Who Genetically Modified My Cheese?

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As I write this, we're told to expect a possible attack from Al Qaeda and a possible war against Iraq in the next few days (naturally, I'll be in New York City and Washington, D.C.). The past few weeks saw scares involving ricin, bubonic plague, and anthrax, though such things happen so regularly these days, it's easy to forget about them. The federal government suggested buying duct tape, since it can be useful for sealing windows in the event of a chemical attack (actually, duct tape is useful for all sorts of things: in Canada, thousands of feet of duct tape went into the making of an anti-grizzly-bear suit of armor constructed by an inventor/outdoorsman duct tape is often the key to safety).

Adding to the mood of uncertainty is the ongoing debate between some European nations and the U.S. over whether we should even be planning a war against Iraq (a debate that panelists at the Smith Family Foundation, with perfect timing, will thrash out tonight at 6:30 in the CUNY Grad Center at 34th and 5th in Manhattan). It's a time, therefore, when subtler issues of science and public policy can easily be overlooked, including other matters on which Europe and the U.S. are at odds, such as whether to use genetically-modified foods.

Heated Rhetoric Aside

Last month, scientists on both sides of the genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) debate called for calm in the battle, saying the issues involved are not apocalyptic, all-or-nothing ones the end of science vs. the end of nature but more nuanced disputes over the amount of testing to require for new organisms and how best to weigh the risks, if any, from the unplanned spread of new genes. Since science suggests no more reason to fear new, modified organisms than old, conventionally crossbred organisms, there's reason to hope that in a calmer, saner debate, biotech will prevail.

Even David Byrne, the European Union's health and consumer protection commissioner, says biotech is safe. "The E.U.'s position on genetically modified food," he said recently, "is that it is as safe as conventional food." It is Europe's growing array of "non-governmental" (yet government-funded) environmental organizations that are fighting to prevent the de-regulation of biotech foods in Europe. U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick calls the NGOs' view of GMOs "Luddite," reports the New York Times, but the same Times article quotes a typical British consumer saying GMOs are "not the natural order of things...It's a kind of corruption, not the right thing to do." As long as the NGOs keep ordinary European citizens spooked, the EU will probably be infertile ground for GMOs but one would think that there are far scarier forces at work in the world today than GMOs.

Good (Bland) Cheese News from New Zealand

People tend to say no to things that are strange and new. That's why I'm delighted by some extremely boring, non-threatening biotech news out of New Zealand. Scientists there announced that they have genetically-modified (and cloned!) cows that produce cheese from their teats instead of ordinary milk (or at least produce milk that can be more readily turned into cheese). This, it strikes me, may be how biotech will eventually triumph: by doing things in such boring little increments that no one notices. Making better cheese is not as glamorous as suddenly making all children immune to disease or giving dogs 100 IQs, but on the other hand cheese is not the sort of thing that starts riots and brings condemnations from bishops. In fact, founding conservative writer Edmund Burke, back in the eighteenth century, pointed to the cows of England as the perfect symbol of calm and conservatism.

That this quiet, relatively bland triumph for biotech occurred in New Zealand right now is made all the more appropriate by the fact that audiences around the world associate that country's rolling green hills with the agrarian, resolutely low-tech villages depicted in the _Lord of the Rings_ movies, which were filmed there (this week also brings news of the series' second Best Picture nomination from the Academy, by the way). Rolling green hills, hobbits...and now genetically-modified cows, gently mooing and making cheese. How mad the frenzied anti-biotech protesters of Europe and the U.S. (setting labs on fire and shouting their "Frankenfood" slogans) must look from sleepy New Zealand.

Misdirected Anxiety

I hate to have to discuss psychological tactics at all, since I am sure biotech wins on the scientific merits, but the truth is that Greenpeace and the other tentacles of the antiglob are opposing biotech more on psychological than on scientific grounds, and the more familiar and less creepy biotech seems, the less we'll have to worry about the antiglob guiding public policy. People who aren't frightened out of their wits tend to make more rational decisions.

In the meantime, unfortunately, even amid threats of terrorism and war, there are some people who find time to worry about biotech and other products of science. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, I was in a Manhattan liquor store (see my previous column, " Reasons to Drink") and overheard a clerk assuring one of her customers (who may well have been drinking to relieve tension over terrorism and war) that the vodka she was selling him was "all natural" and made from potatoes as if vodka were normally made from strychnine, or as if the sorts of chemical preservatives one commonly finds in food have an effect on the body more drastic than vodka vodka, for crying out loud!

All kidding aside, let me promise readers that I will not in fact cope with current global crises by drinking. But if one were looking to forget one's troubles right now, aren't there more important and certainly more dangerous troubles to worry about than designer cows and biotech crops?