When Food From the Laboratory Leaves a Bitter Taste
The future of Food
The New York Times September 14, 2005






The heroes and villains in "The Future of Food," Deborah Koons

Garcia's sober, far-reaching polemic against genetically modified

foods, are clearly identified. The good guys, acknowledged in the

film's cursory final segment, are organic farmers along with a

growing network of farmers' markets around the United States that

constitute a grass-roots resistance to the Goliath of agribusiness

and the genetically engineered products it favors.


The bad guys, to whom this quietly inflammatory film devotes the bulk

of its attention, are large corporations, especially the Monsanto

Company, a pioneer in the development of genetically engineered

agricultural products. In recent years, Monsanto has patented seeds

that yield crops whose chemical structures have been modified to ward

off pests.


The film poses many ticklish ethical and scientific questions:


* Since genetic material is life, should corporations have the right

to patent genes?


* What are the long-term effects on humans of consuming genetically

engineered food, which is still largely unlabeled in the United



* Can the crossbreeding of wild and genetically modified plants be controlled?


* Might genetically engineered food be the answer to world hunger?


* And finally, could the reduction of biodiversity, which has

quickened since the introduction of genetically modified plants, lead

to catastrophe?


The film's answers to these five questions are: No. Possibly

damaging. Probably not. Probably not. Possibly.


In each case, the movie outlines the pluses, the minuses and the

imponderables. But the overall attitude of Ms. Garcia, the widow of

the Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, might be summed up with the

scolding slogan "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature."


Much of the film is devoted to Monsanto's prosecution of Canadian

farmers on whose property the company discovered traces of its

patented Roundup Ready canola seed, which is genetically engineered

to kill pests. Though the seed had drifted accidentally onto the

farmers' land, courts ruled that they had violated Monsanto's patent

and were liable for damages.


The film begins with a capsule history of agriculture going back more

than 12,000 years but concentrating on the 20th century. It traces

the development of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the rise and

fall of the green revolution, its morphing into the gene revolution,

and the implanting of natural bacterial toxins into the cells of

corn. Can wheat be far behind?


In the mid-1990's, Monsanto, the DuPont Company and others bought the

seed industry. Monsanto alone spent $8 billion investing in the

notion that, as the film bluntly puts it, "whoever controls the seeds

controls the food."


Monsanto has even developed a "suicide seed" that makes crops kill

themselves after one planting. What might happen, the film wonders,

if this seed mixed with wild seeds?


The movie wags its finger at the hand-in-hand relationship of

multinational corporations and big government. One of the film's more

unsettling revelations is its identification of the connections

between Monsanto and top government officials who have been board

members, consultants and executives for its subsidiaries. As a

result, the movie insinuates, the government has little interest in

underwriting research into the promotion of biodiversity and other

alternatives to the economic goals of agribusiness.


The movie ends on a tentative upbeat note. It visits farmers' markets

where the organically grown tomatoes look so inviting you want to

pluck them off the screen and slice them into your own scrumptious

B.L.T. We see whole-earth-style advocates carrying signs that read,

"Our children are not lab rats." Goliath, we are assured, still has a

way to go before trampling all the Davids armed with slingshots.


The Future of Food