Food Fights

Deconstructing the escalating battles over food is anything but simple.

We have critics and foodies like Michael Pollan counseling us to avoid eating anything our grandmothers wouldn’t have recognized as food. We have “food activists” insisting on labeling foods containing any ingredient that has been genetically modified. And we have Oscar-nominated films like “Food Inc.,” focusing upon the practices of the huge corporate farmers who have largely displaced the romanticized family farm. Those who have paid attention to the “natural food” movement (a cohort that would not include Paula Deen aficionados, or those cheering the return of the Twinkie) hardly know what they can safely eat.

I often quote my cousin the cardiologist, whose scientific expertise I respect. When Whole Foods announced that the company would be labeling genetically modified foods, he sent me an extensive tract, arguing that fear of GMs was ill-founded and the labeling movement dangerous. (You can read the whole thing here.)

As he pointed out, “genetic modifications” used to be called hybrids. Humans engaged in growing foods have spent generations selecting for desirable traits, and combining and propagating them. Historically, this has been a lengthy process. In many cases, genetic manipulation simply accelerates that process. (In other cases, however, the modifications may include the introduction of genes not native to that plant.)

He also points out that genetically modified plants promise to correct nutritional deficits in developing countries where the population depends primarily on a single foodstuff, like rice. Furthermore, the greater yields of modified crops keep many people in those countries from starvation. And it is true, as he notes, that foods derived from genetically modified crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years with no reported ill effects.

Or at least, ill effects that can be reliably connected to such crops.

It is probably obvious that I am less sanguine than my cousin; although I agree that most GM crops are no different from the hybrids farmers have long produced, I harbor some concerns–for which I admittedly have absolutely no evidence–about the long-term effects of those modifications that involve the introduction of “new” genes to a plant’s DNA. (Somehow, I don’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling when I hear that Montsano has modified seeds to withstand its pesticides….)

That said, I think the uproar about GMs distracts us from far more concrete dangers posed by factory farming.

For example, most of the beef produced in the United States has been fattened on corn, because corn is cheap, abundant, and allows cattle to come to the market in 12-14 months. In order for cattle to be raised on corn instead of grass, however,  the cows have to be given antibiotics in feed, feminizing hormones, and often protein that comes from other animal parts. Even if you overlook the inhumane conditions that have been amply documented, the large-scale production of chickens and pigs involve similarly unnatural processes. Unlike the situation with GMs, there is substantial evidence that these practices pose health risks for consumers.

Another legitimate cause for concern is the increased and often indiscriminate use of pesticides that linger in our food, and that run off into our water supplies.

Unfortunately, the “food fights” we are engaged in tend to conflate these different issues, confusing consumers and policymakers alike.

What is “natural”? Breeding crops to be disease-resistant, or more nutritious, allows us to meet human needs. We’ve done that for generations, and so long as we don’t get carried away–so long as we don’t create new and strange “Frankenfoods,” we probably don’t have much to worry about. Medicating livestock with hormones and antibiotics so that they can be fed foods they did not evolve to eat, in order to fatten them more and more quickly, is much more troubling.

As with so many of the issues people fight about these days, it’s complex, and most of us lack the scientific knowledge to make sound judgments.We used to trust the FDA to ensure food safety, but thanks to over a quarter-century of being told that government can’t do anything right, we no longer trust anybody.

Welcome to the food fight!


  1. Great blog! Our distrust of the FDA also stems from the influence from the food giants like Monsanto. Their influence runs deep.

  2. With all of these pros and cons regarding GMs, eat more carbs, eat less carbs, eat more protein, eat less sugar, and on and on…something in recent years has caused an abundance of obesity in this entire country. Look at news broadcasts, people on the streets everywhere you go, etc. and at least half of them are obese and many others are overweight. Something is causing it. How are we to trust reports about what is safe and what isn’t when frequently these decisions are overturned in a few years. I admit I don’t have much appetite so the quantity of food I eat is probably lacking but I eat basically a balanced (but small) diet of fruits, vegetables, cereal, dairy, not a lot of meat or bread, and do like something sweet daily. I feel good and am as physically active as my disability allows but I was diagnosed as having malnutrition during my recent hositalization. What are their guidelines to determine a person’s health status? A friend who retired as a Certified Nursing Assistant said she cared for obese patients who were diagnosed as having malnutrition.

    This comment is blatantly not Politicaly Correct but…how much more is our food (and everything else we buy) costing us due to multiple languages on all labels, instructions, warrantees, etc? Cost is often part of the deciding factor for many families when food shopping.

    With all the years of research, genetically modified foods and organically grown produce; why can’t we buy a tomato that tastes like a tomato?

  3. I agree that as you said most of us lack scientific knowledge to make sound decisions. I get Dr Mercola emails sent to my inbox . I try to educate myself as to what is safe and what isnt. Being a cancer patient this is important to me. However it can be overwhelming trying to make wise choices. Repeatedly I question Doctors and nurses at Cancer Center about sugar and they say don’t worry, then a friend who suffers from Glioblastoma, a brain tumor, was put on a sugar free, Atkins type diet because they said sugar feeds cancer.

    I do feel we have the right to know what is in our food and GMO foods are harmful. So many chemicals in our food, cleaning products, homes etc. I used to think hey, my father lived to be 86 years old but then I realized he was not exposed to all the chemicals and fake foods that we have today.

    And then of course after ingesting so many chemicals and exposure in our daily lives to them so many people get sick, have cancer etc.Then the health care system has its work to do.

  4. Another troubling aspect… When products and practices are made illegal in the USA, the products and practices are exported to other nations that just cannot afford to care. Then they ship those meat & plant materials back to us to consume. I saw a program on TV where the hormone rich chickens in central America had such huge breasts they could hardly stand. AND young boys who ate a lot of the chicken meat had large perky breasts too. Dig in Folks. YUM.

  5. While we lived in Europe, we watched a program where Jaime Oliver toured a chicken farm and were saddened by the process. Then after watching Food Inc a couple of years ago, I eat meat about once a month or so and only when I buy organic and free range. My husband gave up meat about the same time and eats it about once every six months or so. I’ve also been diagnosed with a hereditary auto-immune disease and after reading up on it, I’ve gone on a gluten free diet in the past couple of months. Holy cow! What a difference. Gluten/Wheat is in EVERYTHING anymore and that was keeping me from losing the last of the weight gain I experienced from this disease. I gave up processed food (like Twinkies) at least a decade ago and eat only hand cooked foods as often as possible. It’s hard when we travel so we eat a lot of salads. We just don’t know the long term effects of Monsanto’s franken-food yet so I’ll stick with food that existed 100 years ago and not add a bunch of additives to our bodies.

  6. It’s a comforting thought, that future packs of Hamburger may contain genetically modified “Pink Slime” and that certain vendor’s “Lasagna” may contain G.M. “Horse Meat” (Wonder if those Horses were feeding on Corn or Grass?)

  7. Let’s all watch that old Charlton Heston movie, “Soylent Green” and we will feel better about this situation.

    “It’s people! Soylent Green is people!”

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist:)

  8. Ah, Soylent Green …
    Reminds me of that old Yorkshire song “On Ilkley Moor”.
    Essentially, a song about a man that gets an awful cold
    while walking on the moor. Turns fatal in a flash and he dies.
    Well, after being put in the ground, the worms eat him and
    when it rains and the worms surface. They in turn are eaten
    by Ducks and Chickens, which the people shoot, dress and

    Need I say any more ?

  9. Your cousin, the cardiologist, is absolutely right; there is no evidence that the consumption of GM foods have had any untoward effects on humans. Millions of people have been consuming genetically modified foods for years and if there were problems, they would be evident by now.

    There are significant concerns about the use of antibiotics and other growth promoters including arsenic by confined feeding operations (CAFO) There is evidence that the feeding of antibiotics results in the production of antibiotic resistant microorganisms, some of which are human pathogens. Other growth promoters such as arsenic are excreted and are spread into the environment when the disposal of the animal waste occurs. A CAFO will produce a volume of animal waste equal to that of a small town. The town would have to build a sewage treatment plant to treat the waste, the CAFO does not. Waste at a CAFO goes into a lagoon, which is occasionally pumped out, and the waste is applied to land as fertilizer. However, along with the nutrients the microorganisms and growth promoters are spread over the land. Unless this is carefully controlled, the land becomes saturated and the waste drains off into adjacent ditches and streams or migrates into the ground water. The problem is that the streams, rivers and the ground water are sources of drinking water most of the citizens of Indiana. Because of little regulation and lax enforcement this problem is going to catch up with us either through the outbreak of waterborne disease or through the presence of arsenic or other growth factors at toxic levels in our drinking water.

  10. (Somehow, I don’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling when I hear that Montsano has modified seeds to withstand its pesticides….)
    …Their intentions are good, they wish to eliminate the spraying of pesticides on crops that eventually find their way into our water supply.
    A side effect of this appears to be the loss of Bees…without the Bees we are finished. More work needs to be done in the way of GM crops, and like all corporations, profit overrules safety. Monsanto needed to cash in on their work thus far with out long term studies on their affects.
    The GM movement will force such corporations to improve their work before sending it out into the world…for profit

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