For several years, I’ve tried — with an astounding lack of success — to persuade the students studying at The Culinary Institute of America, that the houses of PhD biologists are not haunted. They contain no ghosts. But even if they did, they’d be benevolent ones like “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” or the “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.”

The future leaders of the hospitality industry, however, don’t believe me.

They do believe, fervently, in foods that are “natural” and grown (organically) within their own zip code. And those natural things are inherently good for you. (It is perhaps frivolous to observe that a free-range chicken is as dangerous as a free-range boyfriend because we never know where they have been!)

When it comes to biotechnology, most people would leap at the opportunity to receive a life-saving drug developed by a biotech company, but become apoplectic at the very idea of idea of being duped into eating wiggly organisms developed by sinister genetic engineering corporations.

The central opposition to GMOs rests on the premise that they are not natural and therefore must surely be considered unsafe. This opinion is widely helped by consumers who have little hesitation before ordering a Big Mac or taco chips bathed in Velveeta cheese and zapped in the microwave that they consume with gusto. (Note: the principal ingredient in taco chips is bioengineered corn.)

Rather than the stuff of ghouls, I’ve attempted to explain the complex science of genetic engineering by asking the students at the CIA to imagine Martha Stewart marrying Osama bin Laden. The union could, theoretically have produced a child who would become a billionaire — or an international terrorist.  It’s all a matter of careful selection and breeding. The very purpose of genetic engineering is to reliably predict the outcome of inserting one, or more genes into the seed of a vegetable or fruit.

Why Worry?

In Southeast Asia, it is estimated that every year, a quarter of a million children suffer irreversible blindness as a result of a nutritional deficiency. This condition could be remedied by bioengineering the rice endosperm (the starchy interior part of the rice grain) that does not contain any B-carotene, which is the precursor for vitamin A. Vitamin A is a component of the visual pigments of rod and cone cells in the retina, and its deficiency causes symptoms ranging from night blindness to total blindness.

“No amount of conventional hybridizing techniques could do that,” notes Gordon Conway, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, Professor of International Development at Imperial College and Director of Agriculture for Impact, a grant funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on European support of agricultural development in Africa.  A lifelong crusader against Third World hunger, he wonders whether anyone seriously believes that this near-miraculous breakthrough against malnutrition was achieved solely to increase the stock value of multi-national corporations.

Science 101, Ahem

I struggle to explain the science:

Modern biotechnology uses genetic surgery to snip and splice pieces of DNA; this is called genetic engineering or genetic modification (GM).  A copy of a gene that has a desired specific attribute is spliced into the DNA of a microbe, or a plant or animal cell, adding the attribute of the gene to the new cell, where it is then replicated in the normal process of cell division. The purpose of introducing a gene with specific characteristics into another living organism is to improve a species in a very specific way, rather than by the imprecise methods that have been used for more than 10,000 years.

Plant biotechnology is based on the ideas of the earliest farmers as they struggled to improve and increase their food supply. For example, centuries ago potatoes and tomatoes had an extremely bitter taste due to the presence of a class of chemicals called alkaloids. By tasting, rejecting, or selecting plants that were palatable, primitive agriculture emerged. As genetic principles were established, crop breeding honed this process of identifying genetic variants (or mutants) as our source of seed. In the process, the plants lost some natural defenses against insects and disease, which toxic alkaloids had provided. As agriculture progressed in the last century, we developed pesticide sprays to protect our toxin-depleted crops. In essence, when we removed defense genes to make tasty foods, we created crops dependent upon human intervention for growth.

Modern plant biotechnology is used to give crops built-in protection against a specific insect, or disease, or tolerance to a specific herbicide. This means that instead of spraying a field several times during a growing season, farmers can apply fewer pesticides or none at all and still protect their crop.

Has the plant been altered?

Yes.

Is it safe to eat?  Definitely.

Change Alas Remains the Same

Still, there are many who remain staunchly against the use of pesticides, even in cases where severe droughts have caused crop failure and farm depletion. Minds have been made up. Period. We resist change in many aspects of our lives, but nowhere more so than when it comes to food. Pasteurization of milk and fluoridation of water were also initially regarded with deep suspicion.

More than 80% of the foods now in U.S. supermarkets contain a biotech ingredient. Consumers, even those who read labels, often have little idea how pervasive corn and soy are in their daily diets.  Corn sweeteners are found in more than 3,000 processed foods from sodas and breakfast cereals to ketchup and cake mixes. Soy is found not only in tofu products such as veggie burgers, but also in items ranging from baby formula to cooking oils. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 93% of soybeans and 88% of corn planted in the U.S. are genetically modified.

Although European food retailers, especially those in the United Kingdom, are advertising their foods as “GM-free,” what they really mean is that their foods are free of detectable biotech ingredients.  It is virtually impossible, at least in a cost-effective way, to measure genetically modified DNA or protein molecules in most foods made from present GM crops. So, what the insistent demand boils down to is the mounting pressure to label an ingredient in a food that cannot be found or measured, although even if it could, it would not be harmful.  Even so, on May 8, 2014, Vermont became the first state in the nation to require labeling of foods that contain genetically modified implying there is something wrong or bad or nasty about them.  (In Vermont, funding in support of labeling foods containing a GM ingredient was estimated to amount to somewhere in the region of$750,000 to $1 million, about half from instate and half from outside supporters, which included Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps and the Organic Consumers’ Fund. “What it came down to is, the people I represent wanted it,” confessed Senator Bobby Starr, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who represents relatively conservative Essex and Orleans counties. “In the end I said, ‘Well, individual rights are more important than an industry’s rights.”)

In the end who is fed, and who starves, appears to matter less about who is seated around the dining table than who is seated in the legislature.

Maybe it would be more economically and emotionally beneficial to label those foods that are grown organically?

The Media and Their Mixed Messages

We are undergoing a massive change in how we think about our food and in the ways we buy, cook, and eat it. Our opinions are influenced by activists protesting the pollution of the Earth’s soil, air, and water, the inhumane treatment of animals, pesticide residues, the presence of hormones in our meat and milk, and of additives and preservatives in processed food. Some of these concerns are amply justified; others have little or no basis in reality.

Marion Nestle, Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University points out: “The results of surveys of consumer attitudes toward food biotechnology conducted over the past decade suggest that issues related to public acceptance of recombinant food products can be grouped into three categories: (1) Credibility issues related to industry and its government regulators, (2) safety issues relevant to individual consumers as well as the environment, and (3) “ethical” issues — for want of a better term — that bear on deeply held religious, moral and philosophical value systems that, for example, prefer nature over science, family businesses and farms over corporations, and animals’ over scientists’ rights.  Among these categories, safety alone can be subjected to scientific measurement and evaluation.”

Who is Fed?

The pervasive problem of food shortage is not going to be resolved by growing more crops in the industrialized countries and shipping them to where they are needed, because dependency inevitably increases, rather than diminishes poverty. It will not be resolved unless we successfully transform agriculture at the small farmer level, in the developing countries where already 840 million go hungry every day and two billion more are malnourished.

The new technologies will not help farmers who are too poor to afford the new seeds and current trade policies often worsen their plight. Large corporations all too often become Goliaths at whom many well-directed arrows are hurled, but it is not likely that their stockholders will vote to become benefactors if there is no money to be made.  This is why it is all the more important for the public to understand and support the advances in agricultural sciences so others can step in to help those in need become self-sufficient.

Ismael Serageldin serves as Chair or Member of a number of advisory committees for academic, research, scientific and international institutions and civil society efforts, including the Advisory Committee of the World Social Science Report for 2013, as well as the UNESCO-supported World Water Scenarios (2013).  He implores us to reason together saying: “In the nineteenth century some people declared that slavery was unconscionable and unacceptable, that it degraded the free as well as the slaves, and that it must be abolished.  They were called abolitionists. Today hunger associated with extreme poverty in a world that has the means to feed its people is unconscionable and unacceptable. We must become the new abolitionists.”

The world is already farming 37% of its landmass. Unless we triple agricultural yields there will be little room for wildlife in the second half of the 21st century.  The real threat to biodiversity comes from destroying natural habitats; the ultimate environmental payoff from transgenic crop technologies is that fewer watersheds are destroyed, fewer hillsides plowed, fewer trees cut, more species saved, and more hungry people fed.

Sustainable farming is a form of agriculture that will last forever, because it meets the needs of the present without compromising the food supplies of future generations. This concept was practiced effectively for thousands of years; it can be just as viable a model for us today in our search for a sustainable cuisine.

The urgent task facing the biotech industry — its critics, the media, and those engaged in socially responsible investing — is to promote civilized debate; to separate science from rhetoric; and to dispel irrational fears that hinder serious analysis of current policies and rid the debate of “all or nothing” dogma.

In the final analysis, both the advocates and critics of biotechnology strive for the same goal, which is to reduce hunger and poverty and ensure that we have a safe and affordable food supply. There are no “sides” in this debate. Both must give up the “ghosts” of their radical postures and realize that traditional, organic farming can and indeed exist alongside new and innovative technologies designed to increase the nutritional value of our crops.

Irena Chalmers is a member of the faculty of The Culinary Institute of America, a recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who citation. A restaurant industry consultant, blogger and contributor to numerous books, she is the award-winning author of the “Food Jobs” book series.