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Eating in the Dark: America's Experiment with Genetically Engineered Food Paperback – August 12, 2003
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Genetically modified food is in the news and on our plates. And while consumers may not have known they were being used as lab rats, America's uncontrolled experiment with such "inventions" as StarLink corn, with its built-in insecticide, is already well under way. In Eating in the Dark, environmental journalist Kathleen Hart examines the battles being fought in boardrooms, grocery stores, and government agencies over the creation, distribution, and regulation of genetically engineered organisms. The truth is quite disturbing. Companies like Monsanto began releasing modified seeds to farmers in the 1990s, but consumers weren't informed. From baby formula made from engineered soybeans to taco shells that cause dangerous allergy attacks, the stories here are well-researched and frightening. Hart accuses the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of aiding and abetting what she calls a public health "nightmare," and she calls for both intense research and strong legislation as a way of getting the experiment under control. --Therese Littleton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
If we are what we eat, then we may be ingesting our way toward a sick new world: that's the gist of Hart's cautionary examination of how "Frankenstein food" genetically modified food, particularly corn- and soy-based products has come to fill grocery store shelves in the past decade. Hart, a health and environment writer for 15 years, is aghast that produce modified by biotech companies is not labeled. She is bewildered that consumer resistance has been much slower to develop in the United States than in Japan and in Europe, where test fields of modified sugar beets and oilseed have been destroyed by scythe-wielding "croppers." She worries about the impact of altered plants on pollinating bees and butterflies, and she fears the long-term health consequences of an uninformed and unsuspecting population becoming guinea pigs for an untested agricultural technology. For all her concerns, however, Hart is no one-note alarmist; the book is admirable for its exhaustive, balanced presentation and in its grasp of the science and the politics propelling the biotech industry. Some readers may find it a little dry. There are scattered colorful quotes from British protestors and angry American farmers, and there's the tale of a San Francisco woman who may have had a life-threatening allergic reaction to modified corn, but otherwise Hart's book is short on human-interest hooks and the storytelling punch carried by last fall's less fact-laden but more sprightly Lords of the Harvest, by Daniel Charles.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Ms. Hart is an experienced journalist who has done an excellent job documenting the activities of the biotech industry and its opponents. The author shows that much of the so-called debate that has played out in the media has been mostly pro-industry propaganda and public relations, with most Americans remaining blissfully unaware of the risks they may be taking by eating GE food products. This contrasts sharply with Europe, Japan and elsewhere, where the public has prevailed upon their representatives to enact labeling laws and keep most biotech food out of their countries.
Ms. Hart discusses scientific studies that are critical of GE products to make the case that more study is needed before approval is granted. The protestations from the biotech industry that these studies represent "junk science" are beside the point. It is not unreasonable to demand that radical food products -- such as potatoes and corn that produce their own pesticides -- are thoroughly tested before being released into the environment; this would seem especially true when one considers that there is absolutely no nutritional benefit for the consumers who ingest these products. But of course a strict regime of testing does not serve the interests of capital, which must recoup its investment and earn profits as quickly as possible. Hence the pressure on U.S. government agencies filled with powerful ex-industry executives to hastily approve these dubious products for sale.
Ms. Hart provides abundant evidence that consumers and environmentalists should be very, very afraid of the captains of biotech and their products; their penchant for mischief could hardly be imagined by the most talented writers of fiction. For example, Monsanto's aborted "terminator" seed project threatened to introduce crops that would produce sterile seeds in a corporate scheme that would have made the world almost totally dependent on its products for the maintenance of the food supply. Another example is "bio-pharming", which is the insane idea of using food crops to grow pharmaceutical products in an open-air environment. Unfortunately, bio-pharming could result in cross-pollination with native plants and might ultimately ruin staples that humanity has depended on for thousands of years. Ms. Hart makes it clear that such risks are totally unnecessary and deserves much greater attention from the public if we are to avert disaster in the future.
On the positive side, the book helps us understand that the new science of genomics might render GE techniques obsolete, providing researchers with tools that merely enhance age-old plant breeding practices and deliver on the promise of more healthy and nutritious foods. Let's hope that this is the case. But in the meantime, the evidence presented in this book suggests that GE products should be labeled and the industry regulated much more closely than it is today, if not banned outright.
I strongly encourage everyone to read this book.
The reference to consumers as being "force-fed", as chapter one is titled, already serves to bias the discussion against GM foods. The omission of information or labels does not by itself force people to purchase any food products, organic or otherwise. If consumers suspect that any of the foods they purchase are contaminated in any way, they are free not to purchase them. In addition, the dialog in this book, as in many others (both for and against GM foods), is targeted toward an abstraction called the "public". The members of the "public" never seem to be characterized explicity, but instead the "public" is used to justify social and political policy that must be put into place to protect the "public".
The author quotes individuals in the book who consider the genetic engineering of foodstuffs as "unstable" or "unpredictable". These terms are not defined explicitly, but instead examples are given, such as petunia coloration and growth hormones in farm animals. None of these examples though serve to illustrate what unstable or unpredictable means in the context of genetic engineering, which makes heavy use of statistical analysis and probability theory. Clarity of formulation is essential in any debate, but even more so in the context of genetic engineering, due to its enormous societal impact.
The author seems to express surprise that government agencies, such as the FDA and the USDA, are supportive of biotechnology, and not being aggressive enough in insuring that GM foodstuffs are safe. But inactivity on the part of government agencies is not a sign that they are "in bed" with the biotech industry. It might merely mean that their competence lags behind the science. Bureaucracies, with their characteristic inertia, are fine examples of Newton's first law.
The chapter on "lethal" corn pollen was not convincing, and I was hoping that the author would have given more insight on the controversy that arose regarding monarch butterflies and their reaction to Bt corn. Although the author gives good details on what was said in the monarch problem, she still leaves open the question as to whether or not monarchs indeed react adversely to Bt pollen. The study the author quoted, by the entomologist John Losey, is still incomplete in this regard. A rigorous risk assessment study is in order here, supported by painstaking experimental research. Modeling efforts could also assist in clearing up issues that cannot be studied in the field or laboratory.
There are many other books that have appeared in the last few years that take the anti-biotech stance that the author of this book does, and no doubt many more will appear in the future. There have not been many books however that serve as apologies for genetic engineering. This asymmetry in representation of the issues in GM foods needs to be rectified, but it must be done with calm, rational discussion, and supported by careful scientific experimentation. It does not serve the biotech industry at all to dismiss books like this and other studies as being "junk science". The optimal approach is for biotech CEOs, scientists, and spokespeople to be completely honest in their assessements of their products, supporting vigorously the good ones, and withdrawing completely those that are not. A passive attitude among the supporters of genetic engineering might encourage the dismissal of products that could be of enormous importance to the world's populations.
This is the best book that I have read on the subject. (Lately there have been articles in reliable newspapers about how GMO foods starve our bodies, and we are shipping these foods to countries where they need real nutrition.)
Read the book. Discover why we are, and have, created these foods, and how to avoid them. It's getting easier to do!
Thank you, Ms. Hart, for bringing this subject into the light,