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.


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.

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.

Funk, Cary, and Lee Rainie. 2015. “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society.” Pew Research Center website, January 29. Accessed January 3, 2017.

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


Enlightened Food & Nutrition Resolutions include diversity, poverty, illiteracy and human rights.

Become Enlightened with These Food & Nutrition Resolutions


This post was originally written during my 2 1/2 year tenure as a blogger for Health Goes Strong. The site was deactivated on July 1, 2013, but you can read it here.

I’ve seen my fair share of “diet, exercise, lose weightresolutions as a registered dietitian. Fortunately for me, I’ve never had to make those kinds of resolutions. I just live it every day.

My resolutions are more of the self-enlightenment variety. It’s a continual process to be more aware of the world around me and my place in it.

That’s why I take a little more time to make my New Year’s Resolutions. It’s like buying shoes. I don’t like the blisters that go with either if they rub me wrong.

Instead I walk around in my new resolutions for a while to see if they feel as good after a few days as they did when I first tried them on.

I’ve been breaking in some resolutions for 2012 over this past week. They’re now at the point where they feel right. The next big step is, of course, to share them. Making a public announcement is like throwing out the receipt for a new pair of shoes. There’s no taking them back after that.

In my role as a registered dietitian blogger, I hereby resolve that when writing or speaking about food and nutrition I will:

Acknowledge the diversity of the U.S. population in age, ethnicity and religion as well as income, education and geography – all factors that impact food choice and dietary patterns.

Recognize that the food supply and health care in this country are determined by economic and political forces, not human rights, so until that changes everyone does not get their fair share.

Never forget that nearly half of the U.S. population now lives below the poverty line or are counted as low income when all living costs are factored into their budget, making eating well a bigger challenge. 2010 Census Bureau data

Not overlook the fact 22 percent of American adults score below basic literacy levels, so are not capable of understanding basic food and nutrition information or making informed healthcare decisions. National Centers for Education Statistics.

Are you doing all you can to understand the needs of those around you?

Get to know a farmer to really apprecitae what it takes to have a healthy diet

Who’s Growing Your Food?


Family farms feed the nation

Family farms provide the bulk of the food we eat.

I met a dirt farmer last week. He was in his 80’s and told me he was thinking about retiring. That’s right; he was still working his land, but said he might be ready to stop soon if he can find someone to take over his job. His story is worth knowing if you care about where your food comes from.

This man’s parents were Spanish immigrants who ended up in Central Valley, CA where more than 230 crops are grown on less than 1 percent of US farmland. Although the fertile soil provided them with a livelihood, they didn’t want their children to be farmers. So when Tony was born his parents decided he should be a dentist!

Tony did work the land while attending school and found he enjoyed the hard labor and long hours it demanded. Then while in college a farmer he had worked for was in an accident and asked Tony if he would bring his crop to market. Without hesitating, Tony left school to help the man. When the farmer realized he would never be able to run his farm again, he and his wife offered it to Tony since they had no children. Again, without hesitating, Tony accepted their offer.

Tony’s parents were furious that he quit school to become a farmer. They offered him no support and predicted he would soon be penniless. In one way they were right. In less than 10 years, at the age of 30, Tony and his young wife had $1,000,000 in mortgages on the land they bought to expand their farm. Tony turned the 50 acres he inherited into 1500 acres and grew everything from potatoes to peas to plums. And he eventually had 4 children to help him out.

One year, right after the last of their melon crop was harvested, boxed and loaded onto trucks to go to market, Tony and his wife decided to take a trip to Boston to visit one of their sons in college there. They got a flight east the next day. On their first morning in the city they took a walk through a nearby farmer’s market. Much to their surprise they found a table stacked with cantaloupes from their farm. The boxes beneath the stand were all the proof they needed that the melons were indeed theirs.

Tony told me it was like a miracle to see those melons in Boston that morning knowing they had been in the ground on his farm just two days earlier. He said that was when he was really able to appreciate what all the hard work was for, and why it was worth it.

Now Tony is ready to stop tilling his land, but his children have all chosen other paths for their lives. His grandchildren, too. So he’s looking for someone to take over for him, someone to mentor. He’s hoping there might be another pre-dental student out there who’d be willing to help him out.

For more information on the future of farming in this country see Family Farms in the United States.

Disclosure: I was visiting Sacramento, CA for an event sponsored by Sunsweet® and Tony is a member of the Sunsweet grower’s cooperative.