Frankenfood and the Angry Villagers

Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, celebrated a birthday in August (if she was still alive, she would be over 200 years old). Since the most popular anti-GMO slur term, “Frankenfood,” is based on her iconic work of fiction, Mary Shelley’s birthday had me (and some other bloggers) thinking about how the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster relates to the biotech debate.


In one way, the term “Frankenfood” perfectly encapsulates the sentiment of the anti-GMO movement. After all, the Frankenstein story is meant as a cautionary tale of what happens when mankind marches forward with a new technology. The message contained in the term “Frankenfood” is that the technology of genetic engineering will create something dangerous. It will create a “monster.”


But the popularized story of Frankenstein has another important aspect that applies directly to the debate surrounding GMOs: the ignorant mob of angry villagers that storms the castle in the end. In fact, the letter to the New York Times that coined the term “Frankenfood” included just such a call to action. English Professor Paul Lewis wrote in 1992: “Ever since Mary Shelley’s baron rolled his improved human flesh out of the lab, scientists have been bringing such good things to life. If they want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it’s time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle.”


That’s exactly what anti-GMO activists have done.


This “storming of the castle” has taken many forms. Without a shred of evidence, anti-GMO activists blame a whole slew of diseases, from autism to cancer on biotech foods. Mobs of angry activists rip up fields of beta-carotene enhanced rice meant to combat blindness in third-world countries. There are entire organizations dedicated to dressing up in hazmat suits, holding signs and blocking the doors of seed companies that invent new biotech products. Some have even gone as far as to burn down biotech labs or print mobster-style hit lists of anyone who speaks favorably of GMOs. Using the strong arm of the law, activists push to ban farmers from planting biotech crops and try to intimidate restaurants into removing them from their menus. Falling short of outright bans, activists clamor for scary-sounding warning labels to be slapped on all genetically engineered foods.


These “villagers” believe that the products created with the technology of genetic engineering are worthy of an 1800s-style angry mob attack. But as I’ve written before, what these activists are clamoring to kill is far from a monster.