Book review of GMO food

What’s So Controversial About Genetically Modified Foods?

First published on the “FoodAnthropology” blog of the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition.

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two reviews of this book, with a rather different perspective. For the first review by Ellen Messer, link here

What’s So Controversial about Genetically-Modified Foods? John Lang. Reaktion Publishers. 2016

If you want to write a book about a controversy, putting the words “genetically modified food“ in the title should help sell it. Genetic modification of food involves altering the genes of a seed to improve the traits in the plant. It is a difficult technology for most people to understand, and even harder for them to accept when used on what they eat.  A recent Pew Research survey on the risks and benefits of organic and genetically modified (GM) foods found 75% of those who are deeply concerned about GM foods say they are worse for one’s health than other foods, and 79% do not trust information about GM foods from food industry leaders. Is reading What’s So Controversial About Genetically Modified Food? going to allay their fears? Maybe not, but the book does fill a gap in the literature by providing entry to a discussion of how GM foods are just one part of a complex and consolidated food system that has made the global food supply more nutritious, affordable and plentiful than at any other time in history.

Author John T. Lang states his goal in this work was to move towards a more productive model of agriculture based on better policy and investment choices. He effectively uses the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO) as a proxy for the failures of the current food system. The handful of companies that make GM seeds and agrochemicals serve as a more tangible target than the elusive international policies and trade agreements that have restricted land ownership and blocked investment in infrastructure, warehouses, distribution facilities, centralized markets, and other farm supports needed for local food production to succeed in many parts of the world.  Instead, readers are given an unfolding narrative of how the interconnectedness of the global food system created the need for the consolidation of agribusiness companies so they could operate more efficiently, standardize their products and meet the food safety requirements of their trade partners. These multinational companies were then able to use their vast resources to invest in the research to develop the GM crops that are now being blamed for a breakdown in the religious, social, cultural and ethical meanings of food.

Astute readers will find it difficult to accept this tradeoff. The more important message about this technology they will gain is that it is simply another tool for farmers, like the plough or tractor, both of which were controversial when first introduced.  Readers will come to appreciate that farming is a business, whether done by conventional or organic methods, and it faces the same problems of scale as any other business that tries to expand.  And like any other tool, GMOs can be replaced by ones that do a better job at solving a problem, so working with the companies that develop new technologies is the best way to have an impact on the design of the new tools. A poignant example of this is concept is found in this critique of sustainable agriculture by Tamar Haspel for The Washington Post.

Lang’s focus on GMOs as a surrogate for a broken food system also provides an expedient way to illustrate how central trust is to our relationship with food today. As Lang explains, fewer and fewer companies control every aspect of our food from “gene to supermarket shelf,” and the path our food travels is a “maddening, impenetrable maze.”  He says the food system has become so complex and entwined that it’s “almost impossible to ascertain the true origins of any given foodstuff.”  Is it any wonder the public finds it difficult to trust all of the players in the food chain, especially when they view companies, regulators, and policy makers as having their own vested interests?  This “trust factor” is further compounded by the indeterminate nature of scientific knowledge and the uncertainly and unintended consequences that go with it. Can we really say GM foods are safe? Can we say any food is safe? It has become easier for people to trust complete strangers to be their Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts than to trust government institutions and big corporations to protect the food supply.

The book provides a broad view of the issues that must be considered when discussing GM foods and the global food system and an opportunity to expand research into several key concepts introduced, such as risk-tolerance, the precautionary principle, and how the “technology treadmill” impacts industries trying to grow and compete. Intellectual property rights and patent laws are also briefly covered, but could be explored further as they apply equally to GM, non-GM and organic seeds and to all of the research conducted at public and private universities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and international agencies,  not just private industry.

The discussion on labeling of GM foods in Chapter 3 opens up multiple channels for continuing research and debate. Questions to consider in a classroom setting include, Is GMO labeling about inalienable rights of consumers or personal preferences? Are GM foods different in any measurable way? Can we verify the use of GM seeds in the foods we eat? At what thresholds can GMOs be detected? Who will monitor adherence to labeling requirements and at what cost? Should we have international standards for labeling? Do laws requiring the labeling of GM foods mean we agree we should sell GM food?

Chapter 4 moves beyond the symbolic battle over GM food to expose the complicated way people actually make decisions about what they eat. Compelling classroom discussions could be generated by asking students why people say they are concerned about putting GMOs into their bodies, yet there is a global epidemic of obesity and its co-morbidities due to the poor food choices people make every day. Why do people say they do not believe the scientific evidence demonstrating the safety of GM foods that has been reviewed by international food safety authorities, yet accept the conclusions of those same authorities about the nutrient content of foods, absence of bacterial contamination and truth in labeling of ingredients? Why don’t people want to change their own eating habits to reduce food waste, eat less animal protein and consume fewer processed foods, but want the way food is grown and marketed to change?

Lang says these contradictions will not be resolved by providing people with more information on how GM foods are made since they view GMOs as tampering with nature, but that misperception needs to be addressed.  A discussion of the 2015 PEW Institute study that exposed the problematic disconnects between the public and the scientific community regarding the safety of GM foods would have been instructive here. Resistance to new technology is a well-documented human response, as chronicled in Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies (Oxford University Press, 2016), so Lang’s suggestion of “stronger safeguards and regulations” is not necessarily the answer.

My interest in the book stems from my work as a registered dietitian nutritionist and consultant to Monsanto, as well as my work as a cultural anthropologist focused on hunger and food waste. Its classroom effectiveness depends on how it is introduced and what additional readings are assigned, but it should be an effective tool to prompt discussion in undergraduate courses in agribusiness, anthropology, biotechnology, dietetics, ecology, environmental science, food science, horticulture, investigative journalism, nutrition, public health, and sociology. This book is also recommended for any casual reader with questions about the role of science and technology in producing our food.

CITED REFERENCES

Funk, Cary, and Brian Kennedy. 2016. “The New Food Fights: U.S. Public Divides Over Food Science.” Pew Research Center website, December 1. Accessed January 3, 2017. http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/12/01/the-new-food-fights/

Haspel, Tamar. 2016. “We need to feed a growing planet. Vegetables aren’t the answer.” The Washington Post website, December 15. Accessed January 3, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/we-need-to-feed-a-growing-planet-vegetables-arent-the-answer/2016/12/15/f0ffeb3e-c177-11e6-8422-eac61c0ef74d_story.html?utm_term=.1a4263e3eb3f

Funk, Cary, and Lee Rainie. 2015. “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society.” Pew Research Center website, January 29. Accessed January 3, 2017. http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/12/01/the-new-food-fights/

Juma, Calestous. 2016. Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.