Food for Thought

Still Not Clear on GMO’s

GMO’s = Brain ache

I studied environmental politics/food/public health stuff for 2 years and I still have no idea what to the hell to make of GMO’s (genetically modified organisms). If you have ever tried to find info online, I am sure you’ve come across information like this:

“The National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, Britain’s Royal Society, the European Commission, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, among others, have all surveyed the substantial research literature and found no evidence that GM foods on the market today are unsafe to eat.” (Bennett, Bloomberg Business)

But then also this…

“…the findings of a new study (on GMO soybeans) published in the peer reviewed journal Food Chemistry (found that) Monsanto’s ubiquitous Roundup Ready soybeans…contain more herbicide residues than their non-GMO counterparts. The team also found that the GM beans are nutritionally inferior…Additionally, a 2011 study researchers from the US Geological Survey ‘frequently detected’ glyphosphate (the active ingredient in Roundup) in surface waters, rain, and air in Mississippi River basin… ‘We know little about the long term effects on our environment.’” (Philpott, Mother Jones)

This back and forth is replicated ten of thousands (if not millions) of times across the web (and academic literature) from thousands of “experts.” No one ever seems to have a clear answer on GMO’s or even be able to interpret the same data in the same way. So WTF are we supposed to think??? I don’t really know, but here’s what I think: if anyone tells you that they know, ask yourself if they are:

  1. God
  2. Lying
  3. Delusional

NO ONE knows the answer, because it’s all incredibly complicated. Before we go any further into this IMO, I want to make it VERY clear that I ABSOLUTELY SUPPORT THE LABELING OF ALL GMO PRODUCTS. In fact, I support it so much I think you should sign these petitions: Here is the NYC Petition to label GMO Foods and here is a petition from “Just Label It!” demanding that the FDA label all GMO foods.

Good. Now, with that out of the way, let’s get back to the task at hand… In case you are not familiar with the debate regarding GMO’s the VERY GENERAL parameters of the GMO debate is this:

PRO-GMO: According to USDA International Food Security Assessment, “the number of food insecure people is projected to increase to 868 million by 2023.” Food security will be a major issue in the coming centuries due to population growth, decreased arable land, lack of fresh water, and climate change. We need to genetically alter crops to increase yields and withstand new weather conditions to feed a rapidly growing global population.

ANTI –GMO: Tinkering with Nature on a genetic level is likely to have profound and complex impacts that are beyond our current scope of understanding and measure. Rather than manipulate Nature and our food supply, let’s take a more holistic approach to tackling complex problems, like rethinking farming practices and human consumption habits.

In all of my reading on this, I have come to really appreciate to the opinion of a Professor named Jon Foley, who presents very thoughtful, nuanced approach to GMO technology. In a recent article he wrote for Ensia.com, Foley presents lays out an argument that I agree with. Here is a summary (though I recommend you read the full article, as well as this one… oh, and this one too.)

• GMO’s have stated goals of:

1) “Feeding the world”

2) Boosting crop yields with less land/water

3) Combating weeds and pests

4) Using fewer chemicals

5) Making crops more nutritious

  • “FEEDING THE WORLD”: To date, GMO’s have done little for Food Security because GMO crops are mostly used for crops that feed animals and ethanol.
  • CROP YIELDS: In US, it appears widespread use of GMOs did not improved yields of corn or soybeans. However, GMOs DID improve cotton yields in India, Papaya in Hawaii, and Canola in Canada.
  • COMBATING WEEDS AND PESTS: Not so much.
  • CHEMICALS: GMO crops cannot claim to make a huge dent in insecticide, herbicide, and pesticide use either.
  • MORE NUTRITIOUS CROPS: GMO crops, like Golden Rice, have been created to have higher vitamin levels in order to alleviate (sometimes fatal) diseases connected to vitamin deficiency. But can’t we also just plant larger varieties of non-GMO crops that have those vitamins already?

Your major take away’s here should be that GMOs were presented as a “silver bullet” technology, but most of those big promises have that not materialized. There are, however, examples of where GMO crops have been useful/helpful, and that cannot be totally discounted. GMOs might have a role to play in securing the planet’s future food supply, but surely we also need to invest the same amount of time, money, and energy into organic crop growth R&D and organic soil remediation (which is also a great carbon sink)?

In a nutshell, the idea that GMO = BAD; ORGANIC = GOOD is just too black and white for my taste. For example, anti-GMO proponents bring up the loss of biodiversity and the danger of mono-crops, but don’t kick up the same storm when organic farmers have thousands of acres of single crop (Pogash, NYTimes). In other words, “you can still grow a huge monoculture field of soybeans that destroys prairie habitats and sell organic edamame or tofu.” (ONEGREENPLANET.ORG)

And another thing I think about sometimes: Humans have been genetically modifying food for thousands of years. The beautiful biodynamic/ organically grown apple that you find at your local farmer’s market looks like it’s ancestor to the same degree that my dog, Happy (a terrier-chihuahua mix), looks like his ancestor – a wild wolf.

There is a case to be made that selective breeding is different from gene-splicing, but I wonder why we revile gene splicing in food, but embrace the same process when it is used in pharmaceutical therapies for genetic disorders in humans?

So, as I hope you can see, it’s all very complicated. Again, to be clear, none of this leads me to believe that GMOs should not be labeled (I think they should be!) Nor do I implicitly trust large biotech companies like Monsanto, Cargill, and DuPont. In fact, I find their actions and influence a little scary. But on the issue of GMOs versus organic itself, my thinking is anything but black and white.

A recent profile of Dr. Vandana Shiva in The New Yorker inspired me to write this IMO because it perfectly encapsulates the complexity of the debate surrounding GMOs. The fall out from the article was also pretty juicy! Dr. Shiva felt strongly that she had been misrepresented in the article and wrote a lengthy, publically available rebuttal on her site (even accusing the writer of being a Monsanto lackey- Oooooo!). The editor in chief, David Remnick, responded to her and then a bunch of people jumped on the band wagon, including a few well known “foodies” like Marion Nestle and Gary Hirschberg (chair of “Just Label It”).

In her response, Marion Nestle made an excellent summary of the two “sides” of the GMO debate:

  • There is the “‘science based’ position: If GMO’s are safe (which they demonstrably are) there can be no rational reason to oppose them.

VERSUS

  • The ‘societal value based’ position – Even if GMO’s are safe (and this is debatable), there are still plenty of other reasons to oppose them.”

Embedded in the “societal value position” is a strong emotional element that people feel about genetically altering our food supply. Someone can argue until they are blue in the face that GMO’s are safe, but that the distrust will still be there. In my life experience, you can be argued into a corner with tangible evidence and it can still not change the way you feel. (In fact, I have found that the more someone dismisses your feelings as “irrational”, the more pissed off and alienated you get.)

A “pro-GMOist” might say that the world shouldn’t run on feelings, but I think that is silly. Food is highly emotional and it’s ridiculous to ask people to put that aside. Jon Foley also makes this excellent point: “Would you be happy if all the meat in your grocery store was simply sold as ‘animal,’ whether it was beef, chicken, pork, horsemeat, dog or whatever? Even if an ‘expert’ assured you that these meats had no ‘substantial biological difference’ from each other?” (Foley: Ensia)

It’s also a question of freedom of choice. Food is incredibly personal, yet our food system has become completely obfuscated (largely due to the influence of big food corporations). EatDrinkPolitics.com quotes Alan Lewis (the director of special projects for Natural Grocers) as saying, “(People) want to return to a democratic food system, for which they are willing to pay a reasonable premium to support producers who share their values…The GMO labeling initiative…merely allows consumers to be able to choose what they eat.”

That is why, despite my confusion and ambivalence about GMO technology itself, I strongly support the labeling. We are always hearing about the “strength of the market” and “letting the market decide”, so why doesn’t it apply in this case??? Here’s an idea: Be transparent and let people choose where to spend their money.

Monsanto’s CTO, Robert Fraley, has argued that GMO labeling would, “just create unnecessary cost and confusion” (Bennett, Bloomberg). Well, Mr. Fraley, whether it is “unnecessary” or not is a matter of opinion. But, at least for me, your “cost” argument falls on deaf ears because, “since 2000, Monsanto’s stock market value has grown from $7 billion to more than $66 billion” (Bennett) and your CEO’s was $12.6 million last year (I know the fall from $14M must have been tough for him, but a $12.6M salary still sounds pretty sweet to me!)

To summarize, let’s start off with a simple fact: There is no civilization without food. Food security is projected to be a huge challenge for our kids and grandkids. We need to approach this problem with many solutions, including organic food, soil remediation, probably GMOs, and some technology (or technologies) that have not been invented yet! My humble opinion is that GMOs should be labeled AND all our options should be on the table to tackle the problems we will face.

*** I wanted to add a little update after a fruitful back and forth in the comment chain and on email with the lovely Joan. Joan makes some excellent points in her comment (which can be viewed on the site) as well as in her email to me. I am so happy to be able to discuss this topic with someone like her, who is clearly very thoughtful and passionate 🙂 I hope this IMO got more people thinking and talking! I know when I studied this in school, I didn’t know which way was up anymore. Even while writing this IMO, I felt like I wanted to hide under my comforter and stream “House of Cards” and just STOP THINKING (sometimes I did exactly that). I was surprised to see how difficult it was for me to articulate my own POV on this issue while writing this… and I am sure I don’t do it justice at all (people write PHD’s on this topic)!

To be clear, I totally agree that Big Ag has questionable goals and they should not be in control of our food policy (sadly, this does not seem to be the direction things are going). And I know that it is difficult to look a GMO’s without looking at Big Ag and all the things those companies entail… I am no champion of GMO’s. In fact, I am suspicious of them (and definitely suspicious of Big Ag). It is because of my suspicion that I want GMO’s to be labeled. As a consumer, I want to walk into a store and know what I am buying and vote with my dollars. (I have wondered  if GMO’s were labeled from the beginning, would companies like Monsanto have just huge profit growth over such a short period? Was their profit growth driven by consumer who did not realize what they were buying?)

At the same time, the world population has exploded and will continue to grow. There is less available arable land, not to mentions projections about water shortages and dramatic weather due to climate change. We need to figure out ways to feed everyone and those solutions are likely going to come in many forms. There have been some recent studies that show that organic methods are more successful in their yields that previously thought, but I have yet to see a credible source that says all food production can come just from organic farming methods. I wish that more R&D was invested into studying organic soil remediation and soil as a carbon sink instead of biotech…. And maybe that will happen down the line. If you read the Bloomberg article I cite in the article, it seems Big Ag has started taking  some cues from organic farming.

Meanwhile, in my own tiny life orbit, I have just purchased my first home with my husband and we have a small yard. This is the first patch of dirt I have ever owned (!!!) and I plan to grow my own organic veg and remediate the soil organically (I have been studying organic gardening and soil remediation for almost a year… stay tuned for more on Impatient Foodie).

Like I said in the post, food and particularly GM’s are complicated and emotional. I sincerely believe that thinking critically about these complex issues and doing what we can, when we can, where we can is a big step in helping to heal our food system. As the saying goes, knowledge is power.

Join the conversation

  • Joan

    There do seem to be rabid defenders on both sides, but from what I can see, the “pro” camp are large ag companies, and the “anti” side are plain folks worried about the food supply. So until they can come up with honest, 3rd party data (NOT supplied by companies like Monsanto) that putting the genes of a fish in a vegetable is going to be the best thing for our planet, or that Roundup Ready-laden food isn’t going to be the norm, or that GMO seeds aren’t going to corrupt our pure seed supply, then I’m in the “anti” camp.

    If you haven’t already, there are three documentaries I recommend: Food, Inc., King Corn, and The World According to Monsanto. All obviously in the non-GMO camp, but they give insight into the “Big Ag” world, and leave you with some serious thinking to do about the way we grow and treat our food.

    As you said, without food, we have no civilization. But we should really think twice before leaving it in the hands of giant for-profit companies (which is sort of like leaving the fox in charge of the hen house).

    Most importantly, we need to change the way we, as consumers, think about our food. It’s astonishing how badly we treat the animals we raise for food, and even more astonishing that a huge percentage of people have no idea where their food even comes from.

    After living in apartments with tiny balcony gardens most of my life, 11 years ago I finally bought a house and had space for a real garden. Growing my own veggies and fruit has made me appreciate nature even more, and what I’ve observed over the last decade is, there isn’t much that nature herself can’t cure, as long as you give her the chance. A recent bug infestation on my satsuma tangerine tree, and neem oil did the trick. A few trees were stressed because of the drought, but a dose of seaweed brought them ’round again. Snails are kept at bay with strips of copper tape (or shallow dishes of beer). Soil is amended with leaf mold and chicken manure, which brings in the earthworms, which aerate the soil and add more nutrients with their droppings. Some plants also help each other (either by increasing taste, or repelling pests)… like chives planted at the base of apple trees and onions planted with strawberries. No need for chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

    We need to get away from the “bigger/more is better for profits” and focus on the quality and safety of our food. What’s the point of using untold acres of land to grow non-edible (as is) corn just so we can satisfy the demand for high fructose corn syrup? Wouldn’t it serve us better to use that acreage to grow real food? Better for us, and better for the planet.

    I just don’t want to wake up one day to find that genetically modified seeds have taken over and the so-called “disease resistance” was a myth and now the pest problem is worse. And I don’t want to have to buy the “rights” to grow something because big ag companies have patents on seeds, or have to use their proprietary chemicals in order for the pest-resistance effect to work. And I don’t want organic crops tainted by a neighbor’s GMO seeds that blew over on the wind, or have that organic farmer taken to court by a Big Ag company who now wants to be paid for the rights to grow it. (Yes, it DOES happen, as ludicrous as that sounds).

    It’s not just GMO’s, but Big Ag practices in general that we need to take a serious look at. If you go into a grocery store, there are thousands of products, but even though there are different brand names, they’re really owned by just a handful of companies. All who are big and profitable and have a lot of power. Which is why I take any “pro big ag” data with several grains of salt. And I come from a family that has grown wheat (naturally) for the past 90 years, and is very leery of the unsustainable “Grow more, faster!” ideology.

    It all comes down to this: no one should own our food supply, but that’s the road we’re headed down. And it scares the crap out of me.

    • Hey Joan!

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful response 🙂 I totally agree that Big Ag’s goals can be questionable. In fact, a lot of what they do/how they act totally creeps me out! Don’t worry, I am not going to be applying to work with Monsanto/Cargill anytime soon 😉 And I also totally agree that food policy should not be left in the hands multinational conglomerates at any level (but sadly that seems to be what is happening beyond just the food sector). Money talks and these kinds of companies have the 2 C’s: Connections and Cash. It can be hard to fight that kind of influence, but I think a good starting point of resistance is information and education. That is why I think it’s important GM products are labeled and also that people have an understanding about the complexities of the debate, regardless of what side they come down on ultimately. My intention with this IMO was to show that this is a very complicated issue, not come across as a pro-GMO person (which I absolutely am not!)

      Generally, I agree with everything you say here, so we are really on the same page! 🙂 I guess my only point of differentiation is that I am talking about the technology of genetic modification itself, not focusing on the influence of Big Ag. It is definitely hard to separate the two, but I think it’s worth trying to tease out the various things in play in a complicated issue like this to come to a solid position. For example, maybe the GM technology itself is not completely evil all the time, but we should definitely worry about the influence of Big Ag on food policy. Simultaneously, Big Ag doesn’t only develop GM seeds, they also build tools that seem to make farmer’s lives a bit easier…. So maybe some of what they do/develop is useful and should not be shunned? There are many levels to be considered and weighed….

      And I agree that we all need make efforts to become more aware and thoughtful of our food. I think that this is happening slowly but surely. A major part of Impatient Foodie is to hopefully bring awareness to these issues in a way that is fun and engaging! 🙂

      My husband and I just bought our first house together and we too have a yard! I have lived in huge buildings my whole life so the idea of having a 20×40 dirt lot excites me to no end 🙂 I have been studying organic soil remediation for the past year and look forward to growing my own food as well! Seems like you have a lot of knowledge in this department! If I get an invasion of snails, etc I’ll be sure to reach out to you with questions, if that cool? 🙂

      I will look into those docs, thank you for sharing them! I’d also like to recommend Marion Nestle’s What To Eat – so illuminating and fantastic (REALLY speaks to your point about influence on food policy!)

      All the best and thank you again for your thoughtful response! It is so appreciated.
      XEW

  • Joan

    Another documentary suggestion is The Botany of Desire. Just for the sheer beauty of how nature works.