I’m at the Giant supermarket on York Road in Baltimore and I’m shopping with McKay Jenkins, a professor at the University of Delaware and author of a fascinating new book called Food Fight, about the battle over genetically modified organisms in the American farming and food system.
We wheel a cart down the store aisles, hunting for these organisms – called GMO’s for short. They are usually plants that have a gene from one species artificially inserted into another species. For example, scientists working for biotech companies take a type of bacteria commonly found in the dirt called Bacillus thuringiensis, remove some of its genetic material and inject it into corn. The resulting crossbreed (called Bt corn) manufactures a protein that acts as an insecticide to kill a crop-eating pest, the European corn borer.
Jenkins suddenly grabs and holds up a two liter bottle of Coke.
“If you look at a big two liter bottle of soda pop, you are going to find that the first ingredient here is water, and the second is high fructose corn syrup, which is what is used to sweeten soda,” said Jenkins. “And that is inevitably a GMO. So you are going to find GMO corn in your soda. Although you may not think about it, you are drinking liquid corn, and inevitably, and that’s going to be GMO.”
Neither the Coke nor the taco shells or cookies nearby are labelled as containing GMOs, although they are likely full of them. But in the natural foods aisle, dozens of brands of breakfast cereals – such as the Annie’s Homegrown Coco Bunnies -- display labels advertising they are “Non GMO.” Whether the government should require or not require the labelling of foods like this has been a politically contentious issue.
But here’s a twist that two thirds of Americans do not understand – although about 90 percent of scientists do, according to public opinion polling by the Pew Research Center. The Institute of Medicine and most other scientific organizations have concluded that “non GMO” labels are meaningless from a health perspective, because GMO’s have been extensively tested and do not harm human health. Despite this fact, some environmental groups, like Greenpeace, aggressively protest against them.
Also, the “non-GMO” labels do not mean that the product is grown without pesticides or herbicides. That is an environmentally important piece of information that is conveyed by a different and more meaningful food product label, “organic.”
“The almost universal consensus among scientists is that the GMO – the genetically engineered plant itself – is not a health concern,” Jenkins said. “So the health consequences of drinking two liters of Coke have nothing to do with GMO’s. They have to do with drinking two liters of Coke, which – as we know – has created, or contributed to, our national obesity epidemic. So is that a GMO question, or is it not a GMO question? Really, it seems to me that they are all tied together, because if you are growing millions of acres of corn in order to create low-nutrition, high-calorie fast-food products and junk food products, GMO’s are part of our national eating disorder.”
As we passed the electronic cash registers and prepared to leave the store, it occurred to me that the real problem is not GMO foods, which can be beneficial. GMO crops can be engineered, for example, to help family farmers grow crops that are resistant to disease.
The real problem is our legal and political system, which allows excessive spraying of pesticides and fertilizers on all kinds of crops – and permits private companies to patent and own forms of life like GMO seeds, so that they can’t be shared and grown freely.
For more information about McKay Jenkins and his new book, "Food Fight: GMO's and the Future of the American Diet," visit: https://mckayjenkins.com/