We The Guinea Pigs

We Americans are obsessed with the content of our food–but generally, for all the wrong reasons.

Trendy urbanites worry about genetically modified foods, ignoring the fact that pretty much everything humans have consumed for the past couple of centuries has been genetically modified (we call those hybrids). Popular magazines peddling the diet of the moment wax poetic about eating like a caveman, or avoiding carbohydrates, or….the list is endless.

What we don’t tend to obsess about is the very real damage being done to public health thanks to our abiding faith in herbicides and pesticides.

The Guardian recently had an eye-opening article.Here’s the lede:

The recent headlines announcing billions of dollars in damages to people who have gotten cancer after using Roundup are just the tip of a very large iceberg. There are over 1,000 lawsuits against Monsanto’s parent company, Bayer, waiting to be heard by the courts. Beyond concerns about that specific glyphosate-based weedkiller, we should be talking about the innumerable other potentially punishing chemicals in our food system.

After all, our food and our health are deeply connected. American healthcare spending has ballooned to $3.5tn a year, and yet we are sicker than most other developed countries. Meanwhile, our food system contains thousands of chemicals that have not been proven safe and many that are banned in other countries.

As the article points out, unlike European systems, the American regulatory system (routinely criticized by business interests as overactive) doesn’t operate on what is called the “precautionary principle.” Potentially hazardous substances aren’t banned from our foods; instead, chemicals are typically considered innocent until proven guilty.

That’s a great principle in criminal justice, but not so great when applied by the FDA.

As the article puts it,

As a result, we are the guinea pigs in our own experiment. And our desire for food that is fast, cheap and abundant only compounds the speed with which we are introduced to new, untested substances.

Much of the problem can be attributed to our disdain for the natural world, and the quintessentially American belief that we can always bend nature to our wishes.

For decades we’ve operated on the principle that if we can selectively kill off the unwanted parts of the natural world, we can control our futures. Farmers operate that way, but also homeowners, highway crews and landscapers. We spread herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones and various other toxins which kill everything around. Even good things.

We’re becoming aware of the loss of what we can see: bees, butterflies, the diverse plant life of our ecosystems. We also need to worry about the invisible microbiome and fungi in the soil that nurture life above, store carbon and absorb water.

Not only have we not improved on nature, what the herbicides, antibiotics and pesticides have done is breed bugs, weeds and disease increasingly resistant to our control.

And our chemical onslaught will have long-term effects. Our fertilizers and pesticides leach into groundwater and streams, head out to sea and create dead zones and red tides. They also leach into our drinking water. Take Atrazine, a weedkiller made by the Swiss company Syngenta (and also banned in Switzerland), which is found in wells all across America. The list of potential health risks of Atrazine causes is too long to list in its entirety, but it includes cancer, poor birth outcomes and developmental defects.

The next time you hear some under-educated ideologue ranting on about the evils of regulation, you might think about the real issue, which isn’t whether to regulate, but how and what to regulate.

We might begin by respecting science and expertise, and by electing people who will fill our agencies with people who actually know what they are talking about–people who care about safeguarding the public good–rather than anti-science camp followers who are firmly ensconced in the pockets of political donors.


  1. How and what to regulate … the most important being personal choice. In reviewing our portfolio with our advisor we have listed Monsanto and Bayer as do not buy. We go to the grocery store with a list and ignore foods heavy on salt, fat and sugar with a strong preference for organic certified brands. Our salads taste wonderful with the fresh zest of a few cuttings direct from our herb garden. Yes, I have weed killer in my possession used sparingly targeting poison ivy and sumac. Moderation and natural science. The most powerful regulation is personal choice what you checkout at the register.

  2. We used to all be farmers because such was our addiction to survival. Now we leave it to others who do it for money, not for survival. Make more money now regardless of the impact on any others ever. Those people will always be in front of regulators by writing the regulations (for free nonetheless) that apply to others but not them.

    That’s the way of Republicans. Let’s try a different way while we still all can.

  3. I know quite a few over-educated men and women who rant about government and the regulation on businesses. They have Ph.D.’s at the end of their names. They use their credentials to give credence to their views on free markets.

    Taking a deeper look, but are funded by corporate sponsors like the Koch brothers. Think Ball State’s economic department and CBER institute. All free-market worshippers. All receiving Koch money.

    How much money flows from Monsanto into our political scheme?

    $30 million in the past 2 years per Open Secrets.

    All spent on lobbying for/against specific ag bills. Corporate influence in government is THE problem. We saw the same type of spending from the medical industry when Single payer insurance was being introduced. “Overregulation”, my ass.

    They have the perfect environment in the USA, whereas, in Europe, the people won’t allow bribing of officials. It’s illegal making for a more democratic government. The people have more power than in the corrupt USA.

  4. I lived in Indiana for 66 years and know the Crazy Right I’ve lived in Ithaca, NY for almost 6 years and have met the Crazy Left. What I’ve learned, although neither side would ever admit is they have more in common than they will ever acknowledge. Neither side believes in science.

  5. And once again we look to the UK and The Guardian for information; this time regarding our food habits. I bypass the organic products in the produce section; too expensive, cost guides me through all sections of supermarkets, Dollar Stores. It is not only food which deserves our concern but out personal care and laundry products. The vast majority of people in this country are forced to use their financial situation as their shopping guideline. I have often wondered while reading responses from many of the regulars on this blog how many of them are financially secure…if not well-to-do. Many comments reflect no awareness of what “limited income” actually means even when commenting on the benefits handed to the wealthy at the cost of helping those in need. We do the best we can with what we have. We are concerned about herbicides and pesticides and genetically modified foods; we can do no more about changing that situation than we can about the mass production of nuclear weapons in the hands of people like Trump, Putin and Kin Jong-Un or the lack of gun control in this country.

    A good indicator of the use, misuse and abuse of chemicals in our food and drinks might be the number of cancer victims each of us know who are suffering at this time and the family and loved ones we have lost to that disease known for decades to be caused by all of these chemicals.

    Trump has repealed EPA regulations and recently approved a pesticide which is killing our already endangers bees which are so vital to our lives. But…and that is a huge BUT…administration after administration of both political parties have ignored corporate abuses of the use and disposal of all forms of chemicals which could and should be controlled by regulations. Our own Johnson County Child Cancer Crisis continues and continues being ignored. This is not through ignorance of the dangers but due to greed and avarice…FOLLOW THE MONEY…to major corporations and Citizens United for solutions.

    “The next time you hear some under-educated ideologue ranting on about the evils of regulation, you might think about the real issue, which isn’t whether to regulate, but how and what to regulate.”

  6. GMOs are perfectly safe. They ARE hybrids, something we’ve been eating all our lives. The biggest hoax, however, is the Organic thing. Technically, in biochemical terms, any substance that uses the element CARBON as its basis and is derived from a once living thing is, wait for it….ORGANIC. You know, as in organic chemistry.

    Oh, the organic people go on to tell you that all the fertilizer is “natural” and that no pesticides are used, etc., etc., Then they charge twice as much at the market for “organically grown” items. Boy, I need to go find me an anti-vaxxer with whom to share some real conversation.

  7. How do we bring common sense and clarity back into our everyday lives? Because I feel like this is the problem. It went right out the window with honor, integrity, compassion… you name it.
    We’ve exchanged common sense and clarity for ambiguity and foolishness, coupled with a sense of laziness… “I simply can’t and won’t think for myself. I’ll just follow along.”

    Instill common sense and how to develop clarity and everything (i.e., decisions, choices) will fall into place, including how and what to regulate, what/who is good/not good for us.

  8. The GOP with it’s Libertarian, pro-market, trickle down and Laissez-faire economics, found a partner with Bill Clinton’s De-Regulated Neo-Liberal economic policies. Clintonism and the GOP disagreed on some issues but not when it came to Corporations are at the top of food chain.

    I have lived my house since 1987. There was a time when at night if the garage door was open and the garage light was on the night insects fluttered around the light in mass. Today, it is like these critters have went extinct.

    A disaster like Flint Michigan’s poisoned water should have never happened.

    The regulatory agencies have been taken over by stooges and double agent’s for the companies they are supposed to regulate.

  9. We are guinea pigs in more ways than one (see healthcare, sharing of the wealth and income of our economy etc.), and I notice that Bayer via its Monsanto subsidiary is still openly advertising a weedkiller which is the subject of hundreds of lawsuits, a rather arrogant show of fearless power.

    As Sheila suggests, we are in the business of conforming nature to our wants and supposed needs, and in this connection and if I may be so bold, I recommend reading the current Pulitzer-Prize for fiction winning book, “The Overstory,” by Richard Powers, a tour de force in re trees and our human interaction with their dwindling presence. I say “bold” because Richard is my nephew.

  10. Vernon,

    As a former farmer I can assure you that growing certified organic food products of any kind is very expensive because without the benefit of typical fertilizers and herbicides the yield per acre is greatly reduced. In addition there is quite a bit of expense to become certified and to maintain that certification.

    Now, if a food or other product is not actually certified, yet claims to be organic and is charging a higher price then they deserve to be questioned.

    Food sold at local Farmer’s Markets by local small organic growers can typically be trusted to be organic even if they haven’t gone to the expense to be certified.

  11. GMO is not the same, by a million miles, as hybridization. Hybrids are selectively bred for certain advantageous traits like lean pork or corn that yields better. Genetically Modified Organisms the actual DNA of the plant and animals can now be changed/altered to carry a very specific characteristics.

    ‘Round up ready’ means a plant tolerant of a kills all green things herbicide. Or in the case of BT Corn, triple stacked genetics, they call it, that corn also produces a chemical toxic to insects, bees included. But the farmer, pressed to produce scads for little$, does not have to use $$$$ as much toxic and expensive spray$$$$$$. The Chems limit crop loss from insects eating the crop, or weeds competing for water and soil nutrients. Artificial fertilizer and insecticides. It is why in the 20 th century crop yields as much as tripled per acre. Food cheaper and supply steadier. With populations in the billions stable food supply is super critical to not having wars and famines or malnourishment. Good old durable human conditions of misery.

    Most working and poor people cannot afford organic or even unprocessed foods.

    Margins for farmers are razor thin and many years end in the red. You have to barrow against the hoped for income from the next seasons harvest. Flood rain hail drought are ever present risks. Wheat is making the payments for farmers across Indiana right now. We are not a major wheat state but because of low prices past few years we need cash by July 4 th; there’s a bunch more acres’of winter soft red wheat hitting the bins and terminals as I write. Hot stressful hard and dangerous work.

    Farming can be good life when it pays but tech and sky high costs production are driving record numbers of farmers to kill themselves. The much needed next generation can’t afford to get established. So now big corporations sweep in. And will truly turn Ag industrial. Who cares as long as all most people know about farming is the idyllic fantasies they see in the media green red barns or beater corporate calves, both have their distortions. The happy red barn farm with cows corn and kitties and children is pretty much gone. Organic small farms struggle against great unhelpful odds.

    What is the solution to big Ag and the damage it cause people animals our planet Earth? Food needs to be twice as expensive as it is, maybe. Farmer paid a living wage. Yes farm labor too must eat live raise a family. FarmerHuman Makes enough so they don’t have to be robotically efficient till it kills them and the ground they carefully tend. Stewardship they call it in church.

    Farmers know life depends on what they do. And how they do it vital to health and well being. We in Ag have few viable alternatives to tech and chem farming. Want healthy soil wonderful soil for eternity ? No till, and the most cost effective way to accomplish that is to kill weeds chemically. There are greener cover options but with hundreds of thousands riding on it, your livelihood, how often do you risk changing to some greener possibly unproved, option? Change a job is not the same as being an owner operator.

    Entrenched Agra biz, Mr chem and Mrs seedGMO, are so powerful as to stifle research @Land Grant research PUniversities, that would force them to offer green options. Laziness yes, and no focused US government attention to put reasonable protective, enforced laws. Plus the need for our consumptive economy to have cheap food. And guess what? Go green!?!? Why the top 2% will have less capital to hoard onto.. PERISH THE THOUGHT THAT GOD DOESN’T WANT THE RICH EVEN RICHER, OMG no.

    So, old as I am, seen enough to not be optimistic. As we on the farm say when trading horses or tractors, you get what you pay for. That cheap horse fits the budget and is very pretty to behold. she is rank and lame, costs you to feed, and does you no profit or pleasure. Now go if you read this far, Round up yourself a pleasant lunch. Don’t blame the farmer if it costs you more than ten bucks. And NO for every reason I did not, nor ever would have, vote for trumpGooP.

  12. I try not to see things through just my (food challenged) perspective and it is hard, but as usual, Sheila has a way of yanking me out of my small and limited world. “We The Guinea Pigs” applies to both our food source and the Medical field.

    Sandy, yes, living in Indiana (as I do), it takes a special kind of tenacity if you are not imbedded among the ‘Crazy Right’ because they are legion.
    JoAnn, you and I shop in the same places….and even though I have sampled some organic and really like the taste and the whole concept to boot cost always drives choices. Bottled water, organic and even non organic foods are all a crapshoot because I am not there during the processing of either. LIke religion, our choices are based on blind faith. Nancy and Vernon, again, it takes experienced and knowledgeable people to inform us so we can make better collective choices.
    MCLV, you said it all.

  13. Nancy,

    I’ve heard that argument before. I don’t dispute anything you said. But who is regulating and overseeing the retail prices? How can bananas from Ecuador be considered “organic” in the sense you mention? I’ve been to Ecuador and was hosted by the woman in charge of exporting bananas. They are piled into two boxes and “organic” labels are slapped on one box, and no labels on the other. Ecuador can’t afford expensive chemicals and cultivation practices. THAT is what bugs me about the “organic” RACKET.

  14. We get sick. bees die. Species go extinct. All so rich people can make more money.

  15. MCLV,

    Thanks for the lecture. Will there be a quiz? BTW, any time genes are altered artificially, or even naturally for that matter, it’s a genetic modification. It’s kind of like induced evolution. It really doesn’t matter whether the genes are altered by hybridization or radiation or some other means, it’s still GMO.

    I appreciate you putting such a fine point on it, but GMO food is still harmless. You have conflated too many topics, kind of like modifying the subject to suit your agenda. Who do you write for?

  16. MCLV,
    Well said! While I truly miss farming, I do not miss the stress. I also have a few physical injuries from livestock farming that will haunt me to my grave. The chemical risks I had to take? Well, time will tell.

  17. Vernon,

    Good question regarding who is regulating the prices charged. As far as I know there are no regulations whatsoever on food prices anywhere. It is whatever the buyers are willing to pay.

    As far as the banana issue I am unsure about that. Sounds pretty iffy. There are some foods that are going to be organic no matter what because chemicals are not needed at all in order to produce them. When it comes to bananas I do know that some are picked green and then get sprayed with a chemical to ripen them, but it doesn’t sound like that happened when you saw them being packed.

    The bottom line is – unless you grow your own food organically or buy from a local organic grower you really have no way of knowing what kinds of chemicals you are ‘eating’.

  18. Vernon,

    I forgot to mention to you that there is one, maybe two actual labels that prove a food is truly Certified Organic. If you google this you will find out what I am talking about. If a food just has a label that only says Organic, but doesn’t have a USDA label or the other approved label then it isn’t really organic and the seller is lying. They can get away with it because the industry is not yet regulated.

    And by all means don’t fall for the “All Natural” scam.

  19. Because we are all eating so many foods, not exotic but ordinary fruits and vegetables, which come from other countries; we have no idea how they were grown or what chemicals were used to enhance their growth and their size. Whatever they are using results in tasteless, overpriced produce. Personally; I miss good old Indiana homegrown tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, corn and the delicious apples and peaches we could get in our grocery stores and from roadside stands. On my tight food budget I often throw out foods which look good but have so little flavor that using herbs, spices and dressings cannot make them edible. I’m only guessing but I believe actual guinea pigs would turn away from them.

  20. Regulations would be nice – I remember Thalidomide babies – very few were born in this country and those that were had mothers who received the drug outside of the US – it was banned here

    Vernon – thank you for bringing the science into the GMO discussion – as for bananas, I remember reading (on a reliably scientific site) that of organic fruit, organic bananas do make a difference — for the workers who would otherwise be exposed to high levels of chemicals – the fruit itself is pretty much the same

  21. Yes, regulations are actually PROTECTIONS from greedy unethical profiteers. To them, “regulation” is a four-letter word (cuts their profit margins). They have brainwashed hoards of republicans, libertarians, and MAGA folks to be against regulations that would keep Americans safe and healthy. We must keep making the point that regulations are PROTECTIONS.

    MCLV – thanks for explaining in depth about the plight of family farms in our country. It helps us appreciate the difficulties and complexities of farming today. And the tariffs arenʻt helping either.
    Another good reason to add to the multitude of reasons to replace Drumpf in 2020 (and kick out Mitch McTurtle too).

    Nancy – good points about organic farming having less yields per acre and the added expenses of organic certification adding to the costs of organic food.

    Gerald – thanks for the book recommendation!

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