The enemies of biotechnology have a favorite insult for GMOs: “Frankenfood.” The term refers to Frankenstein’s monster, made famous in the 19th century by Mary Shelley’s novel and in the 20th century by Boris Karloff’s movie portrayal.
What these foes of modern farming fail to understand is that their terminology owes a big debt to a climate event whose bicentennial is upon us. The people who suffered through 1816 called it the “Year Without a Summer”—and if the world were to face a similar calamity in the 21st century, GMO crops would play a key role in any survival strategy.
The trouble began two centuries ago in modern-day Indonesia, when Mount Tambora erupted in one of the largest volcanic blasts ever. It turned into a planetary event: “a slow-moving sabotage of the global climate system at all latitudes,” writes Gillen D’Arcy Wood in his 2014 book “Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World.”
And it devastated agriculture. “For three years following Tambora’s explosion, to be alive, almost anywhere in the world, meant to be hungry,” writes Wood. The worst of it came in 1816. Most people back then depended on subsistence agriculture: short season crops like oats, rye and possibly wheat. There were no root crops: potatoes, onions, carrots. Not even simple herbs. Massive crop failures led to skyrocketing food prices and severe malnutrition as well as famine and disease.
Snow fell in New England in June. Farmers might have coped with this weird weather by planting a second crop—but severe frosts continued to strike throughout the summer, ravaging farms up and down the Atlantic coast. For the eastern seaboard of the United States, 1816 is the only year that has recorded frosts in each of the growing months of June, July, and August.
That ash cloud caused extreme hardship for wild life too, leaving little to hunt or trap. Was this the beginning of another Dark Age? Was the sun dying? Was this the apocalypse?
In September, Thomas Jefferson—retired as president and living at Monticello—wrote to a friend: “We have had the most extraordinary year of drought and cold ever known in the history of America.”
On the other side of the ocean, Europe struggled through the worst famine of the 19th century. People migrated across the planet to find warmth and food – sparking riots and a refugee crisis.
It also led to a peculiar event in the history of literature. That summer, the English poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley met in Switzerland. During a bout of bad weather caused by the volcanic activity on the other side of the world, they huddled indoors and told ghost stories.
Joining them was the 18-year-old Mary Godwin, who was Shelley’s lover and soon to be his wife. She decided to write her own tale of terror—and after several months produced the novel “Frankenstein,” with its crazed scientist, bizarre experiment, and bold creation.
In 1992, Paul Lewis, a professor of English at Boston College, invented a smear word for GMOs: “Frankenfood.” Gene-transfer technologies are fundamentally different from reanimation, but Lewis and his ilk had no time for such pesky details. They wanted to suggest that GMOs are unnatural and perhaps even monstrous. Their neologism took on a life of its own, so to speak.
Interestingly, Lewis is also credited with coining a lesser-known term: “lackspertise.” This is an excellent word for describing the ignorance of people who condemn “Frankenfood.” They now find themselves on the opposite side of groups ranging from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization. Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences issued a comprehensive report that endorses the safety of this innovative technology.
Biotechnology is an essential tool of adaptation and sustainable agriculture, helping farmers like me around the world grow more food on less land than ever before. GMO crops not only fend off the ordinary threats posed by weeds and pests but also the problems associated with 1816, such as drought, disease, flooding, and freezing.
The “Year Without a Summer” was not a once-in-a-lifetime event—it was more like a once-in-a-millennium catastrophe. Today, we live in a world of climate change and the future promises nothing but constant challenges for farmers. An extreme volcanic event would certainly be disruptive but with access to innovative technologies and better food varieties, earths peoples would have a much better chance of survival. GMO technology is one of the tools we have today and there will be more tomorrow. That’s good news for us and the generations that will follow.
So go ahead and call them “Frankenfoods”—but when you do, the rest of us will recognize your terminal case of “lackspertise.”