I’ve been wanting to write an opinion about Genetically Modified Organisms for years. I was first asked to wade into the GMO opinion zone in 2012 when I blogged for the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival. However, the quagmire of misinformation made it difficult to sort out propaganda from science.
I wanted factual information, and it has taken me several years to gather enough that I feel I can have an informed opinion on the matter.
That opinion is that I am NOT opposed to GMOs.
Just because I am in favor of GMOs does not mean that I am against organic. Just as liking organic, should not necessarily make one anti-GMO. As a chef, my stance on food has always been based on quality of product. Just as I don’t always use local products for the sake of saying that I buy local, I don’t buy organic for the sake of saying that I use organic.
Just because something is certified organic doesn’t guarantee a superior product. If I’m buying local, it’s because the local product is of equal or better quality than an import. The same goes for food with the organic certification. I use local whenever possible, organic whenever possible, and yes, ideally, local organic whenever possible.
I buy Ma’o Organic produce because it is a great product grown by a socially conscious organization. The fact that it is organic really has no bearing on my choice.
The facts as I know it
No doubt, many will dismiss this as pro-GMO rhetoric, and that I’m a shill for Monsanto (the company many view as the evil empire of food) paid to spread their corporate lies. Full disclosure: The only thing that I have received from Monsanto is the cocoa puff and cup of tea they paid for the day I met with two of their executives at Liliha Bakery (more on that later). [Disclosure: since writing this I have attended an informal dinner hosted by Monsanto to meet with glyphosate expert Dr. William Reeves.]
I promise that everything I am about to share, as I know it, is based on facts.
Your organic produce is a GMO.
People forget that organic refers to the certified growing method. Yes, USDA standards prohibit the use of biotech seeds, however since humans first started cultivating crops, we have been manipulating the genes of plants and animals to instill desired traits.
Bigger pigs, brighter apples, sweeter citrus, artificially inseminated cows that produce more milk, more robust tomatoes – all created through genetic tinkering crop after crop, generation after generation, the ideal being bigger yields that require less manpower to produce.
The produce we buy is unrecognizable from the original from which they were derived. Everything modern farmers grow has been genetically modified in one way or another, through cross-pollination, grafting, selective breeding and so forth. Therefore, I will use the term “biotech crops” when referring to what many mislabel as GMO.
There’s no way for people to know where their produce is from or how it was cultivated. Therefore, I am in favor of labeling. Let the farmers grow what they choose to grow, and let the consumer decide what they choose to buy.
When I sat down with Dr. Robert Fraley, Chief Technology Officer for Monsanto, and John Purcell, Business Lead for Monsanto in Hawaii, I asked about the company’s stance on labeling.
Fraley said not only does Monsanto support labeling, they prefer it be regulated by the USDA.
“Labeling on the state level would make things more difficult for farmers,” explained Fraley, “…because the labeling standards in their state may be different than the regulations in another state, which could impede them from doing business there.”
As we sat in Liliha Bakery, Fraley pointed to the QR code on a bottle of ketchup. He said that if he had his way, labeling would use QR codes. Customers could scan the code with their smart phones and find out not only if the product contains biotech crops, but where the crop was grown, who grew it and even where the seed came from.
To test this, I scanned a QR code on a basket of grapes I recently bought, which directed me to a website called Harvest Mark. The information is rudimentary, consisting of the the company the grapes were from, and if there were any food safety issues reported. Definitely a step in the right direction, that could be expanded upon with guidance from the USDA.
Educating the public
Purcell admits that they (Monsanto) haven’t done a very good job of educating the public.
“We were so focused on educating farmers on the benefits of biotech crops, that we forgot that they only make up 1.5% of the population,” said Purcell. “We have a lot of people to educate.”
Denise Yamaguchi, CEO of the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival and executive director for the Hawaii Agricultural Foundation, also wants to educate people about their food. Hawaii Ag Foundation supports all types of farming, and that farmers should be able to freely choose between conventional or organic farming as well as use of biotech seeds.
Yamaguchi described a Hawaii Ag Foundation program called In The Fields, which sponsors visits to local farms for high school students.
“We expose the students to different types of farming and then we leave it up to them to decide what they think,” says Yamaguchi.
The students visit three farms: conventional, organic and one that grows biotech crops.
Melissa Zeman, who manages the Ag Park in Kunia for the Hawaii Ag Foundation, explained the differences between conventional farming, organic and biotech.
“Conventional and organic farming are methods or styles of growing crops,” Zeman explains. “Biotech refers to a breeding technique used for seeds. Therefore, it is possible to organically grow a biotech crop, it just won’t be certified as organic.”
The main distinction between conventional and organic farming is in the pesticides and fertilizers. Organic uses naturally derived pesticides and fertilizers, whereas conventional farming uses synthetic chemicals. A common misconception is that organic doesn’t use pesticides; in reality, they sometimes use more than conventional farming because the naturally derived product may not be as effective at killing pests.
And while synthetic has specific, regulated, instructions on how much to use based on crop and size of the field, natural pesticides are not required to give such guidance, so organic produce may have more pesticide residue.
Zeman hopes Hawaii Ag Foundation programs like In The Fields, Veggie U Hawaii, and Ag internships, will not only lead to the next generation of farmers, but expose students to other careers that support agriculture like lab technicians, office workers and chefs.
GMOs in our lives
Yamaguchi put it best when she asked, “How much biotech is in the produce section of your local market?”
The answer is not much. In Hawaii the main biotech crop on the shelves would be papaya, which was genetically altered to resist the ring spot virus that virtually wiped out the industry until transgenic papaya varieties were introduced in 1998.
Most of the two major biotech crops, corn and soybeans, are used as animal feed or ingredients in processed foods, and without a labeling system it’s virtually impossible for the average consumer to determine which products use biotech crops.
Melissa Diane Smith’s book “Going Against GMOs” lists over 100 items that could contain ingredients derived from biotech crops, including various sweeteners, baking soda, cooking oil, pet food, nutritional supplements and more.
Vegans and vegetarians aren’t off the hook—Smith also lists tofu, tempeh and whey protein powders as possibly containing biotech ingredients. Although she espouses the benefits of a diet that avoids biotech ingredients, Smith’s book left me pondering the futility of it all.
The best example of how ingrained biotech crops are in our food system comes from the book “King Corn,” which spawned a documentary of the same name.
Next time you go to a restaurant, think about how many items in your meal contain corn. The meat probably came from an animal that was corn-fed. If an item is fried, the breading probably contains cornstarch, and may have been cooked in corn oil. Your beverage may contain corn syrup, and ingredients for your meal were possibly delivered in a truck running on biofuel made from—you guessed it—corn.
Yet, GMOs go much further than our food systems. Genetically modified microbes are used in making biofuels, and medications. The first GMO was a bacteria created by Herbert Boyer in 1978, which he used to synthesize insulin for diabetes patients. Prior to Boyer, insulin had to be harvested from the pancreas of livestock.
At this point, I have spent four years discerning GMO myth from fact, and despite the length of this post, it doesn’t not even begin to address the enormity of information out there. Therefore, dear reader, I encourage you to not take my word for it. Educate yourself, so that whatever opinion you have (whether you agree with me or not) is an informed opinion.
I promise you that only good things can come about when people know more about their food and where it comes from.
The Hawaii Ag Foundation also holds a quarterly panel discussion on called Eat Think Drink. The inaugural event was held in November 2016, and featured Chef Michel Nischan of Wholesome Wave, John Martin of Vice Munchies, State Senator Donovan De La Cruz, Wendy Akiyama of Armstron Produce, Judah Lum of Kahuku Farms, and Alec Sou of Aloun Farms. The next one should be in April or May.
Visit the Monsanto farm. They host outreach events regularly, and anyone can schedule appointments to tour the farm at monsantohawaii.com. Here is video of John Purcell leading a tour I attended in March 2016.