Imagine for a moment the only food available in grocery stores was poisoned. Not fatally—at least, not right away. But enough where it made people obese and irritable, and susceptible to illness, cancer, and stunted life.
There are people who believe this already. Perhaps you are one of them.
I believe there is a big debate going on that concerns the average U.S. citizen, but there is a horrible lack in education on both sides of the debate, as well as a skewed and one-sided presentation from the media. I hope I can help bridge this divide.
Last month, I attended a farm seminar. During the welcome and announcements, a woman pressed any non-members of the hosting organization to join as members because “more voices are needed” to stand up to our state capital and nation’s capital. “How do I put this?” she asked. “They don’t understand, frankly, why we do this at all, why we farm in the first place. They think we’re poisoning them with GMO food,” she scoffed.
For those of you who are not familiar with “GMO,” I encourage you to do some of your own research. But briefly, it stands for “genetically modified organism” and uses biotechnology to alter plant DNA, making certain crops resistant to pesticides and other chemicals so that farmers can more easily protect their crops from disease and pests with these chemicals.
The woman at the seminar seemed truly hurt by the fact that city folk don’t appreciate or understand the work farmers are doing. The audience was fairly silent, and it was hard to gauge how people felt about the woman’s remarks. I had the impression that either the farmers in the room were not tracking the GMO debate, or felt that becoming a member of the organization wasn’t going to help their position. However, a friend of mine leaned over—knowing I live half-time in St. Paul—and whispered “yeah, Rachel, you have to go back to the city and represent us!”
Not long after I attended the farm seminar, I was in the city waiting for a haircut appointment and got into a deep discussion about food allergies with the salon receptionist. GMOs came up, and the receptionist explained that she tries to only buy foods claiming to be GMO-free. I explained to her that GMOs may be a big beast in the food health discussion, but it’s not an open-shut case.
First, non-GMO food is also causing illness. Take wheat, for example. More and more people, it seems, are developing sensitivities to gluten. This may be the result of increased demand of high-gluten wheat flour by bakers and food manufacturers since high-gluten content means more elasticity in baked goods. A hundred years ago, pastries were made with flour milled from wheat with less gluten than today, making them more crumbly. Higher-gluten wheat means a prettier pastry.
Second, some of my city friends seem to think that GMO technology and chemicals are all lumped together under the same issue. Although chemicals are used on GMO seeds, GMO and chemical application are separate issues. Farmers were using chemicals on crops before GMO was developed to protect their crops from pests, fungi, and weeds. But instead of a GMO “chemical cure-all,” farmers had to select the specific chemical needed by carefully diagnosing the exact pest, fungus or weed.
Switching from chemicals to GMO is an upgrade in technology; just as the cell phone is an upgrade from a landline. The landline technology is still available, but how many of us prefer the portability and multi-functionality of our cell phone over a landline? Candles to light bulbs. Cooking fires to microwaves. Antibiotics. Every other element in our lives seems to be changing and upgrading, why would we not expect the same from farming?
Of course, there are risks with every new technology. Brain tumors from cell phones. Radiation from microwaves. But we still use them, because we believe the benefit outweighs the theoretical risk. Whether it’s due to an appreciation for the simpler, old-old way (before the development of chemicals), or a sincere concern for one’s health, the growing popular alternative to GMO and chemically-treated food is buying organic. But avoiding one possible risk guarantees another: hunger. Allow me to explain.
In 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that 408 million acres produced our nation’s crops; only about 1.7 million of these acres raised organic crops. This means that only 0.4% (less than half of 1 percent!) of crops produced in the U.S. were organic in 2007.
Farmers feel the weight of responsibility that comes with their line of work: feeding the United States, as well as other countries (when there is a surplus of produce). They are constantly monitoring the nation’s total available stock and the success of competing countries in various crops to determine when more of a certain crop is needed.
Currently, there are about 314 million people living in the United States. It has been estimated that it takes about one acre of land to feed a person for one year. Farmers know it is not feasible to fill as many stomachs as they can now if all 408 million crop acres were organically managed. GMO and chemically-protected crops promise greater yields than organic crops, which means more food to go around, ensuring everyone gets fed.
As a gluten-free vegan who makes my own chemical-free household cleaners, the GMO debate with all these numbers and facts present quite a challenge. What will I do when one day it’s my turn to manage my family’s farm? I am eager to delve into more related questions and perspectives. I invite you to follow me on this journey.