Benign Enchiladas

Booth was only one of scores of Americans who complained of allergic reactions to corn products during the summer and fall of 2000, when news broke that traces of genetically engineered StarLink corn had found their way onto grocery store shelves.

But conspicuously absent from Hart’s terrifying introduction are several important details that seriously undermine her credibility. To begin with, most people who rushed to the Food and Drug Administration with corn horror stories (including Booth) did so only after public hysteria had been raised to a fever pitch from non-stop media coverage. More significantly, Hart fails to mention that a sample of the corn tortillas Booth had eaten turned up negative for the StarLink protein, to which a subsequent allergy test showed that she was not even allergic. Her tests were among 11 food samples and 17 blood samples sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for study after the story broke.

After months of research, the CDC could find absolutely no evidence that Booth (or any of the other supposed victims who underwent testing) had suffered an allergic reaction. She may have gotten sick after eating corn tortillas, but it wasn’t StarLink that nearly killed her. Yet Hart buries these telling studies 200-odd pages into the text–a pretermission symptomatic of her entire “unbiased” work.

The American food supply is inundated with genetically engineered food, and it is Hart’s intention to make us fear it. Her central contention is that the public has been kept largely ignorant of the dangers of bioengineered food and its prevalence in the food supply. Indeed, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans, modified to endure a thorough dousing of the weed killer Roundup, accounted for 60 percent of the soy harvest last year. (Soy is an ingredient in two-thirds of all processed foods.) Bt Corn, engineered with its own pesticide in every kernel, accounts for a quarter of the U.S. harvest. Yet two-thirds of Americans in 1999 did not know supermarkets were selling bioengineered foods; only three percent knew they were eating genetically modified (GM) soybeans; six percent knew they were eating GM corn. According to Hart, Americans are unwitting guinea pigs.

The scientific history of genetically engineered food can be traced to the San Francisco lab where, in 1973, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen developed the first method for engineering bacteria through a process of selecting genes with specific characteristics and inserting them into a bacterium, a process that would later be used to develop synthetic human insulin for diabetics and enzymes used by the food industry to control texture and taste. Boyer and Cohen’s technique ushered in a rash of interest in bioengineering among scientists and corporations alike, fascinated by the mass potential in the new technology to make riper tomatoes, parasite–resistant spuds, and enriched golden rice that would combat blindness in the Third World.

Yet the feats of science and technology developed in the quarter-century since Boyer and Cohen’s breakthrough tell only one side of the story. Once bioagricultural companies had mastered the science and were ready to take their products to the marketplace, a much tougher battle awaited, this one with a public that feared the health and environmental consequences of tampering with nature’s original genetic recipes. Time and again, the public met the introduction of genetically modified food with anxiety regarding its long-term effects.

Monsanto’s debut of bovine growth hormone in 1986 (which promised higher yields of cows’ milk), and a year later Advanced Genetic Science’s open-field test of the “ice-minus” bacterium (which lowered the temperature at which frost forms on crops) were met with protests and subsequent public relations fiascoes. Bovine growth hormone seemed to tamper with a food staple of children solely for the benefit of corporate farmers, and pictures of scientists dressed in space suits spraying strawberries with ice-minus were disconcerting, to say the least. The StarLink debacle and the subsequent recall of 300 products from grocery store shelves generated similar anxiety. Though critics of GM foods have not been able to shut down laboratories, they have been mildly successful in scaring the public from buying such products by filling the vacuum of hard scientific information with “what if” scenarios, an alarmist strategy employed in nearly every paragraph of Eating in the Dark.

Though all the anecdotes and facts Hart presents are disturbing, her arguments never climax. Her primary contention is that there has been no testing done on GM foods to determine that they are in fact safe for human consumption. But the problem is that neither has there been any testing to suggest they are not. Thus, the reader is stuck in the midst of a scientific tug-of-war with no real clarity as to the potential threats to humans or the environment. Instead of facts, we are offered insinuations; in place of studies, opinions. Hart’s strongest piece of evidence that GM food may be harmful turns out to be as dubious as the story about StarLink corn allergies. After dedicating an entire chapter to the supposedly ground-breaking work of British scientist Arpad Pusztai, who determined that Bt potatoes damaged the immune systems of mice, she shatters his credibility. Pusztai’s findings and methods were questioned by his colleagues, his own research institute rebutted his claims, and the UK and EU both relieved him of his duties studying GM foods.

Hart hints, hollers, and shoves the reader towards a conclusion that the technological promise of GM food is as treacherous as that of atomic energy once proved. Her argument for more testing is persuasive. But after 14 chapters, when the smoke clears, she still can offer no clear-cut answer to perhaps the most significant question of all: Should I shop at Safeway or Whole Foods?