Close Encounters With GMOs: The Good, the Bad, and the Glow-in-the-Dark

Do we owe every comfort and balm of our modern age to experiments that skirt the edges of what we believe is right and good?
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(PHOTO: MARCIN BALCERZAK/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: MARCIN BALCERZAK/SHUTTERSTOCK)

I grew up in the company of animals. Our house was no farm—the in-ground pool and the desktop PCs both signaled middle-class status—but my dad leased the back five acres to a farmer for alfalfa. Our neighbors kept horses, which sounds aristocratic except for the adjacent pig pen. Sheep and chickens lived within the smell radius. But the Big Dog of the area was Upjohn Farms, the animal research wing of a global pharmaceutical giant.

The Upjohn Farms estate was a rolling green of two square miles, including hills, woods, and cows. Lots of cows. Often those languid beasts would loiter at the wood fence across the street from our driveway. Once, as my mother drove our Honda hatchback up the rutted dirt road, I told her that I thought cows were cute.

“Cute?” she laughed. “They’re cows.”

“But if their heads were on smaller bodies?”

“Maybe,” she said.

I did not know then the long history of cows and how humans had domesticated them from a small herd of wild cattle called aurochs more than 10,000 years ago. The auroch is extinct, but if ancient cave paintings are to be believed, they were a sight more elegant than the behemoths that lunched on the grassy fields of Upjohn Farms with numbered white tags in their ears. I asked my mother about the tags, once, too.

“They’re for the experiments,” she said.

I do not recall asking more about the experiments. Perhaps I knew better.

The Farms estate included a large central facility, which our family toured during the Upjohn Centennial celebration in 1986. During our tour, we were told about a room where visitors could see the cows that had plastic windows in their stomachs. The plastic windows were also for the experiments. We skipped that part of the itinerary.

Not long after our tour, I came across a photo of a ghoulishly glowing plant in the back pages of Time magazine. Time appeared weekly in our mailbox and it offered one of the few ways for a Midwestern boy to glimpse the larger world. According to the article that accompanied the picture in the November 17, 1986, issue, scientists far away at the University of San Diego had successfully spliced fire fly genes into a tobacco plant to create the world’s first glow-in-the-dark farm crop.

I buy the organic food for my kids because they are young, they are vulnerable, and their mother and I are pretty much the only line of defense they have. I am skeptical about the true peril inherent in every form of industrial pesticide, but why take the chance?

“This is so cool,” I kept saying.

Toward the end of the article, a senior member of the research team at USD proudly proclaimed, “The scientific community will be able to exploit this tool for as many purposes as one can imagine.”

Skip ahead almost 30 years. I don’t know if there are many tours where the general public can see plastic windows in the bellies of cows anymore. And I don’t know if restless 10-year-olds still flip through printed weekly newsmagazines (or if there are printed weekly newsmagazines). But I suspect that today Time magazine would never baldly trumpet the kind of inter-species engineering involved in creating glow-in-the-dark tobacco. A decade after the human genome has been cracked open and sheep clones have born and died, the bloom is off the genetically modified rose; a rose is a rose is still a rose, except when it’s a white rose with pansy genes artificially inserted in order to make its petals a disturbingly vivid blue.

HOVER CARS, JET PACKS, cyborgs, a world without disease, free energy, and limitless food—these were only a few of the Tomorrowland ideas that 20th-century children were promised as the birthright of Americans in the not-too-distant future. As of 2013, none of these promises have been fulfilled, with one potential exception.

We live in an age of steadily increasing food abundance. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 76.8 percent of the population in developing countries had enough food in 1990. For 2012, that number improved to 87.5 percent. Better tools, better transportation, and better meteorology get much of the credit for the boom in food production. But a healthy share of the credit should also arguably go to some of the large agribusiness firms, including the controversial kingpin of genetically modified foods, the Monsanto Company.

A born-again bioengineering company, Monsanto has been around for almost 100 years, and for most of that time it functioned as a chemical manufacturer with the dubious distinction of creating popular pesticides and a certain notorious ex-foliate used in Vietnam. In the '90s, the firm found a new religion, or at least a new profit motive, and began buying small seed companies and charging house chemists with the problem of how to create better “farm technology.” Rather than create better trucks or new-fangled irrigators, Monsanto wanted to engineer better seeds.

So what does that mean? Basically, Monsanto scientists spliced animal genes into a host of seeds and then planted all the seeds to see what happened. They didn’t make cotton that glows kryptonite-green—although they likely could have. Instead, they made the cotton plant into a tougher crop by adding a gene that allowed the grown-up plant to be doused with Monsanto-brand pesticides and not die. They also made corn hardier. They altered the genetic structure of tomatoes, canola, and so on.

Ten years after essentially inventing the market for modified seeds, Monsanto controlled 91 percent of the market. Today, the firm has 20,000 employees and is larger than ever. Of the corn eaten in the United States, fully 86 percent of it comes from genetically modified seeds; the resulting plants are sometimes referred to as GMOs (genetically modified organisms); sometimes, they’re just called Frankenfood.

Monsanto’s website today features beautiful hi-res photos of rot-resistant soybean fields and close-ups of lush, drought-resistant corn. Their mission statement declares that they are “focused on empowering farmers—large and small—to produce more from their land while conserving more of our world's natural resources.”

A simple Google search on “Monsanto” lays bare the charged air around all the company does. The company’s official website appears as the first result, followed by a Wikipedia entry, and then, in third place: “Organic Consumers Association: Millions Against Monsanto.” From there, the drop-off in tone is precipitous: “Is Monsanto the World’s Most Evil Corporation?” asks the sixth link. “Occupy Monsanto,” is the seventh result. Links to numerous exposé-style YouTube documentaries begin to proliferate the further one goes. The smell of brimstone fills the air.

Both those for and against the use of GMO foods are adept at trotting out studies, data sets, graphs, charts, and Julius Caesar-level rhetoric. A recent Scientific American article tried to separate wheat from chaff when it comes to genetically modified foods. After disproving some claims and verifying the others, the authors of the article effectively throw up their hands and say, everybody’s partly right, and everybody’s partly wrong—and beg for some kind of truce on the science.

Such a plea won’t do much good, however, because the debate over GMOs isn’t about hard science. To read through anti-Monsanto websites is to wander through a cacophony of condemnation cast against a very large corporation which claims to have the best interests of humanity in mind but which also seeks to make a profit. Some people see this as a kind of moral double-dipping.

Interestingly, another argument comes up again and again; the argument can’t be pitched in scientific terms, but it appears to lie very close to the real heart of the matter. The claim is simple, and it fairly drips with fear, as most of history’s most successful arguments tend to do: by altering the food we eat, some contend, Monsanto is perverting what is basic, natural, and good in the world.

This is a dubious argument to be sure. For one thing, humans have been altering plants and animals in unnatural ways for thousands of years. The extinct aurochs were crossbred to create cows, as I have mentioned. And the lush, sweet corn on the cob that you can buy from a local small farmer—even the organic stuff—is still corn that would not exist if the Mayans had not gradually crossed different grains together, generation by generation, over four thousand years ago.

Yet I suspect this is all moot to the creators of the “Is Monsanto the World’s Most Evil Corporation?” website, as well as to far more reasonable consumers and policymakers. Crossing plants generation by generation by means of splicing or cross pollination feels like only a slight tweak to the natural world; whereas manipulating an apple seed in a lab, allele by allele, 'til you can grow a plant that produces a fleshy pulp that does not bruise or decay due to minute modifications that we have made to the plant’s cell wall—well, that might just be a little too much like playing God.

And who can blame people for such hesitancy? The act of modifying genes is impossible to imagine directly, as genes by definition are inaccessible to large, multi-cellular organisms like you and me. In contrast, splicing a cut branch from one sapling to another in order to cross pollinate two plants—that is something even a child can be taught to do. So, when very highly skilled technicians use very special equipment to do complicated work out of sight of consumers—it feels very much like the actions of a godlike power. Drop the simile: it is a God-like power.

Indeed, looking back now I think of those tours of Upjohn Farms, those very special tours that we took at a very special time of the company’s history, and I see how they were constructed in a manner not unlike the rare trip of the devout through the sanctum sanctorum of a Temple. This is where we perform the experiments, our guide said. This is where the high priest prays for our forgiveness, he could have said.

ON THE HAPPY OCCASIONS when my wife and I have friends over for dinner, we invariably agonize over what to serve. Being a good host means finding precisely the right food to complement the atmosphere and the table talk. To do this, you need to know your guests. So, when we plan, we begin with cuisine types and eliminate based on what we know about our friends. Depending on the guest, we will declare no pasta (too many carbs), no Thai (peanut allergy), nothing non-vegetarian, nothing too-greasy, nothing too pricey.

In a privileged era, what you eat is almost less important or informative as what you don’t or won’t eat. Rejections are more meaningful than indulgences. Putting aside dietary restrictions due to illness or disease, in general what you choose to eat is a complex function of surplus and personality. The bigger the surplus, the harder it is for your personality to get noticed. In a world where it is possible to put sushi-grade tuna on a Morimoto table within 16 hours of pulling it up from the Sea of Japan, well, one brazen way to challenge convention is to refuse to partake of the bounty.

This may explain the rise of the anti-somethings; the anti-somethings are generally average people who tend to identify themselves more strongly by what they do not like than by what they like. Certainly, rebellion makes for a better headline: In the modern age of endlessly breaking news, what is there of note to say in praise about progress? Yet there is more happening here than just a proliferation of Man Bites Dog stories in the press: the anti-vaccine crowd, for example, has gathered significant force in recent years, netting celebrity spokespeople along the way.

For decades, there have been some people who opted out of vaccines for various personal or medical reasons. During the mass immunization drives of the '50s, opting out at times was a fortuitous move, as production problems in making some vaccines resulted in more harm than good to an unlucky few. The anti-vaccine movement, per se, only really began to crystalize during a period of hysteria in the late '90s regarding the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella.

The MMR vaccine was eventually exonerated—and even the original evidence of its linkage to autism was proven to be a miscalculation—but the damage was done. The notion that vaccines are somehow inherently bad had taken root; and far from dying down again, the idea appears to have only gained credibility over the last decade. In 2010, the National Committee on Quality Assurance noted that for the first time ever, the percent of two-year-olds with immunization shots had dropped by two to three percent across vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, and more.

You have probably heard of “chicken pox parties” where, supposedly, parents expose their children to varicella on purpose so their bodies can naturally fight off the disease. These stories may be mostly urban legend—no one I know has actually been to one—but the popularity of the very idea is a problem in and of itself. The idea is simple: Hey, vaccines aren’t really necessary. We’d be better if we all just did things the natural way.

Chicken pox is one thing. On the other hand, CBS News reported just days ago that Texas has an active whooping cough epidemic and two infants have already died. These babies were too young for the vaccine. But who do you think communicated the disease to them? Nearly 1,000 children died of whooping cough each year at the turn of the 20th century. Today, the whooping cough vaccine and general cleanliness should reduce the number of deaths to virtually zero. But here we are. The virus killed two kids in Texas. It will kill again before the end of the month.

The accomplishment of mass vaccination is arguably one of the greatest success stories of the modern world. Huge swaths of the population in the West have no notion of what it means to suffer from a devil’s retinue of ugly, painful maladies. But that success is self-defeating in a manner because it engenders a dangerous complacency. The average person has taken nothing away from the experience of immunization except to recall they were stuck with a needle by a registered nurse.

Likewise, Monsanto succeeded far beyond the wildest dreams of the researchers at University of San Diego or the chemists, engineers, and technicians who first discovered trans-genetic techniques in the 1970s and ran the experiments and tests that the USD team built upon. Yet in the most important way they have failed completely.

There is a segment of the anti-modified food movement, and the anti-vaccine movement, and certain the anti-something crowd, that is not just skeptical of science but in fact virulently anti-science. Some fears and reservations about GMOs and bundled vaccines are certainly warranted, given that these are synthesized materials that we put into our bodies and into the bodies of our children; but for great swaths of those caught in between the warring factions of pro and contra, there is a significant gap between what they understand and what they are asked to accept.

Firms like Monsanto—if they really cared about bettering the world—would have better rallied people to join hands and unlock the possibilities of a bioengineered universe. But they didn’t. And the casualty is not just the efforts to build a world with ample food; that would be bad enough, but the fallout is far worse because they have tarnished the idea of science and progress itself.

One must not trust science as if it were a faith; one must not put raw trust in the world of progress alone. Yet one must also appreciate and accept what rational study shows, even when what it shows is difficult and upsetting.

Of course, the battle lines are not so simple as rationalists vs. irrationalists, either. Even the most vocal proponents of science and logic get caught out at times—I, for one, am guilty. Sometimes I will find myself alone in Fairway, standing beside two large bins, one with clear plastic containers of organic strawberries, one with non-organic. The organic produce is always more expensive. Usually, it looks knottier, too. Dutifully, I will select the organic strawberries for my kids. But then, after stealing a glance around, I often grab a container of non-organic for me.

I buy the organic food for my kids because they are young, they are vulnerable, and their mother and I are pretty much the only line of defense they have. I am skeptical about the true peril inherent in every form of industrial pesticide, but why take the chance? But if this is true, then why am I willing to buy the non-organic stuff for myself? Is it because I figure I am too old for the organic vs. regular choice to matter? Do I think it tastes better? Am I being cheap? Is it just habit? No, no, maybe, could be. Maybe opting out of organic from time to time makes me feel good because I am tired of the full-court press of organic, natural, wholesome variations on food.

In this, I am not so different from the people who reject science out of hand when it comes to vaccines. They recuse their kids from shots because it suits their feelings, even if these feelings conflict with some of their other more rational views. This inconsistency on their part bothers me, and yet I’m little different, picking and choosing to believe one thing for my kids, and another for myself.

THERE'S NOTHING TRICKY ABOUT asking questions to understand what’s safe, what’s in food, where a thing comes from, what impact it has on you, how it was made, or who made it. The trick, I suspect, is in knowing who to believe. And also knowing when to stop asking the questions about the apple in your hands; when the series of questions becomes recursive, when even David Hume would dispense with discerning between the contingent and the necessary, you just give in and take a bite.

Once upon a time two famous poets and an aspiring novelist spent a dismal summer holiday at the shores of Lake Geneva. The weather across Europe was so dreary and cold that it was called “The Year Without Summer” by some. Confined as they were to a villa in Switzerland, and with nothing but opium to smoke and books to read, the talk among the three writers turned often to superstition and the occult. Their idea of the occult, I should mention, overlaps with what we might call science today.

The year was 1816, and the era was eerily similar to our own, being as it was full of crackling promise and mysterious new forces that only a few people understood and even fewer people had any idea how to handle. Luigi Galvani, the Italian physician famous for stirring dead frog bodies with a magical current, had been dead for two decades, but still his animal electricity had no plausible explanation. Back in the England the indefatigable Michael Farraday was within 18 months of crafting the world’s first electric motor.

Meanwhile, at night in their villa beside Lake Geneva, as candles guttered and rain beat the roof, these three artists read German ghost stories to one another and speculated over what next surprise the world of natural philosophy would provide. If Galvani’s acolytes could make animal legs twitch and fresh corpses jitter, how long until the very secrets of life itself were bared for all the world’s people to see?

Sometime during their dismal holiday at the lake, the more famous of the two poets, Lord Byron, suggested they see who could tell the most terrifying tale of supernatural and scientific powers run amok. Pairing the occult with the scientific was as natural for them as it would be for us to match up cryptology with duplicity today: the topics are different, but they travel together almost inevitably.

Two hundred years later, we have no record of Lord Byron or Percy Shelley’s entries in the Lake Geneva ghost contest. We do have the winning entry, Frankenstein, which Mary Shelley drafted and then rewrote over a series of months. And in her timeless gothic tale, Mary Shelley captures and enshrines the blend of distrust and excitement felt by thoughtful people at the very beginning of the modern scientific era.

In a letter sent to a friend in 1822, she describes the very first vision she had of the story she wanted to tell:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for SUPREMELY frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

Re-reading Mary Shelley’s words, I am reminded of how little has changed about people, despite how much we as a species have been able to alter the very fabric of the world that is all around us.

One must not trust science as if it were a faith; one must not put raw trust in the world of progress alone. Yet one must also appreciate and accept what rational study shows, even when what it shows is difficult and upsetting. Mary Shelley and Lord Byron and Percy Shelley are the perfect models, in a sense. They exalted nature, certainly. You don’t have to get too far into the Romantic era poets to sense how they saw the sublime radiating from every ditch and culvert. And they were also equally rhapsodic over the industrial age rising up around them. They knew how to admire it even while they distrusted it. They kept the world of dirt and grit close, close as the waters of Lake Geneva, even as they gazed with hard eyes into the starry landscape of tomorrow.

THIS SUMMER I WENT back to the land of livestock and food crops. I wanted to bring my son to see where I grew up. He’s two. He and my six-year-old daughter—who has visited Michigan before—went for a swim in our neighbor’s pool. My parents filled in their own pool a few years ago. Pools are not the signal of wealth they once were. The pig farmer is gone now. The horses don’t appear to be around, either, or at least the wind never carried their distinctive smells our way. Upjohn Farms has pulled up stakes, too; the parent company was long ago swallowed whole by bigger fish of global pharma.

One night after the kids were asleep, I went for a drive and traced the Farm’s long perimeter. The central facility was decimated, with just a few buildings left; and I saw no animals wandering through the once rolling hills. The endless fields themselves were cut up with internal service roads, the purpose of which I couldn’t guess. Maybe new experiments required a new internal infrastructure. I don’t know. I never learned what precisely they were experimenting with inside the Farms’ inner sanctum. But I am sure the work continues somewhere else, even if it is not here. The scientific edifice never stops building on the discoveries of the past: that’s just what science does.

In high school, I knew the daughter of a director of the R&D division at Upjohn. Her father did not work at the Farms across the street from us; he operated out of the (relatively) more glamorous digs in downtown Kalamazoo. She told me that she’d demanded once that he not do research on animals at work. In response, he calmly—the dude was always calm—explained to her that animal research was crucial for the products Upjohn created, and furthermore for just about every product you eat, drink, wear, wash, or sleep with. He believed trade-offs were inherent in building up the knowledge that makes the world a better place. I don’t know if clinical trials with genetically modified food ever came under his aegis, but I have no doubt that he would have supported them as a very logical way to consider fixing food shortages. Was he right? Do we owe every comfort and balm of our modern age to experiments that skirt the edges of what we believe is right and good?

My kids are growing up in New York City, over six hundred miles from the rural landscape that cradled me. Their attitude toward science and progress will be entirely different from mine, I am sure, if only because attitudes toward science and progress continue to adapt and change.

Similarly, I am certain that there are foods we eat now in our household that will no doubt appear ridiculous to my children when they are old enough to write their own meditations on what they eat and drink. Maybe in 2013 we are not eating organic enough. Maybe we are eating organic food too much. Maybe the problem is that we eat animals. Or perhaps our fascination with antioxidants will prove wrong.

One thing I do know: I hope my kids will acquire a respect and love for the experiments, the science, the husbandry, the mechanics, the thought, and the care that has brought us to this point as a society. I don’t know if they will have jet packs or flying cars or cyborg pets; but I do know that if I can help it, they will be thoughtful, aware, trusting but not blind, skeptical but not contrarian.

What lies ahead? No one knows. Right now, on the island of Spitsbergen off the coast of Norway, there is a great vault that has been steadily filling up with specimens of the world’s seeds. Over the years, more than 750,000 different types of seeds have been put in place. The vault can fit many more. It was created as a doomsday safeguard against planetary-level threats, like an asteroid or nuclear winter or some kind of horrific plague that is brought about by our own genetic meddling.

The seed vault is by no means a fail-proof security measure. In fact, their plans are almost laughably simple. In case of emergency, thaw out seeds and re-sow the Earth. But, in a sense, maybe utter simplicity is not so bad. In the event that my children or their children need to crack the seed vault open, you can be sure there will be no clamor over whether the seeds inside are original or genetically modified. There will simply be seeds, or no seeds; food, or no food; hope, or no real hope at all.

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