GMOs aren’t a new topic – they’ve been a point of contention in the global food scene for the past two decades. Most people know (or think that they know) that GMOs are bad – food companies and even entire grocery stores (Trader Joes, Whole Foods) pride themselves on their “GMO-free” products. But few people know what’s actually so bad about GMOs…or if they’re even really bad at all.
That’s where environmental writer McKay Jenkins comes in. His exposé, FOOD FIGHT: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet, dives deep into the GMO issue from both sides of the debate, going far beyond where the GMO conversation has gone before to discover how GMOs actually affect the health of our families, food, and the planet. Food Fight offers a fascinating, informative look into how GMOs factor into our modern food scene and impact our health- from the fields to the grocery store shelves to your dinner table;
Here’s an excerpt from the book;
The first thing, and sometimes the only thing, that people want to know about GMOs is simple: Are they safe to eat? It’s an obvious question, since we’re all consuming them at almost every meal, and a legitimate one, since it’s not always clear what GMOs are, how they are made, or where they appear in our diet. In the decades since the creation of the Flavr Savr tomato, we are all eating genetically modified food, whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not.
Add to this the fact that basic information—even in the form of simple labels on food—is very hard to come by. Although you most likely eat GMOs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, there is simply no way to know it.
Most people, sitting down for a meal, would rather not wrestle with the way small RNAs affect the chromosomes of the corn that went into the cow that went into the burger they are eating. They would certainly rather not contemplate whether that same corn had something to do with climate change, or the obesity epidemic, or the decline of bee populations, or whether they contribute to water pollution, the pesticide contamination of our bodies, or the destruction of small-town America.
In a way, asking whether GMOs are “safe” is like asking whether Froot Loops are safe, or cheeseburgers, or nail polish: if you narrow the question down enough, the answer is almost certainly, sure, GMOs are “safe,” but “safe” may not be the same thing as “good for you.” Not many people get sick from eating a single bowl of Froot Loops, and not many people get sick from painting their nails once or twice. But how many bowls, or manicures, would it take to make a product “unsafe”? A great many molecular biologists argue that altering a plant’s genetic structure simply mimics natural evolutionary processes and that GM foods are more fully studied—and at least as safe to eat—as anything has ever been. Many hundreds of studies have supported this: food made from plants that have been genetically engineered do not appear to be any more harmful than food grown traditionally.
But the minute you open the aperture a bit, the question of “safety” becomes considerably more complicated. While the process of engineering plants may be considered “safe,” the consequences that ripple out from it are considerably more troubling. The molecular structure of a single GM plant may not be a cause for alarm, but what if almost all GM crops are grown to produce things like cheeseburgers and salty snacks and soft drinks, which have ramped up the country’s obesity epidemic? Is that a GMO problem, or not?
What about the chemical pesticides and herbicides—many of them known to cause both health and environmental problems— that are sprayed on hundreds of millions of acres of GM crops? These chemicals existed long before GMOs, of course; indeed, they were developed decades ago by the same companies (Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, Syngenta) that are now the world’s leading sellers of GM seeds. Critics often say that GMOs are less necessary for making food than they are a powerful vehicle for selling pesticides; once a company has sold farmers on the idea of GM seeds, they are far more likely to buy chemical sprays that go along with them. If they were using the company’s chemicals already, why not also buy seeds that are resistant?
So are pesticides a “GMO problem,” or are GMOs just exacerbating the problem of industrial farming itself?
More broadly, what happens when entire global industries—and entire swaths of North America—are constructed to keep cheeseburgers and snacks and soft drinks (and thus the GMOs that make them) flowing into our bellies? What if these industries become so enormously profitable, heavily marketed, and politically powerful that the foods they produce began to seem “conventional” (or stranger still, “traditional”)? If problems—even deep problems— began to crop up, would we even be able to see them?
In other words, most people involved in the GMO debate—no matter what side they are on or how passionately they argue their position—consider the narrow question of safety to be the wrong question.
“I’ve been a lawyer for over thirty years, and this is by far the most polarized issue I’ve ever dealt with,” Paul Achitoff told me. Achitoff is an environmental attorney for EarthJustice, which is handling a series of major GMO lawsuits in Hawaii. Achitoff has been in the GMO trenches since the beginning.
“Inevitably, no matter what the subject matter—pesticides, labeling—people always spend their time talking about how dangerous GMOs are to eat. All people want to know is, ‘Is it healthy, is there proof?’ People in favor of GMOs say they are safe as mother’s milk. Others say they are dangerous. I don’t even bring that subject up in court. To me, it’s not even relevant. It’s not even reasonably disputed that there are environmental and socioeconomic consequences here.”
There is truth on both sides of this debate. There are also half-truths and naked cynicism. There are scientific studies that say GM foods are entirely safe to eat, and others that say they aren’t.
Which side are we to believe? Consumers can be forgiven for feeling that questions about safety ought to be simple: Is GM food safe to eat, or not? The trouble is, there are complexities at both the micro and macro levels that make such questions of “safety” a lot more complicated than they might first appear.
McKay Jenkins holds degrees from Amherst College, Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and Princeton, where he received a Ph.D. in English. He is now a professor of English, journalism, and environmental humanities at the University of Delaware. Find him on facebook, twitter, or on his website.
Cover story image via CBS News; Study on genetically modified corn, herbicide and tumors reignites controversy