicken pox now than they were in the past due to the recent usage of the chicken pox vaccine which has caused more dangerous strains of the virus to propagate.) Some forms of genfood may cause damage that outweighs any possible benefits. But it will be verifiable scientific data that will tell us this and not just one-sided propaganda.

Richard Dawkins (in his Open Letter to Prince Charles):

Next, Sir, I think you may have an exaggerated idea of the naturalness of 'traditional' or 'organic' agriculture. Agriculture has always been unnatural. Our species began to depart from our natural hunter-gatherer lifestyle as recently as 10,000 years ago - too short to measure on the evolutionary timescale.

Wheat, be it ever so wholemeal and stoneground, is not a natural food for Homo sapiens. Nor is milk, except for children. Almost every morsel of our food is genetically modified - admittedly by artificial selection not artificial mutation, but the end result is the same. A wheat grain is a genetically modified grass seed, just as a pekinese is a genetically modified wolf. Playing God? We've been playing God for centuries!

The large, anonymous crowds in which we now teem began with the agricultural revolution, and without agriculture we could survive in only a tiny fraction of our current numbers. Our high population is an agricultural (and technological and medical) artifact. It is far more unnatural than the population-limiting methods condemned as unnatural by the Pope. Like it or not, we are stuck with agriculture, and agriculture - all agriculture - is unnatural. We sold that pass 10,000 years ago.

Does that mean there's nothing to choose between different kinds of agriculture when it comes to sustainable planetary welfare? Certainly not. Some are much more damaging than others, but it's no use appealing to 'nature', or to 'instinct' in order to decide which ones. You have to study the evidence, soberly and reasonably - scientifically. Slashing and burning (incidentally, no agricultural system is closer to being 'traditional') destroys our ancient forests. Overgrazing (again, widely practised by 'traditional' cultures) causes soil erosion and turns fertile pasture into desert. Moving to our own modern tribe, monoculture, fed by powdered fertilisers and poisons, is bad for the future; indiscriminate use of antibiotics to promote livestock growth is worse.

Incidentally, one worrying aspect of the hysterical opposition to the possible risks from GM crops is that it diverts attention from definite dangers which are already well understood but largely ignored. The evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria is something that a Darwinian might have foreseen from the day antibiotics were discovered. Unfortunately the warning voices have been rather quiet, and now they are drowned by the baying cacophony: 'GM GM GM GM GM GM!'

Moreover if, as I expect, the dire prophecies of GM doom fail to materialise, the feeling of let-down may spill over into complacency about real risks. Has it occurred to you that our present GM brouhaha may be a terrible case of crying wolf?

Even if agriculture could be natural, and even if we could develop some sort of instinctive rapport with the ways of nature, would nature be a good role model? Here, we must think carefully. There really is a sense in which ecosystems are balanced and harmonious, with some of their constituent species becoming mutually dependent. This is one reason the corporate thuggery that is destroying the rainforests is so criminal.

On the other hand, we must beware of a very common misunderstanding of Darwinism. Tennyson was writing before Darwin but he got it right. Nature really is red in tooth and claw. Much as we might like to believe otherwise, natural selection, working within each species, does not favour long-term stewardship. It favours short-term gain. Loggers, whalers, and other profiteers who squander the future for present greed, are only doing what all wild creatures have done for three billion years.

No wonder T.H. Huxley, Darwin's bulldog, founded his ethics on a repudiation of Darwinism. Not a repudiation of Darwinism as science, of course, for you cannot repudiate truth. But the very fact that Darwinism is true makes it even more important for us to fight against the naturally selfish and exploitative tendencies of nature. We can do it. Probably no other species of animal or plant can. We can do it because our brains (admittedly given to us by natural selection for reasons of short-term Darwinian gain) are big enough to see into the future and plot long-term consequences. Natural selection is like a robot that can only climb uphill, even if this leaves it stuck on top of a measly hillock. There is no mechanism for going downhill, for crossing the valley to the lower slopes of the high mountain on the other side. There is no natural foresight, no mechanism for warning that present selfish gains are leading to species extinction - and indeed, 99 per cent of all species that have ever lived are extinct.

The human brain, probably uniquely in the whole of evolutionary history, can see across the valley and can plot a course away from extinction and towards distant uplands. Long-term planning - and hence the very possibility of stewardship - is something utterly new on the planet, even alien. It exists only in human brains. The future is a new invention in evolution. It is precious. And fragile. We must use all our scientific artifice to protect it.

It may sound paradoxical, but if we want to sustain the planet into the future, the first thing we must do is stop taking advice from nature. Nature is a short-term Darwinian profiteer. Darwin himself said it: 'What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horridly cruel works of nature.'

from the publisher:
Picture a world…
* Where the french fries you eat are registered as a pesticide, not a food. 
* Where vegetarians unwittingly consume fish genes in their tomatoes. 
* Where corn plants kill monarch butterflies. 
* Where soy plants thrive on doses of herbicide that kill every other plant in sight. 
* Where multinational corporations own the life forms that farmers grow and legally control the farmers' actions. 

That world exists
These things are all happening, and they are happening to you.

Genetically engineered foods--plants whose genetic structures are altered by scientists in ways that could never occur in nature--are already present in many of the products you buy in supermarkets, unlabeled, unwanted, and largely untested. The threat of these organisms to human and environmental health has caused them to be virtually banned in Europe, yet the U.S. government, working hand-in-hand with a few biotech corporations, has actively encouraged their use while discouraging labeling that might cause consumers to avoid these foods.

What can you do? First, inform yourself.
Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature is the first book to take a comprehensive look at the many ramifications of this disturbing trend. 

Authors Martin Teitel and Kimberly Wilson explain what genetic engineering is and how it works, then explore the health risks involved with eating organisms never before seen in nature. They address the ecological catastrophe that could result from these modified plants crossing with wild species and escaping human control altogether, as well as the economic devastation that may befall small farmers who find themselves at the mercy of mega-corporations for their livelihood. Taking the discussion a step further, they consider the ethical and spiritual implications of this radical change in our relationship to the natural world, showing what the future holds and giving you the information you need to act on your own or to join others in preserving the independence and integrity of our food supply.

Martin Teitel, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Council for Responsible Genetics and editor of Genewatch. He is the author of Rain Forest in Your Kitchen, as well as articles on food, biotechnology, and human rights that have appeared in Utne Reader, Vegetarian Times, Sierra, and many other magazines.

Kimberly Wilson is director of the Council for Responsible Genetics's Program on Commercial Biotechnology and the Environment. She has worked with the famed Indian biotechnology activist Vandana Shiva and with the Rural Advancement Foundation International.

"Martin Teitel and Kimberly Wilson have cut through all the hype and misconceptions surrounding genetically engineered food and provided the indispensable primer for every family in America concerned with making wise dietary choices in the biotech century. Finally, we have available a guide to biotech food issues that is informed, intelligent, and chock-full of common sense. I urge every consumer to read this book before walking into a supermarket again. It will open up your eyes, change what you put in your mouth, and transform your thinking about food forever."
Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Biotech Century

"By far the most accessible and informative publication on genetic engineering in food production that I have read to date.  It is written so that the non-scientist can fully understand the scope of this technology, with numerous footnotes and references that are a handy resource guide for those seeking more knowledge. An excellent book."
Katherine DiMatteo, Executive Director, Organic Trade Association

"For consumers who wish to understand why their food has been genetically altered--without their consent, with virtually no testing, and without labeling--Teitel and Wilson's timely book is essential reading.  It tells us who the winners and losers are in this global experiment with the world's food supply."
Sheldon Krimsky, author of Agricultural Biotechnology and the Environment

"As bioengineered crops cover ever more millions of acres, the likelihood of side effects and unintended consequences looms larger.  Farmers will realize they were not told enough of the truth.  And consumers will see there is no escape other than to fight back and demand an open scientific process and response to persistent questions and miscues, with the burden of proof right on the companies and their accomplices. All this and more is why Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature is so valuable for enlightening the public."
From the foreword by Ralph Nader

"We simply do not know the long-term consequences for human health and the wider environment of releasing plants bred in this way. The lesson of BSE [mad cow disease] and other entirely man-made disasters on the road to 'cheap food' is surely that it is the unforeseen consequences which present the greatest cause for concern. Even the best science cannot predict the unpredictable." 
H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, June 8, 1998

"There are certainly more and more questions being asked about biotechnology, and those questions must be answered. They cannot be brushed off. They must be dealt with. Otherwise, what will happen is that the consuming public, both here and abroad, will begin to believe that there are problems with it."
USDA Chief Dan Glickman, June 6, 1999

"In Britain, Arpad Pusztai, a professor at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, reported in April that an experiment in which laboratory rats were fed genetically modified potatoes had caused weakened immune systems and damage to vital organs."
The Toronto Globe and Mail, February 20, 1999

"The world's two largest food production companies have decided they no longer will accept genetically modified ingredients for products sold in Europe." 
Natural Foods Merchandiser, July 1999

"University of Chicago researchers are concerned that genetically engineered crops could cross-breed with weeds, creating 'super weeds' that have genes making them immune to Roundup or other chemicals."
The Boston Globe, July 11, 1999

"The popcorn at your movie house could be made from plants designed to fight off a voracious pest called the corn borer. Your baby’s formula could come from soybean plants biologically transformed to withstand the herbicide Roundup. The bags of potato chips on your grocer's shelves could be sliced from spuds containing a gene that poisons Colorado potato beetles."
The San Francisco Examiner, July 11, 1999

"The Rockefeller Foundation, which funds research to help poor farmers in developing countries, asked Monsanto Co. to swear off use of the 'terminator gene,' which would make seed sterile."
The Wall Street Journal, June 28, 1999

"At some cost and considerable inconvenience, Gerber is dropping some of its existing corn and soybean suppliers in favor of ones that can produce crops that aren't genetically altered."
The Wall Street Journal, July 30, 1999

"The science journal Nature published a Cornell University study showing that almost half the monarch butterflies who fed on the pollen from Bt corn died." 
The Boston Globe, July 11, 1999

Table of Contents

Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature

Introduction: Hijacked Dinner
1. How Genetic Engineering Works
2. What's in Your Grocery Cart?
3. You Are What You Eat
4. Your Right to Know
5. Food Fights
6. Fields of Green: Farming and Biotech
7. Crossing Swords with an Angel
8. What the Future Holds
9. The Light at the End of the Tunnel: What You Can Do
Appendix A: Organic Seed Saving
Appendix B: Related Web Sites
Appendix C: Organizations
Suggested Reading


Hijacked Dinner

Imagine yourself one morning on a modern jetliner, settling into your seat as the plane taxis toward the active runway. To pass the time you unfold your morning newspaper, and just as the plane's rapidly building acceleration begins to lift the wheels from the ground, your eye catches a front page article mentioning that engineers are beginning a series of tests to determine whether or not the new- model airplane that you are in is safe.

That situation would never happen, you say to yourself. People have more foresight than that. Yet something we entrust our lives to far more often than airplanes-our food supply-is being redesigned faster than any of us realize, and scientists have hardly begun to test the long-term safety of these new foods. 

The genetic engineering of our food is the most radical transformation in our diet since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago. During these thousands of years, people have used the naturally occurring processes of genetics to gradually shape wild plants into tastier, more nutritious, and more attractive food for all of humanity. Until very recently, these evolved food plants were part of the common heritage of humankind. Food plants have been available to all in conveniently small and storable packets-seeds-for distribution, trade, and warehousing. In fact, selective plant breeding has brought food security, greater nutrition, and increased biodiversity, while at the same time protecting food systems against hard times, like natural or economic disasters.

In the new kind of agriculture, a handful of giant corporations have placed patents on food plants, giving them exclusive control over that food. These transnational corporations have altered the minute life-processes of food plants by removing or adding genetic material in ways quite impossible in nature. And like our nightmare vision of the untested airplane, genetically altered food is being quietly slipped into our markets and supermarkets without proper labels, and without having passed adequate safety tests. Furthermore, genetically engineered food confers no advantage to consumers: it doesn't look better, taste better, cost less, or provide better nutrition. To distinguish this different sort of food from the natural food we have eaten all our lives, people give it different names. In Europe they call it "GMO food." Here, we use a new term: "genfood."

While we eat this new kind of food and feed it to our children on a daily basis, independent scientists are just beginning to conduct tests to learn about the food's safety. In fact, a person in the United States shopping in a modern supermarket would find out that most food products contain genetically modified ingredients-but the lack of useful labeling of genetically engineered food keeps this information hidden. Meanwhile, economists are determining if our local and national farming will be hurt by this dramatic change in agriculture, and environmentalists are considering the ecological damage that genetically modified plants may cause. Unfortunately these food crops are already growing on millions of acres all around our world: at the end of the twentieth century enough genetically engineered crops are being grown to cover all of Great Britain plus all of Taiwan, with enough left over to carpet Central Park in New York. With this abrupt agricultural transformation, humanity's food supply is being placed in the hands of a few corporations who practice an unpredictable and dangerous science.

As we eat genetically altered food and read about new safety tests, we may start to realize that we are the unwitting and unwilling guinea pigs in the largest experiment in human history, involving our entire planet's ecosystem, food supply, and the health and very genetic makeup of its inhabitants. Worse yet, results coming in from the first objective tests are not encouraging. Scientists issue cautionary statements almost weekly, ranging from problems with monarch butterflies dying from genetically modified corn pollen to the danger of violent allergic reactions to genes introduced into soy products, as well as experiments showing a variety of actual and suspected health problems for cows fed genetically engineered hormones and the humans who drink their milk. And this doesn't even consider slow-acting problems that might not show up for years or decades. Who decided this was an acceptable risk?

On the economic front, trade wars are starting to break out around the world as the countries that produce genetically modified food seek to force other nations to accept it, even when such modified food provides no benefit to recipient nations and raises all the risks mentioned above. Meanwhile, environmental activists warn of "superweeds" and "superbugs" being created by genes that escape from genetically engineered plants. And the file of court cases grows as people questioning this new technology are sued into silence and as activists around the world demonstrate to express their concerns.

Three features distinguish this new kind of food. First and most important, the food is altered at the genetic level in ways that could never occur naturally. As genes from plants, animals, viruses, and bacteria are merged in novel ways, the normal checks and balances that nature provides to keep biology from running amok are nullified. Exactly how genes work is a topic of enormous complexity and some controversy, so it is difficult if not impossible to predict what will happen when individual combinations of genes are created in ways that have never been seen before-and then released into the environment.

The second novel feature of the revolution in our food is that the food is owned. Not individual sacks of wheat or bushels of potatoes, but entire varieties of plants are now corporate products. In some cases, entire species are owned. The term "monopoly" takes on new power when one imagines a company owning major portions of our food supply-the one thing that every single person now and into the future will always need to buy.

Finally, this new technology is "globalized." This means that local agriculture, carefully adapted to local ecology and tastes over hundreds and thousands of years, must yield to a planetary monoculture enforced by intricate trade agreements and laws. According to these trade treaties, local laws that we have come to rely on for protection must take a back seat to decisions made far away by anonymous officials working in secret.

In the forthcoming chapters of this book, we are going to examine the genetic engineering revolution in our food. We're going to have a non-technical look at genetic engineering and how it works. We're going to see who benefits from genetically engineered food and who loses out. We'll take some time to look at risks to health, the environment, and our economy. We'll also consider some of the wider implications of genetically engineered food, including the ethical and spiritual consequences of owning and altering the substance of life. Finally, we'll spend some time looking at the practical steps each of us can take to preserve the independence and integrity of our food supply and to safeguard our ability to make informed choices about what we feed our children and ourselves.

Biotech's commandeering of our food is widespread but hardly inevitable. Tens of thousands of natural seeds still exist to form the basis of a diverse, healthy, and locally controlled food system in our world. With proper attention from ordinary people, our food supply will be put back into the hands of farmers and food suppliers and all the rest of us-for the sake of our health and our environment, and for the future that we leave to our children's children.