August 29, 2002
10:56 PM   Subscribe

Along with water, there's been increased interested in food issues lately. Probably the most controversial issue is genetically modified foods. And it looks like here in Canada, they're not going to be labelled. The day after I read this in the paper, Steve Talbott published an issue of his superb newsletter Netfuture, with this thoughtful essay. [more inside]
posted by slipperywhenwet (10 comments total)
After maybe ten years on line, Netfuture is still one of the best things I’ve seen. Those interested should read the entry above Holdrege’s essay to get an idea of Talbott’s style of critique, and the breadth of his interests. (If you’re reading his writing for the first time it might seem somewhat airy-fairy and presumptuous in its logical progression. Bear in mind that he’s already written 134 of these newsletters, and a book: browse back a bit, and you’ll become acquainted with his theoretical ‘vocabulary,’ which he sort of short hands here.)

If you’re interested more specifically in food issues, the golden rice essay mentioned at the end of Holdrege’s piece is one of my all round favourites. Also interesting is this essay on the industrialisation of pig farming.
posted by slipperywhenwet at 11:03 PM on August 29, 2002

Gah! Boxes!
posted by slipperywhenwet at 11:03 PM on August 29, 2002

But will they be labelled in both French and English?

Seriously though, there was a LTTE in the Globe and Mail the other that addressed this issue. I agree with him that you could insist on all sorts of labelling requirements for food. Better to stick with nutrition and safety information
posted by alrob at 1:03 AM on August 30, 2002

alrob, did you read the first link? We have labelling for lots of things beyond just nutrition and safety - juices can't claim to be juices if they have additives, or if they're reconstituted from concentrate; vanilla flavoured is distinguished from real vanilla, etc.

But beyond that, Wreford's really thin attempt at satire is actually what we need to be doing: whether or not you support genetic engineering, or any other specific policy, most consumers are way to ignorant about how their food is produced (myself included). Like Holdrege says, when you buy a product, you're implicitly supporting an entire world view, and you should have some idea of what that view is.
posted by slipperywhenwet at 8:54 AM on August 30, 2002

Anyone who believes the FDA's line that they tested these foods and found them safe and indistinguishable from non-GMO foods should read the internal memoranda from the FDA's own scientists expressing extreme concern and documenting significant problems with the approval process. I know, the site's front page has that wacky font/color hodgepodge that says "conspiracy theorist," but this page is OK, and you can read the scientists' and FDA's own words on the subject. (And lest it should come up, despite my screen name I am NO fan of GMO soy, which is to say most soy grown in this country.)
posted by soyjoy at 9:24 AM on August 30, 2002

soyjoy, on the front page of that site they list "DNA from viruses, bacteria, insects, and animals" as a scary thing by itself, which almost certainly guarantees you that anything else they say is worthless. Oh, no! There's some viral gene promoter sequence in my corn! And an enzyme from a potato in my tomato! Ah!

If they start expressing neurotoxins in fruits and vegetables, then we have a problem. But oranges and broccoli that kill you in twenty seconds probably wouldn't sell real well, so I doubt Monsanto has those in the works.

Anyway, there are lots of problems with current attempts at genetic engineering, but safety is generally not one of them. Labeling products which use GMO will do nothing beneficial. The only purpose it serves is to further hysterical anti-GMO viewpoints, as most consumers can do nothing more than be scared by a label they don't understand. This will cripple a technique which has great potential. There are legitimate complaints to be made (constitutive Bt expression was risky but luckily appears to not be causing problems) and more FDA regulation is always a nice thing, but in the grand list of things to be frightened by, GMO is pretty low.
posted by justin at 3:10 PM on August 30, 2002

justin, what choo talkin' about? Genetic engineering is an imprecise technology. They shoot the genes into the cells with a gun for crying out loud: there's no control over where stuff gets inserted and how intact the genetic material is. Then once they've weeded out all the obvious freaks they grow a few generations of ostensibly normal crops, and claim they're safe because no one's found a risk associated with them.. yet. At the very least safety should be evaluated with a precautionary principle in mind. This is our food supply - it's not something we should be complacent about.
posted by slipperywhenwet at 8:51 PM on August 30, 2002

I know how these things are made, and I agree that it is very crude at this point. However, the freaks are the result of severely disrupted cell and developmental cycles. The likelihood of entirely new, unintended, and dangerous gene products is very low. With regards to consumers, the only major issue is that of allergic reactions. That, of course, should be noted on packaging when it could be relevant.

As for ecology, we should be mindful of the potential ramifications of additional genes (ie. the Bt thing I mentioned before), and I believe that additional oversight by the USDA or FDA would be good. But we're really not exploring a substantially more dangerous path than our existing agriculture practices, and genetic engineering will eventually provide a food supply that is larger and more stable while having a smaller environmental impact. In fact, looming potential problems (ie. freshwater shortage) with our current system might make radically engineered plants a necessity within the near future.
posted by justin at 2:46 AM on August 31, 2002

The likelihood of entirely new, unintended, and dangerous gene products is very low.

The likelihood of being struck by lightening is pretty low, too, but one doesn't run about waving metal poles in the air during a thunderstorm.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:41 PM on August 31, 2002

The likelihood of being struck by lightening is pretty low, too, but one doesn't run about waving metal poles in the air during a thunderstorm.

How about a counter-analogy: we shouldn't use radio because the transmissions might eventually reach an advanced, powerful, and extremely xenophobic alien species that will immediately head for earth and kill us all. Never mind the potential benefits of radio. The aliens might hear us.

The danger that GMO poses to consumers, in the form of one's tofu suddenly poisoning you, is insignificant, even with the paltry screening that takes place. There are legitimate ecological concerns, but they aren't in the supermarket or your kitchen.
posted by justin at 12:03 PM on September 3, 2002

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