I was a pretty trusting person until movies like Food Inc. and books like Omnivore’s Dilemma taught me a thing or two about our country’s food system. I’ll spare you the details, as this is a food column and perhaps you came hungry, but let’s just say, it’s nasty. Real nasty. Things that I used to eat with nary a fleeting thought became major decisions with pros and cons to be weighed at each bite. Mass produced chicken poses a moral dilemma about animal welfare, and corn turns out to be a socially charged issue in which small farmers are sued by big business for being innocent bystanders. Leaves a different taste in your mouth, eh? So for the last few years, I have made the extra effort to visit the farmer’s market, and I began buying happy chickens, grass-fed beef, organic dairy, and small farm produce. For better or for worse, I now know enough to know better.
Knowing better about food is at the heart of the debate over GMOs (genetically modified organisms). California’s Prop 37, perhaps the country’s most influential bill for food politics, proposed requiring the labeling of genetically modified organisms in packaged raw or processed foods. Despite near-certain predictions that it would pass in November on Election Day, the bill failed by a frustratingly small margin of 53% to 47%. In some ways, the debate has simmered down, as perplexed supporters scratch their heads and wonder, like Mitt Romney, what went wrong. Yet in other ways, the topic is just coming to a boil. The failure of Prop 37 has brought on nearly as much conversation as the debate prior to the vote.
There is a lot of inaccurate information floating around about GMOs and, not surprisingly, about the intentions of both sides of the debate. As a big year for food comes to a close, I wanted to recap the issues, contemplate the next steps, and mostly give you some solid info, conveniently timed for you to perhaps add to your list of resolutions.
What does GMO actually mean?
A genetically modified organism is a plant or animal that has been genetically altered to display traits otherwise not found in nature. As a consumer, you are more likely to find plants that are genetically engineered, rather than animals. Corn and soybeans top the plant list, particularly in processed foods, but there are plenty of other culprits as well. Organic foods are much less likely to have GMOs, but it is not guaranteed unless the packaging declares it, as national organic standards do not require GMO testing for a food to be certified organic.
The actual practice of animal genes being modified is rare, although you’ll be interested to know that some salmon are being experimentally injected with eel-genes, for funsies. OK, fine, it’s not exactly for funsies; they’re doing it to make the salmon grow faster. But, um, ew? To borrow a theme from Jurassic Park: just because we can, should we? Just let nature be! Leave the fast-growing eel-salmon to the imaginations of sci-fi screenwriters, thank ya very much. Either way, this is not a widespread experiment, and animals that eat genetically modified feed are more commonly what we’re talking about as far as GM animal products.
To some, GMOs sound the work of a mad scientist, but they were not created with malignant intent. In theory, GMOs are just an extension of selective breeding. Among the goals were to produce a crop resistant to pesticides (with the idea that we can feed more people with plants that are more resilient), to improve shelf life, and increase nutritional value.
A world in which there are more plants designed by man is a world in which there is less ecological diversity. In theory, growers want plants to be resistant to pesticides so that more pesticides can be used to eliminate the plant’s enemies. But instead (or, in addition), superweeds that resist pesticides begin to pop up, in the same way that stronger bacteria developed in the face of antibacterial hand wash. Natural selection persists! And as we use more pesticides—they don’t kill the crops, so why not?—those pesticides do indeed find their way into our food system and our water system. Mark Bittman wrote an enlightening article last year about the impact of pesticides on humans. And no, the information has not since been disproven.
The National Academy of Sciences also suggests that GMO foods may introduce toxins and allergens into our food system that would otherwise not exist. We’ve been eating GMOs for the past twenty years or so… could the newly rampant peanut allergies be related? (To be clear, this is my own musing. I am fascinated by the new generation of peanut-intolerant children.)
Joel Salatin, a major “star” of Food, Inc., wrote a book called Folks, This Ain’t Normal, in which he mostly rants about anything food-related that interests him. (The man was given a podium and he ran with it. I’m a fan.) A line from his book really stuck with me. “As a culture we’ve wasted our energy, our resources, and our innovation on things that assault natural templates rather than massaging them with human cleverness.” Nature has a purpose. Humans have stepped in and introduced agricultural methods, mass production, and machinery, and while Salatin wouldn’t argue with those inventions, there’s a point at which we need to let nature be natural.
It may sound harsh, but Monsanto (and the less infamous but similar DuPont) have become synonymous with the yea-GMO side of the debate and indeed remain the ugly villain in this storyline. Not in all ways, but certainly in some. The short story is that they created some mutated freak-soy and corn that they patented for its resistance to pesticides. Wind blows, seeds fly around, and they land on someone else’s farm. Monsanto then sues that farmer for growing their patented plants without paying for the seed. Yes, seriously.
Monsanto’s seeds were not designed with the intention of making money via legal recourse, but it is true that this is happening, and they are in a way forming a monopoly on corn and soy by all but forcing farmers in certain regions to buy their seed. And to add to the sketch-factor, these genetically engineered, herbicide-tolerant crops are patented and sold by the same companies that sell the herbicides that we can now use more of. Interesting.
Why have they not been shut down? The Monsanto narrative goes something like, “We’re saving the world by growing crops that we can grow more of! Therefore we are feeding the world.” The idea that we live in a global world that cannot support the exclusive consumption of eating local organic farmer’s market may be true, though the counter to this argument, expounded upon by Mr. Salatin, is that mass food production (with or without GMOs) contributes to damaged land by overuse and improper use. Without healthy land, we cannot feed the world.
What did Prop 37 propose?
The proposal was to require labeling of any packaged or raw product that is made with GMOs, and it would have banned the use of the term “natural” in labeling/advertising for GM products. Exempted from this required labeling would have been foods that are: “certified organic; unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material; made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves; processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients; administered for treatment of medical conditions; sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant; or alcoholic beverages.”
The debate over Prop 37 focused on a couple of major things:
- - the risks and benefits of genetically modified food (both of which are unproven)
- - transparency and the consumer’s right to know
- - costs
The pro-labeling group was led by Just Label It, a campaign organized by leaders of various organic producers and health advocates. The anti-labeling group was led by big businesses, food producers, and (le gasp!) Monsanto.
According to Mark Bittman, leading up to the vote in California the polls indicated “roughly 65 percent for to 20 percent against, with 15 percent undecided. Nationally, on the broader issue of labeling… a whopping 91 percent of voters say yes and 5 percent say no. This is as nonpartisan as an issue gets.” And yet, the proposition didn’t pass?
My initial reaction to its non-passage was: how could you possibly not agree with this? Even if you don’t have an opinion, how could you vote AGAINST knowing what’s in your food? Those in favor of labeling GMO foods are not making proclamations about the proven dangers of GMO products (these have not been proven, and I am willing to admit that), but rather their argument is centered on the idea that consumers have a right to know what they consume, regardless of what they choose to do with that information.
Then I found out that Monsanto and friends (they seem to have lots of friends) spent $46 million to bring down the pro-labeling campaign, which fought back with the whopping $9 million they had raised. You know: money, power…
Dollars aside, it took a while until I felt like I heard a convincing statement from the non-labeling side, and it’s all about cost. “Big Food” spent a lot of money on ad campaigns that led voters to conclude that Prop 37 would increase bureaucracy at the expense of taxpayers and increase food costs for consumers, as food companies and farmers update their packaging and deal with lawsuits for mis-labeling. I can commiserate with small producers who may spend a lot re-designing packaging, or mom and pop stores that will spend time and money producing new signage. This will have an impact, for sure. But it’s an investment. Similarly, eating fruits, veggies, whole grains, etc., are an investment in your health later on. McDonald’s is cheap, but at what cost down the line? We can’t know yet what impact GMOs will have on people, but I see it as insurance for our potential safety down the line.
What happens next
In my mind, it feels like we’re on the cusp of a food revolution. It’s become cool to eat local, organic, Portlandia-style. I actually went to a restaurant in Great Barrington, MA, where the waitress announced to me the name of the farm and farmer that produced the chicken special without my expressing any interest. Something is happening. Michael Pollan said it well in a NY Times Op Ed, but the problem is that while something is happening, it is essentially a sentiment and not a movement: “soft politics,” as he says. The passing of Prop 37 might have made this sentiment into a movement, but we’re not quite there.
Sure, it’s more of the “soft politics” variety, but I am of the “vote with your fork” mentality, a concept I picked up from Food, Inc. If you want to see food labeled in the future, then buy products that are labeled non-GMO today. Of course, we need leaders in this movement, but we need the average consumer to show an interest too. When you shop, you vote.
Prop 37 not passing is not truly a failure. It has brought this topic to the forefront, and for a second time. A similar proposition also failed in Oregon in 2002, so it seems as though the pro-labeling camp will need a more convincing public message to bring this thing across the finish line. Third time’s a charm?
The Non-GMO Project is a wonderful source of information on the movement and solid, usable information for consumers. Their main function as a non-profit is to label and verify non-GMO foods. For cool kids like me, they also have an iPhone app that helps shoppers search for products or brands that are certified non-GMO. I use this at the grocery store along with my pocket size seafood guide.
While I may indeed be a giant nerd, I am a nerd who cares a lot about the food I put into my body and the food system in general. I want to live in a world where I can read and recognize every ingredient in my food. I do hope the revolution is coming. Jump on the bandwagon and help us bring it on.