Eat My Stem Cell

A depressing study released last month by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology demonstrates once again that Americans are abysmally dissociated from reality. Only 24 percent of those polled believe they have eaten genetically modified food, despite industry estimates that between 70 and 75 percent of processed foods contain some G.M. products. Fifty-eight percent of Americans swear they have never eaten G.M. foods, and only 25 percent support the introduction of them into the American diet. And yet everyday we're scarfing down G.M. fruits and veggies without realizing it.

More heinously, their opinions on this matter are being completely ignored by the government and the agriculture industry. Against their wills, Americans are being fed genetically engineered substances. Even the people who are in favor of G.M. foods, that 25 percent minority, are only in favor of "introducing" G.M. foods into stores -- they, like most of their fellow citizens, believe G.M. foods are some kind of futuristic, mad science thing. But that doesn't change the fact that you're eating flora whose genomes some hungry postdoc thrashed in a lab. How do you like it? Don't you wish somebody had let you vote on this, so at least you could have attempted to register your opinion in a way that mattered?

I'm not anti-G.M. food, but I do think G.M. products should be labeled and strongly regulated. And scientists should be keeping a close eye on what happens to people who eat G.M. products (which is to say, most of us), as well as what happens to G.M. plants and animals over time. We still don't have a lot of answers when it comes to dealing with nonmodified genomes, so it's just common sense to make sure that tweaked genetic material doesn't start expressing nasty proteins or mutating wildly.

What really pisses me off, though, is that the ban on therapeutic cloning implemented by the Bush administration is still in full effect. So it's not OK to conduct research into stem cells gleaned from therapeutic cloning, even if it promises to cure things like Alzheimer's and liver disease. But it is OK to feed people potentially dangerous substances without their knowledge. If Bush is so concerned about the "souls" in those swabs of fetal stem cells used in therapeutic cloning, then why isn't he worried about pregnant women eating GMOs? Or putting GMOs into baby food?

And why isn't anybody worried about what happens to the soul of a G.M. potato? I mean, while we're getting all shirty about the spirituality of individual cells, we might as well concern ourselves with fully formed, autonomous organisms, too.

Of course, you know the answer to my rhetorical questions already. Bush isn't worried about any of this shit because he has decided to use his science policies to court the religious right and the agriculture industry. There is no contradiction between U.S. policies on GMOs and stem cell research if you understand that the course of biological science -- much of which is funded by the National Institutes of Health -- is often determined by rich lobbying groups. If potatoes could hose Bush with cash, you can be damn sure we'd be hearing about the rights of their cells.

Autonomy from government control would seem to be the answer if we want scientific innovation to thrive in this country. But unfortunately this isn't a solution either. An excellent report recently released by the Computer and Communications Industry Association points out that market monopolies pose as many risks to people in the United States as Bush's limiting policies do.

In the CCIA report, several renowned computer security experts explore the potential disaster represented by Microsoft's domination of the operating system market. Their main concern, backed up by ample evidence, is that when so many computers are running exactly the same buggy software, it's incredibly easy for an attacker to take out huge chunks of the information infrastructure. All you have to do is design a program that takes advantage of a vulnerability in Windows 2000 or XP and you can ruin the data on hundreds of thousands of computers.

Research firm IDC estimates that Windows represented 94 percent of the consumer client software sold in the United States in 2002. A cyberattack designed for Windows would endanger an overwhelming majority of the population. If Microsoft had real market competition from another vendor, not all of us would be running the same software. You'd think U.S. policy makers, who make a lot of noise about the importance of keeping citizens safe, would want some regulations in place to keep large corporations from compromising national security.

But do consumers know that Microsoft's Internet Explorer, the Web browser packaged with Windows, has at any given time 10 to 30 known security vulnerabilities that haven't been patched? Do they know they're eating GMOs? Don't give me that "they don't care" crap. This problem isn't being caused by apathy. It's caused by the fact that government and industry aren't serving as correctives to one another -- they're encouraging each other's worst tendencies.

Annalee Newitz (GMO@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd whose operating systems are all organically grown. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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