Michael Pollan and Alice Waters and the Organic Consumers Association are wrong. Monsanto and DuPont and Kraft are right. Vote for Goliath over David. Vote against the right to know what’s in your food.
Last fall was an awkward time for me. I had the experience of siding with the multi-gazillion dollar, Monsanto-Big Food agribusiness side over a grass roots movement of organic farmers and good food advocates.
This is messed up.
Why? I agree with pretty much everything that the food movement represents. I care about the environment, worker safety, animal welfare. I want more nutritious food, more sustainable ways of growing food, AND more information and transparency about how my food is produced. I am overwhelmingly thrilled about what the food movement has accomplished — better food, more nutritious food, more sustainable food. Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman and Alice Waters are heroes to me.
Yet I profoundly disagree with them on this one issue.
I thought that last fall was a one-time thing, a quirky manifestation of ballot-initiative happy California. I thought that after Nov. 6, 2012, the day Prop. 37, the GMO-labeling initiative lost, I would be back on Team Pollan rather than Team Monsanto. I was hoping the food movement would shift its focus to any number of others issues— like animal welfare, encouraging children to eat healthier, reducing the consumption of monster-sized sugary beverages.
But now Washington state has a GMO-labeling vote in the works, and Vermont has an initiative, and so does Minnesota. I recently learned that there are labeling initiatives underway or bills being considered in more than a dozen states, and there’s also talk about introducing a bill in Congress. And then just last week, the push-me-over-the-edge news: Whole Foods Market — my beloved Whole Foods Market — declared that they’ll require mandatory GMO-labeling by 2018.
I want to be back on the food movement side of this issue. I want to be able to vote with Pollan and the Dinner Party. But in order to get my support, the food movement needs to update its overly simplistic, anti-science, anti-environment, anti-humanitarian, anti-common sense GE strategy. I’m not saying the food movement should stop fighting to give consumers more information about genetic engineering. No. It just needs to change the way — and the what— it’s fighting for.
That’s what these upcoming posts are about. Here is the first of an eccentrically-long series on things that the food movement could do to win back the support of folks like me — and these guys — that is, GE-friendly foodies.
1. Excommunicate Jeffrey Smith — i.e.: the Anti-Science, Conspiracy Theorists
2. Fight for the Right to Know Useful Information — This Contains Bt Toxin
3. Go Positive SOMETIMES! Aggressively Support Publicly-Funded, Socially & Environmentally-Minded Biotech Research
4. Change the Legal Strategy
1. Excommunicate Jeffrey Smith — i.e.: the Anti-Science Conspiracy Theorists
The Earth is 4.54 billion years old. Humans evolved from monkeys. The climate is warming. And the genetically engineered foods that have been released over the past 20 years don’t pose a human health risk.
How do we know all these things? The weight of evidence.
Hundreds of rigorous studies of GM foods published in peer-reviewed journals. Hundreds of millions of people have eaten GM foods —10 trillion meals and counting — without a single credible evidence of a health problem. The most highly respected scientific bodies on the planet – The American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Academy of Science, the FDA, the European Food Safety Commission, the Japanese Food Safety Commission. Regulatory bodies in 30 countries have reiterated it.
No danger in eating GM food. Mark Lynas, the environmental writer, who was once an outspoken critics of GMOs, puts it succinctly. “You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food.”
Yet in spite of what the AMA or EU or the world’s leading medical doctors or scientists says (and if my list isn’t enough, take a look at this one compiled by science journalist Ronald Bailey) a strong strain of the foodie movement favors the flimsiest, quackiest studies that they can find. Studies that suggest that eating GE foods will cause all kinds of health problems –infertility, immune dysfunction, endocrine disruption, accelerated aging, cancer, self-replicating and death. Jeffrey Smith, the author of Genetic Roulette and Seeds of Deception and founder of the anti-crop biotechnology Institute for Responsible Technology (in short, the go-to guy for the most hysterical claims about the dangers of GE foods), says in his latest masterpiece of junk science, “the enormity of the (GE) threat is unprecedented in human history.”
It’s embarrassing to the food movement.
Now the junk science-mongering isn’t going to stop. There will be plenty more books like Seeds of Deception and Genetic Roulette and bogus, yet authoritative-sounding organizations like the Institute of Responsible Technology. And just like there are those who won’t accept evidence about climate change, evolution, or President Obama’s birth location, some people will simply not accept that GMOs do not cause self-replicating, poison-producing mutant flora to grow in your intestines.
But what I want is for the leaders of the food movement — the Pollans, the Francis Moore Lappes, the Mark Bittmans—to CONDEMN the conspiracy-paranoid junk science fringe. As environmental writer Keith Kloor pointed out in Slate, the demonization of GMOs isn’t just scientifically baseless, it’s politically stupid — in the short term, he writes “you might get some votes by capitalizing on irrational fear, but it’s a bad long term strategy. In the long run, people will just dismiss you.”
When Dr. Oz hosted a discussion on genetically engineered foods last year, no credible scientist was willing to share the same stage as conspiracy theorist-hysteria monger Smith. The same should be true for food movement leaders. The simple fact that Francis Moore Lappe, of Diet for a Small Planet fame, actually endorsed Genetic Roulette, undermines my trust in Lappe.
One beautiful example of what I want from the food movement happened last fall.
You might recall the Seralini incident, as it was a rare instance when the subject of junk science captured the attention of the mainstream media. A study came out in September in a science journal (Food and Chemical Toxicology), complete with graphic photos of monstrous, golf-ball sized tumors, and terrifying findings about GE foods. “New Study Says Monsanto GM Corn Causes Tumors, Kidney and Liver Disease,” is how Le Monde reported it. Yet shortly after the news was reported that rats fed Monsanto’s NK 603 corn Roundup Ready resistant corn developed monster tumor, hundreds of scientists responded. The research community response was swift, overwhelming, and unambiguous. (For a complete recap, read here) Six scientific academies in France —that’s notoriously anti-GE France —issued a statement condemning the paper, saying no reliable conclusion can be drawn from such a low-quality study and harshly criticizing the researcher Gilles-Eric Seralini for spreading fears among the public.
Even though the study was dismissed by credible scientists, anti-GE groups still used it. The Occupy web site billed the study as game-changing “it may very well have changed the way the world looks at GMOs once and for all.” The group fighting for GMO labeling in California sent out a release linking the Seralini study to the right to know about GE foods. “The study underscores the importance of giving California families the right to know whether their food is genetically engineered and whether we want to gamble with our health by eating genetically engineered foods.” The use of a discredited study to scare voters is reckless and wrong, but it’s been a far too common tactic of the anti-GMO movement.
But here’s the encouraging news — the beautiful example of what I want more of from my food movement.
Marion Nestle, the respected food scientist at NYU, one of the biggest champions of GE labeling, called the study as it was.“[I] can’t figure it out yet,” she told the Washington Post. “It’s weirdly complicated and unclear on key issues: what the controls were fed, relative rates of tumors, why no dose relationship, what the mechanism might be. I can’t think of a biological reason why GMO corn should do this…. So even though I strongly support labeling. I’m skeptical of this study.”
This is what I want from the food movement: Call a quack a quack (even if it’s an anti-corporate, pro-small farm and natural food quack). And if the science is junk, call it junk.
There are too many issues, with solid science behind them, for the food movement to waste its political capital fighting issues unsupported by the scientific consensus.
2. Fight for the Right to Know Useful Information
Adding Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) to corn is different than adding beta carotene to rice. Adding a lemon basil plant’s aroma gene to a cherry tomato is different than adding an Arctic Flounder’s antifreeze gene to a Red Sun tomato. Adding glyphosate resistance to soy is different than giving ringspot virus resistance to a papaya.
The mainline of the food movement does not communicate the highly important truth that NOT ALL genetically engineered crops are the same. There are gazillions of possible things you can do with agricultural biotechnology. Yet the California Proposition 37 sought, and now Washington’s I-522 seeks, and all the other incipient referendums will seek, to label all modifications with one single blanket label.
Consumers want more information about how their food is produced. And one of the key functions of a “food movement” should be to give consumers more information about their food — to make them smarter about their food choices.
Putting a single generic label on all bioengineered foods doesn’t do that at all.
The Prop 37 or the I-522 label sends the message that ANY plant modified in a lab using biotech —regardless of the modification—is inherently dangerous and should be avoided. THAT IS NOT TRUE.
This is dumb —not only because it’s not true (see post #1: there is no evidence that genetically engineered crops are any more dangerous than conventionally bred crops), it’s also dumb because it will make consumers more ignorant about how their food is produced.
Yes, ignorant. A single blanket label — THIS IS A GMO — perpetuates the idea that genetic engineering is an ingredient. Genetic engineering is not like fat, sugar, salt, cinnamon, or turmeric. Genetic engineering is a technology, another way of modifying the DNA of a plant. A technology that can add, subtract, silence the genes in plant. A technology that can do good or bad. And that’s why the labeling is so appallingly stupid and antithetical to the whole “helping consumers” spirit of the food movement. As Michael Hitzlik put it in the LA Times, “Lumping together all the myriad forms of genetic engineering into one catchall category, as though they’re all equally wary of concern, will leave the consumer with no usable guidepost to what to buy and what to avoid.”
Now unlike some opponents of labeling, such as the American Medical Association, I am supportive of a consumers right to know if transgenes are being introduced. I just have a beef, as Michael Hitzlik does, with the current approach of putting a big fat Scarlet Letter on ALL bioengineered foods. That big Scarlet Letter further enables ignorance and goes negative on a technology that could do a tremendous amount of good for the world.
Here are two ways I could get enthusiastic about the food movement’s right-to-know about GE campaign.
First, eliminate use of the awful, inaccurate term GMO. What does GMO mean — Genetically modified organism. What is a genetically modified organism? Everything. All plants —conventionally bred, genetically engineered, even plants in nature (see: evolution) are genetically modified organisms. Let’s stop enabling the scientific and agricultural illiteracy of consumers .
Second, instead of the quest for a generic, one-size fits all label that says “GMOs Inside” let’s give consumers information that helps them make informed decisions about health and environmental impacts of the food they’re buying.
I am a huge fan of the 1990 Nutritional Labels and Education Act, which gives consumers straightforward information on the ingredients in their food (salt, sugar, etc). I’d be equally enthusiastic to support the food movement fight to tell consumers precisely what was introduced. By providing precise information, instead of a catchall you A) don’t label — and hence, DEMONIZE — the whole technology and B) you impart valuable information that can actually help consumers.
There are some genetically engineered crops that I don’t particularly like —and would like to avoid— while there are other GE crops that I would be excited to find. I’m not a lover of Roundup-Ready products, but I’d be happy to see Bt corn or bioengineered Vitamin-A enhanced rice or a transgenic Hawaiian papaya with ringspot resistance in my Walmart.
Now I have no idea of the costs of specific gene labeling — I’m sure it’s high. I have no idea of what kind of impact this labeling strategy will have on small businesses and farmers. I don’t know what it would mean for litigation and enforcement. But I do know one thing:
It’s not the early 1990s when GE was a brand-new technology. The evidence is now in — a grand feeding experiment has taken place (10 trillion meals and counting). There’s no need for a single, “GMOs Inside” label that causes people to unnecessarily fear a technology and turn against it categorically at a time when it could do so much good.
Mark Henderson, writing in The Geek Manifesto, has smart, succinct advice on the issue: “The whole question of being pro or anti GM food is in many ways a bad one. The better question is what crop, with what modification, for what purpose, made by whom?”
And here’s a parting thought — in light of the recent depressing announcement that Whole Foods will be caving to the anti-GMO hysteria by labeling all its GE products by 2018…
So let’s say that ideology rules the day, the forces of junk science are too powerful. If that happens, if the whole country demands labeling, then I would fight for a label that says, “May contain genetically engineered ingredients. The FDA has no proof that genetically engineered crops cause any harm, or pose any greater risk than conventionally bred crops or USDA organic certified crops.”
3. Go Positive SOMETIMES! Aggressively Support Publicly-Funded, Socially & Environmentally-Minded Research
Your average food system-savvy, farmers market-going, eat local-leaning foodie knows this part of the story: Six companies —Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Agrosciences, BASF, Bayer, and DuPont—control well over 90 percent of the world’s genetically engineered seeds. The vast majority of the so-called Big Six’s genetically engineered crops support Big Food and the industrial food system —i.e.: commodity crops (corn, soy, canola) and massive-scale monoculture (anathema to the values of the food movement). Even more unsettling, the Big Six seed giants are also the Big Six agrochemical giants. A huge percentage of the GE crops that have been introduced are herbicide-tolerant Which means the seed maker/agrochemical companies use bioengineering to sell a lot of weed-killing chemicals.
But there’s another side to the story that most foodies don’t seem to know. There’s vitamin A fortified golden rice that was created by a Swiss public scientist that will be made available royalty-free in the Third World and could save thousands of children from blindness and death. There’s the genetically engineered papaya that was bred in a lab by a government-funded scientist with less than $100,000 in grants and was released for free to Hawaiian farmers. There’s a crop scientist in Australia who is trying to break the corporate juggernaut on genetic engineering by introducing the “open source” approach common in the software world to crop sciences, so that ag biotech can be used for humanitarian research. There’s a lab in the UK — an independent, nonprofit research lab—that is working to integrate nitrogen-fixing capabilities into corn.
Yes, these are rare examples. Yes, Monsanto’s biotech crops alone comprise something like 85 percent of the GE crop acreage in the US. But these rare examples — anomalous, minority examples —are critical. These minority examples are proof that genetic engineering is not INHERENTLY a tool of the man.
So far, the food movement’s leading voices have either ignored or cynically belittled, what I call, the minority biotech crops Some simply dismiss promising humanitarian or environmental applications of genetic engineering as more “science fiction” than science. Others are so cynical that they dismiss crops like golden rice as a trick by the biotech industry. Vandana Shiva, the influential Indian environmental activist, has called Golden Rice a “hoax.”
This is where the food movement loses me. The genetic engineering = Monsanto tool = let’s abandon crop biotechnology and support more primitive technologies equation strikes me as mind-bogglingly backwardassed. It’s a let’s throw the baby out with the bathwater strategy about as inane as saying Microsoft controls Windows, therefore we won’t use its operating systems, but will use typewriters.
The Taste of Tomorrow Strategy — Add a 2nd Dimension
Keep exposing the extent of the corporate control of the seed industry. Keep drawing attention to how corporate control thwarts the work of public interest researchers. Keep highlighting just how much ag biotech is used to support agrochemical sales.
But if you want to stop “Monsanto from controlling the system,” you need to do more than Monsanto-bashing or Monsanto-boycotting.
The food movement should also celebrate the minority crops. Yes, celebrate. Let’s draw attention to the uses of genetic engineering that are in sync with the values of the food movement: improving nutritional quality, making food safer, making workers safer, producing food in a more sustainable, environmentally-sensitive way.
Michael Pollan, not traditionally a cheerleader of agricultural biotechnology, has laid out what could be a kind of mission statement for the food movement re: genetic engineering. In a 2009 interview at the The Long Now Foundation, Pollan described the type of genetically engineered crops he would support.
“The real key to genetic engineering is control of intellectual property of the food crops that we depend on,” said Pollan. “If we had open source genetic engineering, if we had genetic engineering that was really being applied to making the system more sustainable, rather than more brittle, which is essentially what it’s doing, I’m open to learning about it.”
Pollan, at one point during that same interview (which is posted on Fora.Tv), doubted the existence of biotech crops that do “make the system more sustainable.” It’s highly upsetting to me that Pollan —who covers food and agriculture as closely as anyone in North America today— could be unaware of bioengineered crops that could make the system more sustainable.
Pollan’s blind spot for “good biotech” is upsetting, but not surprising. The anti-tech, anti-corporatism is so deeply ingrained in the food movement that it’s become reflexively hostile to technology — and it’s missing opportunities. As the environmental activist Stewart Brand has said, ““I dare say the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than any other thing we’ve been wrong about.” That same message is absolutely true for the food movement.
I’d like to see the food movement allocate a percentage of the passion that it has on the GMO labeling front to “going positive” on good GMOs. I know this won’t be an easy change. Most in the food movement believes opposition to genetic engineering (it’s artificial sounding, after all) is a birthright, a part of the foodie constitution. They have a narrow, inflexible concept of sustainable food. Sustainable = organic, local food. End of story.
But the food movement needs an update —it needs to recognize that genetic engineering is a technology, and in so many cases it’s a technology that can help achieve the goals of the organic and sustainable foods movement. The food movement should be as familiar with its progressive, sustainability-minded, good food-seeking genetic engineers as it is with pioneering microfarmers or nutrition advocates or local food activists.
Here’s a work-in-progress — Good GMOs — a list of publicly-funded or foundation-funded researcher that are either working on crops that could jive with the aims of the food movement or talking about how genetic engineering could serve the aims of the food movement. As you’ll see in this list, contrary to what Pollan said in that Long Now interview, there are scientists using genetic engineering who are trying to make the food system more sustainable.
This is a small list (tell me more), and the reason it’s small list is because public researchers need more support — better funding, and a regulatory and patenting system that encourages rather than discourages. Consider this: According to a 2007 study, the combined R&D budgets of the Big Six were 9 times higher than crop science R&D spending at the USDA. (And I’m sure it’s even a wider gulf today).
In my next post, I’m going to write about some possible ways the food movement could fight to change the system — that is, to create a system that makes it possible to use biotechnology to support the aims of the food movement.
4. Change the Legal Strategy