It's Alive!

In the 1931 Hollywood version of Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff as a monster composed of reanimated bits of various corpses, the film ends with the monster being destroyed by a mob of torch-wielding peasants. As any good neo-Stalinist film critic can tell you, the peasants are, as peasants are wont to be in the Marxist imagination, superstitious, ignorant, petit bourgeois reactionaries.

Faced with news of developments in contemporary agriculture involving the creation of genetically modified plants, a British journalist invented the term Frankenfoods. The word caught on immediately with the British press and public. In England, according to a recent New York Times article, test fields of genetically modified plants have been burned on orders of the country's agriculture ministers. There are now Americans, intellectual descendants of those above-mentioned torch-wielding yeomen, who use the term as well, and spend their time in reactionary activities, from posting Web pages on the Internet to destroying crops.

The latest outbreak of mob hysteria was incited by the news that Kraft Foods had recalled, nationwide, its Taco Bell Home Original taco shells that were found to have been made, in part, with a new type of corn, milled in Texas, that contains a bacterium gene inserted to make the grain toxic to a specific insect. A spokesman for Kraft released a statement that said, in part, "The government should never have allowed farmers to grow a biotech crop that isn't approved for human consumption." Strong words from a giant corporation whose spokescritter is a talking Chihuahua.

Just what sort of a disaster befell Kraft Foods and Taco Bell? From a public relations standpoint, where scientific data meets public opinion, a huge disaster. From the standpoint of the health of the mooks who feed on these repellent little snacks, no disaster at all.

On Tuesday, September 26, the monthly meeting of the Houston chapter of the Roundtable for Women in Foodservice was addressed by Dr. Mark R. McLellan, director of the Institute for Food Science and Engineering at Texas A&M. The Roundtable membership includes industry executives, restaurateurs and academics who are responsible for making decisions about the public food supply. After explaining the basic science behind genetically modified organisms, GMOs, McLellan took questions. The taco-shells topic was raised in short order.

Reached at his office later, McLellan went into further detail about the taco-shell storm. The corn in question is a GMO developed by Aventis CropScience and marketed under the trade name StarLink. The StarLink corn contains a single gene, taken from a bacterium, that makes the plant toxic to a pest, the corn borer, which is responsible for destroying a significant proportion of the U.S. corn crop every year. A number of other agricultural firms have been selling, for the past four years, seed corn containing a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which makes the plant toxic to the caterpillars of the order Lepidoptera. (The Lepidoptera are the Babes and Bambis of the insect world, commonly known as moths and butterflies.) This corn is known to farmers and food scientists, who often have as much trouble pronouncing taxonomic Latin names as the rest of us, as "B.t. corn." Last year about 20 million acres, out of the 80 million acres of corn planted in the United States, was B.t. corn.

McLellan explained of StarLink that "Although it is listed as food for animals, it is currently under review by the federal government for human consumption, with the data submitted showing that it does not have a genetic material that could cause an allergic response. A mill in Texas was grinding it, and it should have been clearly marked and segregated.As a human safety issue, the threat is all but nonexistent."

The threat to which McLellan refers is real enough in theory. It is regularly mentioned by the GMO alarmists. If a protein-producing gene from a peanut plant, for instance, were introduced into a corn plant, and if a person who was hyperallergic to that particular peanut protein ate the corn, thinking it was a nonallergenic food, there could be a bad or even fatal reaction. Yes, and if a top pastry chef were whipping up a dessert with frangipani cream, and if the chef, finding the kitchen cabinet to be out of bitter almond extract, were to flavor the cream with a similar-smelling cyanide compound, the dessert would be fatal to a consumer. But that is a lot of ifs -- and one very crazed pastry chef.

"You have to use common sense; you have to be aware of potential problems," McLellan told his Houston audience, "but GMOs are the next step in agriculture. What the green revolution accomplished for the world's food supply in the 1950s and 1960s, the GMO revolution will accomplish, and more, in the coming years."

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George Alexander