Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Real ABCs of GMOs

I like to think of myself as an informed consumer, at least when it comes to food. Being a food writer and regular farmers’ market shopper, I’ve been pretty comfortable in that assertion for years. In my family, we buy a lot of organic foods, especially meats, produce and dairy. Our kids have been eating a variety of foods from the beginning: salmon, spinach, hummus, feta cheese and balsamic vinegar are all things they will ask for by name. Deep fried chicken parts never entered into our family’s food equation.


Imagine my surprise when I found out how woefully late I am to the real food party.

The now defunct Connecticut food labeling bill—HB 5117—has been the subject of several of my recent columns. And with each piece I wrote, each interview I conducted, I have had to peel away layers of half-truths and outright lies like the skins of so many genetically modified onions.

I’ve had to get up to speed in a hurry on the topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and have done so with the help of Right to Know CT co-founders Analiese Paik and Tara Cook-Littman, along with Institute for Responsible Technology founder and best-selling author, Jeffrey Smith. Their insight, coupled with my independent research, has shown me just how deeply ingrained GMOs have become in our food supply, and just how far up the proverbial food chain the responsibility for this goes.

I had no choice but to throw my “knowledge” and “expertise” onto the compost pile once I realized that many, many of the foods in my family’s pantry actually contained GMOs. The same GMOs, in fact, that produced frightening results in animal studies, according to a 2009 paper by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine: “Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food consumption including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.”

What?

The ingredients that cause these defects—symptoms that sound more like cheap horror film fodder than FDA sanctioned side-effects—are the same as can be found in the Goldfish snack crackers and frozen edamame I was feeding my children. Realizing this was one of my lowest points to-date as a mom.

My fiancĂ© and I acted swiftly, ridding our pantry of offending items, looking for guidance online about where to shop safely and how to know—really know—the foods we were buying were safe.

But the wisdom of one organic food merchant I interviewed kept coming back to me. “If you want to know about your food,” he said to me, “ask the farmer. If you can’t ask the farmer, you don’t know about your food.”

It’s tough to argue with such simple truth.

And because eating nutritious food holds a place in our family almost as important as telling the truth—indeed, these days it seems the two are inextricable—my fiancĂ© and I sat down to talk to our two five-year-olds about what we were learning.

“There are real foods, and there are fake foods,” I began. “But the fake foods look and taste an awful lot like the real foods. So we have to pay close attention, to make sure we’re eating the real foods. Because those fake foods? They can make people, animals and the Earth very, very sick.”

The kids were understandably shocked and upset to hear that much of what we could and had been buying at our local supermarket was actually toxic—an utterly logical reaction when learning that you’ve been duped into thinking everything is fine, when it’s really not fine at all.

“But why would people do that?” my stepson tried to make sense of what he was hearing. “Why would people make food that can make people sick?”

This is as elementary a question as there is, with regard to the GMO debate. So simple, that even a five-year-old can verbalize it: Why? Why would companies, industry leaders and government agencies knowingly allow this to happen? Why would the people whose job it is to protect the American consumer, people who are paid with American tax dollars (FDA, I’m looking at you), why, with so much riding on their recommendations and rulings, why would they continue to allow known toxins like rBGH and other Monsanto-generated chemical compounds to be fed to the American people without so much as a label? Why won’t they mandate testing? Or labeling? Why won’t they follow the lead of dozens of countries around the globe who have acted, in some small part, in ways that aim to inform and protect their citizens?

Why?

I gave my stepson the only answer I had: “Money,” I told him. “Some people think that making lots of money is more important than anything—more important than keeping people or animals or the Earth healthy.”

“But there’s stuff that’s way more important than money,” he said, his brown hair flopping over one eye. “Family,” he and my daughter said in unison.

They couldn’t be more right, of course. It’s an elementary conclusion, after all.

But I’m stumped as two why a couple of five-year-old stepsiblings were able to come to this conclusion with more eloquence and alacrity than government officials and private sector scientists with multiple degrees under their belts.

So, to the elected officials in Hartford, CT; Washington D.C.; and states across our country, my family asks this question of you: Why?

The stakes are so high, and the health of our nation’s children depends on it, so please, frame your answers in terms that even a kindergartener can understand.

Because I know two kindergarteners who are now paying very close attention. 

This post also ran on The Fairfield Green Food Guide.