19 November 2009

Varied Voices: Susan Arnout Smith

This week's guest blogger is Susan Arnout Smith, whose new book Out at Night just recently hit shelves. In her column today, she talks about the genesis for this new book.

(Un)comforting Food by Susan Arnout Smith

When I was growing up, often eating dinner was an anxious affair.

It’s what we did as a family at the end of a long day being apart. It’s where tempers flared, wars were fought. There were snipings, direct attacks, curve balls. And then we lunged at the butter, scooped extra servings of mashed potatoes and hunkered down for round two.

The food, always, was excellent, (my mother was a home economics teacher), but because of the uncertainty, because safety was never a given, meals were eaten hurriedly, and under stress.

We never knew if this was the meal where everything would be relaxed and cheerful, or the meal where something unexpected and fearful would come for us out of a dark place, galloping toward us with metal hooves and snapping teeth.

I know this wasn’t my parents’ intention. But it was the truth of our lives.

The table is where I learned to lie well for my own protection, to cover my feelings, and yes, to eat, even if I’d stopped long ago tasting the food or feeling hunger. It’s where I learned to hang on until dessert.

Some days I was lucky. Some days I was supremely not.

When I was thinking about writing Out at Night, my second thriller, (after writing The Timer Game, Minotaur, 2008), I thought about food and how this source of comfort and nurturing—much like a family—can be twisted into something dark and anxiety-provoking.

Perfect country for bad things. Perfect metaphor for genetically modified crops. Once an element has been added, it’s impossible to ever take it back. Not completely.

Now hunger is a terrible thing with a terrible human cost and face. It’s true that good has come from genetically modified crops: in the lab, scientists have created seeds that are drought resistant, weed resistant and even some—like Golden Rice genetically modified to carry Vitamin A, (funded by Bill and Melinda Gates)—will significantly improve the lives of children in Third World countries and prevent blindness.

It’s also true that scientists are combining genes from different organisms (translation: taking genes from humans and adding them to plants), to produce crops that will produce vaccines for AIDs and Hep B, or create insulin or help clot blood or inhibit diarrhea.

But what if you don’t want to eat a plant that produces a human gene to help clot blood? What if your blood works just fine, thank you very much, and actually you need a little aspirin every once in awhile to thin things out. What then?

Michael Fernandez, in a PEW initiative on Food and Biotechnology, makes the point that there’s no worldwide uniform standard about what constitutes seed purity. In the US, producers are required only to reveal how much of something not-seed is mixed in with that labeled seed. I take that to mean they’re not required, from the sounds of it, to disclose what that not-seed actually is. In all fairness to the producers, they might not know.

In 2005 in the UK, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs released a study that GM crops contaminate the countryside for up to fifteen years after being harvested. The study examined five locations across England and Scotland, sites not currently growing GM oilseed rape. They found ‘significant amounts’ of GM crops still there, growing willy-nilly mixed in with the new non-GM crops.

And there’s wind drift. When I was signing Out at Night on the island of Kona, I met wonderful organic coffee growers worried about this very thing. The organic papaya crops recently had been contaminated with pollen from GM papaya crops.

And the entire organic papaya crop had to be destroyed. Can you imagine, if that was your family’s harvest, your family’s work and sweat in the sun and dreaming hope of a payday, what that seemingly innocuous GM pollen drift had cost?

Sometimes even hungry countries turn back our non GM food, (we’re the world’s leading producer of GM crops), fearing contamination. That happened in 2002 when Zimbabwe refused an aid shipment of grain from the US. From where I sit, things have to be pretty serious before a starving country turns back food because it fears what it holds.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about what happens when you eat it.

In 2008, the Austrian government released results of a 20-week study. Results that confirmed that GM corn directly affected reproductive health in mice. The results were so startling (things died), that now there’s a serious and vocal push in Austria to immediately ban all GM goods and crops to protect the fertility of women around the world.

The Russians just completed a similar study at the Russian Academy. With similar results. Over half the off-spring of lab rats fed GM crops died within the first three weeks of life. And all the GM off-spring in the preliminary results were sterile.

The UK’s been worried about the cost of GM to health ever since one of their leading scientists, Arpad Puztai, went on British television in 1998 with word that biotech food stunted the growth of rats.

There’s rats. And then there’s us.

Inventive, creative problem solvers, working to eliminate drought and poverty and famine. Hopeful. Anxious.


William Neuman, in The New York Times, writes in an article August 29th about a move in the US to test and label products to identify them as being mostly biotech free. They do this already in the UK and have for some time. In order to get a ‘butterfly checkmark’ of approval, processed foods here will have to contain no more than 0.9 percent genetically modified material.

And so we live with percentages. In our food. In our lives.

The question is and always has been, at every meal, every moment, what dark thing is waiting to come inside?

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