Eat This, Ministry of Controversy

What Part of GMO Don’t You Understand?


Shutterstock photo.

Shutterstock photo.

A few of you may still have doubts about global warming, even though the overwhelming scientific evidence says it’s a no-brainer. Regardless, some dissenters will say the argument for global warming is based on crap science

Comedian Andy Borowitz wrote a satirical piece for the New Yorker, called Many in Nation Tired of Explaining Things to Idiots. The polls confirmed: “…a majority… will no longer bother trying to explain (global warming) to cretins.”

While Greenland melts, let’s move onto another hot button topic: GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms).

Most of my friends are convinced that GMOs are bad. Period. End of story. Maybe they are bad?

At a dinner party with friends a few years ago, I recommended that they read another New Yorker article, Seeds of Doubt. I received scolding stares. My argument didn’t go well

Your mind may be made up about GMOs. I can’t make a scientific argument for, or against, GMOs. I’m not schooled in the subject. I’m not saying there is no cause for concern. (I’ve got a few.) Yet there is ample evidence to suggest that not all GMOs are harmful. And there are supporters where you’d least expect them. There’s even a Facebook page called Hippies for GMOs.

Before you start piling on hippies and the bad boys of agricultural, genetic seed manipulation—Monsanto, Syngenta and Pioneer—let’s roll back genetic modification a few thousand years. We’ll call it GMO creationism.

Recently scientists discovered that grafted trees have been swapping mitochondria for thousands of years. In other words, there is a flow of DNA between the understock of an apple tree and the grafted scion wood. Bingo: genetically modified apple trees.

And next time you sample sweet potato fries, you’ll be nibbling on a GMO product that’s 8,000 years old, thanks to a soil-borne bacteria.

In late June, more than 100 Nobel Laureates condemned Greenpeace for their stance against genetically modified rice—infused with beta-carotene. The GMO rice could inexpensively prevent a major Vitamin A deficiency in the developing world. Is that so bad?

Congress just passed a confusing GMO food labeling law with bipartisan support. That’s the good news. The bad news: It will be hard to decipher labels to tell what’s really a GMO product.

I’m not trying to diminish the potential harm of GMOs. And it doesn’t mean that I’m eager to have GMO crops on my plate every evening of the week.

Still, over half of European Union members have put a block on GMO food crops. This may exclude the possibility for GMO Cannabis availability in Europe, but who cares? Hippies are producing fine Cannabis buds, already, thank you

I enjoy French fries and potato chips as much as the next slob. A new GMO potato promises to make fast food better for me. Wait a minute…. This has a bit of a Diet Mountain Dew ring to it.

I am skeptical of the hype on both sides.

Genetic manipulation, through traditional F1 hybridization or genetic modification, has increased the number of bushels harvested per acre. Farmers like a good yield and deserve an occasional return on investment. Farmers were contending with burdensome capital costs, bad weather, pestilence and commodity price fluctuations, long before GMOs became controversial.

I am worried about the monopolization of seed genetics. Market dominance is a businessperson’s dream-come-true. But we need more varieties, not just the handful of GMO patented seed options.

Control the seed options, and you rule the farm and table.

This is worrisome for both farmers and consumers.

In my starry-eyed fashion, I would prefer non-patented, public domain, save-them-for-sowing-next-year-if-you-want-to seeds. This could be extrapolated across the food spectrum, but you’ll need to grow the crops yourself or pay more to local farmers to grow non-GMO food.

Dane County Farmers' Market on Augusts 6th on Capitol Square in Madison, Wisconsin. The largest producer's-only farmer's market in the U.S.

Dane County Farmers’ Market on Augusts 6th on Capitol Square in Madison, Wisconsin. The largest producer’s-only farmer’s market in the U.S.

Wendell Berry, Kentucky author, farmer and activist is quoted in the recently released documentary, The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry. “The traditional farmer, that is the farmer who was first independent, who first fed himself off his farm and then fed other people, who farmed with his family and who passed the land on down to people who knew it and had the best reasons to take care of it… that farmer stood at the convergence of traditional values… our values.”


Neglected, aging values.

The world is becoming increasingly urbanized and disconnected from its food sources. The average age of a Kentucky farmer is 63 years old.

Farm-to-table on a Social Security check.

Dinner with 105 of my favorite Perennial Plant Association friends at Tangletown Gardens and Farm, Plato, MN on August 2nd.

Dinner with 105 of my favorite Perennial Plant Association friends at Tangletown Gardens and Farm, Plato, MN on August 2nd.

We will need to pool all of our best resources. Wendell Berry, his wife Tanya and daughter Mary know that the values of farming and the culture of rural communities have been badly damaged.

Love of place, community and neighbors is essential for a healthy world. Tanya Berry, in The Seer, quotes her friend, the poet Gary Snyder: “Stop somewhere. Be somewhere.”

Stay someplace.

Plant your backyard. Support your local farmers.

Help the Berry Center resettle America.


Posted by on August 10, 2016 at 6:57 am, in the category Eat This, Ministry of Controversy.
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22 responses to “What Part of GMO Don’t You Understand?”

  1. Kate in Vermont says:

    Hmm, above was meant as reply to Debbie’s post

  2. Kate in Vermont says:

    This is what I was just going to post as well, and a point that I have never really seen addressed in the labelling debates. There is a reason foods with allergans are labelled as such. When proteins that are not naturally found in a food start appearing through genetic modification (like fish proteins in tomatoes) people absolutely need to know about it,especially as once those proteins are in a plant then they can swap easily with wild-type plants.

  3. Bill Phelan says:

    The CRISPR gene modification is a very useful fool. Universities are using it to insert resistance to viruses in tomatoes, resistance to Chestnut blight in American Chestnut, virus resistance in Papayas and recently in India a strain of eggplant with insect resistance. Is it perfect, no, but when universities and public agencies develop GMO’s often the seed is available at minimal or no charge and you can save your seed without problems. The problem develops when there is a profit motive, I believe.

  4. Sari Jenning says:

    I would say thank you for giving me better understanding of GMO. I am also glad to join the discussion of this problem. We have been misled a lot so far. The outcome of GMOs and herbicides is obvious. Going “real” green is a must.
    I am also a garden-lover. If you have time, check out my blog

  5. Lat says:

    I should say that it is possible that GM foods might someday play a role in food needs, but there is a serious lack of scientific information on the nutritive value of GM foods and on the effects on humans and the environment. A guiding principle in science, the precautionary principle, tells us that if a policy or action could harm human health or the environment, we must not proceed until we know for sure what the impact will be. More studies are needed!

  6. Lat says:

    I saw a program recently which introduced me to the concept of ‘terroir’, a french word that embodies the concept of earth or land. In my understanding of it, I thought it a beautiful way to describe the integrity of the soil and its unique qualities that are transferred into the food we eat.

    Using GMO crops, chemical pesticides and fertilizers is a recipe for soil disaster. Over time chemical fertilizers deplete organic matter from the soil and reduce water-holding capacity. As the soil structure is compromised, increasing amounts of fertilizer are required. GMO crops reduce seed diversity and have not yet been proved to reduce costs or increase yields. I don’t think this is a long-term solution for world food needs.

    And don’t get me started on the environmental risks involved in GMO animals (like salmon, now approved by the FDA).

    P.S. 2015 was the UN’s International Year of Soils. Some interesting reading on the connection between soil health and human health!

  7. Leslie N Inman says:

    It’s not the GMOs…. as much as it is that 90% of all GMOs are ‘RoundUp Ready’. Monsanto said the use of Round Up would decrease with GMOs, but it’s increased. And it certainly looks like just another way to sell more Round Up. I just don’t want to eat another serving of Round Up.

  8. Allen Bush says:

    Thanks, Kermit. The non-profit Louisville Grows is urban farming. I am impressed with their vision and progress.

  9. kermit says:

    “The average age of a Kentucky farmer is 63 years old.”

    Allen, the shift in demographics went from farmers being 98% of the population to 2% in just a few lifetimes. There are probably a number of young people who would be suited for farming but aren’t children of farmers. I’m guessing it’s a hard business to break into otherwise, if only from lack of hands-on experience.

    I wonder if local governments could subsidize a teen or young adult program where the young folks work and get training as a farmer, and have the option for buying into a retiring farmer’s setup if they are suited for it.

  10. kermit says:

    Enabling heavy herbicide and pesticide usage is one problem. Another couple are washing so much fertilizer downstream, creating oceanic dead zones, but then having to mine potassium and phosphate, which will eventually be depleted. Yet another is forcing monoculture farming. Another still is having a critical mass of farmers dependent on one company.

  11. kermit says:

    The problem is multiple; many non-sustainable processes are propping up our civilization. Population control is part of a multipronged, sane response.

  12. Carol says:

    I love fresh corn that doesn’t go starchy within minutes of picking –like corn did years ago. Yup, genetically modified…

  13. Alan, That is encouraging. We’ve come so far away from the land that it is encouraging to hear efforts to bring us back.

  14. Mary Jean Gilman says:

    Yes, I agree with the responders who commented on the outcome of using GMO rice to feed the masses. Reliance on pesticides and fertilizers may enable more annual crops but alters the soil which has been supporting the population for thousands of years. It’s peripheral to the topic, but population control is the answer, not GMO food production.

  15. Mary says:

    Great rant! The facts that biological diversity is reduced, that farmers have to purchase seed rather than just collect some for replanting each year, is a recipe for disaster.

  16. Allen Bush says:

    Debbie, I am encouraged by what I see on the local food scene wherever I go. I was blown away last week by Tanglewood Farm in Minnesota and the very impressive farmer’s market in Madison, Wisconsin. Louisville is a big foodie town, too. And the Berry Center in New Castle, Ky is working to find solutions to help rebuild rural communities and foster a new economy for farmers. It’s a long shot but as Wendell Berry said, “Eating is an agricultural act.”

  17. Another problem is allergies. If you are allergic to certain items, it is good to know what is in your food. My pipe dream would be labels that said what has been added in the engineering, plus all -icides that are used to grow the crop.

  18. Allen Bush says:

    Jim, it is an obvious point and a concern. Eventually, the weeds develop a resistance to Roundup.

  19. Allen Bush says:

    Elizabeth, I agree.

  20. Jim says:

    Exactly. This post, like many others, doesn’t address this obvious point.

  21. Eliz. says:

    It’s the wide use of herbicides that GMOs make possible that bothers me, rather than the GMOs themselves.

  22. David mcMullin says:

    We have the capacity to do such amazing things. I’ve also wondered if GMO foods might be a smart and environmentally proper way to feed the world. Its a shame that the big companies seem to use the technology tyrannically, forcing small farmers out of business and ruining indigenous seed sources and to sell more pesticides and herbicides. But if they could make green beans taste like New York Super Fudge Chunk then I’d be svelte!