One of the staples of immersion journalism are gimmicky stunts that lead Esquire’s A.J. Jacobs to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica from A to Z and follow every single rule in the bible for one year. The genre has its classics, such as George Plimpton’s Paper Lion, Ted Conover’s Rolling Nowhere and Newjack, and one of my favorites, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.
In the food arena, Michael Pollan has famously followed his cow and Morgan Spurlock once ate nothing but McDonald’s for a month. In recent years, environmental themes have also been painstakingly explored by No Impact Man and the Guardian’s Leo Hickman.
There is no shortage of cool and dumb ideas that I’m almost ashamed I haven’t yet cashed in on this shopworn formula. Here’s a whacky one from 2010 that just caught my attention. April Dávila, a writer for Yes! magazine, had
followed a link to an article reporting on evidence that there may be health effects associated with consuming Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) corn. Clicking on that link was one of those moments on which I look back and laugh. I had no idea how my life was about to change.
The article I stumbled onto concerned a study done in 2009 by a group of French scientists investigating the safety of genetically modified food. Their results, as published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences, pointed toward kidney and liver damage in rats fed GM corn.
After some “online sleuthing,” Dávila learned
that in addition to producing the genetically modified corn, Monsanto produces several other genetically modified crops such as soy, sugar beets, and cotton. Many of these crops form the foundation of our diets: 70 to 80 percent of American processed foods contain genetically engineered ingredients, according to the Grocery Manufacturers of America. A large percentage of the cotton in our clothes and homes begins in Monsanto’s labs.
This knowledge eventually led Dávila to see if she could go one month “without consuming any Monsanto products.” By day two, she writes, “I realized I was in way over my head.” That is one way to put it.
Now what interests me about this exercise is that is has since become fodder for a Yes! magazine essay contest geared to students in middle school, high school and college:
This spring, students will read and respond to the YES! article, “A Month Without Monsanto,” by April Dávila. April’s story is about the confidence she developed from knowing what she is eating. After April learned of the possible health effects related to eating genetically modified corn from Monsanto, she had an insatiable need to know more. She wondered where exactly Monsanto corn existed in her family’s diet, and where her food came from. Genetically modified organisms, commonly referred to as “GMOs,” are organisms in which the genetic material or DNA has been altered in a way that doesn’t occur naturally.
With that introduction, Yes! magazine has given these contest guidelines to educators:
Your students should write an essay of up to 700 words answering the questions: April Davila discovered that around 70 percent of processed foods on American supermarket shelves contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Does this concern you? What matters most to you about the food you eat?
What should concern anyone is the premise of the essay, which implicitly and incorrectly suggests that GMOs are harmful to public health.
I have a better idea for another essay or article in Yes! Magazine: Have April Dávila or anyone concerned about GMOs spend a month probing their own preconceptions and concerns about GMOs. Read widely with an open mind, then report your findings.