Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad “Frankenfood”?

Last Sunday’s New York Times ran an extensive article about the highly emotional grass-roots effort to eliminate or label GMOs--genetically-modified organisms–and the political risks to those who resist that emotionalism in favor of reliance on the science.

This is an issue that drives my cousin, a cardiologist and scientist, up the wall. At his own blog, he has written extensively on the subject, pointing out–among other things–that foods made with GMO crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people around the world for more than 15 years with no discernible ill effects; that virtually all processed foods sold in the U.S. contain GMO ingredients; that genetic engineering simply “speeds up” the conventional cross-breeding and hybridization that humans have done for thousands of years.

He also points out that genetic manipulation allows us to produce plants more resistant to insects and disease–which in turn allows us to reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides that can be harmful. He also points to the promise of better nutrition for people in third-world countries.

The scientific community is solidly in my cousin’s corner on the issue.

There is one thing, however, that I think my cousin gets wrong. He has concluded that “the irrational opposition to these products is likely being propagated by the same individuals who deny, among other things, global warming and evolution.”

Not quite.

As the New York Times reported,
Scientists, who have come to rely on liberals in political battles over stem-cell research, climate change and the teaching of evolution, have been dismayed to find themselves at odds with their traditional allies on this issue. Some compare the hostility to G.M.O.s to the rejection of climate-change science, except with liberal opponents instead of conservative ones.

“These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything,” said Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who testified several times against the bill. “It hurts.”

So why are liberals willing to accept the scientific consensus on climate change and evolution and most other things, but so suspicious of that same science when it comes to GMOs?

There is a lack of scientific literacy that contributes to all “denialism,” of course, and we all suffer from a lack of good reporting on scientific issues. But I think something else is going on here. Liberals are willing to trust scientific expertise in other areas–why not in this one?

I think at least part of the answer is that the GMO issue has become confused in the public mind with other practices of the food industry that are far less benign.

The use of hormones and antibiotics in order to fatten chicken and cattle more quickly and with foodstuffs they wouldn’t otherwise tolerate is a cause of widespread and well-founded concern. The rapacious and well-documented business practices of companies like Montsano certainly suggest that those companies are willing to put profits above people’s health, and shouldn’t be trusted. Films like “Food, Inc.” have disclosed the frequently inhumane treatment of the animals raised to feed us, and engendered a visceral response in viewers. (I couldn’t eat chicken for months!)

Add these unquestionably valid concerns to our very imprecise use of the term “genetically-modified” and you get an understandable–if misplaced–reaction to anything considered remotely “unnatural.”



  1. Being aware of the chemical treatment for years of all foods we consume; I have one question as an example of the need to control the extremes to which this has gone. How long has it been since any of us has eaten a tomato that tastes like a tomato?

  2. Say what you will, I still think that GMO crops deserve a mandated label on boxes. As a consumer, do I not deserve the right to choose what I put in my body?

  3. Do you think they should have to disclose each and every pesticide used in the production of the crop?

  4. I won’t eat processed foods anymore because in the past 15 yrs, I have developed an ‘allergy’ to gluten and most dairy. I never had problems with these foods until…I did. I am still in the process of shedding the extra 35-40 lbs that I gained 7 yrs ago. Thankfully, I saved my old clothes or I wouldn’t have anything to wear right now. I only eat grass fed beef and chicken and no bread, pasta or glutened anything. It’s fresh or I don’t eat it.
    I say label everything. This is Thyroid Awareness Month and the numbers of us suffering has increased significantly and I just want to know WHY?

  5. Often those who are so against the genetically modified plants don’t consider tha fact that agricultural scientists have been modifying plants for hundreds of years. Corn, wheat, beans, etc., have been modified to grow specifically in the U.S. Next summer, when driving along the farms, you will see/have seen signs displaying the fact that those field are special hybrid fields, not just GMO.

  6. A colleague in the Bloomington SPEA, Todd Royer, published some research a few years ago noting the effect that GMO corn had on the environment. He found that the runoff from this GMO corn was killing the caddisfly in streams near the farm fields. The caddisfly is a major source of food for fish in these streams. I don’t know if he has done any follow-up, but his initial results were somewhat alarming and I know some execs at Monsanto were not pleased. You might ask him if there is any follow-up with his research before making a final decision. I do agree with you in that there are other issues in industrial animal farming that are disturbing that do not have a connection to GMOs.

  7. as usual, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, and both sides are to some extent blinded by tribalism. liberals like to know what’s in their food, and industry opposition to things like labeling laws signals to liberals that “we’re going to secretly put stuff in your food, and we aren’t going to tell you what.” meanwhile, people like your cousin get so defensive about the myths and misinformation out there that when GMO opponents do make a good argument, they are ignored ad hominem.

    even if you could convince liberals that GM technology is safe, you’ll never convince them to trust corporations like monsanto to use the tech responsibly, because monsanto in particular has a long history of ethically questionable behavior.

  8. As a former research scientist and someone interested in the environment and our food systems, I have many thoughts on this. However, instead of taking space here I will simply encourage you to read the much more eloquent Barbara Kingsolver and her piece on genetic engineering, “A Fist in the Eye of God,” from her book “Small Wonders.” The piece is available here: http://www.organicconsumers.org/gefood/SmallWonders.cfm

  9. From my perspective, that is a very well put and balanced comment stAllio. Jana, are you sure the report wasn’t about foliarly applied Bt cry proteins? Farmers have applied cry proteins to crops for about 50 years now. One of the main points for incorporating the gene that makes cry proteins into the plant is so the cry proteins will be broken down as the plant is broken down, lessening the amount of runoff relative to the amount that occurs when pesticides are applied foliarly.

  10. My thoughts rest with stAllio!’s middle-ground position. Also, it’s evident there’s an increasingly large number of well-intentioned people who receive their information about science from entertainers (i.e., Oprah, Dr Oz, Bill Maher) and from their highly emotional guests. I’m reminded of the pseudo-science surrounding childhood vaccinations and autism that gained and still holds its foothold from celebrity entertainers’ nationally televised appearances despite the bogus research backing their claims. I suspect the highly emotional personality types are simply better entertainers than your cardiologist cousin and your scientist cousin. Maybe I’m off-base with your cousins’ entertainment abilities, and in that case, I suggest finding them a talent agent who’ll book them on the Oprah Show.

  11. Re: Aging Little Girl’s earlier post

    I’m certainly not a doctor or a medical professional; however, through my lay person’s point of view, I do see a ‘possible’ connection between an increase in thyroid disease and a sharp decrease in our overall use of iodized salt in the last couple of decades. If you’re like me, iodized salt was the choice of our health-minded mothers. Reducing our salt intake in an effort to prevent or to control hypertension is medically a good thing. On the other hand, perhaps iodized salt wasn’t entirely a bad thing, at least for some people. Totally a non-research based observation from a lay person.

    I read labels on food products, but I’m also aware that some labels are misleading. Fresh poultry labeled as ‘free range’ conjures up a vision of happy content chickens roaming freely on lush verdant pastures while pecking for bugs or worms. Actually, chickens labeled ‘free range’ simply means they have at least one access to the outdoors, although this need not be pasture and may be dirt or gravel areas.

    Fresh poultry and meat marketed as ‘organic’ do provide the customer with verification of what went into the animal before it’s packaged for the supermarket. USDA-certification for organic meat forbids the use of growth hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified feed, or animal by-products in raising the livestock. Beyond that, the animals may be raised in a series of confined feed-lots or the chickens raised on corporately owned chicken farms in indoor cages, never setting their feet on grass.

    With that said, I continue to read food product labels but with scepticism.

  12. It is necessary to look beyond the United States for full coverage of this issue. See, for example, this article for more information about the lack of scientific consensus on GMO safety. http://www.ensser.org/increasing-public-information/no-scientific-consensus-on-gmo-safety/ It includes a lengthy bibliography of scientific studies. This is why Europe and the United States have debated this aspect in free trade agreements. Europe requires all foods containing more than 0.9% GMO ingredients to be labeled; the U.S. does not require labeling, although some companies are doing it voluntarily. Long-term health effects from consumption of GMOs are not yet known.

  13. If this country can label our foods (and print instructions, warrantees, etc.) and virtually everything we purchase with foreign languages; why can they not provide GMO information for our safety on foods and OTC medical products? Are the foreign languages required? What is the additional cost of everything we purchase due to these additional languages? Is this another instance where our priorities are skewed? Foreigners who move here to live should be required to learn more English language than our monetary values. I suppose this will start another fight regarding being politically correct; being health correct should come first.

  14. 15 years is a drop in the bucket.. and remember.. it was Doctors who first did cigarette commercials and billboards. The same medical community who pimped real cocaine laced Coke-Cola. No.. It’s better trust your instincts than be sorry in the end. The public should at least have the information needed so they can chose to consume it or not. Label GMOs.

  15. Hello Jay,

    You make a good point, but actually, fluoride has been proven to dampen the thyroid function and that is why so many people with my disease stopped using fluoride toothpaste. I stopped using iodized salt in food 30+ yrs ago but my disease is also hereditary. I use sea salt instead. I took blood pressure medication for over 15 yrs and once I had my thyroid medicine stabilized, I stopped taking the blood pressure meds. The thyroid manages your temperature among many numerous other functions. I have found that the rust belt is full of women that are suffering with this disease because the doctors don’t pay attention long enough to put two and two together. When a menopausal woman goes to the doctor for sudden weight gain, cold all the time and tired, they should check the thyroid panel but they don’t. They just think, fat, lazy and depressed, here’s some xanax.
    Thanks for sharing.

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