Green Red Herring on Your Plate

Don’t let the red distract you from the green

I’ve always tried to be intentional about food. I’ve been a vegetarian for nineteen years. I buy organic when it’s affordable and available. I shop locally at farmers’ markets and grocery co-ops. When I was in college and somewhat full of myself, I congratulated myself on my enlightened logic and morals. Today, I’m less convinced that I have stumbled upon the optimal diet for planetary and personal health. Nor am I making a martyr of myself. Truth is, I like what I eat. If tomorrow someone discovered that the most sustainable meal is actually giblet gravy and steak, I’d have a pretty hard time making the switch. Try as we might, food choices are never perfectly rational. Even for the most dispassionate egghead, what we put into our mouths is inseparably tangled up with culture, tradition, emotion, and of course personal taste. I strive to remember this while trying my best to eat ethically.


I’m not the only conscientious diner out there. But rather than feeling empowered, I’m actually a bit dismayed by many of my fellow Michael Pollan fans. The broader movement has become bizarrely focused on my own field of genetics. And not in a sensible way. For countless activists, genetic modification represents the ultimate bogeyman, the apex of all that is wrong with irresponsible agribusiness. The opposite of green. To me, and indeed to almost everyone who understands the science behind biotechnology, this animus appears nonsensical. Genetic modification is simply a tool. Like any tool, it can be applied in helpful or harmful ways. Yes, some unsustainable farming practices involve genetically modified organisms (GMOs). And some involve farmers named Steve. But surely it wouldn’t help anything to rail against all the agrarian Steves in the world. The anti-GMO movement stands on similarly shaky justification.


For scientists, it’s easy to fall into the trap of dismissing, or even mocking, GMO alarmists. But diet is irrational, remember? Suppose a genetically modified apple is indistinguishable from a conventional apple in every consequential way: nutritionally, ecologically, gastronomically. A lot of folks would still feel queasy about it. That’s okay. Nobody needs a logical reason for what they are willing to eat. Dinner is too embedded in subjective experience. If you wouldn’t appreciate me pushing my meatless ways onto you, then you shouldn’t pressure someone to eat a genetically modified salmon.


But on the flip side, if you are of wary of GMOs, don’t deceive yourself into thinking that your reaction is based on science rather than emotion. Again, it’s okay for feelings to influence your choices. But your own sense of disgust shouldn’t form a basis for legal policy. Also, I suspect your revulsion would wane if you learned more about GMOs and their similarities with conventional foods. Consider, for example, the Ruby Red grapefruit. This fruit is not genetically modified, and is perfectly healthy, safe, and delicious. But it’s not “natural.” It was created by blasting seeds with radiation until one of them mutated to yield the attractive red pulp. This method fills plants with random mutations in unknown genes. Why would that be less risky than a genetically modified seed with a single targeted mutation involving a gene of known function? If you feel more comfortable with Ruby Reds than with GMOs, as many folks do, take some time to think about why.


Many of the legal battles about GMOs deal with labeling. Anti-GMO activists demand clear warnings on groceries with modified ingredients. Their opponents say labels imply that something must be wrong with GMOs, and are thus misleading. Geneticists like myself see labels as a red herring. That is, a distraction. Knowing which breakfast cereals contain GMOs will not help you choose which is healthiest or most eco-friendly. Besides, GMO-free products already willingly advertise their immaculate status. However, I refuse to vote against labeling. I won’t expend any effort lobbying for it, but if it shows up on my ballot, I’ll support it. After all, silly as it may be, it does no harm. As a scientist, the last thing I should be doing is standing between a citizen and the information they seek. Scientists who actively oppose labeling are just hurting the already-strained relationship between science and the general public. If the people want labels, so be it.


But fans of green agriculture, listen up. Fighting GMOs is not going to help our cause. It takes our time away from battling the real enemies: emission of carbon and pollutants, waste of energy and water, exploitation of workers and livestock. If fact, GMOs are probably our best bet for a sustainable future. This century will see both climate change and a growing, developing human population. We will need to produce more food in hostile habitats such as deserts and dense cities. We’re also going to need an army of plants sucking up carbon dioxide as efficiently as possible. I can’t promise that GMOs will let us succeed, but it’s hard to see how we will make it without GMOs. Wouldn’t it be tragic if the very people who care the most about protecting our environment become ones who block the most promising solution?


I was struck by this article, which states that some lawmakers get more phone calls supporting GMO labeling than about any other issue. I’m glad folks are politically active. But in this day and age, when we face so many problems with our government and beyond, is this really the hill you want to die on? There are bigger fish to fry. If you can’t think of anything more important than putting warnings on cans of genetically modified soup, you aren’t actually helping people or the environment. Instead, you’re part of the problem. I admire your passion, people. But get out there and attack the real issues.

One thought on “Green Red Herring on Your Plate

  1. I disagree. Labels would have real harm. We saw junk food companies switching from beet sugar to cane sugar. Cane sugar farming is loaded with chemical inputs, harming the Everglades, abuses poor workers in developing countries and possibly leaving them with terrible kidney disease.

    But yah, if that doesn’t figure into your decision, that’s fine.


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