SYNOPSIS: Denigrates know-nothing anti-globalists and their lack of context.
Here's a quiz: Two sectors of the global food industry grew rapidly in the late 1990's. The products of one have been extensively tested, without any evidence of harm. Those of the other are known to pose big health risks -- but nobody knows how big, because lobbying by the industry has blocked effective regulation, testing and even reporting. One of these sectors faces passionate public opposition, which may soon drive it entirely out of business, while the other basks in a warm glow of public approval. (a) What sectors are we talking about? (b) Which sector is in trouble?
First, the answers to (a): One sector is the dietary supplement business -- the people who sell you ephedra to lose weight, melatonin to help you sleep, and so on. The other is the genetically modified food business -- which attempts to add genes to natural crops that confer resistance to pests, increased nutritional value and other useful features.
Now the answers to (b): There is extensive evidence that dietary supplements can, if misused, be quite dangerous. A recent survey by The Washington Post finds that "increasing numbers of Americans are falling seriously ill or even dying after taking dietary supplements. . . . The victims include men and women of all ages as well as children. . . ." But a 1994 law specifically exempts supplements from almost all federal regulation, including the need to report adverse effects.
You might expect activist pressure to change that law. But if the bulletin boards at natural product stores near my home are any indication, the people whom one might expect to campaign against an industry that is reckless with people's health -- people who are ready and willing to march against multinational corporations -- are among the dietary supplement industry's most enthusiastic customers. The products are "natural," so they must be O.K.
Then there is genetically modified, or GM, food, which has not been shown to do any harm but arouses furious opposition, especially in Europe. And this is one case in which Britain is truly European: the local furor over GM food -- commonly referred to here as "Frankenfood" -- would have done even the French proud. All the public remembers is the story of the rats that got sick after eating GM potatoes -- a case of misrepresented results, supposed independent experts who were actually political activists, and general media malfeasance. And opposition to GM products is effectively killing the industry -- not just in Europe, but in countries that export to Europe, which effectively means everywhere.
GM food has not really caught fire as an issue in the U.S.; but the sociology of the anti-GM movement here is utterly familiar to anyone who tracks our own anti-globalization movement. A report on the controversy by "Equinox," a British equivalent to the PBS news program "Frontline," caught the picture perfectly: comfortable middle- and upper-class activists talking reverently about the virtues of traditional ways of life and the evils of modern agricultural methods. (Yes, Prince Charles is an anti-GM crusader.) A recurrent refrain was that we have managed without GM for many centuries, so why change?
The answer, of course, is that throughout those many centuries the vast majority of people lived at the edge of starvation; only very recently has a decent life become available to more than a tiny elite. And that decent life is made possible by applied science and technology -- including modern agriculture, which relies crucially on chemicals that developing countries cannot afford. Now, finally, genetic modification -- which can substitute for some of the expensive chemicals used in the West -- offers a hope of escape. And what is the response of the supposed friends of the poor? The same as their response to the new opportunities for job- and income-creating exports offered by growing global trade: horror at the thought of change, romantic rhapsodizing about the virtues of the traditional life.
Hence the strange asymmetry between the treatment of dietary supplements -- which often do real harm, but are "natural" -- and GM foods, which can do enormous good, but are "unnatural." Too bad that the wretched of the earth will, as usual, pay the price for the fantasies of the affluent.
Originally published in The New York Times, 3.22.00