Facing Frankenstein: Opening up about GM Food

GMOI am sitting across from Connie Diekman in her office at Myers.

“One of my colleagues posted a picture yesterday of romaine lettuce, okay. Romaine lettuce. The label says, ‘gluten-free’, ‘lactose-free’, ‘no GM’. I think we’ve gone a bit crazy in this country, and it’s because people don’t understand food,” she says.

Non-GMO. All-natural. Grass-fed.

Take a stroll through any major American supermarket and you will see at least a few of these labels. They are proudly touted on cereal boxes, fruits, vegetables, meat, assuring the consumer that this is healthier or safer to eat. The proliferation of this marketing strategy suggests something about our cultural attitude toward the “natural” and “artificial”. Distinguishing a product as being grown or made “naturally” makes it sell. Why? What exactly are these labels appealing to when we read them?

“There is a lot of fear in the GMO arena, and it’s a fear that is in many cases based upon miscommunications, perceptions, and lack of knowledge about science and food. That’s what really surrounds this whole topic,” Diekman says. “What worries me as a dietician is that the door has already been shut on the opportunities that GM food can provide, that the ears are closed to the conversation.”

Recently, this fear of genetic modification has hindered the acceptance of new Innate potatoes by corporations such as Frito-Lay and McDonald’s. Although these potatoes have fewer “black spots” and lower acrylamide levels, both of which are popular undesirable traits, market leaders are hesitant to accept the crop. This hesitance suggests that confidence in public acceptance for these GMOs is low.

Can this fear be found on campus? Among the students? How deeply do these beliefs penetrate?

I turned to students to understand these questions. Angela Park, a junior studying psychology, has thought about this. When I talked to her, she was unsure about GMOs and at first, could not seem to figure out why.

“I have always heard people talk about [GMOs] in a negative way. For instance, they say how [GMOs] are not very natural and we don’t know the consequences for consuming these over a long period of time. I don’t know…now that I’ve actually talked about it, I think that a lot of my friends, including myself, just aren’t very aware of all of this. But at the same time, we just don’t know [about GMOs].”

As she talked more, Park began to see how her views on food were shaped significantly by those around her and by how she was raised. At the end of our conversation, she said, “I think just by being in this interview I kind of realized how a lot of the things I’ve said and a lot of the ideas I’ve had were kind of notions of what I’ve grown up with and we should actually try to find out how things are for ourselves.”

A preference for the “natural” is echoed by another Washington University in St. Louis student, Helen Li, a pre-med junior who is also studying psychology.

“Natural is what nature has given us in the first place. It is what has been selected by evolution. If human beings stick their foot into the natural cycle, I think there are consequences, I just don’t really know what they are,” Li said.

Not knowing enough about the science of GMOs is a concern that repeatedly arises in the debate over genetic modification. The most common response for those who are unsure is to avoid GMOs until people actually know whether or not they are safe. However, is it true that the science is uncertain?

More than 2,000 studies have been conducted related to the health and environmental safety of GMOs. In regards to health, these studies have done testing ranging from the allergenic safety of GM crops to the safety of consuming transcribed DNA. A crop would not be released commercially if it did not test successfully against a database of known allergens or was found to deposit its DNA into human cells. There has not been strong evidence that GMOs pose a significant health risk.

“I think the important thing for people to remember is that all the foods that are currently available that could be GM have been tested, tested, tested, and tested. They are safe. For any new item to get through the USDA and FDA, the hoops are huge. If there even is the slightest bit of concern, crops won’t be approved for sale,” Diekman says.

At the end of it, the important thing is to be able to delineate the quality of being synthetic from the final product that is created. For some reason, America is afraid of the synthetic. If the encroachment of man onto nature is so precarious, it would make sense to also question the security in our beliefs on gene therapies or other recombinant genetic technologies such as the production of insulin.

“So how do you think we can open our ears again?” I ask Diekman.

She replies, “I think you guys are the ones that know that answer better than I do. It is in the most part your generation.

“What is the worry? What is the fear? Why is there a lack of trust? How do we open this door again? And why is it so closed?”

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