Network shows aren’t exactly known for their subtlety, but the Eleventh Hour last night managed to navigate the complicated issues surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), taking potshots at biotech firms, big agribusiness, and folks who fetishize food labeled “natural” in equal measure.
The episode focuses on a mysterious case of paralysis in a family, and naturally no one can solve it but FBI scientific consultant Jacob Hood. He eventually figures out that the family’s produce was coated in high concentrations of a common fungus, Botrytis cinerea. The fungus likes to attack soft, seedy fruits, like grapes and strawberries, but the species in the show has been genetically modified. The trail leads the Hood and his partner, Rachel Young, to a biotech firm called Aeonium, where the duo confront CEO Jonathan Cooper about the fungus. Along the way, Hood and Cooper lay out the arguments for and against the genetic manipulation of the products in our food supply, mostly revolving around the question of whether creating easier-to-produce crops is beneficial to developing countries, or sinks those countries into a spiral of debt thanks to patent royalties.
We learn that Aeonium developed a pesticide in which a genetically modified Botrytis produces scorpion toxin. Scorpions use their sting to paralyze bugs, so it makes some sense that it might be useful as an “all natural pesticide.” but it later turns out that the pesticide, when combined with a “natural” red food dye made from beetles, causes paralysis in humans. When Hood and Young point this out to Cooper, he says the company disposed of the chemical legally when they discovered the problem. As it turns out, a disposal site employee stole four barrels of the stuff to use as pesticide in a bid to save his parents’ farm from getting swallowed up by a big agribusiness combine like Monsanto or Dole.
The specifics of this episode are a little sketchy. While Batrytis is the fungus that helps vintner’s produce late-harvest dessert wines, usually they’re trying to get rid of the stuff rather than spray it on. The fungus hasn’t been fully genetically sequenced, and I couldn’t find any evidence that anyone tries to modify its genes (as Hood says is commonplace). In fact, most of the GMO work related to Batrytis is in developing grapes that resist it, since it can ruin a crop, and it encourages the presence of berry moths.
But observe the interplay of forces here: Biotech firm develops a dangerous chemical, but disposes of it properly; a family farm trying to survive against agribusiness illegally uses the pesticide; two biologically produced (“natural”) chemicals cause paralysis when combined in the mammalian stomach. Rather than get lost in the tall grass of whether or not biotechs are good for the world or not, the writers lay out the issues for viewers to ponder. They ask viewers to question their assumptions about their food, and just what it means to be “all natural”, and they ask viewers to consider the class-issues around food.
Hood telegraphs the message early on, when he notes that the term “non-toxic” has no legal meaning, it’s strictly a marketing term. As it happens, the same is true with the word “natural”, and readers of Michael Pollan’s work know that the government definition of the term “organic” is so broad as to approach uselessness. It opens the door to the sorts of problems describes in this episode: all-natural pesticides that can be just as bad for us as any synthetically manufactured chemical.
I even loved how Eleventh Hour closed the episode. Hood opens a green Jello Pudding Cup, and says, “Green food coloring, on the other hand, is a petroleum-derived triphenylmethane, nothing natural about it. Yummy.”