Thursday, April 19, 2012

My Week Attempting To Understand The GMO Debate, or, Why Not Label It?

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I find this whole GMO argument wildly confusing. People like Barry Estabrook who wrote the book Tomatoland (I therefore love him) is very much against them. Michael Pollan is not a big fan either. Yet, in almost every anti-GMO argument I read, there was so much anger toward companies like Monsanto written into them, that I wasn't sure if it was the product itself or the greed of the company causing all the trouble. Because I'd also heard that Monsanto had made some type of "Golden Rice" that allowed poor farmers to get more beta-carotine into their diets. Genetic engineering is responsible for the huge yields that GMO-corn farmers can get on their land. It allows us to spray fewer pesticides by putting anti-pest genes into things like the New Leaf Potato.

 Who was right?

 In the last few weeks, there was this little old thing called the Just Label It campaign floating around. It wasn't asking for an end to GMOs, just a sticker on the supermarket shelves to let us know which was which. If you've followed this at all, you'll already know that the FDA invalidated a majority of the 1 million signatures gathered in support of labeling. (In the meantime, certified organic food can never be a GMO and, as there are only nine GMO crops, maybe we can all just buy the organic versions to eat at home in the meantime.)

I still didn't really understand the problem and it seemed time to give myself some book learnin' on the subject. Reading a timely article here and there was obviously not enough to explain what's going on.

First, I read Food Fray by Lisa Weasel. She wrote a lot about the history of Monsanto and it's politics, but not much about what GMOs actually are or why everyone's so worried about them. So I tried another book, this time, Dinner at the New Gene Cafe by Bill Lambrecht. He gives a good account of the GMO debate over in Europe** as well as the good and bad GMOs have caused farmers both overseas and in the United States. I felt like I had some understanding of the issue. Finally.

But one Michael Pollan quote toward the end of Lambrecht's book (page 309 in case you're curious) could have explained the entire debate a lot more quickly: "It was a potato, a Bt potato. It offered, perhaps, the farmer something. It certainly offered Monsanto, the company that developed it, quite a bit, But the benefit to the consumer isn't there. The risks, the uncertainties, are there."

And, really, that's the heart of this whole argument. Sure, it might help farmers in third world countries who don't have the money to grow foods with conventional pesticides. It might give off such large crops that we can send the leftovers to other countries as food aid. As AOL once said, "We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better, stronger, faster" but do we want to eat it?

Ad circa 1970s National Geographic
It seems silly to give up on genetic technology in agriculture just because of a few greedy companies. The part that needs fixing is our system of too little testing and too much faith in a "we'll catch it when it breaks down" method of dealing with problems GMOs might cause down the line. This isn't the mentality we should couple with either the food we eat or the environment that, well, we're all kind of stuck living in. Not everything that turns a profit is bad, but maybe it's time to make companies like Monsanto work a little harder to repay their shareholders.

**Fun Fact: Did you know that Monsanto had a ad campaign in France in 1998 promoting the labeling of GMOs (rather than having them be outlawed all together)? Lambrecht's book quotes one advertisement as saying, "You have a right to know what you eat, especially when it's better…After several months of debate, Europe has just adopted a new law for the labeling of food that comes from genetically engineered plants…We believe that products that come from biotechnology are better and that they should be labeled."

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