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Dinner at the New Gene Café: How Genetic Engineering Is Changing What We Eat, How We Live, and the Global Politics of Food
by Bill Lambrecht

Reviewed by
Teresa Gionis

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Eating genetically modified foods is not likely to be harmful to humans, says a new report on “GM” crops and foods. But the study, by the British GM Science Review Panel, does not give blanket approval to all GM crops and recommends that the safety of GM technology be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Should we be worried? Most American scientists and food producers think not. They generally support GM technology and point out that there are no documented cases of a person becoming ill from eating modified products.

Most people in the United States eat GM foods every day. Breakfast cereals, drinks, and nearly every processed food on grocery shelves contain modified corn or soybean products. Today, U.S. farmers plant 75 million acres in GM crops—primarily corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola; in 1996, they planted zero acres.

The situation in Europe is very different. Many Europeans—including politically active groups—are concerned that GM organisms will harm humans and the environment over the long term. GM foods are derided as “frankenfoods,” many stores refuse to stock them, and many countries have called for a moratorium on their production.

Exacerbating tensions with the Europeans, the Bush administration filed suit in May with the World Trade Organization to overturn the moratorium, claiming the loss of millions of dollars in export revenue.

‘Are scientists merely hastening the evolution of our own vegetables and fruits?’

The cultural dichotomy is among the topics explored in Dinner at the New Gene Café, by the American newspaper journalist Bill Lambrecht. The book, originally published in 2001 and now out in paperback, chronicles the history, development, and marketing of the technology, and focuses on the political consequences associated with the emergence of GM organisms (GMOs) and GM food.

Though comprehensive and informative, the book has the back-and-forth feel of a Ping-Pong match. People on opposing sides of the debate are paired up in each chapter. Lambrecht lets them speak for themselves and rarely takes a strong position.

Genetic modification involves introducing genes from one organism into another in order to get a desired trait. The bulk of GM organisms in circulation today are crops that have been modified to resist herbicides and insects. An example is the use of the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, to make certain agricultural crops insect-resistant.

Bt genes have been inserted into corn, potatoes, and cotton. In 1999, Bt technology reportedly saved farmers from spraying nearly a million gallons of insecticide, mainly on cotton fields. Opponents of this technology worry that insects may, over time, become resistant to Bt.

Critics also worry about unintended harm to other insect species such as monarch butterflies. A small study published in 1999 showed that Bt-gene-containing pollen killed monarch larvae, which instantly made the insect the mascot of the anti-GM movement. The author does not mention, however, that the 1999 study has essentially been debunked by larger studies done in recent years.

Lambrecht has covered the GM story across the globe for nearly two decades and has focused on the St. Louis–based biotech company Monsanto (dubbed “Monsatan” or “Mutanto” by its critics), a leader in the field. Perhaps because of Lambrecht’s familiarity with the company, the Monsanto portions of the book make the best reading.

The book has interviews with biotech industry executives, government officials, scientists, and family farmers, as well as protesters. Transcripts from these conversations are frequently inserted into the text unedited, a practice that doesn’t always work. One chapter simply transcribes a congressional briefing on genetic engineering rather than summarizing the more important remarks.

To get to the heart of what’s going on, Lambrecht asks two questions: “By moving genetic material between organisms and species, are scientists merely hastening the evolution of our own vegetables and fruits, our fibers and oily seeds? Or are they redirecting evolution in ways whose outcomes are, at the least, unpredictable, and perhaps problematic?”

As usual, he turns to the experts for answers. In the familiar point-counterpoint exchange format, the proponents of GM food make a stronger case. They argue that genetic engineering is not so different from ancient agricultural techniques such as crossbreeding and selective fertilization.

For some, this technology is environmentally friendly and has the potential to increase yields and lead to hardier varieties of crops. They argue that millions have eaten genetically altered ingredients with no reported ill effects. The possibility of ending famine in developing countries is a central message of the biotech industry.

The technology could also make food more nutritious. For instance, scientists recently increased the level of vitamin A in rice by inserting a daffodil gene, creating “Golden Rice.” Although years from being commercially available, the product could potentially benefit millions around the world.

But detractors make strong arguments as well and have gotten a lot of media attention, which in some countries has led to mandatory labeling, crop sabotage, moratoriums, and outright bans on GM foods. Their concerns include the risk of allergens in the food, threats to nontarget pests, and the creation of “superweeds,” in which a gene migrates from a GM plant to a neighboring plant in the wild.

Finally, there are powerful, pragmatic arguments. GM crops, detractors say, have not shown any real benefit to consumers, nor have crop yields increased as predicted. Furthermore, most famines are not caused by a lack of food in the world, but rather by an inability to deliver food to those who need it most. Another concern, and one that Lambrecht handles well, is the issue of corporate control and the absence of any strong regulation of the industry. Five companies control 75 percent of the patents on GMOs, and Monsanto owns 90 percent of GM-seed technology.

The book tells the story of the development of a technology dubbed the “Terminator,” which became a public relations disaster. The technology, co-created by American government scientists, renders seeds sterile after one-time use. This could in theory change the way farmers who harvest seeds for planting have operated for centuries, forcing them to buy seeds every year.

“It shattered the myth that commercial biotechnology aims to feed people, which was their mantra,” Lambrecht explains. The public largely believed that one-time-use seeds were an exercise in multinational corporate control, and consumer outrage effectively halted the technology.

His analysis of how corporations are handling the testing and marketing of this technology—for the most part badly, with too much secrecy and speed—is convincing. He gently calls for more comprehensive testing of new products, stronger regulations, and more disclosure to consumers. These all seem like reasonable ideas.

—Related Link—

GM Science Review Panel’s report

The book would be better without some of the repetitive expert opinions and a confusing section on “bio-prospecting” in the jungles of South America. Lambrecht barely touches on the issue of genetically altered animals or putting animal genes in plants, which may turn out to be a concern of the general public.

But as the new study illustrates, GM foods are an important topic, and Dinner at the New Gene Café is compelling in places. Readers are consumers, and this book gives them the opportunity to consider the powerful roles that food and biotechnology play in societies around the world.

Bill Lambrecht. 2001. Dinner at the New Gene Café: How Genetic Engineering Is Changing What We Eat, How We Live, and the Global Politics of Food. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press. 383 pages.

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