Bite Me

The Real Deal

Everyone seems to be up in arms these days over the health and safety of genetically tinkered-with food -- GMOs, as they've been labeled by the euphemism-happy public, for "genetically modified organisms." Or "Franken-food," as they've been dubbed by slightly more creative Luddites. Apparently people are convinced that Evil Mega-Agri-Corporations are out to poison the whole world by playing Godand messing with those "fundamental building blocks of life" that we all learned about in grade-school science class. In the genetics section, we found out from Mrs. Kowie (or whoever was your equivalent of the blockheaded, broad-shouldered, bespectacled science teacher I had) that DNA was the stuff that made each of us a precious little snowflake. And from a lot of bad movies, we learned what the consequences were when you mucked around with it: You ended up with mutants, zombies and hideous armies of space monsters hell-bent on destroying the master who made them. Today those same concerns are being played out on a strange scale with mad scientists slaving away in their labs, trying to make disease-resistant wheat and vitamin-enriched grains of rice rather than super-intelligent space monkeys.

But I'm steering clear of this genetic food fight. Why? Well, to start with, I'm all in favor of science. I'm a sci-fi geek from way back (not so much that I have a Starfleet uniform and a pair of Spock ears hidden in my closet or anything, but I read a lot and can debate from a well-informed position which was the better version of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, the theatrical or director's cut) and get a little literary wood anytime I hear about genetic engineering, cloning, space travel and the like. Second, genetically modifying foods is -- in essence -- little more than a microscope-and-lab-coat version of the cross-pollination that farmers have been fiddling with since the human animal first started raising crops for food. And even after tens of thousands of years of fiddling, no one has made Robo-corn with titanium stalks and electrified husks to keep the predators away, and no one (yet) is creating any sort of "super food," in which all your day's dietary requirements are contained in an apple or a kumquat. And if someone did, would that be so bad? There are a lot of starving people in this world who could probably really use a super kumquat.

What some scientists are doing is scrambling genes from long-grain white rice with dandelion genes to make so-called Golden Rice -- a hardy, yellowish rice capable of producing vitamin A, which, until now, rice was never able to provide. And in Colorado, Meristem Therapeutics, a French company, was recently given permission by the state to plant biopharmaceutical corn -- genetically altered to produce a protein used to treat digestive problems -- at an undisclosed location in Phillips County. It didn't do so this year, because by the time Colorado officials signed off on the project, planting season was over. But it will. In Boulder, around 500 acres of county-owned open space were used in 2002 for a test of pollen drift and the feasibility of planting GMO crops close to non-GM fields. I understand why this might inspire fear in some people, because the idea of genetically modified anything touches on delicate territory in the human psyche. But consider this: That last batch of tomatoes you bought at the megalomart were picked green and ripened in a fog of ethylene gas. And those French fries you gobbled down last night? Full of acrylamide, a potentially carcinogenic chemical created between food sugars at high temperatures. In the long run, I worry less about some ag-school graduate students trying to cross-breed a honeydew and a cantaloupe, and more about what Ronald McDonaldmight be doing to my Big Mac while I'm waiting in the drive-thru.

I'm much more concerned about the kind of food imprinting that influences people's tastes in a non-science-y way. Just as a musician brought up on a steady diet of Mahler, Bachand Wagner might be said to be genetically predisposed toward grim, heavy-handed, Teutonic orchestral compositions, or an artist who lived surrounded by the splashy, weird modernism of Picasso and Georges Braquemay acquire a proclivity for cubism and LSD, so, too, will kids brought up around certain foods become slowly but surely accustomed to the tastes, textures and flavor patterns introduced to them in their youth.

To me, this is the genetics of taste: a learned, postnatal organization of the brain around certain sense-memories that, once etched in, are tough to scrub out. And this is one of my biggest beefs with the fast-food, fast-casual, casual-upscale and big-food chain-restaurant explosion: I fear there's a whole generation of potential food lovers whose first taste of an "Alfredo sauce" will be an out-of-the-bag puddle of cheez goo served alongside the breadsticks at the Olive Garden.

This is dangerous, because millions of people will actually think that Alfredo sauce is supposedto taste like parmesan-flavored spackle. Will believe that there's actually a part of a pig called a "riblet." Will see nothing wrong with eating lasagna out of a can. This is the kind of genetics that scares me -- that altering of the palate by a steady diet of crap. I spent years of my childhood thinking there actually was some guy named General Tsowho lived (probably a long time ago) on nothing but really spicy chicken, because heavily Americanized Chinese was the most ethnic food available in my family's little corner of upstate New York. I figured Chinese people were pretty lucky because they got to eat sweet-and-sour pork and fortune cookies every night of their lives, whereas I was lucky if I got them twice a year. And to this day, when I sit down in a Chinese restaurant, the first bite I take bounces off my flavor memories of gooey shrimp in lobster sauce, cotton-candy-sweet lemon chicken, and mysterious egg drop soup.

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