Finally, an “unbiased” and “fair and balanced” look at GMOs or so we are promised on the back cover of Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet. Mackay Jenkins introduces us to the world of GMOs from the viewpoints of both molecular biologists and anti-GMO activists. He provides a peek into some genetic-engineering projects that went well and others that did not. He sees genetic modification as a tool that could bring great benefits to mankind as well as one that could become a blunt instrument for harm in the hands of greedy, irresponsible, multinational corporations. It is in the first chapter, however, that we learn that, despite its subtitle, the book is not really about GMOs. The book is aimed at problems associated with an unholy alliance of government and Big Agriculture to promote GMOs.
We learn that most of the GMO crops currently being grown and sold today actually promote increased use of pesticides. The pesticide of most concern in the book is glyphosate, aka Roundup. Glyphosate is a weed killer. Roundup-ready soybeans are resistant to the pesticide, allowing growers to spray the soybean field indiscriminately to kill weeds without killing the crop. Glyphosate is highly toxic and a possible carcinogen, but it dissipates rapidly posing little or no risk to consumers of the harvested soybeans. There are arguments on both sides of this discussion, but the author is decidedly less balanced in his view on pesticides than he is on GMOs. A strange claim made in the book is that increased use of pesticides has fueled the increase in world population. REALLY? This statement ignores evidence that the most rapid growth in population occurs in areas of the world with less pesticide use. In contrast, declining population growth is found in countries that heavily use these killers of bugs and weeds. As we continue to read through the book we learn that it is not the reliance on pesticides that is the biggest problem associated with the adoption of GMOs.
The real problem addressed in the book is the rise of the industrialized food system. It becomes clear that Jenkins is neither fair nor balanced when it comes to industrialized food. He suggests that the corporatization of our food supply began after the second world war. He seems to have missed the major changes to the American food supply that resulted from passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. The book also neglects the dire shape of the country coming out of the Great Depression and its role in the modernization of agriculture. Vast numbers of American citizens, particularly in the South, were malnourished due to the collapse of the farm economy. Then there was the Dust Bowl which started a mass migration from affected states to the West and helped lead to the urbanization of the country. The rise of the independent trucker gleaned from the ranks of out-of-work farmers combined with advances in transportation and other technologies that affected food distribution are covered in detail in Shane Hamilton’s Trucking Country. The primary concern with GMOs and the increased use of pesticides, as described in Food Fight, is that they enable growth and domination of the industrialized food system.
The book presents us with a nice overview of the science of molecular biology. In the third chapter we find an easy-to-read-and-understand description of the scientific aspects of genetic modification of crops. We learn about the importance of the base pairs in DNA and how they encode the expression of genes in living organisms. We tour facilities at the center of gene modification as we are introduced to such tools as the gene gun. Jenkins talks to these gene jockeys and lets them vent their frustrations with public perception of GMOs. He also tells us of a real GMO success story. The dogged work of Dr. Dennis Gonsalves helped save the papaya industry on the big island Hawaii through genetic technology. This research was not funded by large federal or industrial grants as the author thinks it should be. Of course, how successful would Gonsalves have been without the knowledge gained from reading journal articles published by researcher teams funded by federal and industry money? Advances in science are not confined to a single investigator or lab. They are the result of an elaborately interconnected web of information.
We learn of other cases where the science of molecular biology went wrong. One example given of DNA technology gone bad is the golden-rice story. The book portrays golden rice as an attempt by biotech companies to market gene technology as a boon to humanity rather than as cover for an industry merely wishing to profit from less beneficial crops. In reality, according to the book, golden rice does not even deliver on its promise to improve eye-health of infants and children around the world. Beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body, is essential in preventing xerophthalmia1 (failure to produce tears which can lead to blindness). The early version of golden rice, GR1, contained more beta-carotene than suggested in Food Fight but not enough to be the wonder cure pushed by the biotech industry.1,2 GR2, a later version of golden rice, is much more likely to contain sufficient levels of beta-carotene,3 but this variant may be unacceptable to families who really need the extra vitamin A.
Jenkins fails to appreciate what I consider to be a more difficult problem with golden-rice research, a failure to engage other disciplines in the research process. GR1 is yellow, and GR2 is red. Beta-carotene and its carotenoid relatives contribute to flavor, desirable in fresh tomato flavor but not so much in rice. If asked, food scientists could have told the genetic engineers that parents of children suffering from xeropthalmia would be unlikely to serve rice that looks and tastes funny instead of the white rice they have been eating all of their lives. Another case study described in the book of DNA technology failing to deliver is that of the FlavSavr tomato, a topic I will address in next week’s blog.
The book ends with an idyllic version of a world basking in a post-industrialized food society—all food is grown locally, and there is no processed food. The author provides an example of a dedicated art major turned urban farmer who inspired students in the Baltimore school system to help him grow sorrel and vegetables for school lunches in the inner city. It is great to get urban kids to eat more vegetables and be more in touch with the soil, but will such a success story ripple through the country? How many inspired liberal-arts majors will it take to fight city halls across the country to grow vegetables in vacant city lots and deliver them to inner-city schools before branching out into suburbia? How many professionals will it take to abandon high-paying jobs in the city to embrace a capital-intensive, financially risky opportunity to get their hands dirty and rid us of corporate agriculture?
Vegetable gardening is thrilling for the first year or two, but, for many first-time tillers of the soil, the thrill tends to diminish rapidly. How many communities will be able to replicate the Baltimore story when most school boards across the country are looking for ways to cut the costs of school lunches? Will the current administration continue to support the food policies of the Obama administration that were never progressive enough to satisfy their critics? Will we be able to feed the growing population as we turn back the dial on farming activity? Where is the capital going to come from to finance these ventures?
Broken Limbs is a provocative video which suggests that an apple grower can survive when turning a small orchard into a specialty market such as a pick-your-own operation or small store. It also describes how large operations are able to survive by taking advantage of economies of scale. It is the growers in the middle, however, who must be able to adapt to changing market conditions by either developing a unique niche or growing into a major player to avoid having to sell out.
To sum up, Food Fight is not really about GMOs despite its subtitle. It is partly about the effect of GMOs leading to increased use of pesticides, particularly glyphosate. It is primarily about the role of GMOs in further advancing the incursion of the industrialized food system onto our dinner plates and into our lives. The book ends with the suggestion that if we could only overthrow industrialization of food, we could eliminate many of the problems of the Western diet and the plague of modern chronic diseases. Maybe, but I just don’t buy it. The World Health Organization has shifted its emphasis from fighting world hunger to fighting overnutrition. I am still more concerned with hunger. I don’t see how we will feed the world’s population, which is projected to grow from 7 billion to 9.5 billion in the next 30 years and require 50% more food than we produce today. The places of the world that have largely escaped industrialization are the places suffering from the greatest population growth and the greatest hunger. I do not believe that GMOs are the answer to preventing world hunger, but I do believe that they are part of the solution and not part of the problem. I also do not believe that we will be better off with a less-industrialized food system. I do believe that the current food system needs to be smarter and more sustainable. The two best books I have read on the impending world food crisis are Global Food Futures and 2052.
By a strange coincidence I happened to be reading The Double Helix by James Watson, perhaps the greatest book about science ever written, at the same time I was reading Food Fight. I encourage anyone who likes science and has never read this book to pick it up. For those who have read before, read it again. For first-timers I suggest the original edition. For repeaters, consider the Annotated and Illustrated version which enriched my reading experience this third time through it. Just a note of caution about frame of reference. In the book, everyone but the author appears to be at least a little strange. It struck me, however, in the Nova television show which brought together many of the original persons, that the only true eccentric was Watson himself.
Next week: My personal journey with GMOs
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1 Egana, N.E. 2003. Vitamin A deficiency and golden rice—a literature review. Journal of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine 13:169-184.
2 Chen, S. and Zhang, Y. 2014. The review of golden rice alleviating vitamin A deficiency. Food Research and Development 35:133-136.
3 Reynolds, T. and Martirosyan, D.M. 2016. Nutrition by design: a review of biotechnology in functional food of plant origin. Functional Foods in Health and Disease 6:110-120.