Let’s Ask Marion: Who Benefits From Bio-Tech “Breakthroughs”?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Food Politics and What to Eat:)

Kat: Scientists and bio-tech companies have been tirelessly tinkering with plants and animals in pursuit of such innovations as E-coli-resistant cows, crops with built-in pesticides, and pigs whose poop is less polluting. Biotech boosters tout genetically modified crops as the solution to everything that ails the world, from hunger to drought to depleted topsoil to oil dependence.

Meanwhile, the Frankenfood-fearing faction worries that cloned cows, omega-3 enhanced sows, and errant seeds from genetically modified crops will unleash a pandora’s box of health, environmental, and ethical issues.

But are we letting our justifiable distrust of corporations like Monsanto blind us to biotech’s bright side? Are there any technological breakthroughs that represent real progress, or are the scientists too busy putting probiotics into Pop-Tarts (or whatever) to accomplish anything truly useful?

Dr. Nestle: I'd say the Pandora's box is already wide open. That's why I wrote Safe Food (Univ. of Calif. Press, 2003). In it, I tried to distinguish the health from the environmental and ethical issues and to consider each set of them separately. Because the biotechnology industry only considered health issues--and discounted ethical issues as irrelevant--it made two serious mistakes. It over-hyped the benefits of the technology, and it lobbied successfully against having to label foods as genetically modified. First, the non-labeling: it turns GM foods into something shoved down consumers' throats. If you want to avoid them, tough. You can't.

The over-hyping leads directly to your question about whether food biotechnology does any good at all. What good are they to anyone other than patent holders like Monsanto? I am willing to grant that several GM products are useful, if not breakthroughs, but the list is short: (1) pharmaceuticals such as recombinant insulin (more reliable than other methods), (2) chymosin, the enzyme required for coagulating cheese (it sure beats killing baby calves for their enzymes), and (3) papayas with genes for resistance to ringspot virus (I like papayas).

Beyond these, I think the benefits are still in the realm of theory. I wish the industry would do some serious work on solutions to problems of third-world agriculture--nitrogen-fixation and drought-resistance, for example--but those are difficult scientifically and who would pay for them? Biotech companies are not social service agencies; they are corporations. So instead, they did GM soybeans and corn.

Maybe something like the Gates Foundation would be interested in funding useful research, but the industry has behaved so badly--fighting labeling, persecuting farmers, protecting patents above all other considerations--that it has lost whatever credibility it might have had at one time. That's why ethical issues matter.