Being a city boy (for all my adult life), my exposure to agriculture is woefully limited. I’ve parachuted onto actual farms in the Midwest during reporting trips for stories and every year around Halloween my wife and I take our kids to a farm in the outskirts to pick pumpkins, get lost in a corn maze and ride on a hay truck. When we trek on occasion to Eastern Long Island (you know, on the way to the Hamptons or Montauk Point), we’ll stop off at a roadside farmstand to pick apples or whatever’s in season. Oh yeah, and last summer while driving through central California, we stopped off at a pistachio farm. That was cool.
So I’m your stereotypically disconnected urban food consumer who nonetheless cares about the environment and how my food is produced. That’s why if you opened my refrigerator door, you would see organic milk, eggs, yogurt, cheese, salad greens, fruit, vegetables. I’m so brainwashed that I’ve even taken to buying organic bananas, because they look so fetchingly yellow. To be extra sure that we’re not poisoning our kids with pesticide residue, my wife and I use all “all-natural, lemon scented” fruit and vegetable wash to detox our organic grapes and apples. (I know, what happened to good old fashioned tap water?) Even our frozen pizza is organic. (No GMOs, either, the package boasts.) On our bookshelves, you’d spot the works of Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, who teach us how to lead this virtuous, eco-conscious lifestyle.
The only thing keeping me from being totally pathetic is my stubborn refusal to join our local food co-op. A man has his limits: I’m not bagging groceries or stocking shelves during that 2 3/4-hour shift that members are required to work every four weeks. (If I was a reincarnated Phil Ochs, I’d write a song called Love me, I’m a liberal foodie.)
Some readers are by now gasping at the hypocrisy of their hippy punching, sacred cow busting blogger, he who lambasts the nature-worhshipping, organic-loving, GMO-fearing denizens of the world. Read More
In the Fall, I walked with my son’s Kindergarten class and other parents to our local farmers market in Brooklyn. The kids had their list of items they had to find and identify (fruits, vegetables, flowers), I scored some delicious apple cider donuts, and a grand time was had by all on a blustery, sunny day.
Yes, there’s something a bit quaint about urban farmers markets, but who doesn’t enjoy their bountiful offerings? Just the act of browsing the outdoor stalls filled with fresh produce and home-baked pies makes me glow with eco-vibes. You know what I mean. You walk around there with your hemp-made grocery bag, stuffing it with all those greens and goodies from small puckish farms in the country and you feel like you’re doing your part to make the world a better place.
But what if that’s just a comforting illusion? What if this world of leafy farmers markets and the feel-good spirit of localism they evoke is about as real as a Normal Rockwell painting? (“I paint life as I would like it to be,” the iconic artist once said.) What if the whole locavore movement was built on a lie? Read More
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. Read More
Since I’m always on the lookout for helpful advice on how to talk to my friends about GMOs, this tweet caught my eye:
— Danielle Nierenberg (@DaniNierenberg) March 7, 2013
In her bio at the Worldwatch Institute, Nierenberg is listed as “an expert on sustainable agriculture.” Indeed,
Her knowledge of global agriculture issues has been cited widely in more than 3,000 major publications including The New York Times, USA Today, the International Herald Tribune, The Washington Post, BBC….
So without further ado, let’s see what knowledge on GMOs this knowledgeable expert (who recently co-founded a think tank on food issues) considers worthy of attention. She points to a “fact sheet” put out by the Small Planet Institute. It starts off:
In the 1990s, GMOs took off in the United States without public debate and today they’re in most processed foods–making Americans the world’s GMO guinea pigs. Now peer reviewed and other authoritative studies reveal…
Uh oh. I think we know where this is heading. Read More
Does it matter if a social movement hitches its wagon to the wrong horse?
For the food movement and its embrace of the GMO labeling cause, I argued yes in Slate, because it is
predicated on junk science and blind, simplistic mistrust of multinational corporations…The pro-labeling camp wants people to believe that eating “frankenfood” is dangerous to their health. This is simply false.
A number of very smart people feel that the climate movement is making a similar miscalculation by hitching its wagon to the anti-Keystone XL pipeline cause. (See, for example, Jon Foley here and Michael Levi here, for two good arguments.) But the galvanizing symbolism of the pipeline cannot be easily dismissed. Read More
Get ready for another wave of anti-GMO mania. This one is about to rise up with the news that genetically modified salmon are on the verge of being approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
There is quite an interesting backstory to this development, which Jon Entine revealed at Slate several days ago. The short version is that regulatory hurdles had already been cleared last April, after completion of an environmental review. But then the White House stepped in and apparently blocked the approval.
That final hurdle has now been lifted. What comes next is the outpouring of predictable GMO hysteria (frankenfish!), such as that already being exhibited by Grist. No doubt, this will owe to GM-salmon being the first transgenic animal cleared for dinner plates.
For as the Washington Post observes, the move reignites
a long-running debate over whether a nation that already grows and consumes genetically modified plants such as corn and soybeans is prepared to make a similar leap when it comes to animals.
Food-safety activists, environmental groups and traditional salmon fishing industries are staunchly opposed to such a step and are part of a broader global struggle over the use of genetically modified foods.
Several weeks ago, I wrote a piece for Slate that was critical of the Food Movement and some of its leading lights, such as Michael Pollan. Like my previous GMO-related essay for Slate, this one struck a nerve. Shortly after it appeared–and after a proposal to label GMO foods was rejected by California voters–Pollan gave a lecture at Berkley where he is a journalism professor.
In his talk, Pollan briefly mentions “this guy Keith Kloor” at the outset–he handed out my piece to his class before the lecture–and indirectly addresses the criticisms I made. He also discusses at length why (he thinks) the GMO labeling initiative (Proposition 37) failed.
Pollan says a bunch of notable things. For example, on the scare-mongering by GMO opponents, who often assert GM foods are a threat to public health, Pollan admits that the science doesn’t support such claims. “I don’t think you win this case on scientific merit,” he says, adding: “Fear is not a basis to rally people against GMOs.”
But Pollan wants to have it both ways, because in the next breath, he also says that not enough science has been done. Additionally, he suggests, incredibly, that the mainstream press “unfairly” dumped on the French researcher of that notorious GMO/rat cancer study that has just been eviscerated once again–this time by the French Society of Toxicologic Pathology. Pollan’s comment on this is odd, since, if anything, it was the many scientists who were harshly critical of the study–not journalists, who were just reporting the reaction to it.
Pollan and his fellow foodies are in a tough spot. In the California GMO labeling initiative, they saw a chance to galvanize support for a wide-ranging food politics agenda. Pollan had essentially said that Proposition 37 was a defining moment for the upstart Food Movement. Obviously, he bet on the wrong horse and now it seems he doesn’t want to stay with that horse (especially the way it’s being rode).
It’s probably too late, if the old adage about the horse leaving the barn holds true.
Last week, I wondered what lessons the food movement would learn from the defeat of California’s GMO labeling measure. I also asked (since pro-labeling efforts are moving ahead in other states) if leading foodies
believe that a campaign based on junk science and fear-mongering is the best way to achieve a political goal?
It’s still too early to tell how the food movement, as a whole, will respond, but one of their biggest champions, Mark Bittman has signaled that a change in tactics is necessary. In a weekend NYT column, he wrote:
Labeling is important not so much because G.M.O.’s are “bad” “” they have not introduced harmful ingredients into the food chain, and those who argue that they have are taking a position that is difficult to defend “” but because once we know what’s in food we can better influence how it is produced.
Sensibly or not, many consumers are predisposed against G.M.O.’s; but G.M.O.’s are not exactly evil. A better choice might be a broader discussion about animal welfare. After all, Americans are also predisposed to treat animals fairly, and it could be that a struggle for transparency in livestock production would be more successful: mistreatment of animals is easy to prove, as are the many, many downsides of industrial livestock production.
Anyone who has been following Bittman’s writing on the GMO issue knows this is a significant departure for him. A year ago he was suggesting that GM foods posed “real dangers” to human health. Just last month, Bittman wrote:
G.M.O.’s, to date, have neither become a panacea “” far from it “” nor created Frankenfoods, though by most estimates the evidence is far more damning than it is supportive.
The evidence he cites takes you to this article by a website called Organic Authority. It is a ridiculous piece of GMO-fear-mongering propaganda that has no place in intelligent debate on GM crops.
So Bittman’s sudden change of tone on GMOs (which translates to, never mind about everything I said before) is as notable as Sean Hannity’s newly “evolved” position on illegal immigration. Will other influential pundits follow suit and have a change of heart on these respective issues? Time will tell.
Now that California voters have rejected the initiative to label genetically modified foods, the fight moves on to other states. Before we speculate on how those efforts might play out, let’s first be clear on what the fight is actually about. In a piece at Time, Bryan Walsh argues that
the battle over [California's] Prop 37 and GM food was never really about science or health. It’s about politics “” and who should control the U.S. food system.
Cagle is a fan of the Label It Yourself campaign, which asserts:
While we do not know for sure the longterm impacts of GMO’s, increasing evidence connects them with serious health risks (including infertility, birth defects, allergies, and digestive problems), environmental damage (including water contamination, degraded soil health, die-off of beneficial insects, loss of biodiversity, and seed pollution) risks and violation of farmers’ and consumers’ rights.
But as Walsh writes in his piece,
there’s no getting around the fact that the majority of the science done so far indicates that GM food poses no known threat to consumers. That puts those warning about the threat of GM food in a very similar position to global-warming skeptics “” defying the mainstream scientific consensus, calling into question the quality of the studies that form that consensus and seeking out dissenters who share their doubts.
So yes, while politics (“who should control the food system”) is an underlying basis for much anti-GMO sentiment, there’s also no getting around that fear of genetically modified crops is a big factor, too. And that fear is a palpable force driving the anti-GMO ranks within the food movement, which Pollan et al cynically exploit to advance a political agenda that aims to change the way food is produced and curb the power of agricultural giants like Monsanto.
As I wrote recently at Slate:
Without subtly stoking ignorant fears about GM food, there would be no way to mobilize the fight against Monsanto and what it stands for.
Going forward, as the GMO labeling battle spreads from California to other states, the big question for Pollan, Marion Nestle and other leading champions of the Food Movement is this: Do they believe that a campaign based on junk science and fear-mongering is the best way to achieve a political goal?
On election day tomorrow, the food movement will learn if it has curdled before living up to its hype.
That would be a shame, for its future holds much promise. The growing popularity of farmers’ markets, the ballooning consumer appetite for organic everything, and the increasing attention paid to healthy diets (thanks Michelle Obama!) have fomented a legitimate social movement. People have come to care deeply about they eat and how it’s made. That’s a good thing.
What’s not such a good thing is the food movement betting its rising stock on anti-GMO zealotry. I have a new piece at Slate laying out why. Here’s a short excerpt to whet your taste:
Managing our global food supply in a sustainable, efficient manner necessarily involves allowing for both organic and conventional agriculture. But a simplistic, down-with-industrial-farming chant rings loudly throughout the food movement. Sure, there are legitimate grievances about the corporate conduct of multinational food and agricultural companies. But since when is that unique to big business of any nature? For example, there are compelling social justice issues related to the making of cell phones and sneakers, but I don’t see people demonizing Apple’s or Nike’s technological innovations.
So why is Big Ag different from Big Smartphone or Big Sneaker? And why has concern over how the world’s food is grown become so strongly identified with concern over genetically modified crops?
Have a read and let me know what you think.