Food Fray: Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Food
By Lisa Weasel
Amacom; 234 pages; $23

Reviewed by Christine Thomas

From corn, papaya, rice, soy, and cotton to Roundup-ready crops, food-engineered vaccines, recombinant growth hormones, and biofuels, our nation has been awash in genetically modified (GM) foods and products for more than a decade. In 2008 alone, “Food Fray” author Lisa Weasel enlightens us, “80 percent of all corn, 86 percent of all cotton, and 92 percent of all soybeans grown in the United States were GM varieties.”

Closer to home, Weasel’s books also explains how GM foods arrived on Hawai`i shores in the early ‘90s via a free strain of GM papaya dubbed “Rainbow,” quickly adopted as a cure for the devastating ringspot virus. Years later the USDA began planting biopharm field studies in secret locations in our state, until a U.S. district judge here ordered them made public, and in 2006 a federal judge ruled they had violated federal environmental laws.

Yet Hawai`i’s central role as a growing location of experimental GM crops remains little known. And despite the overwhelming presence of GM foods here and throughout the nation, over half of Americans still believe they’ve never eaten them, as corporations and interest groups continually justify their pro-GM stance by asserting we just don’t care. It’s this frightening misconception that drove renowned scientist Weasel’s research into the GM food issue, funded by a National Science Foundation grant and presented in this vital and readable narrative.

What Weasel determined is that Americans absolutely do care—we simply don’t know. “At best,” says Weasel, “a smokescreen of ignorance and uncertainty cloaks the topic of GM food for most Americans.” And while she planned to focus the book primarily on science and ethics, Weasel also discovered that the issue’s inextricable intersection with politics couldn’t be denied. So “Food Fray” isn’t the pure science book intended, but instead takes a very complex and highly-charged issue that is shrouded in secrecy and pushes back the curtains, calmly and clearly explaining the science, breaking down complicated processes in digestible bites, the history and background events that led us here.

The book’s canvas is broad, encompassing GM food’s roots in the American scientific community, including the first homegrown warnings against it in the 1970s; crucial differences from the Green Revolution; underpinnings of Europe’s staunch opposition; Zambia’s refusal of U.S. GM food aid during the 2002 food crisis; India, where GM crops are arguably doomed since they aren’t drought-resistant; and American’s growing refusal of rgbh (a controversial growth hormone used to increase milk production in cows) dairy products. And peppered throughout is the ubiquitous name Monsanto, a Cold War chemical warfare manufacturer turned biotech innovator and GM superpower.

As each debate point is evocatively elucidated, the public relations campaign asserted by the likes of Monsanto and even George W. Bush that GM foods will solve world hunger is revealed to be a gross overstatement at best, and at worst an outright lie. Likewise the claim that GM foods are safe to eat appears as unfounded as the counter-argument that they aren’t, while the “We’ve eaten it and nothing has happened to us” reasoning many pro-GM scientists offer is criticizes as one of the most unscientific and flimsy reassurances imaginable.

A riveting and disturbing reality check, “Food Fray” stands as a crucial reminder that it’s time for the American public to be informed, not passive. And Weasel’s compelling voice is a welcome affirmation that the desire to know more about GM foods before eating them, and allay concerns about safety and environmental impacts before planting them, isn’t at all anti-science. It’s decidedly pro-human.

-Reviewed by Christine Thomas
for the Honolulu Advertiser