What If You Spent a Month Being Open-Minded About GMOs?

By Keith Kloor | March 18, 2013 11:19 am

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.

One of the scientists in that study is this notorious researcher, who is the Andrew Wakefield of the anti-GMO movement.

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.

Anybody game?

 

 

  • http://pdiff.weebly.com/ Pdiff

    Take a look at some of April’s other writing on GM (for the UN, no less). Specifically, not only that Monsanto is causing Indian farmer suicides, but directly providing the means: “On average since 2002, of the farmers in India, many of whom fell into the Monsanto trap, one is committing suicide every 30 minutes. Many end their lives by drinking RoundUp.”

    See here:
    http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/monsanto%E2%80%99s-cotton-strategy-wears-thin/
    and here:
    http://aprildavila.com/published-works/non-fiction/our-world-2-0-united-nations/

    Warning: Put your coffee down first ….

    • RogerSweeny

      If you really think that Monsanto is causing Indian farmer suicides, I suggest you read two of Kevin’s recent posts, “The Real Seeds of Deception” and “The Sacred Messenger.” You can just scroll down the page to get to them.

    • kkloor

      Oh, man. I don’t know if I have the stomach for this anymore.

      • http://pdiff.weebly.com/ Pdiff

        There, there, don’t feel bad. Put a little RoundUp in your coco and you’ll feel better. :)

  • http://twitter.com/JennaBilbrey Jenna Bilbrey

    I think Davila’s study is interesting not because she was avoiding GMOs, but because she was avoiding Monsanto. The problem isn’t necessarily GMOs; it’s that most of our food and many products are dependent on a single company–a company that is the cause of contriversy for its business practices alone. If she had focused on Monsanto instead of GMOs, I think the story would have been an eye-opener for many more readers.

    • JonFrum

      So what of the ‘single company’ business? What’s your point? I don’t recall anyone panicking because Apple sells so many smart phones. And you can’t even come up with a ’cause of controversy’ – you just use the words to wave a magic wand against Monsanto. And of course, the problem IS GMOs – there is no love for GMOs when other companies produce them either.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000980613760 Kevin Folta

      Jenna, do you realize how this happens? Activists scare people about a safe technology. Jane and Joe Public have plenty of dollars and calories and so they oppose the technology. They demand barriers, demand regulation. They make it so a product takes 10 years and $10 million to commercialize.

      Academic labs all over this country have solutions. We have solutions to drought, pesticides, nematicides, fertilizers, low yields, drought, cold, etc. We can increase the nutrition content of foods with enhanced vitamins like A, C and folate. This has been clearly demonstrated. These can help us limit environmental insults or even help those in the developing world. We’re not in it to get rich. We’re in it to make impact.

      But the anti-GM folks have done such a nice job scaring the pants off of everyone that they want the technology constrained. As an academic scientist I don’t have the money, time or expertise to commercialize a product. None of us do.

      The reason Monsanto is so dominant is because activists make it that way. I’d love to compete in that space with sound technology that could help everyone. It isn’t going to happen.

      Instead, academic and government labs make great discoveries that are then licensed by Monsanto and others. They borrow it from universities for pennies on the dollar and then incorporate it into their portfolio.

      The rich get richer because of the barriers introduced by well-meaning do-gooders like Davila. If you want to defeat Monsanto, LOWER the barriers. They can’t compete with a national brain trust of well meaning academic labs.

      However, with the rules and regulations (that they LOVE by the way, and fight to keep in place) they dominate and will continue to do so.

      • http://www.facebook.com/ena.valikov Ena Valikov

        So, Kevin… where can I find proof for your hypothesis?

        Activists scare people about a safe technology. Jane and Joe Public have plenty of dollars and calories and so they oppose the technology. They demand barriers, demand regulation. They make it so a product takes 10 years and $10 million to commercialize.
        But the anti-GM folks have done such a nice job scaring the pants off of everyone that they want the technology constrained.
        when the NRC set up the framework for regulation of biotech
        http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309092094

        ?

    • jh

      Jenna,

      Patents are granted for 17 years. Monsanto’s patents from 1995 and before are now in the public domain. That’s the beauty of the patent system: it grants the discoverer of the technology exclusive rights to that technology for a limited time, then the technology becomes public. In other words, Monsanto is forced to give away it’s technology.

    • harrywr2

      Monsanto’s gross revenue is less then Nike. That’s right…there is more money in selling overpriced footwear then being the world leader in agricultural products.

      Patent’s expire.

      If for sake of argument we would simply state that Nike was the world leader in sporting foot wear.

      If I was a ‘serious athelete’ and wanted to avoid Nike footwear I might have a problem.. because I would pay whatever I had to pay to maintain a competitive edge.

      Of course if I didn’t care about maintaining a competitive edge then there is no shortage of cheap, good enough footwear.

      Agriculture is a competitive business.

      • Joshua

        Harry – I’m having trouble following your point. Are you saying that Monsanto’s disproportionate impact on the market sector is not a serious problem?

  • JonFrum

    One can only hope that when you cite Barbara Ehrenreich’s work as a ‘favorite’ you were being ironic. The basis of her book is insulting in so many ways I can’t begin to catalog them all. Just another in a long line of academic types treating working class people like the tribal natives in an anthropological study. Discovering how the lower classes live, and surviving to tell the tale to People Who Matter. I can’t tell you how much I despise such people.

    And Spurlock vomiting up his McDonald’s burger because his sensitive yuppie digestive system just couldn’t take it? Again – reporting on the lives of white trash for the entertainment of their betters. Is this who you are, Keith?

    • Buddy199

      Of course, Spurlock could have eaten McDonald’s salads, or red meat and organic pastries from Whole Foods for a month. But that wouldn’t have been as entertaining as playing off a stereotype for all it’s worth.

    • kkloor

      Well, I’m not sure who you think I am, but for the record, I didn’t find Spurlock’s stunt anything more than entertaining.

  • Buddy199

    Every time someone insists that they’re just doing something for my own best interest I end up with less freedom to do what I want. Enough with the neurotic nanny-staters treating everyone as if they’re slow witted pre-schoolers. Leave us alone already.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000581905865 Brandi Wren
  • http://www.facebook.com/ena.valikov Ena Valikov

    I was never closed minded about GMOs. I used recombinant insulin, interferon, erythropoietin, Neuopogen on my patients.

    Furthermore, I worked for a biotech firm to genetically engineer a more efficient brewer’s yeast. The corporation went bankrupt, but I did get a bit of a view of the boiler-room that venture capital makes of science.

    Perhaps if the corporation wasn’t named Infergene, ( think about it for a sec. and you’ll get the joke) you’d be drinking better Ales thanks to our work.

    Getting back to my beef with this issue.

    From your link.

    The results of that audit found that the study “is of insufficient scientific quality to be considered as valid for risk assessment.” And that the “initial review found that the design, reporting and analysis of the study, as outlined in the paper, are inadequate.”

    Echoing the points critics had noted earlier, the task force found that Séralini’s experiment did not test enough rats, or have proper controls, and that the paper did not discuss all of the outcomes for the rats tested.:

    How curious that I have that same exact criticisms of the safety assurance studies submitted to the FDA which no one is touching, even though they are suggestive of hepato-renal toxicity that Seralini describes, as well as others (1).

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/collideascape/2013/03/07/the-propaganda-mill/#.UUexTByG2n1
    (dogktor)

    http://kfolta.blogspot.com/2012/09/lost-rebuttal-from-dr-ena.html

    How very curious that the American College of Physicians in Internal Medicine would cite Seralini, if he truly was the Wakefield of GMOs
    http://www.acponline.org/about_acp/chapters/il/s10resolutions.pdf
    Resolution 6-S10

    And how very curious that plant scientists lacking any medical education, and with zero medical training are making declarative statements on SAFETY of this food to people and animals, while the medical professionals are MIA. There are 800,000 physicians and 80,000 doctors of veterinary medicine who should be, but are not weighing in on the safety issues of GMO food.

    I have a couple of guesses why that might be. In my field there has not been a single study published in professional journals and trade journals, so I happen to be one of a handful of veterinarians aware of this. I have a feeling the same could be true of human doctors, because this is one of the only two studies, I am aware of in human beings, which physicians may have actually read , though I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them are blissfully unaware of GMOs.
    http://www.biosafety-info.net/file_dir/697848857c49a7da2.pdf

    The second is the citation to allergies to soybeans in the “Is Scaremongering dangerous to your health” thread.

    If anyone is aware of any others, please cite them, because I haven’t found a single study on my patient population– cats and dogs. And I am pretty ticked off about it.

    ————————

    (1)http://www.somloquesembrem.org/img_editor/file/Kilic%26Akay08BtMaizeFeedingStudy.pdf

  • http://www.facebook.com/ena.valikov Ena Valikov

    How very curious that the American College of Physicians in Internal Medicine would cite Seralini, if he truly was the Wakefield of GMOs

    http://www.acponline.org/about_acp/chapters/il/s10resolutions.pdf

    Resolution 6-S10

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »