Every year, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics hosts a big conference called the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE – referred to affectionately as “Fence-y”). It’s three and a half days of educational sessions and lectures and networking opportunities, and includes an expansive product and services expo (think free samples and food demos) that you could walk through every day and still not be able to visit all the booths.Most of us dietitians are excited for FNCE, but it can also be quite overwhelming and exhausting for some (I am looking at you, fellow introverts). There is only so much networking one person can do. Your brain starts turning to mush two and half days in after listening to lecture after lecture on all things nutrition and food-related. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place to learn about current nutrition research and make important career and professional contacts. But let’s just say I’m not surprised I came down with a nasty cold the day after I flew back home.
This year, FNCE was in Chicago. The conference drew record attendance, with 12,000 nutrition professionals and exhibitors flooding the city, tying up Ubers and causing hour-long waits at the city’s best restaurants. Overall, I had a good experience (despite waiting in long lines for coffee and the free shuttle service). But there is one thing about these conferences that always bugs me.
The anti-GMO activists.
These are fringe people in the food and nutrition world who like to “crash” (technically they pay to attend the conference but it feels like crashing to me) sessions that are related to farming, biotech, or genetic engineering, or sessions that are simply being led by a person that has any connection to “Big Ag” companies like Monsanto, and heckle the speakers. They also like to harass the person manning the GMO Answers booth in the expo.
I had several encounters with this year’s GMO haters. I happened to walk up to the GMO Answers booth SECONDS after the activists walked away. The woman at the booth was just coming down from her adrenaline response to their attack; she was shaken because most of the attendees (RDs or other science-based nutrition professionals) take no issue with GMOs or biotech in general.
My second encounter was in a lecture on the science behind behavior change motivation in patients trying to make diet- and exercise-related lifestyle changes. Not related to farming, biotech, or Monsanto at all right? Turns out one of the speakers (a behavioral scientist from Wharton who studies consumer behavior as it relates to healthcare decisions) serves on Monsanto’s Sustainable Food Systems Advisory Council. So even though his talk had nothing to do with GMOs, the speaker was asked during the Q&A by the anti-GMO activist to “explain” his relationship with Monsanto, totally ignoring the career-defining research that was presented.
My final run-in with the anti-GMO crew was expected; I saw them at a session about the public’s perception of the safety of GMOs and biotechnology (which was fascinating and supported my personal experience with clients and patients who shun GMOs but don’t really know why). We ran out of time before they could ask their “questions” but they were shaking their heads vehemently every time the speakers (one of whom was an actual farmer who farms conventional, GMO, and organic crops all on the same farm) discussed the safety of GMOs and how little the public really knows about them.
Turns out, these activists were organic farmers. I don’t know where they farm, or how big their operations are, or how long they’ve been farming (hey, maybe one of them will come across this blog post one day and let me know!). But I was kind of shocked because their dogmatic opposition to GMO crops seemed to convey ignorance on the topic of agriculture as a whole.
I consider myself somewhat “in the know” on the GMO debate, but I learned a lot at this session. It bothers me when people blindly reject GMOs without knowing very much at all about the technology and its benefits, so I thought just in time for Halloween, I’d tackle one of our country’s biggest food fears.
First, some terminology, in case you find it confusing. GMO (genetically modified organism) is the most commonly used term for what I’m talking about. But you’ll also see GM (genetically modified), GE (genetically engineered), “transgenic crops”, or simply “biotech crops”. They are considered interchangeable even though they aren’t really all the same thing.
Genetic modification has been practiced for centuries. Traditional selective breeding falls into this category, even though it was performed way before we even knew what DNA was. Farmers cross-breed their best-performing plants and the results are versions of the plants that wouldn’t typically be found in nature but meet a specific need. Farmers can use selective breeding for many reasons (seedless watermelon, bigger apples, sweeter cherries, etc). In the last 20 or so years, advances in genetics and biotechnology have enabled modification (turning on or off) or insertion of specific genes in a plant, speeding up the process and making it much more precise.
Rather than using the term “GMO”, I am going to use “GE”, or “genetically engineered”, because I think it most aptly describes modern biotech methods. “Genetic modification” is too broad and technically includes conventional plant breeding methods that have been used for centuries.
It never fails that when “GMOs” come up with my patients, there is a certain unease that goes along with the topic. Most people can’t tell me exactly why they’re “bad”, just that the idea of them is “weird”, “wrong”, or “not natural”. Images like these come to mind:
Genetically engineered crops are tested for years to determine their safety for humans as well as the environment before they are released onto the market. Interestingly, crops that are created by traditional selective breeding do not have to go through any testing. The overwhelming majority of scientists and public health officials have concluded that genetically engineered crops in the US food supply today are safe for human consumption and don’t pose a threat to the environment (and may actually help mitigate the threat already posed by modern agriculture as a whole). Further, modern biotech has the potential to alleviate the world hunger problem and provide nutritious foods to people in need all over the world.
Now, let’s dive right into and address 4 myths surrounding genetically engineered foods.
Myth: GE plants are created by inserting animal genes into plants. Big biotech companies are trying to “play God” because all they care about is money.
Truth: There are no commercial GE crops on the market that contain animal genes. All the GE crops on the market today are produced by either turning off or on a plant’s own gene expression or inserting into the plant’s DNA a gene from another plant or bacterium. GE crops are created to achieve a desired trait, such as insect or disease resistance, herbicide tolerance, enhanced nutritional content, reduced food waste, and improved manufacturing processes. This is no more “playing God” than traditional farming using selective breeding. Most of the traits that are expressed with GE crops are aimed at increasing crop yields (by increasing resistance to pests and herbicides), reducing the environmental impact of large scale farming and food manufacturing and, yes, saving money. But let’s not forget, farming is a business just like any other. No one goes into business with the dream to lose money. And let’s also remember that unless we would all like to go back to the days where we had to hunt, gather, and grow our own food to survive (The Walking Dead?), we kinda want these farms to keep on doing their thing.
Myth: Everything in the grocery store is genetically engineered now.
Truth: There are only 9 GE crops available on the market today (corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, alfalfa, squash, papaya, beets, potato), and one on the way (non-browning GE apples have been approved and should be available soon). That means most of the produce section is non-GE. There are no GE strawberries, bananas, tomatoes, grapes, cucumbers, etc. Those bowling ball-sized Honeycrisp apples are so big due to good old-fashioned selective breeding. There is also no GE wheat in the US, despite widespread perception by the public of its existence. So what is GE in the grocery store? See next myth.
Myth: GE foods cause cancer, heart disease, allergies, gluten intolerance, obesity, diabetes, autism, and any other health condition you can think of.
Truth: We’ve been eating GE foods in the US food supply for over 20 years and there is zero evidence to show that any of them are to blame for the diseases that plague us. In fact, last year, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine released a statement based on the rigorous review of over 900 studies on GE foods saying there was no evidence that GE foods caused negative health effects or posed any risk to health greater than that of non-GE foods. HOWEVER! Most GE crop-containing foods we buy are actually highly processed, nutrient-poor, empty calorie-filled junk foods. Packaged cakes, cookies, candies, and soda or other sweetened beverages are made with soy- and corn-derived ingredients and most of the soy and corn in the US food supply is GE. This is the irony – the standard American diet is definitely contributing to the overall sickness of Americans, but it has nothing to do with genetic engineering. The fear-based consumer demand for “GMO-free” food is totally misguided. I understand where it’s coming from and I understand the desire for healthier food. But a “non-GMO” Oreo is still an Oreo. A 20-oz bottle of Coke made with pure “GMO-free” cane sugar (by default, cane sugar is non-GE – don’t even get me started on the misleading labels) instead of high-fructose corn syrup is still 1/3 cup sugar mixed with water. This “non-GMO” craze is just going to lead to more GE-free junk food. We’ve been here before, people. Remember when fat was evil and we decided we needed to cut it out of our diets? That well-meaning but misguided sentiment didn’t lead to the country eating a more nutritious, real-food based diet. It led to the replacement of fat with highly-processed “fat free” junk foods.
Myth: GE seeds are patented, controlled by one private company called Monsanto, which hurts farmers because they can no longer save their seeds and instead are forced to buy new seeds every year. If a farmer’s non-GE crops are accidentally contaminated with a Monsanto-owned GE crop, Monsanto will sue them.
Truth: This one is full of several BIG misconceptions that have been at the heart of the GMO debate for years. (And I’m not blaming anyone for having the misconceptions because unless you’re one of the 1% of Americans who run farms, you wouldn’t be expected to know the ins and outs of managing one nor the legal implications of seed-buying contracts). Yes, some GE seeds are patented because they were developed using biotechnology pioneered by the private sector and that’s how business works. But non-GE seeds are patented too (all these newfangled apple varieties – Honeycrisp, Jazz, Pink Lady – were patented when they were first introduced onto the market). So are organic seeds. And not all GE seeds are patented (Golden Rice was developed by a private-sector company to address the humanitarian issue of blindness-causing vitamin A deficiency, but the rice lines were donated and are now publicly owned). Public seeds can be saved and reused year after year. Farmers who buy patented seeds (GE, non-GE, organic) sign a contract saying they won’t save them and replant them the next year. Most farmers get their seeds from several different companies or seed distributors, not JUST Monsanto. Is it a perfect system? No, because a large portion of the seed market in the US is sort of cornered by 4 major seed companies (Monsanto, Dow Agroscience, Pioneer, Syngenta), but that has nothing to do with whether the seeds are GE or not. Monsanto sells GE seeds, non GE seeds, and organic seeds! Yes you read that right – organic farmers can buy their seeds from Monsanto. Finally, Monsanto has never sued a farm for inadvertent contamination and in fact has a statement on their website about it. They HAVE filed suits against 147 farmers who breached their contracts by saving patented seeds. Because that is patent infringement. In the last 10 years, only 9 of those lawsuits went to trial (all the other cases were settled) and the courts ruled in favor of Monsanto every time. Would we be so mad if it were an author or a graphic designer or a songwriter suing someone for stealing their work? Is it just because Monsanto is a big corporation?
There are so many other rabbit holes I could go down with you regarding modern agriculture and biotechnology, because the truth is, it’s an EXTREMELY complex issue in which I don’t pretend to be an expert. This issue can’t be boiled down to some skull-and-bones graphic depicting syringes injecting pig genes into your apple.
Some of the best resources out there for reliable information on farming and modern agriculture are ACTUAL FARMERS (fancy that). Both small family farms and large commercial ones are dealing with these issues every day. And no, they don’t hate Monsanto (except the ones that appeared at FNCE to heckle all the speakers) nor do they feel like seed companies “force” them to buy anything or do anything they don’t want to do for their own farms. The fact is most farmers are trying to live their lives doing what they love, make a profit and take care of their families, and be good stewards to the earth in the process. (By the way, I welcome any constructive feedback from farmers who may read this – if I got anything wrong here, let me know!)
This Halloween, gather your friends and family, treat yourself to a piece of GMO candy and sit down to your favorite horror movie. There are plenty of things to be scared of these days (global warming, identity theft, clowns), but GMOs are not one of them.
Resources I used to write this post:
On farmers’ seed-buying habits:
Actual farmers on social media:
@thefarmbabe, @farmgirljen, @farmdaughterusa, @AmyMyrdalMiller