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Should you be scared of genetically modified food?

By Margaret Wappler

APRIL 24, 2000:  Pushing my cart through a selection of neatly stacked, gleaming fruits identified as organic, I shop at Whole Foods when I want to treat myself and pretend I can reverse the effect of those vending-machine potato chips I ate at work with a few untainted grapefruits, or some purchases from the store's reasonably-priced 365 line.

What a shock it was then, to find out Whole Foods tested their 365 line and found plenty of genetically modified organisms (gmo) running rampant. Another surprise: Whole Foods, as stated on their Website, actively engages "in efforts to establish mandatory labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients," but nothing is said about barring products that contain them. They do, however, promise to aim for a goal of as little gmos as possible in their 365 line, stating "gmo-free" guarantees cannot be made on any product, since it's impossible to test every container, or every seed a farmer may use.

Say hello to the wondrously warped, spin-doctored world of bioengineering versus organic foods. Think of two 12-year-old girls who pine after the same cute boy over a vicious pillow fight, and you've got some idea of how hard both of these teams yank scientific evidence over to their side. On the biotech end, a coalition of mega-corporations have discovered ways to genetically modify food to produce fish-on-a-bicycle qualities like its own insecticide, its own defense system against crop-devastating diseases, or a power-punch of nutrients. These companies argue they're doing something to end world hunger: producing cheap, mass amounts of food with little bottom line.

On the green side, organizations like Greenpeace cry out for shoppers to support local farmers who use organic methods that don't "leach the Earth of valuable resources," as Bruce Sherman, chef at North Pond Café, put it. What are organic methods? Rink Davee, part of an organic cooperative of farmers called Home Grown Wisconsin, which sells to Madison and Chicago restaurants, explains, "Organic farming is more labor intensive. We use no synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides."

So which side do you sit on? It's hard to be agnostic when Greenpeace activists climbed the facade of Kellogg's Cereal City to unfurl a huge banner that proclaimed "Kellogg's: Stop Feeding FrankenFood to America's Kids." Also displayed on the banner: Tony the Tiger done up Frankenstein-style, cheering "They're Gr-ross!" Chefs like Sherman agree that industrial products filled with gmo cannot hold a candle to the organic selection. "I use organics when the product itself is featured on the plate... because the flavor always shines."

The biotech companies realize, as Thomas R. DeGregori of the Institute of Economic Affairs states, "They [Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth] scored early... by defining the terms of discussion with such names as frankenfoods and terminator genes." DeGregori's article, entitled "Genetically Modified Nonsense," is a nineteen-page attempt to categorically dismantle many of the arguments brought up by both environmental groups and concerned politicians, most of them abroad, where wars over gmos have reached fever pitch.

Monsanto, one of the seven leading corporations producing bioengineered foods, features DeGregori's article on their Website, in an effort to diffuse the political force-field that surrounds their developments. Monsanto, which has recently merged to become part of Pharmacia, is the developer of such agricultural products as btCorn, which produces its own insecticide. Besides sponsoring an exhibit at Walt Disney's Epcot Center entitled "Beautiful Science," Monsanto has the big cheeses -- FDA, American Dietetic Association -- in its pocket: The FDA has determined "Plant foods produced through biotechnology present no inherent risk and, therefore, should be regulated as any other food entering the marketplace."

Where the organic movement has stalled-out is, ironically enough, in the same gray area that biotech foods have been stumped by, too: labeling concerns and federal regulations. Most studies show Americans aren't comfortable with the idea of gmo and would avoid buying them, if labeled. As the owner of all-organic Earth Cafe, Barry Bursak stresses "Organic farmers have their own definitions that vary from state to state. They've [organic supporters] been petitioning [the FDA] to give a federal standard so that organic means exactly the same thing from state to state. When they finally did come out with a national standard, they included the use of gmo and irradiation, and [the use of] sewage sludge, which has heavy metals. There was a massive outcry," and the proposed national standard never got approval.

When one side doesn't have to label, and the other side's labels all mean something different, how can you be sure of what you are buying? Because the jury is still out on whether foods with gmo have any long-term effects (the foods have been on our shelves in large quantities only since the early nineties), consider a piece of advice from chef Sherman: "When making stocks or sauces, I'm not going to waste my money using organic product." Organic products are expensive, as Bursak well knows: Earth is planning on closing down after three years, due to flagging profit margins. But don't forget this helpful hint: Goose Island is now brewing Wolaver's, the nation's first certified organic beer, and it is delicious. And Frito-Lay has made a commitment not to use gmo corn in Fritos, due to consumer concerns. So guzzle down, chomp away, and rest assured.

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