The Age of Frankenstein

by Eduardo Galeano

The Progressive magazine, May 2001


In his novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley predicted the assembly-line production of human beings. Embryos would be developed in test tubes according to their future social functions, from those created to command to those made for servitude.

Now, seventy years later, biogenetics promises us, as a sort of millennium gift, a new human race. Altering the genetic code for generations to come, science will produce beings that are intelligent, beautiful, healthy, and perhaps immortal, depending on how much money the parents have to spend.

Nobel laureate James Watson, who discovered the structure of DNA and heads the Human Genome Project, preaches a despotism of science. He refuses to accept any limit on the manipulation of human reproductive cells, either for research or commerce. Without mincing words, he stated: "We have to stay away from rules and regulations."

Gregory Pence, a professor of medical ethics at the University of Alabama, is an advocate of the right of parents to pick the children they wish to have, just as "great breeders try to match a breed of dog to the needs of a family."

Lester Thurow, economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the successful theorist of success, asks who would turn down the chance to program a child with greater intelligence. "And if you don't," he argues, "your neighbors will, and your child will be the stupidest in the neighborhood."

If we are lucky, the nurseries of the future will produce superbabies like these geniuses. Today the improvement of the species doesn't require the gas chambers that Germany employed to purify its race, nor the surgery that the United States, Sweden, and other countries use to prevent low-quality human models from reproducing. The world will manufacture genetically modified people just as today it makes genetically modified (GM) foods.

Stanley Kubrick got it right when he predicted thirty years ago in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey that we'd be eating chemical food. The giants of the chemical industry are feeding us now. We are part of a procession of abbreviations: after DDT and PCBs, which were finally banned after it became known, years ago, that they caused more cancer than comfort, it was GMs' turn. And now GMs from the United States, Canada, and Argentina are invading the whole world, and we are all the guinea pigs in these gastrological experiments of the major laboratories.

In reality, we don't even know what we eat. Except for a few exceptions, the labels on the foods we buy don't tell us whether their ingredients have been genetically modified. Monsanto, the main provider of these products, doesn't include this detail on its labels. And the milk from cows that have been treated with its transgenic growth hormones carries no warning, though, according to studies published in The Lancet, Science, The International Journal of Health Services, and others, it is linked to breast and prostate cancer.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized the sale of this milk without mention of this fact on the label, because in the end hormones stimulate growth and increase production, and more production means more profit. And it's the health of the economy that comes first.

Anyway, when Monsanto is required to admit what it's selling, nothing much changes. A few years ago, the company had to pay a fine for "seventy-five inexact mentions" on the cans of its poisonous herbicide Roundup. The company was given a special bulk rate and paid a mere $3,000 per lie.

The Europeans are the only ones who are defending themselves, or at least trying to. The importing of GM products is prohibited in certain cases and subject to regulation in others. Since 1998, for example, the European Union has required clear labeling on genetically modified soy products. But it is hard to put this good intention into practice: The trace of this substance is lost when combined with other ingredients. According to Greenpeace, GM soy is present in 60 percent of all the processed food sold in supermarkets around the world.

The attitude of the Europeans was shaped under the pressure of public opinion. When French farmers set fire to the silos of transgenic corn to protest the damage it does to the ecosystem, the agitator/organizer Jose Bove became a national hero, a new Asterix, who stated in his defense: "When were we, the farmers and the consumers, consulted about this?"

The government, which had arrested him, withdrew its authorization of the cultivation of biotech corn.

Of course, the Europeans have other reasons to distrust technocrats' maneuvers on their dinner tables. They are still shaken by their recent experience with mad cows. For the thousands of years that cows lived off grass and grain, their behavior was impeccable and they accepted their fate with resignation. Then our insane current system forced them into cannibalism. Cows ate cows and grew fatter, rendered humanity more meat and milk, won the applause of the markets and encomiums from their owners-and went stark raving mad. People made a lot of jokes about this-until they started to die from it. One, then ten, then twenty, a hundred....

In 1996, the British Ministry of Agriculture informed the population that animal feed made from animal blood, fat, and gelatin was safe for cattle and not harmful to human health. Bon appetit!


Eduardo Galeano, an Uruguayan journalist, is author of "Memory of Fire, "Open Veins of Latin America," and "Upside Down. " Reprinted with permission from IPS Columnist Service.

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