It may not surprise the citizens of a country whose president once declared ketchup a vegetable to learn that Americans -- despite their love, fascination, and yes, obsession with food -- are largely unaware of exactly what they’re eating. As Lisa Weasel explains in her clear sighted and level-headed new book, Food Fray: Inside the Controversy Over Genetically Modified Food, people around the world have recoiled at the prospect of eating “Frankenfood” -- genetically modified (known as GM for short) and engineered food -- but in the U.S. most of us don’t know that we probably eat it daily.
Tomatoes durable as tennis balls may have failed spectacularly but about 80 percent of all the corn and 92 of the soy grown in the U.S. is now genetically modified -- as is 86 percent of the cotton. Yet 60 percent of Americans believe they have never eaten GM foods -- crops implanted with genes from another species -- and over half say that given the choice, they would probably not.
Yet these products are now in virtually all processed foods. None are labeled, save milk that voluntarily declares itself growth-hormone-free and the organic products that explicitly forgo the five percent GM ingredients USDA certification allows. This, says, Weasel, a molecular biologist and professor at Portland State University, points to what’s wrong with our food system.
In a coffee shop near her campus office, Weasel -- a petite blonde who is visibly animated by her subject -- outlines the problem.
Genetically engineered crops as now designed, Weasel tells me, support large-scale industrial agriculture. Corn, soy, cotton, and canola -- the primary FDA approved GM crops grown in the U.S. -- have been engineered to resist synthetic pesticides. This allows farmers, writes Weasel, to wipe “fields clean of weeds while at the same time sparing the important cash crops.” This sounds helpful but what it reinforces, she explains, are farming methods not compatible with organic and sustainable practices, what she considers the basis of a healthy food system. Health effects of genetically modified foods are uncertain but those of America’s commodity crop based diet, Weasel argues, are clearly adverse.
To further explore the pros and cons of GM crops, Weasel traveled to Zambia, India, and Thailand where genetically engineered crops were being promoted -- largely by organizations and companies with an interest in the products -- as a “technological fix” for hunger and malnutrition. Food Fray persuasively makes the case that the rejection of GM food aid in Zambia and the lackluster reception for “Golden Rice,” has even more to do with food industry problems than it does with the engineering itself.
One of the problems, explains Weasel (pictured left), is that of intellectual property rights. Chemical and seed companies have patented their genetically engineered products. This means licensing fees, royalties, and annual payments. “The issue of patents,” writes Weasel, drops “a distasteful dilemma into the humanitarian angle” of using genetically modified foods in agricultural aid programs.
Another is the fact that the agricultural practices supporting current GM crop production do not favor the site-specific, small scale farming that would help countries like Zambia break the cycle of food insecurity. Meanwhile, assuring people that one food can meet major nutritional needs -- the vitamin-infused “Golden Rice” scenario -- discourages a healthfully varied diet and can actually result in malnutrition. “We need to tailor food sourcing to hunger needs,” says Weasel.
Leery of government food safety assurances, Europeans have rejected GM foods so thoroughly that they’re simply not on supermarket shelves. Meanwhile, Americans chow down on these subsidized commodity crops around the clock. But, says Weasel, “The future is in the hands of consumers. We can all be activists where food is concerned.”
Elizabeth Grossman is the author, most recently, of High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health. She writes from Portland, Oregon.