Of public interest?

So what has happened to Frankenstein's monster? Has the CSPI abandoned the potential for whipping up hysterical reactions to 'tinkering with nature' and creating 'environmental catastrophe'?

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For other articles on GM issues click here.

Of public interest?

"Genetically Engineered Foods On The Market Appear To Be Safe" says the headline. In an article strongly supportive of GMOs we read:

"The tomatoes, potatoes, and wheat we buy in the supermarket have been drastically altered by breeding them with wild relatives, and those products are considered safe … Genetically engineered crops could be a boon to farmers and consumers, especially in developing countries."

OK, they want this technology to be subject to strict government oversight, but who doesn't? And they call for rigorous testing for potential allergens and the possible damage to wildlife that might result from newly developed GM crops. There a very few people who will find this at all unreasonable.

So where does this gushing pro-biotech announcement come from? A Monsanto-funded campaign group, or a research centre which serves the interests of the multinational ag-bio companies? Far from it. It comes from a press release issued by the Center for Science in the Public Interest – an advocacy group based in Washington DC.

The CSPI has long been regarded as the one of the most virulent critics of not only of the food manufacturing and retail industries, but also of the philosophy that eating should be one of life's pleasurable experiences. Ronni Chernoff, a former President of the American Dietetic Association, once remarked: "We have a totally different view on food and nutrition than [Center for Science in the Public Interest director Michael Jacobson] does. He takes all the pleasure out of eating by scaring people and using terror tactics."

The Tufts Nutrition Navigator, arguably one of the best web directories of health and nutrition sites, has also taken exception to CSPI's proselytising style:

"We take issue with their sensational and alarmist tone. 'The Facts About Olestra,' with its blacklist of brand names, 'anal leakage' humor, and numerous CSPI press releases seemed to be more of a vendetta than an objective presentation of the facts. And if you are to avoid as many processed foods and additives as they advise, what else is left to eat?"

Scare-mongering is the hallmark of the large majority of CSPI's reports and so-called 'information' booklets. It has claimed that America is 'drowning' in sugar, has called for 'sin' taxes on 'junk' food and is currently running a campaign to prevent Coca Cola from using Harry Potter in its promotion campaigns – "Coke and other soft drinks are JUNK, and certainly not what Harry would want kids to drink." Their newsletter regularly features 'tips' on how we can distinguish the "Right Stuff" from "Food Porn". In case we should start to become complacent about the current risks to our health that a normal lunch might present – such as seafood, or "Death on the Half Shell" – the CSPI warns us of other "emerging" risk factors, such as lipoprotein(a), homocysteine, high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP), and fibrinogen. Scary stuff indeed.

So what has happened to Frankenstein's monster? Has the CSPI abandoned the potential for whipping up hysterical reactions to 'tinkering with nature' and creating 'environmental catastrophe'? Their press release must certainly lead us to that conclusion. So too must the statement by the organisation's President, Michael Jacobson, uttered without any appreciation of apparent self-irony, that "Too many biotech critics have resorted to alarming the public about purported environmental and food risks."

The reason for this deep inconsistency within the CSPI is not too difficult to determine. Americans have been eating GM foods for many years now – all without ill effect. Genetically modified corn is indistinguishable from any other corn, and has the same nutritional benefits. A GM tomato is just a tomato – and it is increasingly difficult in the United States to scare people with a tomato.

Whatever the motives for the out-of-character stance taken by CSPI on GM issues, it is both welcome and an invitation to other 'advocacy' groups to perhaps reconsider their position. After all, like CSPI, they have many other scary fish to fry. These, however, detract us less from other fundamental concerns, such as that of providing the basis for sustainable agriculture in developing countries. There is something almost obscene about well-fed, white, middle-class opponents of food biotechnology seeking to deny innovation that can contribute significantly to alleviating famine in less well-fed and fortunate parts of the world. When the CSPI emphasises this very point it is time for a somewhat baffled round of applause.

24 October 2001