Tuesday was a great day for weed and weddings. Yet while Colorado and Washington serenely celebrate, West Coast environmentalists and food activists are up in arms over the defeat of California’s Proposition 37.
Slightly less sexy than marijuana laws but just as controversial, this ballot initiative would have required labeling of genetically modified food. Genetically modified (GM) organisms are mainly altered to withstand the use of herbicides and pesticides, or even to produce a pesticide. GM strains of crops such as soybeans, corn, potatoes, tomatoes and canola have been approved by the FDA for U.S. markets since the 1990s.
In a previous column, I argued for more transparent, standardized food labeling. However, standardization does not necessarily imply transparency. Labeling GMOs per Prop 37 may do more to confuse and alarm consumers than to truly educate them.
In national polls as well as media hype, it has become clear that many American consumers are concerned about the unknown effects of GM foods. What is the basis for this concern? The World Health Organization explains, “Generally consumers consider that traditional foods (that have often been eaten for thousands of years) are safe.” These so-called traditional foods, then, are not generally assessed for safety, whereas consumers feel that GM foods should be. But just where is the line between “traditional” foods and scary Frankenfoods?
Some argue that GMOs are unnatural, that they don’t grow the way nature intended. Well, neither do organisms in conventional agriculture. Humans have been modifying food crops through artificial selection for certain traits for thousands of years. It is impossible to construct a meaningful definition of “natural” that applies to any product of agriculture.
Those who recoil from GMOs might also keep in mind the many other ways we dramatically alter food that don’t involve gene splicing. Take, for example, cows. Around 99 percent of the meat you find in restaurants and supermarkets in America comes from factory farms, otherwise known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). CAFOs are designed to make animals get fat as quickly as possible, at the lowest cost possible. To achieve this high growth rate, cows are fed a delicious mixture of mystery meat, hormones and a lot of corn. Because cows’ digestive systems are designed to process grasses, digesting corn makes them constantly sick. To correct this, feedlots administer huge amounts of antibiotics to keep the cows alive until they reach slaughtering weight. The animal becomes nothing more than a protein-creating machine—and we have learned to tweak that machine to our desired level of efficiency.
The risks associated with this industrial meat production are immediate, serious and well-documented. We’ve seen a rise in American obesity: Corn-fed beef is significantly higher in saturated fat than grass-fed. We see an alarming increase in antibiotic-resistant microbes. The heavy use of bovine growth hormones has been linked to increased risk of some types of cancer in milk consumers. Lagoons of concentrated manure cause water and air pollution. These risks also exist in industrial production of pork and poultry.
What could be more unnatural than stuffing a cow full of corn, or making a chicken grow so fast that its legs cannot support its body weight? I have a hard time understanding why anyone would have a visceral reaction to genetically modified soybeans, but continue to consume factory farmed meats.
We must holistically challenge what is viewed as acceptable in our food system. GMOs should not be demonized based on relative ideas of what is “natural,” but judged based on their observed merits.
The current situation is that no scientifically rigorous peer-reviewed study has linked GMOs with detrimental health effects in animals or humans. In a press release last month, the American Association for the Advancement of Science stated that in a dozen long-term studies, GM and non-GM counterparts were shown to be nutritionally equivalent. If we’re worried about developing pesticide resistance, consider that the rise in GMOs is a symptom, not a primary cause, of widespread pesticide use in agriculture. Additionally, GM technology offers promising solutions to malnutrition in developing countries, particularly with vitamin-fortified staple crops such as Golden Rice.
Like those who oppose GM foods, I am very concerned about the mixed messages we get from Monsanto and other agribusiness giants. I don’t dispute the importance of transparency; I would love for our government to mandate honest food labels. But slapping a label on GMOs without an effort to objectively educate the public may only encourage unwarranted reactions and unnecessary regulatory costs.
I was glad to see Proposition 37 on the ballot in California. If nothing else, it brought national attention to the food movement, both to commend its goals and to point out its inconsistencies. I agree with the Los Angeles Times’ assessment concerning the failure of Prop 37: “What’s needed is a consistent, rational food policy, not a piecemeal approach based on individual groups’ pet concerns.” If California, or any of us, is serious about knowing what’s in our food, we should start with the low-hanging fruits of the food system—risks that are well-founded in scientific evidence.
Hannah Colton is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Friday. You can follow Hannah on Twitter @ColtonHannah.