Most arguments against the technique are more sentimental
than logical. Genetic modification, albeit of a more
gradual sort, has taken place in fields for centuries
without any harm to human beings. In many poor parts of the
world, the efficiency of genetic modification might be the
difference between a harvest and starvation. The most
genuine scientific uncertainty seems to be over whether
genetically modified seeds wreck local ecosystems,
spreading with the winds and contaminating neighboring
plants and insects.
Prince Charles's argument that scientists shouldn't try to
splice together genes that God deliberately kept apart
resonates on a continent where people already have had
plenty of unpleasant surprises involving "modern food,"
even without genetic modification. Britons were a little
shocked to discover in the mad cow controversy that their
farmers had been feeding bits of dead sheep to cows. Now
the European Union has ordered a huge cull of Belgian
chickens after the revelation that they had been
contaminated by a cancer-causing chemical.
It is a good bet that similar angry and questioning voices
will start to be heard in the United States.
American agribusiness is not noticeably healthier than the
European variety. The $5 billion organic food industry has
plainly grown out of the beard-and-sandals ghetto.
Although it is hard to imagine the home of the microwave
dinner and the Big Mac banning new sorts of food, the
argument that genetically modified products should be
labeled may prove hard to resist.
Were it just to be a matter of slapping the odd "G.M. free"
sticker on cans of beans, then the whole process might be
worthwhile. But a second, nastier trend is also at work.
The vilification of Monsanto is just one example of a
growing anti-American slant to the debate about food in
Indeed, food safety now seems to be one of the easiest
places for ugly nationalist emotions to hide. Europe's
Common Agricultural Policy is the single nastiest piece of
protectionism in the world; its American equivalent is not
much better. Politicians, whether they are Presidential
candidates in Iowa or prospective deputies in Normandy,
conspicuously avoid talk of reform.
It is not inconceivable that in a decade's time people will
look back on the current rows about food as a turning point
for both globalization and what used to be called the
Western alliance. If so, that old saying -- "what is good
for G.M. is good for America" -- may have an ironic ring.
John Micklethwait, the New York bureau chief of The
Economist, is the co-author of a forthcoming book on
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