Book review: Food Fight by McKay Jenkins

When groups come to volunteer on the farm, I welcome them, give them a broad overview of what we do, and take them for a guided tour around the fields.  When I start explaining our agricultural practices, which I'll touch on here much more as the season progresses, someone from the group often raises their hand and asks a seemingly simple question: "Do you guys use GMOs?"

It's a fair question, and it used to catch me off guard.  It seems so clear to me that we wouldn't grow genetically modified organisms on this small-scale, mostly organic, mixed vegetable farm.  But clearly it's not as clear to the public.

I usually respond by explaining that we don't need GMOs when we're growing such a diversity of crops, or that they're generally designed for use by large conventional farms, or that they're not allowed in organic systems, or that there aren't really any GMO vegetables for the fresh market (yet).  I usually don't sense a huge desire by the crowd to get in depth on the topic, so I try to keep it short and simple.  It's such a gigantic, complicated, controversial topic though, and I'm working on quick way of getting to the heart of it with people.

In his book Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet, McKay Jenkins skillfully exposes the layers of complexity that surround GMOs.  I wish I could just hand the book to anyone who asks me that, and know that they'll read it and come back for a lengthy discussion.  Inevitably, discussions about GMO's need to center around power and control in the food system, but to my disappointment, they often veer off messily into unfounded health claims-- a misstep that confounds the organic movement as well.  If we want to talk about the health effects of pesticide exposure during GMO testing, that's a home run-- but as far as I know, there's little publicly available, non-industry funded research about the safety of eating GMO foods.

After a section overviewing some of the history and issues associated with GMOs, McKay takes us to Hawaii, where the papaya industry narrowly escaped destruction by the timely development of a ringspot virus-resistant GMO papaya.  Now, almost every commercial papaya on the islands is a variety that a local scientist genetically modified in order to help family farmers stay in business.  It's a compelling story, and one that I think the agroindustrial industry wishes were more common and vivid in the public's imagination.

Instead, confusion and controversy have plagued genetic engineering since its introduction to the American market in the mid 1990's.  Many GMO crops have failed to live up to expectations, like the Flavr Savr tomato that underwhelmed consumers' taste buds, or golden rice that was supposed to solve the world's Vitamin A deficiencies but has never been embraced by local communities as a staple in their diets.  The most popular GMO crops, meanwhile, are varieties grown for the the mass market of animal feed and industrial processing and have been bred to withstand herbicides or produce their own pesticides.  A majority of the testing for these pesticide resistances takes place on the Hawaiian islands, where local people and governments have had no luck demanding transparency from the industry about what chemicals are drifting into their fields, homes, and schools on a daily basis. Despite the potential for genetically modified organisms to help "feed the world," as the narrative goes, they have so far been developed and used to increase the efficiency and power of the industrial food system.

When you think of small farmers growing healthy vegetables and fruits for their local communities, GMOs are rarely part of that picture.  Rarely, but not never.  As a counterexample to the huge industrial farms that are vilified by anti-GMO activists, McKay introduces Jennie Schmidt, a mid-scale farmer that grows GMO soybeans as a way to diversify her enterprises.  She makes a great point that farmers can and should use whatever tools are available to them to grow good food and make a living.  She's been a savvy player in the modern food system, but she doesn't get the "local farmer" rockstar status that others do simply because she's growing for the wholesale market (so her foods end up in supermarket products) rather than for direct retail to her consumers.

And that, Jenkins argues, at the root of the GMO debate: without knowledge and regard for the land and people that produce their food, consumers are caught in a food system designed and controlled almost entirely by a few seed and chemical companies.  Equally alarming, and what I think has started waking more people up to the issue, is that much of that food is not nourishing and sustaining our bodies.  It's not necessarily that GMOs are inherently bad, or bad for our health, but that the system in which they've developed is socially, economically, and environmentally unsustainable and in many cases directly harmful.  

I would love to learn more about how to communicate effectively about GMOs to people that have minimal knowledge of how our food system works (and doesn't work).  What are some simple ways to open the door to people's curiosity?  How can I tactfully counter the claims that "we" need to "feed the world" and that the best way to do this is through advanced technology?  How can we shift the conversation toward more holistic issues like re-democratizing agrofood industries, reducing waste in the food system, and ensuring that all people have access to nutrient-dense foods in addition to cheap calories?  

I'm taking notes, taking suggestions, listening to your stories.  Please share.