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We’re having the wrong argument about GMOs

Whole Foods has clearly marked many of their shelves with labels promoting the non-GMO products. (Gordon Chibroski/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

The Pew Research Center recently polled Americans on their concerns about genetically modified foods. Predictably, given the popular consternation around GMOs, a considerable plurality said they had concerns: 49 percent worried about the effects of GMOs on our health; the same number believed that GMOs would harm the environment.

After all, Jenkins points out, genetic engineering has thus far been limited to America’s largest commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans. (According to the Department of Agriculture, 92 percent of U.S. corn acres are planted with GM varieties; for soybeans, it’s 94 percent.) Both corn and soy are typically grown in vast Midwestern monocultures, doused with nitrogen fertilizers and synthetic pesticides. They also supply the vast amounts of corn syrup, soybean oil and cheap livestock feed needed to power both the fast food and processed food industries.

I first spoke to Jenkins last month for a story on the first genetically modified apple, which recently hit stores in the Midwest. I called him up again last week to chat about the big-picture, structural problems with GMOs in more depth. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

The apple that never browns wants to change your mind about genetically modified foods

Before we get too deep into this, I wanted to ask you a quick procedural question: You know, better than I do, that it’s very difficult to report on GMOs. Everyone claims to have science on their side. Everyone also has very strong feelings on how that science should be interpreted. How did you go about assessing the evidence?

Before I started writing this book, the journalists that I knew who had tried to write about it previously warned me that anybody who touches GMOs gets burned. People are so worked up on both sides that no matter what you say, somebody’s going to scream about it. As a journalist, you know that anytime that’s true there’s something worth looking into.

On this issue there’s a lot of stuff that is tossed around that’s confusing on both sides. And when I say “both sides,” I realize there aren’t just two sides to the GMO issue. You have industry that is trying to convince you that all GMOs are fine, and then you have anti-GMO groups that have quote-unquote science they’re reporting that’s not necessarily reliable, and you have global debates, and local debates, and debates over labeling, and debates over health, and debates over ecological impacts. All these different things are all going on at the same time.

Why we're so scared of GMOs, according to someone who has studied them from the start

I decided pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to try to get into the debate of whether eating a genetically altered tortilla chip was going to cause you to get cancer or not. That’s pretty much the only question general consumers seem to have, but that was not the question that most interested me. The screaming on both sides of that question is so loud and so shrill that I can’t hear any truth in it. I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of scientists seem to have agreed that genetic engineering as such is not a cause for concern. Now even as I say that, it’s important to know there are plenty of scientists who don’t agree. But I still don’t think that’s the most important question.

Instead, I went in search of GMO scientists that had the larger question of sustainable, nutritious food in mind. I wasn’t interested in finding out what someone who works for a giant agrochemical company thought about whether GMOs could make monoculture corn better. The pro-GMO scientists I wanted to talk to were the ones who were thinking about using genetic engineering to solve, for example, nutritional deficiencies or to solve drought problems or to solve fossil fuel overdependence. People who were using technology in ways that would advance the goal of sustainable agriculture.

That’s actually a main criticism of the book, right — that GMOs are part of an agricultural system that is not environmentally or socially sustainable?

Yes. Another category of scientists I spoke to were people like Wes Jackson and his crew out at the Land Institute, who think the GMO question is at best a part of this problem, and at worse a distraction from the larger problem — that really GMOs are just the latest version of a 30- or 40-year-old industrial food system that has gone completely off the rails.

By focusing so much on GMOs, you’re not paying attention to species loss or the decline in aquifers or soil depletion or greenhouse gasses or all the other problems tied up on industrial food production. And I’m sympathetic to that argument. I think GMOs have gotten a lot of attention because they elicit a visceral fear from people, but really we have a lot of other agricultural problems that predate GMOs. If you think about factory farming or fossil fuels or toxic chemicals or soil loss — those things all existed before GMOs, and GMOs just scaled them up.

What do you mean when you say GMOs just “scaled up” agriculture's problems? 

The short version is that GMO technology, along with synthetic fertilizers, has allowed industrial-scale farmers to grow a very small number of crops incredibly efficiently. These firms are not out there making GMO zucchinis and broccolis and red peppers and all that — they’re making corn and soybeans and canola oil and sugar beets. They’re making components that either go into processed food, or are used to feed processed, industrial meat.

The decline of the small American family farm in one chart

That’s been great for the food industry, because they can provide a huge amount of calories and lots of different kinds of food products. You have something like 230 million acres of GMO corn and soybeans in the Midwest, which is then processed into the food that we eat — fast food or those processed foods that just need to be popped into the microwave that you buy in the supermarket. The average supermarket has something like 46,000 different products in it, and a good percentage of those are built out of those couple of grains, which are mostly GMO. The GMO technology has simply allowed an already industrial system to become even bigger and more efficient.

I remember the first time we spoke, you said that GMOs are at the heart of the obesity epidemic, that they’ve fueled this whole system that’s wreaked havoc on American health. How did you make that connection? 

If you back these conversations up and you ask what are people eating that is making them obese, the answer is lots of soft drinks, lots of fast food, lots of processed food. There’s no disputing that. Everyone agrees on that. And then you back that up and say, “What are those things made of?” And the answer is always, “Well, they’re mostly made out of corn or soybeans.” The corn is processed into high-fructose corn syrup, which goes into sodas; the corn and soybeans go into feeding the animals that become fast-food hamburgers or chicken nuggets.

To say that GMOs cause obesity is disingenuous. But it’s also true that GMOs are a central technological component of the system that is providing this kind of food in that kind of quantity.

It’s fascinating to look at these issues as part of an integrated system. That's typically not the perspective we hear. But when it comes to reform or regulation, I wonder if that view becomes counterproductive. What can possibly be done to reinvent the entire industrial ag system? Just practically speaking, it's much easier to, say, require GMO products have some sort of label. 

I have the same problem with this question that the climate people have with the climate change question. What would solve climate change? Driving a Prius might help you feel better, but it's not really going to do anything. Eating local, organic produce is going to help you feel better and help put some money in the pocket of your local farmer, but until that’s scaled up it’s not going to make a dent in the structural problem. So the question becomes, what kinds of changes do make dents?

I believe it all comes down to somehow getting the reins on the companies and the industries that have essentially dictated federal food policy for a very long time. It’s no secret that these are some of the largest companies in the world. When you look at federal subsidies or regulatory policy, or when you look at how much money goes to big companies as opposed to small farmers, you can see that influence.

We have the same problem with big agriculture we do with big energy. Power has become so centralized that policy supports these companies. This is why you'll hear over and over again, almost regardless of the industry, that they want all regulation to be centered in Washington, rather than be dictated by the states. Because what these industries want to do is manage policy at the federal level where they can actually control either an administration or Congress, as opposed to running around and trying to put out fires in Sacramento or Boston or Annapolis.

You describe a really interesting vision for the future of agriculture in your book. It’s a lot more moderate than some of the more utopian, foodie visions we tend to hear about. Why is that? And what is your vision? 

Well, I guess the fact that my vision doesn’t exist at the moment means it might be a little utopian itself. I don’t want to pretend it’s something that could happen next week. But by the end of this project, I became somewhat agnostic about GMO technology itself and much more interested in the larger question of sustainable food production. And there are many more things that go into sustainable food production.

If a farmer on the Eastern Shore wants to raise tomatoes using small amounts of herbicides, and she also wants to raise some GMO corn, and she uses cover crops and protects the water and forests the creekbeds and manages nutrients so that things aren’t getting into the Chesapeake Bay — to me that’s fine. The goal is sustainability. The goal is not some kind of purity. We’ve got a lot of people to feed, and we have a lot of brilliant people working on this technology. To say we can go from where we are now to some kind of perfect technology-free farming system is a fantasy.

I think it’s the responsibility of consumers to make that happen, though. It’s not for me to tell farmers what to do; they will provide the food that the market demands. People vote about food every time they sit down for a meal. I joke with my students that some kids in cities around here think that potatoes grow on trees. And that might be ludicrous, but if you’ve never seen a potato, what concept are you going to have of how it grows? And if you don’t know it grows in the dirt, then why would you care about the quality of the soil it grows in? When you start backing this stuff up, you see that the ignorance of the consumer is absolutely as much to blame for the current state of the food system, as much as anything that farmers are doing.

I would imagine this has informed how you eat, too, right? Do you personally avoid GMOs? 

I try to avoid GMOs mainly by doing my best to avoid the fast foods, processed foods and junk foods that GMOs are mostly used to produce. I do try to eat as much organic produce as possible, which helps reduce my family's exposure to the insecticides and herbicides sprayed on industrial food crops, many of which are GMO. My family and I are members of One Straw Farm, a wonderful organic Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in Baltimore County that provides six full months of organic produce every year and which makes us feel better about supporting the local economy and local farmers who take excellent care of their land.

Just last week I wrote a check for $600 to the CSA. Not to sound sentimental about this, but farming — especially super-intelligent, sustainable farming — is worth everything we can invest in it.

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