The first half of 2014 has already presented us with a wonderland of anniversaries—50 years since the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and the opening of the New York World’s Fair, 30 years since the introduction of the Macintosh computer. But as we now go deeper into the rabbit hole of cultural commemorations—no doubt some retrospective awaits for the 50th anniversary of the debut of Gilligan’s Island on September 26—one of the most important may be one of the least noticed: the 20th anniversary of the Flavr Savr tomato, often credited as the first genetically modified organism (GMO). And its reverberations are already being heard in more than two dozen statehouses, where legislation to require the labeling of foods made with GMOs is being actively and loudly debated.
The Flavr Savr, otherwise known as CGN-89564-2, was born on May 21, 1994, created by scientists in the laboratories of a UC Davis-spawned company called Calgene by adding two genes (one from the E. coli bacterium) into the species called Lycopersicon esculentum, the common tomato plant. The idea was to strengthen the tomato by modifying its genetic makeup and allowing it to remain on the vine to ripen—a white-lab-coat variation, perhaps, of the efforts to cross-breed crops that dates back at least to Grigor Mendel’s 19th-century experiments with peas, and more likely to the very roots of agriculture itself 10,000 years earlier.
The scientific community was abuzz. The burgeoning organic foods industry was aghast. And the public at large? They didn’t really know what to think about this newfangled food, although tomatoes grown with Flavr Savr seeds were approved by the Food & Drug Administration and voluntarily labeled as the product of biotechnology, complete with point-of-sale brochures, a toll-free number on the package, and a media blitz that pushed Tom Brokaw’s glottal Rs and lisping Ls to the limit in describing how "Flavr Savr tomatoes stay riper" longer. (You can see some of this in this Retro Report video from the Times).
As it turned out, vowels were not the only things missing from the Flavr Savr: the fruits were smaller than most other tomatoes, and the yield per acre was substandard. The product ultimately was conventionally cross-bred to achieve a better flavor. Calgene was sold to Monsanto. But a milestone had been achieved, and GMOs rapidly entered the American lexicon, not to mention the supermarkets.
In the years that followed, the gene jockeys developed all sorts of fantastical hybrid creations. Rice was modified with a gene found in human breast milk, cotton with a gene from the Bt bacterium, tomatoes with a gene from fish, and, curiouser and curiouser, fish themselves with genes from other fish. The AquAdvantage Salmon, with genes from the Chinook salmon implanted into the Atlantic salmon in order to help it grow at twice the normal rate, may receive FDA approval this year. GMO crops now dominate U.S. agriculture, accounting for an estimated 95% of sugar beets, 93% of soybeans, and 85% of corn. (This is largely an American phenomenon, as GMOs are severely restricted in the E.U. and many other markets.)
All of this "frankenfood" may or may not be safe—there are teams of well-credentialed scientists lined up on both sides of that argument—but there can be little disagreement that today, many of our crops and foodstuffs bear a different genetic blueprint than their predecessors. If, as the old chestnut goes, we are what we eat, then modern man himself has become something indeterminate, foreign RNA, a singular collection of double helixes that Mother Nature probably doesn’t recognize anymore.
That worries many food purists, progressive soccer moms, and even religious groups, a loose and unlikely coalition that runs the gamut from free-range chicken-eaters to Chicken Littles. Some of them think back to the 1970s TV commercial for Chiffon Margarine (a high trans-fat product made from cottonseed oil extracted with the chemical solvent hexane, plus food coloring and artificial flavor), which ironically intoned, "It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature." They are concerned about potential long-term impacts on human health, and about the surfeit of herbicides that the so-called Roundup-Ready genetically modified crops is enabling.
On the other side of the transgenic divide are many free marketeers, food scientists, world hunger foes, and of course investors in Monsanto, DuPont, and the other companies that engineer the seeds, sell the herbicides, or both. They argue that there is not any conclusive scientific evidence showing that genetically modified foods are detrimental to human health. Moreover, such engineering can help stalks grow straighter and stronger; increase resistance to insects, making the application of chemical pesticides less necessary, reducing labor, and thus driving down costs; and increase yields in areas where the soil nutrients and weather conditions have also proven difficult. In so doing, GMO crops can theoretically help to increase farm productivity beyond all mathematical reason, combat drought, and feed the starving masses.
As with so many of the other great debates of our age, emotions run high, patience runs low, and the consumer is left wondering just whose "facts" to believe.
Yet at its core, this argument is really not about the merits of genetic engineering, but about transparency and that most ancient of commercial warnings, "caveat emptor," let the buyer beware. For with all of the modification that has happened at the genetic level, one thing that has not been modified is the food label, leaving the consumer unsure of what is in each package. Even though 64 other countries currently require GMO labeling, including two of the other major GMO growers (Brazil and India) as well as Russia and China, no such standard exists in our otherwise increasingly transparent country. And so, in the absence of any U.S. laws requiring disclosure of genetically modified ingredients, their growing presence in our food stream went largely unnoticed until they had become nearly ubiquitous and inextricable: today, GMOs are present in an estimated 80% of all processed foods.
That is why it is the "right to know" issue, more than anything else, has emerged as the real touchstone in the current American debate. It’s not about whether we should somehow try to fit a lid back onto Pandora’s Box and do away with GMOs, but whether we should affix a label to the outside informing consumers about what is inside and leaving it up to them to decide whether to proceed with the purchase or move on to another box (perhaps the one with the USDA Organic seal, because by current law
"organic" precludes GMOs.) Ironically, this is precisely the path that the marketers of the Flavr Savr had followed.
The proponents of label transparency fought to pass Prop 37 in California in 2012, which would have required food sold in that state to identify the presence of genetically modified ingredients on the package. They also took the battle to Washington State in 2013 with Prop 522. Both initiatives narrowly failed amidst consumer confusion or indifference, and the onslaught of big lobbying money ($70 million) from the Big Food establishment, which is afraid of the repackaging costs and of the implications of slapping what they believe is a figurative skull-and-crossbones on products that are, after all, deemed by law to be perfectly safe.
But then, earlier this month, Vermont bill H.112 requiring GMO labeling was signed into law by Governor Peter Shumlin, following on the heels of conditional GMO labeling legislation that had already passed in Maine and Connecticut. Similar legislation is said to be under consideration in 26 states.
It is interesting to speculate about what would happen if a handful of states do pass such legislation—say, a dozen or so mostly blue states, comprising perhaps 25% of the U.S. population and food sales—while the others do not. Would we end up with a society divided not just by which cable news channels it watches, but by which foods are available for it to buy? Would, say, Nabisco choose to stop selling Oreos in the GMO labeling zone, or create a (more expensive) GMO-labeled or GMO-free version for sale there?
Fearful of the chaos that would result from such a scenario, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, on behalf of its Big Food members, is trying to ward off individual initiatives with a proposal of its own calling for voluntary GMO labeling. At the same time, Congressmen from some agricultural states have proposed the so-called Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which would prohibit individual states from passing their own food labeling legislation.
But if history is any indication, the Big Food victories in California and Washington, as well as the pre-emptive efforts by the industry association and Congressmen, are just early skirmishes in a larger war whose outcome, frankly, seems inevitable.
We can look back to the 19th century, when the "official" time was whatever the clock on the highest steeple in each town said it was, creating chaos for those planning to take a train or attend a meeting in another town; standardized time was finally adopted in 1883. A few years later, industrial and banking states of the Northeast largely backed a monetary policy based on the gold standard, while farmers and westerners pushed for the free coinage of silver; separate policies could not co-exist, and a national policy of gold-backed paper ultimately prevailed. There was also the battle fought in the 1980s over mandatory car seatbelt laws, with activist states pushing the agenda and raising the specter of different car models for different states, and the auto industry sticking its finger in the dike for as long as it could; a common standard was ultimately adopted.
Yet there is another historical example even closer to the GMO issue, one which would seem to indicate that the outcome is inevitable: organic legislation. In the 1980s, in the absence of federal action to establish a national organic standard, individual states could define "organic" for themselves, and at least 22 did, often using different rules for permissible fertilizers and pesticides, and different mandatory waiting periods for organic certification. A consumer could thus walk into a health foods store and see, side by side on the shelf, products marked "California Organic" and "Colorado Organic," and walk away understandably confused. Common sense had to prevail, and it did, with the passage of the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act. (Of course, common bureaucracy also prevailed, and the Act did not get fully implemented for another 12 years.)
So here we are, 20 years after a genetically modified tomato entered our lives, and we are lost in the sauce of a GMO world. History’s lessons would seem to indicate that there may be a common sense way out of the rabbit hole—even Lewis Carroll’s Alice had informational food labels telling her to "drink me" or "eat me"—but one is often left wondering if there is any common anything left in our divisive society.
We are what we eat; we just don’t know what that is anymore.