CSI Miami Science Fiction -- FrankenFood Disinformation


CSI Miami

I confess to being a CSI police procedural junkie. Fortunately for the physical integrity of my television set, I missed the completely idiotic episode last week.  In "Bad Seed," the always stylishly dressed and ever intrepid Miami team of CSIs fingered an evil food and farming CEO for poisoning a customer. The victim ate an ear of genetically modified corn containing a botulism gene. Utter claptrap!

In the CSI plot, the deadly gene was supposed to have accidentally gotten into the corn. Apparently, greedy and incompetent breeders somehow overlooked the fact that they had mixed up genes from one bacteria that aimed to make the corn more digestible with other genes from bacteria that produce the botulinum toxin. Biotech crop developers use very precise techniques to install specific beneficial genes in their genetically enhanced varieties. Then breeders test the hell out of them to see if anything unexpected occurs. Only then do the new improved varieties get released to farmers for planting.

As far as I can tell, there is currently only one variety of biotech sweet corn (corn on the cob) commercially available in the United States. Developed by Syngenta, Attribute sweet corn contains an added gene that kills some insects that try to eat it. The gene comes from bacillus thuringiensis. Please note that b.t. is also extensively used by organic farmes to control pests.

The chief villain in the episode is CEO of Bixton Organic Foods, Jerry Mackey. Now why would the CSI screenwriters pick a character name very similar to that of John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods? Perhaps because John Mackey is being slagged by the brain-dead left for his recent opposition to the Obama administration's version of health care reform? Nah. It's probably just a coincidence. And never mind the deep plot confusion over the fact that the CEO of an organic farming company would not be growing biotech crops anyway. The organic movement got biotech crops banned from the USDA's organic standards years ago.

Look, part of what attracts me to the CSI shows is that they make science look cool (the clothes, the cars, the centrifuges). And I undertand that taking creative liberties is essential to producing compelling entertainment, but….  I once complained to author Michael Crichton that his novels were abetting cultural technophobia that could end up unnecessarily slowing the development of vital new technologies. I think that this CSI fable is guilty of the same intellectual crime.

Big sweeping hat tip to Tim Burrack over at The Truth About Trade and Technology blog.