Every day, Williams students look forward to dining hall specialties such as Bob Marley chicken, Knock-You-Nakeds, and Rocky Mountain Beef Brisket. These cryptic titles sometimes prompt students to ask, “What’s in that?” as they gaze through the sneeze guards at the steaming trays.
However, many students do not realize that this seemingly benign question may turn up some startling answers. The common foods served in the dining halls at Williams, sold at supermarkets across the United States and eaten each day by millions of Americans very probably contain genetically engineered products, sometimes referred to as “Frankenstein Foods.” It is estimated that in America, up to 40 percent of corn and 45 percent of soybeans were grown from genetically altered seeds in 1998.
What exactly are these genetically modified, or “GM” foods? For the most part, they are products that have been altered by scientists for favorable traits, such as insect, frost and herbicide resistance. For years, farmers have naturally bred crops for such advantageous qualities; in the past, they were limited to crossbreeding species that were compatible with one another. Now however, with new gene technologies, scientists can introduce genes from completely different species into crops. For example, trout genes that code for frost resistance may be inserted into tomatoes, so crops can survive in colder temperatures.
There are certainly some positives to these new GM foods. Crops better suited to survival have the potential to increase food supplies, make those supplies cheaper and make insecticide use less necessary. However, there are many ethical and scientific issues raised by this new biotech approach to farming. One controversial example is the “New Leaf” potato produced by the Monsanto Company. This potato has been infused with a Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene, from an organic pesticide that kills caterpillars and other potato pests. Because the Bt has been spliced into the potato’s genetic code, when insects eat any part of the New Leaf plant – including the potato itself, which we buy and consume – they will invariably die.
So far, no scientific evidence indicates that these Bt genes could be hazardous to humans. However, if one examines a bottle of Bt insecticide, it clearly states, “Keep out of reach of children,” and “Do not ingest.” These New Leaf potatoes, in fact, are not even registered with the FDA as a food, but instead with the Environmental Protection Agency as a pesticide. The disturbing aspect of this issue is that currently, there is no labeling system enforced by the FDA to tell consumers if the foods they are buying and eating are genetically modified.
Washington Gladden 1859 Professor of Biology Joan Edwards, who is teaching Ecology this fall and will be offering a course in Field Botany and Natural Plant History next semester, emphasizes that no one has enough information about the long-term implications of consuming GM products, such as the New Leaf potatoes, to know whether or not they are toxic to humans. She also stresses that “the key is, people don’t understand the importance of evolution in all of this, especially resistance evolution. Even within a ten-year timespan, the pest population could change. There is a very strong selection for these pests to develop resistance.”
In other words, the large-scale introduction of pesticides such as Bt could serve to create a kind of super bug, rendering a relatively safe pesticide useless. In addition, GM crops could affect unrelated species in our environment. Edwards noted a case in which pollen from GM corn fell onto nearby milkweed plants. The monarch butterflies that came in contact with these milkweed plants were poisoned and died. “Beneficial insects may be affected,” she points out.
In the past month, Europeans have been protesting against American food imports which may be genetically modified and demanding that these foods be labeled so consumers can choose whether to eat them or not. Should Williams students follow suit and rebel against Dining Services, covering Baxter with manure and rotting vegetables, in the manner of protesters at a McDonald’s in France? The answer is no. Unfortunately, until the FDA creates some kind of labeling system, consumers, including Dining Services, are in the dark about the genetic makeup of their food.
Dining Services at Williams purchases most food from distributors, not directly from companies. Dining Services Purchaser Gary Phillips says, “Without forced labeling, we don’t know what is being combined.” Suppliers purchase products from many farmers, so even if one farm does not grow GM foods, another might. Director of Dining Services James Hodgkins notes, “This is a topic in the food service business that we’re very concerned about. Our hope is that the FDA steps in with some regulations.” Edwards agrees: “At a minimum, labeling is critical. People have a right to know.”
Many students are not aware of the issues surrounding genetically engineered food products. However, members of the Forest Gardeners, a student group started about six years ago that maintains an organic garden on campus, had some well-informed thoughts on the issue. Angela Lankford ’00, mentioned that because she was in England where GM foods are meeting more and more resistance, she looked into the issue. “Americans are simply much less aware of the presence of GM products in our food supply. I saw a statistic that said 60 percent of Americans said their food is not genetically engineered,” she remarked.
So what can you do if you are concerned about consuming these “Frankenstein Foods?” Until they are labeled, there is little students can do to avoid eating GM foods. One alternative would be to eat as many organic products as possible. While Dining Services cannot buy many organic products, due to a lack of a reliable, large-scale supplier, there are some local organic vendors students can patronize if they are concerned. “Try to know where your food comes from, even if you’re not going to be an activist,” Anne Dwyer ’01 said. For example, the Forest Gardeners suggested stopping by their organic garden in front of the Center for Environmental Studies and sampling some tomatoes or raspberries.
Students can also support the handful of companies that pledge not to use genetically altered ingredients in their products. Stonyfield Farm prints on every yogurt container they produce that “The family farmers who supply our milk and cream pledge not to treat their cows with rBGH,” or Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, a genetically engineered protein which increases the milk production of cows. It has been linked to lameness and infection in cows; its effect on humans has not been fully explored. Last year, Williams Dining Services served Stonyfield Farm regular and frozen yogurt. This year, they switched to the less environmentally concerned but more recognizable Colombo brand.
Jessica Marmor ’02 was among the majority not very aware of the controversy surrounding GM foods. “I never really thought much about genetically engineered foods in the dining halls before,” she remarked. When asked about the new frozen yogurt at campus dining halls, she said, “It tastes so good that I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with that stuff.” Many Williams students may share her opinions. Those concerned about GM foods may be reassured that, according to Irena Hollowell ’02, who has raised environmental issues with Dining Services before, “They’re responsive. They do a pretty good job paying attention to these issues.”
Hodgkins says, “We belong to a couple of agencies, including the National Association of College and University Food Services, where we can get together and speak plainly about our concerns.” Such actions may bring about changes from the FDA. Until then, the rest of campus will have to keep wondering aloud just what is in Bob Marley Chicken.