Chun: Generally Misinformed Opinions

by Steven Chun | 10/25/15 7:30pm

It is fantastic that people are trying to eat better, but the clean-eating movement needs a cleanse. An otherwise well-meaning trend has become a source of misinformation and fear-mongering.

Let us get a few things out of the way. One, your quinoa habit has made it prohibitively expensive for the people who grow it. Many Bolivians can no longer afford their traditional grain — one of the few things that grows in the arid Andes Mountains — as international demand has led to a tenfold price increase over the last decade and half. Two, you do not need to drink eight glasses of water a day, a myth our own Heinz Valtin, physiology professor emeritus at the Geisel School of Medicine, dispelled. And finally, three — I could slap an “all-natural” sticker on a mozzarella stick from Late Night Collis, sell it to you for double the price and not only would I not be violating any consumer information laws, but you would still probably buy it. According to the United States Food and Drug Administration, the phrase “natural” and its many variations have no legal meaning.

One of the more prominent issues of the clean-eating movement has been the bitter fight against genetically modified organisms. It has gained huge amounts of political support — Maine and Connecticut have already passed and implemented GMO labeling laws, and 32 more states have legislation pending. Like much of the clean-eating movement, it is a passionate grassroots effort rooted in a deep concern for health. Unlike much of the movement, though, its contention — that GM foods are toxic and inherently bad for you — is uniformly opposed by the scientific community. As reported by The Atlantic in May 2014, impressive names line the literature debunking GMO fears: The National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the United Kingdom’s Royal Society, the European Commission and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. But when has conclusive scientific evidence ever ended a debate? These fights are wars of words and rhetoric. GMO was never a great tagline with which to get stuck in the first place. Behind the acronym, however, is a simple concept — we alter the genes of a food so our crops are more bountiful, nutritious and resistant to disease. We have always been doing this through selective husbandry of certain crops. Now, we are just a lot better at it.

While GMOs may invoke the image of resistant crops sitting in a chemical bath of pesticides and herbicides, the truth is that the chemicals used on your typical GMO crop are far safer than those used on organic crops. This begs repeating — organic crops use just as much, if not more, pesticides than non-organic crops. The only difference is that organic pesticides are non-synthetic. A comparison by the Scientific American between the lead synthetic pesticides, chlorpyrifos and chlorothalonil, and organic pesticides, copper sulfate and pyrethrum, found that “not only were the organic ones more acutely toxic... they are more chronically toxic as well, and have higher negative impacts on non-target species.” That’s right, your organic canvas bags are soiled with the poison of pesticides you thought you were avoiding.

There are many who argue that the consumer has a right to know about their food. Despite the fact that labeling GMO products falsely implies that they are dangerous, I could live with GMO labeling laws. Yet, there’s another right at stake — the consumer’s right to know which foods are safe to eat, the right to be free from misinformation. The anti-GMOs movement’s fear-mongering and demagoguery infringes on this right.

There is a larger argument to be made here. The optics of the fight between Just Label It — a trendy pro-labeling organization with great web design backed by an army of caring moms — and Monsanto — the behemoth corporate monopoly that patents entire genomes — puts the whole “social justice, save the world” momentum squarely on the side of anti-GMO activists. But fighting against GMOs does the opposite. One in nine people suffer from hunger. As our population grows, we have to grow more food in less space with less water. Au-naturale crops could never keep pace with how quickly climate change alters our environment. GMOs are critical for reasons that the clean-eating movement cannot seem to grasp. Seven hundred and ninety five million hungry people just seem like a more compelling cause than “Celebrity Moms Unite: Make GMO Labels Mandatory.” So please, put away the naturally-sourced pitchforks and clean-burning rosemary torches. There is too much at stake to let misinformation infect our food supply.