In the last days, according to the Book of Revelation, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will bring unprecedented misery to the peoples of the Earth. At least one of these riders seems to be saddling up right now. His name is Famine, and helping him into his stirrups are all those who would block the continued development of genetically improved food.

About 60 percent of processed foods already contain some genetically improved component. But to feed a planet whose population will grow by 3 billion to 9 billion people by 2050 requires more scientific breakthroughs like that which produced “golden rice.” By splicing a gene containing beta-carotene (commonly found in carrots) into normal rice, researchers have produced a strain capable of preventing the Vitamin A deficiency that each year blinds millions of Third World children. Sadly, however, elitism and greed would stop the miracle of the Petri dish from ever reaching the rice bowl. Speaking out against biotech food at a Washington, D.C., news conference underwritten by organic food marketers, Peter Hoffman of the Savoy restaurant in New York, the incoming chairman of a group of celebrity chefs called the Chefs Collaborative, publicly opposed “golden rice.” Hoffman also attacked all of modern agriculture. “The Green Revolution was a dismal failure,” he said. “We don’t need it now. We didn’t need it then.”

A few months earlier, master chef Charlie Trotter of Chicago’s tony restaurant that bears his name led the “Chefs Collaborative” in demanding that the Food and Drug Administration slap a moratorium on any new genetically improved food while requiring products already on the shelf to bear a stigmatizing label. (A dangerous bunch, these seedless grapes.) Now if chefs Trotter and Hoffman insist on organically grown fruits and vegetables to create their pricey delectables — at Charlie Trotter’s, dinner for two is $220 without wine — that’s between them and their Yuppie clientele.

But why sabotage similar creativity by the genetic scientists who would feed ragged multitudes? And why lend an air of glamour to scaremongers who have no higher motivation than selling their product by defaming the competition?

Coke cannot really smear Pepsi as dangerous and Pizza Hut cannot convincingly brand Domino’s a safety hazard because Americans are experts on colas and pizzas. They understand the difference between rival (yet similar) products.

Organic, conventional and genetically improved foods are also very similar. Modern gene scientists simply produce improved traits in food more quickly and precisely than farmers who needed years of traditional cross-breeding to perfect their crops. Yet terms like “transgenic crops” mystify many Americans, allowing profit-driven organic merchants to exploit consumers’ fears about “Frankenfood.” For example, Whole Foods, one of America’s big-two natural-food retailers, enthusiastically backs Chefs Collaborative’s labeling crusade. And why not?

The firm, which promoted a study linking genetically improved potatoes to abnormalities in rats, realized net income growth of more than 70 percent in 1998. This was nearly triple Whole Foods’ sales growth, suggesting that manufactured anxiety over genetically improved food allowed the company to charge premium prices to spooked customers. (Soon after the release of the potato report, The Royal Society — Britain’s leading scientific body — labeled it “flawed in design and implementation” and declared “no conclusions can be drawn from it.”)

Sound cynical? Well, at last year’s U.S. Organic Food Conference, one speaker said, “The potential to develop the organic market would be limited if consumers are satisfied with food safety and the furor over genetic modification dies down.”

The plain truth, quoting FDA Commissioner Jane Henney, is that “biotech products have produced no evidence of food safety risks: not one rash, not one sore throat, not one headache.” That is not a claim that organic foods, which often eschew such fundamental safety steps as pasteurization, can match.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control suggest that Americans who eat organic foods increase eightfold their chance of contracting a strain of E. coli bacteria that causes 250 U.S. deaths every year. Often fertilized by animal manure, organic food also puts its consumers at greater risk for a virulent salmonella strain. Paradoxically, too, this natural food is hard on nature: On the same acreage, organic farms produce up to 40 percent less food than conventional farms, meaning they plow up that much more land. Widespread organic agriculture would also require nitrogen-rich green manure, entailing the conversion of more millions of wilderness acres to pasturage.

How then is the organic-foods industry able to put this new exciting agricultural technology under a cloud? Part of the answer is the tendency of many Americans to cling to romantic ideals. The organic crusade finds an audience in a movement that sees natural farming as one step on the road back to Eden. Chefs Collaborative’s founding organization, Oldways, for instance, speaks of looking back for dietary lessons that would help humanity weave “a seamless web of agriculture, behavior, history, tradition, culture, health, finance, politics . . . “ Or as Chefs Collaborative board member Judy Wicks puts it, “We like to say we use good food to lure innocent customers into social activism.”

Sometimes self-indulgent uto-pianism is harmless. Not here. As a wise man observed, “The boy throws the stone in jest; the frog dies in earnest.” The consequence of this ideological lark, exploited by old-fashioned greed, could be more than dead frogs.

— 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.