Celebrity chefs are having a grand time tossing their toques into the ring to fight genetically engineered (GE) foods. But these chefs have whipped up a media soufflé that cannot support the weight of scientific evidence arrayed against their ideas.

The ringleader of the chef activists is Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill in Chicago. Bayless chairs the “Chefs Collaborative 2000,” a group that is pushing for a radical shift toward local, small-scale organic farming. They seek an end to pesticide use, agribusiness, the use of all genetically engineered (GE) food and virtually all other food-production technology. Not coincidentally, their cause is promoted by an “under the radar” coalition of organic food manufacturers and retailers. Guess who gains market share if the celebrity chefs can sow enough nervousness among consumers about advances in food technology?

The chefs’ romantic notions about homegrown, organic foodstuffs are fine if you inhabit the rarified atmosphere of the fifty-dollar-entree world. It’s easy for chefs with a wealthy following, such as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, to stand before a New York press conference and denounce the latest advances in large-scale agriculture, as they did this spring.

But down here are on earth, there are six billion people to feed on a finite and ever-shrinking amount of farmland. The new century’s moral imperative is to make food harvests more bountiful for more people, with less dependence on chemicals, on the same amount of land. As simple as organic production sounds in theory, the Hudson Institute’s agricultural expert Dennis Avery points out that if the earth were to return to total organic harvests on all available farmland, the result would leave two billion people without food!

Chicago-based Charlie Trotter, the proud owner/chef of one of the most expensive restaurants between New York and Los Angeles, is also an organic disciple. At a recent anti-GE foods press conference Trotter said, “I have concerns this untested technology diminishes the purity and taste of food.” Concerns? Maybe he is also “concerned” about nuclear winter or global warming or the ozone layer. But do we all have to act on his baseless paranoia?

Apparently no one trotted out the facts to Trotter: in the eight-to-ten years it takes to bring a GE food product to market, there are examinations, field tests and oversight by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture. Exhaustive reviews are also conducted by the National Research Council, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

As for Trotter’s concerns about “purity,” FDA Commissioner Jane Henney points to 13 years of American experience studying, growing and eating biotech-enhanced foods with literally no evidence of any food safety risks. As Henney emphasized: “Not one rash; not one cough; not one sore throat; not one headache.”

It’s no wonder Dr. Henney is so assertive. Her scientific colleague, Dr. Adrianne Massey, the author of “Recombinant DNA and Biotechnology,” writes, “Genetic modification of food by humans is nothing new. We have genetically modified virtually all of the food we have ever consumed.”

Meanwhile, nestled between the edible flowers and the bone china, the organically grown food served by celebrity chefs is at least eight times more likely to contain E. coli bacteria than conventionally grown food, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.

If these chefs can live with the added expense and higher risk of E. coli poisoning associated with the organic produce they serve, it’s certainly their choice to serve it to their guests and to publicly promote their preference. However, as they have acknowledged on their web site, their agenda is more aggressive than that.

“When we organized Oldways [which founded the Chefs Collaborative in 1993], we intended to change the way people make their food choices.” How? “We believed…we could influence individuals and framers of public policy to make changes.” That is, they want to enact laws and regulations which push us toward the foods that align with their political philosophies and away from those that don’t. As Rick Bayless told the Wall Street Journal, “Food gives us the entrée to effect social change.”

In their zeal to promote organic foods, the celebrity chefs even oppose the production of so-called “golden rice,” genetically engineered to be a rich source of vitamins. This unprecedented grain not only nourishes, it will prevent tens of thousands of Third World children from going blind. And far from profiting on the poor, the biotech firms which created golden rice are giving it away.

How many eat for free at Chez Panisse?

— Rick Berman is the executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a
coalition of more than 30,000 restaurant and tavern operators working
together to preserve the right to offer guests a full menu of dining and
entertainment choices.