Eating in the Dark

Kathleen Hart

Read March 2005

Hart's book is about biotechnology, and specifically about genetically modified (GM) foodstuff. Any book on a topic like this forces us to keep separate our opinion about the subject matter from our opinion of the book itself; Hart's makes the distinction especially important. For, while the book partially accomplishes what it sets out to do, it is only partially compelling, and arguably even does its cause some harm.

What is its cause? Well, that's easy to tell from the very first page, which recounts a person suffering from anaphylactic shock and nearly dying from (purportedly) the consumption of GM corn. The point of the book is that Americans have been fed the product of GM crops with little knowledge of the fact, little discussion or choice in the matter, and even less awareness of the potential outcomes. This last point will undoubtedly be controversial given that, as even this book acknowledges, so little is known about their possible effect; but a reasonable strategy is to then adopt failsafe measures.

The book does make one point well: given how little we understand about GM food, it's fair for consumers to have their food labeled and to be given a choice they can exercise. One of the more disturbing aspects of GM foods is that so little care has been exercised in their planting that significant cross-fertilization appears to have already resulted, making it unclear whether it's even possible to obtain untainted food in any significant quantities. This exercises Hart, and rightly so.

Where the book fails is in its approach to the science—which, after all, should be one of its focal points. For a book about genetic modification written for the general consumer (so to speak), it surprisingly doesn't contain even the smallest description of what genes are or what genetic modification entails—though there is, at one point, a description of a gene gun, which you suspect is present primarily because the author expects a visceral reaction from her reader to the word ``gun'' and, indeed, to the similarly violent way in which the said device behaves. When she consults books like Ecology: A Pocket Guide (p. 60) and Biotechnology Unzipped (p. 61), you begin to wonder how many more serious biology texts she has consulted in addition. Indeed, the book is so full of quotation that at times, it can read like the reproduction of a he-said-she-said argument. She herself offers virtually no analysis. This may be the wiser course if she lacks the appropriate scientific training, but it does then call into question why she's qualified to write this book.

There are other ways in which her credibility is questionable. She mentions disturbing experiments, especially those of Árpád Pusztai, but later points out that the same experiments have been discredited, even by the scientific community; yet she never tries to probe further (especially for more recent developments). Furthermore, she repeatedly and dismayingly engages in the fallacy that if lots of people are concerned about something, it must be for a good reason. And so on. There is no attempt to relate these new crops to such classic advances as IR-8 (indeed, Norman Borlaug barely makes a guest appearance in this account).

It's also unfortunate that Hart doesn't seem to entirely appreciate the odd position in which the US government finds itself. Its various agencies must not only regulate food and drugs but are also responsible for promoting them. She assumes that the desire to promote American trade overseas is the single compelling factor behind the government's behavior, but that's not entirely clear. Furthermore, a fuller discussion of the production of corn must surely cover America's bizarre agricultural subsidies, the promotion of Ethanol, etc. None of this is here.

Set against this, the book does make a compelling case to at least be concerned, and does leave the reader with a clear sense that something here warrants further investigation. I certainly came a skeptic and left perturbed. And, to give credit where it's due, the book has an excellent index (sadly so often missing).

Perhaps this era of biotechnology is nearing its end anyway. Scientists increasingly try to create characteristics by stimulating expression within an organism's genetic code rather than by transplanting genes and hoping for the right behavior. Is this era any less scary? Or are we lulled by the inability to attach ominous labels such as ``Frankenfoods''?

On the other hand, while I was reading this book, I found the following quote by Ray Kurzweil (Red Herring, March 7, 2005), referring to GM foods amongst other things:

Only technology can improve things by factors of 10,000—there's no other approach.