Note: For the next few days I’ll be reporting from Eco-Farm, the annual conference held by the Ecological Farming Association of California. At Eco-Farm, some 1,400-1,500 organic farmers, Big Organic marketers, and sundry sustainable-ag enthusiasts pack into a rustic, beautiful seaside conference hall an hour-and-a-half south of San Francisco to talk farming amid the dunes.
I’ve been writing about genetically modified food since I first took up food-politics writing back in 2005. My lens has always been corporate power and biodiversity. I saw GM seeds as yet one more way corporations siphon profit out of the food system, brazenly claiming ownership of a broad chunk of humanity’s seed heritage.
I also saw the explosion of a few GM seed varieties — particularly for cotton, corn and soy — as a reckless narrowing of the already razor-thin genetic basis of modern agriculture.
In short, I’ve been portraying the GM phenomenon as an intensification of an industrialization process that began a century or so ago; but I haven’t written much about the radical break with the past the technology represents — and in particular, its health implications.
Honestly, since GM food entered the food supply so suddenly and broadly — introduced in 1995, GMOs were appearing in 70 percent of U.S. by 2000 — I figured it must be just as nutritionally suspect as normal industrial food, but no more. After all, if GM food actually introduced new dangers, wouldn’t we know it by now? Wouldn’t there be some huge outcropping of disease or something?
After attending an Eco-Farm workshop by Jeffrey M. Smith, author of Seeds of Deception, I see that I may have been hoodwinked. Smith delivers compelling evidence that GM foods do pose significant health risks — evidence that the GM seed industry has managed to suppress.
Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and other writers have driven home the point that our food system can only thrive under a cloak of broad, industry-generated ignorance. The explosion in GM foods represents a great triumph in the history of manufactured ignorance. Smith reports that polls show that 55 percent of Americans believe that GM foods haven’t entered the food supply. Another 15 percent say they’re not sure.
It’s in that context that we have to interpret the recent statement by a food-industry flack that “most consumers are not concerned about biotech.” That’s a lie. Most consumers don’t know that their food supply is shot through with biotech.
And that’s no accident. Industry has scotched every effort to require labeling for GM food.
It has also managed to squelch evidence that GM foods cause all manner of health troubles. In his presentation, Smith pointed to several studies from the 1990s showing rats fed GM food suffered liver damage, reproductive problems, and more.
That evidence was suppressed within the FDA — and suspect industry-funded research was accepted in its place. Since then, the further study — needed, no doubt — of the health impacts of GM food has gone unfunded. I don’t have time to tease out particulars of this story now, but will soon, as I feel that it has been dramatically underreported.
How did that happen? Good old crony capitalism, evidently. In 1994, Smith reports, the Clinton administration created a new position within the FDA for a man named Michael Taylor: deputy commissioner of policy. His charge was to oversee safety concerns around GM food. Before taking that portfolio, Taylor had been a lawyer for Monsanto.
He spent much of the rest of the decade breaking down regulatory hurdles to GM food. For his good work, Monsanto later rewarded him with a lucrative vice president position. Someone should ask Hillary Clinton how her own view of Monsanto and GM foods differs from that of her husband.
But if GM foods are inherently unhealthy — even worse than regular industrial food — why haven’t we seen more health troubles? When I contemplate that question, I reflect that everyone I know who’s over 30 either rigorously avoids industrial food — or relies on the pharmaceutical industry to get through their days. And I think about accelerating obesity and diabetes rates, a seeming epidemic of allergies and asthma among children, etc., etc.
It’s a brilliant strategy, really. In a society already beset with chronic ailments and reliant on pharmaceuticals, you can introduce a whole array of dangerous foods, and no one would even notice.
Cloned burgers, anyone?
Get Grist in your inbox