File this one under “strange airport experiences.” In a sandwich-stand line at Reagan National the day before Christmas, the twenty-something waif ahead of me pestered the counter girl: “Do you have anything organic?” And then: “Is that lettuce GMO-free? ’Cause, if not, I won’t eat it.”

Here was a young woman who was perfectly content to put herself into a 140-ton pressurized metal tube and allow a total stranger to catapult her body seven miles into the sky at 530 miles per hour. But she wouldn’t eat genetically modified roughage.

Grains and vegetables enhanced by biotechnology have been as common in the United States as tap water since the mid-1990s, and they haven’t given a single person so much as the sniffles. Yet fear of “genetically modified” food “GM” to aficionados, or with an added “O” for “organism” has become a worldwide neurosis, fueled by the same nasty combination of ignorance and junk science that powers environmental hysteria worldwide.

In this country alone, more than a hundred separate organizations agitate against what they derisively call “Frankenfoods.” According to their tax returns and annual reports, such groups spent over $400 million worldwide in 2001. Connecting the dots between rhetoric and financial muscle, DNA-research pioneer James Watson has pointed out the obvious: behemoths like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth “get bigger memberships if people are afraid of their food.”

True enough. More than half the environmental movement’s funding comes from large foundations. But the rest arrives in $20 and $30 checks. As any direct-mail fundraiser will tell you, fear sells.

Ronnie Cummins, a Ralph Nader disciple who runs the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association, has described how it works overseas. Outbreaks of “mad cow” disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy, utterly unrelated to crop biotechnology made Europeans “lose faith in industrial agriculture altogether,” sparking huge growth in activist budgets and political power. Cummins now openly hopes for “a similar crisis of confidence . . . in the United States,” leading to a glorious “new era of sustainable living and organic agriculture.”

This, of course, is propaganda worthy of Chairman Mao. But it nicely describes the dramatic effects that peddlers of doom and gloom expect, once enough of us are terrified of what’s on our plates. Here in the United States, though, there’s no mad cow. So activists have to be creative.

In a now-famous bit of junk science, British researcher Arpad Pusztai proclaimed in 1998 that bio-engineered potatoes stunted rats’ growth and immune systems. Britain’s Royal Society called the study “flawed in many aspects of design, execution, and analysis” and said that “no conclusions should be drawn from it.” It seems Pusztai failed to make “blind” measurements of any kind. And his data, said the society, “provide no reliable or convincing evidence of adverse effects.”

Pusztai’s employer, Scotland’s Rowett Institute, “retired” him immediately after the incident, but not before the seeds of a food panic were sown. Greenpeace’s Charles Margulis could hardly contain his glee: “It’s going to increase concern here in the United States.”

Then came a 1999 Cornell University experiment, in which eleven Monarch butterfly caterpillars died after eating milkweed leaves dusted with biotech corn pollen. Even opponents of biotech foods now admit that the study was so badly flawed that its results were meaningless, but few understand how environmental activists intentionally deceived the public. The Cornell caterpillars were force-fed pollens they never eat in the wild. And the pollen itself came from corn genetically engineered to produce a pesticide toxic to crop-eating caterpillars. In other words, it worked! The researchers themselves recognized their work’s limitations, cautioning: “It would be inappropriate to draw any conclusions about the risk to Monarch populations in the field.”

None of which stopped Greenpeace, Environmental Defense, and a host of other activist groups from launching a media blitz declaring biotech corn a global hazard. Instantly, giant Monarch costumes became hot commodities at protest rallies.

Three years later, although the USDA says that the risk “is negligible” and the EPA has concluded that “there is no unreasonable hazard,” greendom’s giants continue to cling to their Lepidopteran fantasy. And who knows how much money those butterfly costumes helped them raise?

Another source of support for food scaremongers comes from organic and “natural” food marketers, eager to hurt their conventional competitors and build market share. Many such “fear profiteers” and “black marketers” plow money back into activist groups, even boast about it not just to pillory genetically enhanced foods, but also to suggest organic varieties as the only “safe” alternative.

They’re helped along by a growing cadre of celebrity restaurateurs whose organization, the Chefs’ Collaborative, maintains a strict “no GMO” orthodoxy. In a 2000 press conference, Peter Hoffman of New York’s Savoy restaurant actually attacked the Green Revolution, which has saved hundreds of millions of lives in the developing world since the 1960s. “We don’t need it now,” he barked, “We didn’t need it then.” Hoffman recently told Newsday that only organic produce is “the right product” to serve. Here’s hoping he’s reincarnated as a peasant farmer in the Philippines.

The recent introduction of USDA “Certified Organic” labeling hasn’t injected much sanity into the debate. Even though the labeling “makes no claim that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food,” activists are trying to convince an unwary public that the reverse is true. Mr. Cummins insists in print: “There is no doubt that organic food is better and safer.” And Katherine DiMatteo, who leads the Organic Trade Association, told a Reuters reporter that buying organic foods is “like using a seat belt or bicycle helmet.”
That’s a 180-degree pivot away from reality. A 2002 study by the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues found that organic and “natural” food products were eight times more likely to be recalled or suffer other food safety problems, compared to their conventional counterparts. And America’s number-one source of food-borne contamination from deadly E. coli bacteria isn’t processed beef. It’s organic sprouts. What should we expect from food that’s grown in manure?

Just one thing, actually: higher prices. Organic and “natural” foods can cost twice as much as those we were all perfectly content to eat just a few years ago. And marketers of these trendy foods know exactly what they’re doing. Organic Valley marketing director Theresa Marquez told a 2001 conference of chefs: “The question is not, ‘Why is organic food so expensive?’ The question is, ‘Why are the foods we are eating now so cheap?’” As Marie Antoinette might have said, let them eat organic blue-corn tortilla chips.

But such economic questions are lost on today’s most ardent anti-biotech protesters. So intertwined are the anti-biotech, socialist, anarchist, and anti-globalist movements that the 1999 WTO riots in Seattle looked to some like just another anti-GMO rally. Even when people’s lives are allegedly at stake, the biotech protest culture simply can’t shake its fondness for Karl Marx. No wonder its hit list includes some of the world’s most successful corporations.

Even in mainstream academia, some gastronomic busybodies are letting the anti-GMO movement’s anti-corporate roots show. Joan Gussow, a Columbia University nutritionist who rails almost pathologically against food technology, recently complained to the San Francisco Chronicle that big companies are “taking over” organic markets. “When we said ‘organic,’ we meant local,” whined Gussow, “we meant social justice and equality.” Apparently this crusade is less about what’s for dinner and more about who produces it.

One problem: These hated corporations are the only ones at the moment with the resources to ensure that if the marketplace wants organic food, at least it won’t kill anybody. USDA food safety undersecretary Elsa Murano recently told a World Food Prize symposium that “consumers should be wary” of organically grown foods. “We must remember,” Murano explained, “that bacteria and parasites are also all-natural.”

Which brings me back to the backpack-toting young traveler whose worldview was skewed enough to demand genetic purity in her airport food. It’s dangerous enough to embrace, as Europe has, an organic-dominated food culture that costs more than it needs to and makes life riskier for the people who eat it. But we should be doubly careful not to encourage the next generation of moms and dads to fear their food just because some global company and Lord save us! a scientist had a hand in making it.

— David Martosko is director of research at Washington’s Center for Consumer Freedom, a coalition of restaurant owners, food producers, and ordinary people who eat.