Mark Dery on Mon, 11 Jun 2001 18:01:04 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

[Nettime-bold] Gene Jeanie


The nub of the debate seems to be whether biotech manipulation of the
natural order, as opposed to more Mendelian means (hybridizing), represents
a symmetry break with centuries' worth of human meddling. As you've noted,
it obviously does. The domesticated dog, though a product of human
intervention, could *conceivably* have arisen, through natural selection and
mutation. But a trillion millennia of Darwinian evolution couldn't whelp
Eduardo Kac's glow-in-the-dark dog, a living work of genetic art that, if
created, will owe his bioluminescence to a jellyfish gene. Likewise,
tomatoes with flounder genes, "golden rice" with daffodil genes, and other
fruits of the genomic revolution could only have sprung from the brow of
Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland.

"Nature" may be a vexed term, but there's no question that these products
are unnatural in the literal sense of the word. What you want to know, I
gather, is whether "unnatural" is synonymous with unhealthy.

The contrarian in me applauds your attempts, in the debate about genetically
modified food, to separate rigorously reasoned argument from ideological
litmus test.

But a little wariness about GM food is well-advised, I think, in light of
the warning flags being waved by informed environmentalists, progressive
scientists, and investigative reporters. Two words: JURASSIC PARK. They call
it the "law" of unintended consequences for good reason: There are *always*
unintended consequences, especially with massively complex systems, and no
system is more massively complex than Nature, except maybe the gene-spliced
chimera of Nature/Culture, which is where we all live, early in the 21st

What happens, for example, *when* (not *if*) FrankenSalmon, genetically
engineered to grow to what's known as "market size" in one-half to
one-fourth the normal time, escape into the wild, entering the larger gene
pool? I'm writing an article about the "Genomic Revolution" exhibiton at New
York's Museum of Natural History. Unsurprisingly, the show is largely
(though subtly) celebratory, but shadows gather, in its corners.
"Herbicide-tolerant crops let farmers virtually eliminate weeds from their
fields," notes one placard. "But weed seeds are an important food source for
skylarks and other birds." Then, the clincher: "According to some estimates,
the food available to skylarks could be reduced in some areas by 90%."
Remember BT corn, the genetically engineered crop whose pesticidal gene,
transplanted from a bacterium, is toxic to corn borers? Sold to the public
as a godsend to the starving millions (not to mention multinational
agribusiness), it may have the nasty side effect of killing monarch
butterfly caterpillars (the scientific jury is still out). And monarchs
matter, ecologically.

Clearly, much more research (by someone other than industry flacks and
toothless feds) is needed before we allow corporate agribusiness to hack the
genetic code of our food supply for fun and profit. This isn't the
hand-wringing hypercautiousness of neo-Luddites who have to be dragged,
kicking and screaming, into the way cool future. The historical record is
littered with unhappy examples of human attempts to reprogram ecologies
(think: kudzu in the American South, or rabbits in Australia). Too often,
they're driven by business.

But commerce waits for no one, as the NYT story Mandl posted makes painfully
clear (June 10, 2001, "As Biotech Crops Multiply, Consumers Get Little
Choice," By DAVID BARBOZA). According to the TIMES article, "Food makers
around the world are finding traces of gene-altered crops in foods that were
not supposed to be made with them; Midwestern farmers are complaining that
wind is blowing pollen from gene-altered crops into neighboring fields
planted with conventional corn. Even organic crops labeled 'G.M. Free' are
testing positive for genetic modification. [.] 'We have found traces in corn
that has been grown organically for 10 to 15 years,' said Arran Stephens,
president of Nature's Path Foods, an organic producer of breads and cereals
based in Delta, British Columbia. 'There's no wall high enough to keep that
stuff contained.'"

In our age of species-leaping postmodern diseases (Mad Cow, anyone?), the
Haraway-esque faith in boundary dissolution and perverse hybrids has come
back to haunt us, with biting irony.

Nettime-bold mailing list