'Food' offers riveting, disturbing reality check
By Christine Thomas
Special to The Advertiser
By Christine Thomas
"Food Fray: Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Food," by Lisa H. Weasel, Ph.D., Amacom; 234 pages; $23
From corn, papaya, rice, soy and cotton to Roundup-ready crops, food-engineered vaccines, recombinant growth hormones and biofuels, our nation has been awash in genetically modified foods and products for more than a decade. In 2008 alone, "Food Fray" author Lisa Weasel enlightens us, "80 percent of all corn, 86 percent of all cotton, and 92 percent of all soybeans grown in the United States were GM varieties."
Closer to home, Weasel's book also explains how GM foods arrived on Hawai'i shores in the early '90s via a free strain of GM papaya dubbed "Rainbow," which was quickly adopted as a cure for the devastating ringspot virus. Years later the USDA began planting biopharm field studies in secret locations in our state, until a U.S. district judge here ordered them made public. In 2006, a federal judge ruled they had violated federal environmental laws.
Yet Hawai'i's central role as a place to grow experimental GM crops remains little known. And despite the overwhelming presence of GM foods here and throughout the nation, more than half of Americans still believe they've never eaten them, as corporations and interest groups continually justify their pro-GM stance by asserting we just don't care. It's this frightening misconception that drove renowned scientist Weasel's research into the GM food issue, funded by a National Science Foundation grant and presented in this vital and readable narrative.
What Weasel found is that Americans absolutely do care — we simply don't know.
"At best," Weasel says, "a smokescreen of ignorance and uncertainty cloaks the topic of GM food for most Americans."
And while she planned to focus the book primarily on science and ethics, Weasel also discovered that the issue's inextricable intersection with politics couldn't be denied. So "Food Fray" isn't the pure science book she intended, but instead takes a complex and highly-charged issue that is shrouded in secrecy and pushes back the curtains, calmly and clearly explaining the science, breaking down complicated processes in digestible bites, describing the history that led us here.
The book's canvas is broad, encompassing GM food's roots in the American scientific community, including the first homegrown warnings in the 1970s; crucial differences from the Green Revolution; the underpinnings of Europe's staunch opposition; Zambia's refusal of U.S. GM food aid during the 2002 food crisis; India, where GM crops are arguably doomed since they aren't drought-resistant; and America's growing refusal of dairy products containing bovine growth hormone. Peppered throughout is the ubiquitous name Monsanto, a Cold War chemical warfare manufacturer turned biotech innovator and GM superpower.
As each debate point is evocatively elucidated, the public relations campaign asserted by the likes of Monsanto and even President Bush that GM foods will solve world hunger is revealed to be a gross overstatement at best, and, at worst, an outright lie. Likewise, the claim that GM foods are safe to eat appears as unfounded as the counter argument that they aren't, while the "We've eaten it and nothing has happened to us" reasoning many pro-GM scientists offer is criticized as one of the most unscientific and flimsy reassurances imaginable.
A riveting and disturbing reality check, "Food Fray" stands as a crucial reminder that it's time for the American public to be informed, not passive. And Weasel's compelling voice is a welcome affirmation that the desire to know more about GM foods before eating them, and allay concerns about safety and environmental impacts before planting them, isn't at all anti-science. It's decidedly pro-human.
Read more of Christine Thomas's reviews at www.literarylotus.com.