The Politics of GMOs

As made evident last week by Congress’s failure to pass a bill that would require background checks for firearms owners–a bill with over 90% approval by the general public–money and influence arguably play a larger role than public interest in passing legislation. This stands true for legislation regarding food labeling as well: according to dietician Carole Bartolotto, she was dismissed from the highly powerful Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) for pointing out that two of her co-members had strong ties to Monsanto, one of the largest producers of genetically modified seeds.

Considering the fact that the academy is currently in the process of deciding its (highly influential) position on the ethics genetically modified foods, this raises a red flag for anyone who is even slightly conscious of what goes into their mouths. The academy claims that Bartolotto was dismissed for failing to disclose her “Healthy Eating Consulting” business, which was found on her blog during an alleged internet search of each of the academy’s members. Bartolotto claims that her consulting experience was limited to advising one friend’s wife over a year ago.

The irony of the situation, which would be amusing were it not such a sobering insight into the corrupt nature of American politics, is that Bartolotto was officially dismissed for “failure to disclose conflict of interest.” Her dismissal came about a month and a half after her email to academy executives questioning the impartiality of two of her co-members, one of whom is a prize-winner of and test farmer for Monsanto and the other of whom is a senior vice president for the International Food Information Council, which is “financed by food, beverage and agriculture businesses, including companies like DuPont, Bayer CropScience and Cargill, companies that were among the biggest financial opponents of the California labeling initiative.”

[The academy executive] responded to Ms. Bartolotto’s concerns about Ms. Schmidt and Ms. Smith Edge with an e-mail that included the academy’s conflict of interest policy. “Conflict of interest will not eliminate a candidate from an eligible appointment,” it says in part.

Clearly, there are factors that influence the decisions of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics other than consumer safety and impartiality. What does this mean for the general public? The academy plays a huge role in state and federal conversations over labeling policies; whether or not food producers will be required to disclose the presence of genetically modified ingredients depends greatly on the official opinions of institutions such as the AND. Surely we cannot be expected to undergo our own review of genetically modified foods; we are forced to rely on historically trustworthy institutions such as the academy.

Regardless of what the academy ultimately constructs as its “official” policy on GMOs, the fact remains that the mere legality of genetically modified food symbolizes the current disconnect between industrial agriculture and nature. The fact that food can be mass-produced and standardized may ostensibly seem like a positive step towards further modernizing our society, if we consider Max Weber’s definition of modernity as controlling nature for the benefit of human welfare, but I argue that not everything can be viewed positively in terms of humankind’s ability to influence nature. The food industry’s constant manipulation of natural produce into corporate food byproducts has transformed societal expectations of what food “should” be and, in turn, threatens our ability to get the proper nutrition we as humans have evolved to need.

gmo-tomatoIndustrial agriculture is, by definition, a commercial practice, and in our capitalist society it makes sense that industrial agriculture companies strive to produce consistent products as quickly and efficiently as they can. Yet in the process of commodifying the food industry, we have lost the ability to really understand what we are eating and how it affects our health; the fact that we can reliably purchase identical products from a company over the course of many years numbs our desire to read the nutrition labels. A majority of foods grown and cultivated for industrial farms become unrecognizable by the time they reach supermarkets, due to artificial additives and systemized mixing techniques, and lacking in nutrition when compared to their organic counterparts. Yet the sad truth is that because our government allows these products to be produced time and again, many Americans do not consider the possible health risks of consuming processed foods.

The industrial transformation of natural food into standardized, super-processed food further separates nature from the public food conscious. Just last week, during a class trip to a garden in a public housing complex, I heard stories of residents who were “grossed out” at the thought of eating some imperfect vegetable that came out of the dirt. Americans are so used to pre-packaged and reliably consistent foods that they are unwilling to consume the natural, more nutritious substitutes. GMOs serve to only further the expectation that all foods should look a certain way in order to be desirable, and the fact that their health effects are not yet known does not exactly ease my conscience.

If GMOs remain legal and do not have to be disclosed on labels, how can a nonpartisan study on their effects ever be accurately conducted? As I see it, the only reason for not requiring companies to disclose the presence of GMOs is to make sure those companies keep up profits and productivity. As a consumer, it is a cold reminder that the industrial agriculture sector is focused on business over food. The academy’s ultimate position on GMOs will be indicative of the scope of Monsanto’s influence on the food industry, although at this point, I would say there is no hope for an impartial position without a complete overhaul of our food industry.

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You Are What You Eat

While reading some articles on food and nutrition this week, I stumbled across the website of the Nutrition Science Initiative, a nonprofit devoted to reestablishing the scientific method into nutrition research. Its goal is to help develop better-designed studies that rely on the same scientific rigor as pharmaceutical studies. While I’ve always known that scientists are not exactly all-knowing when it comes to what makes us obese, I had never considered that they might not be doing everything they could to remedy that fact, either. NuSI’s website says that the overwhelming majority of nutritional studies use participants that rely on the “honor code” of sticking to the diet being studied. That means being away from the watching eye of scientists in the comfort of their own homes. Who is to say that many of these participants don’t cheat on these diets and then lie to save face?

“In short, the state of the scholarly literature is such that we need well-designed, well-controlled, large n, lengthy studies directly addressing the question of whether the carbohydrate content of the diet influences fat mass independent of total caloric intake and whether total caloric intake has an influence independent of carbohydrate content. Such studies would also ultimately address the effect of nutrient composition on biomarkers of disease and other relevant outcomes.”

You would think that with the enormous obsession Americans have on obesity, we would be putting more effort (and funding) into these studies being more scientific. Current studies definitely approach nutrition from a holistic standpoint; since many vitamins and nutrients affect multiple bodily functions it can be hard to isolate distinct factors that lead to malnutrition and/or obesity. But even if scientists maintain that they cannot be any more “scientific,” how can anyone be okay with how little research we are actually conducting?

Numbers

The above photo shows the spending of the USDA, American Cancer Society, American Heart  Association, and the National Institutes of Health on obesity and nutrition research. Yes, school lunches, behavioral & hypertensions research, and HIV treatment are all extremely important and should not lose funding. But it would be difficult to find someone who disagrees with the fact that proper nutrition can help prevent and/or mitigate the symtoms of many diseases. Personally, I think funding more nutritional research would not only be beneficial in understanding what goes into our bodies more, but also that it could open doors in terms of drug research.

On a related note: scientists have discovered that a drug commonly used to treat canker sores might be the key to weight loss but have yet to test it on humans. While great, weight loss is quite different than nutrition. Whether or not we are thin is not an indicator of health. Moreover, the article notes that if this drug did work on humans, it would have to be used every day to maintain low body weight. This is, of course, problematic, given how much American already depend on pharmaceuticals. Hopefully, new research like that supported by NuSI will reveal a healthier way to reach our goal weights that does not involve pills.