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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!