February 14, 2011

Rejecting Genetically Modified Foods

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Picture a supermarket where half the foods contain toxic chemicals. All the contaminated food is clearly labeled, with the health risks displayed on the side of the container. Would you buy the contaminated food?

This situation is not hypothetical. If you’ve ever eaten corn, tofu or canola oil, you’ve been exposed to such foods. In an effort to increase their pesticide sales, biotechnology companies like Monsanto — which also controls a large percentage of the seed market -— have altered the DNA of foods like corn and soybeans to make them less vulnerable to pesticides. This means that they can be sprayed with more weedkiller and other chemicals. Unless you buy organic food, there is no way to avoid this problem.

On the surface, these genetically modified (GM) foods don’t sound so bad. What is wrong with using science to invent foods with more nutrients? And indeed, genetic engineering has led to some great nutritional advances. Golden rice, for instance, is a fortified variety of rice that provides people in developing nations with vitamins their diet may otherwise lack.

But other GM foods do not offer any inherent nutritional benefits. Rather, their chief advantage is resistance to pesticides, which allows farmers to spray crops without fear of destroying the plants. Last month, in a huge victory for Monsanto, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled that GM alfalfa could be cultivated without federal regulation. This meant that Monsanto could now distribute its GM alfalfa seeds — resistant to the company’s weedkiller Roundup — without having to give further evidence that the product was safe.

There is growing evidence that GM crops can harm consumers. Rats fed GM corn developed serious kidney and liver problems, according to a 2009 study published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences. Although Monsanto claimed that it had tested the corn for safety, the 2009 study found significant flaws in the methods that the company used to analyze its data. Yet this corn remains approved for commercial use. In fact, you have probably eaten some today, and unless something changes, you will likely eat some tomorrow.

Moreover, the USDA doesn’t seem to have consumer interests at heart. The alfalfa decision represented the Obama administration’s latest initiative to “repair relations” with industry. According to the Wall Street Journal, the administration is “weeding out” proposals that are “overly burdensome” to businesses. This begs the question: should the government be more concerned about the welfare of the American people or the welfare of its corporate relationships?

At the same time, Americans have given no sign that they care. Even though GM foods may present significant health risks, there is no consumer pressure to label genetically engineered foods in the way restaurants have to display nutrition facts. In contrast, European consumers have steadily demanded labeling of GM products.

The main problem is that we just don’t know about the problem. It’s not like corn has Twitter, or alfalfa posted a Facebook status: “gonna be genetically modified have fun eating me!” Even though major news outlets covered the USDA decision, the information is only as powerful as the number of people it reaches. And while the Internet can spread news within minutes, it presents so much information that users are forced to be selective. How many people are likely to read an article called “USDA Won’t Impose Restrictions on Biotech Alfalfa Crop” rather than an article called “Apple Develops Less Expensive iPhones?”

There’s more than alfalfa at stake here. By failing to protest these decisions, we’re renouncing control over our food. As students at the only Ivy League university with an agricultural college, we should be at the forefront of a national conversation. But try to talk to someone about the dangers of GM foods, and you’ll see a pair of blank eyes staring back at you.

“Have you seen Food, Inc.?” I asked one junior.

“I remember the part about the chickens,” he said. “That was the movie about the chickens, right?”

Elisabeth Rosen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached [email protected]. The Critic’s Corner appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Elisabeth Rosen