Breaking Down the GMO Issue: Some Earth Day Musings

With Earth Day less than 2 weeks away, media coverage of all things environmental is really heating up. Among the widely covered controversies this past week is the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). From the Washington Post to the New York Times, GMO foods and crops are the environmental topic du jour.

Lab-berry

Scientists modify the genes of seeds, fruits, and vegetables to produce new strains.

Whether you are for or against GMOs (or are even blissfully unaware that a controversy rages about them), nearly everyone can agree that we need to know more about them. To date, research on their downstream effects on the environment—and on us!—has been sorely lacking. Claims on both sides of the debate abound. The proponents argue that GM corn, soy, rice, etc. can help end world hunger and are perfectly safe for consumption; the opponents rebut that those full bellies will come at the cost of mass infertility/sterility or who knows what reproductive, physiologic, or neurologic impairments. Scientists issue warnings, retract them, then retract the retractions. Meanwhile, as much as 70% of the food stocked on grocery store shelves already contains GMOs.

Because Earth Day is a very important day at environmentally conscious The New Century School, let’s look at some GMO-related current events as well as rationally view the issue from both sides of the corncob.

Why We Have GMOs in the First Place

The Monsanto stance (and that of other GMO-using companies such as Nestle, PepsiCo, etc.) is that they are using biotechnology as well as sustainable agricultural practices to produce enough food for the globe. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates himself supports this practice.

Papaya superfood

With the help of genetic engineering, certain strains of papayas have become resistant to viruses that threaten their extinction.

Arguably one of the main goals of genetic modification is to produce disease-resistance traits. Some say that genetic engineering saved the papaya from possible global extinction due to the particularly virulent ringspot virus. Papaya is a superfood and a vitally important source of vitamins and nutrients for many tropics dwellers. Its loss would be catastrophic.

Others have argued that the environment and the economy also benefit. GMO crops can be engineered to reduce stress on the environment, and farmers can rest assured that the GMO crops they have grown will find a buyer in GMO companies (or even be subsidized by them).

Click here for a list of other potential GMO benefits.

Kernels of Truth

Thus, GMO food companies’ aims are, at least on the face of it, laudable. The issue gets stickier and the truth harder to zero in on, however, when we learn that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s approach with these companies so far has been seemingly laissez faire, leaving the onus of ensuring a food’s safety on the food producer, according to the FDA’s Statement of Policy on genetically modified and other new plant varieties.

And stickier still when we consider that genes operate far beyond our ken. They switch on and off, mutate, and behave in often confounding ways we are still uncovering. Only time will tell what implications the wiliness of genes (i.e., those that were lab derived instead of occurring naturally) has in and for our foods. So what’s the regulatory holdup?

First there was Big Tobacco, then there was Big Soda, now . . . Big Soy?

Or so say the members of the growing resistance movement to GMOs. They claim that food policy in the United States is plagued by croneyism—that it’s being underwritten by the Monsanto company, the very company that sells GMO foods and remains one of the biggest makers of genetically modified seeds. They say that Monsanto has such entrenched political muscle that passing any legislation that might in any way hurt the company bottom line (e.g., requiring that GMO food be labeled as containing GMOs) will be as uphill a battle as was the decades-long fight against tobacco companies like Phillip Morris to cease aggressive marketing even in the face of incontrovertible evidence that smoking kills. So, as federal and state governments work to establish policy on GMOs, GMO opponents say that Monsanto is actually controlling this policymaking by, among other things, removing “whistleblowers.” According to one California dietician working on such a policy panel for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, when she pointed out in February that two other panelists had clear links with Monsanto, she was dismissed. Read the full New York Times story here.

Truth in Labeling

Sweet 'n Low

Chemicals such as saccharin that some studies have suggested cause cancer are labeled on this packet.

Back to labeling GMO foods—which the European Union has required for more than a decade—what’s the big objection, ask many? It’s as if GMO companies are afraid that if we know what’s in the foods made with GMOs, we’ll stop buying them. Or that naming the ingredients implies that they are potentially harmful. But whether it’s safe or unsafe, don’t we have the right to know what we’re eating? Shoppers know what’s in Sweet ‘N Low (another Monsanto product, incidentally) thanks to the label, and restaurants still stock it and consumers still use it aplenty. The point is that they can choose not to ingest it and perhaps opt for a more natural alternative or they can disregard all of the conflicting reports about saccharin and dump it in their coffee all day long because they are informed.

Occupy Monsanto is a group dedicated to raising awareness about GMOs. Although their ultimate goal is probably the complete eradication of GMOs, they have spawned other less radical movements as well such as the “eat-in” in front of the College Park, MD FDA offices earlier this week. Demonstrators gathered there to make their thoughts about GMOs known, encourage the FDA to require GMO labeling, and cook and eat a big pot of “stone soup” (just like what TNCS primary students collaboratively cooked up last November to celebrate Thanksgiving), each contributing an ingredient that was most certainly not genetically engineered. It was about as wholesome a protest as we’re likely ever to see, especially for such a polarizing issue. Read the full Washington Post story here.

Eat-in protestors gently demonstrated their disapproval of GMOs by cooking soup with homegrown ingredients. No tear gas required!

Eat-in protestors gently demonstrated their disapproval of GMOs by cooking soup with homegrown ingredients. No tear gas required!

For more about what GMO opponents say against GMOs, read this.

Bringing it Home

Not surprisingly, considering the ferocity of this battle, many of us are either hopelessly confused or just plain undecided which side of the issue we fall on due to the paucity of long-term empirical data. A couple of things still seem crystal clear, however, and those are that labeling GMO foods seems logical (not to mention ethical) because we have a right to know what we’re eating (whether we choose to pay attention or not) and that lots of full-scale studies on the effects of GMOs must be conducted.

EAT MORE KALE

This handsome young GMO protestor at the College Park “eat-in” urges us to eat more kale :).

In the meantime, TNCS families can keep well out of the fray if they so prefer. With the Garden Tuck Shop Program for student lunches, for example, kids eat locally sourced, largely organic fruits, veggies, and baked dishes from Chef Emma Novashinski’s thoughtfully and lovingly constructed menus. At home, parents can also avail themselves of locally grown, Food Alliance–certified produce by joining the One Straw Farm CSA. Weekly shares can be picked up right at TNCS with a total of 10 enrollees (we currently have 6!). Please join here!

Have a comment, correction, anecdote? Please let us know how you feel about this issue.

And, oh yeah! Happy Earth Day on April 22nd!

One thought on “Breaking Down the GMO Issue: Some Earth Day Musings

  1. So informative- love this piece. Thanks for sharing-I love learning more about advances in the GMO contraversy.

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