Marc Brazeau: When the Food Movement Does Not Move | Pieces of Pi Shared – Science Narratives
Adding to our Pieces of Pi project, Marc Brazeau offers his history through the food movement and into his current introspections of issues surrounding genetically-modified foods. Brazeau writes about the food system through the various lenses of economics, politics, labour, agriculture, cooking and nutrition. An essayist and generalist, he often focuses on how a lay people can make sense of contested issues in a complex world. He blogs at Food and Farm Discussion Lab and recently became a contributor to Biofortified.org. You can follow Marc on Twitter
@realfoodorg to keep up with his other great articles. After jointly building the Skepti-Forum organisation from the ground up, Marc shared this piece originally with their 500 Word project.
If you would like to share your own adventures in science and science communication, check out our Pieces of Pi project as well as our contributor info page then send us an email: email@example.com
Corn is Corn ~Marc Brazeau
I grew up working on farms. I picked cucumbers in the summer in junior high and worked on an orchard year round through high school. I worked as a line cook through my campus radical years. As a union organizer in the South, living in motels, driving up to 50,000 miles a year, I had to redefine ham hock as a seasoning to keep my vegetarianism intact. After burning out on 70 hour work weeks and eating in my car, I went back to cooking for a living. That led to reading everything I could get my hands on about food: history, science, travelogue…all of it. After a diagnosis of slightly above normal blood sugar, I was given some books on nutrition as homework. Nutrition became a new hobby and the obesity epidemic a new public policy issue on my radar.
So I was a chef with progressive politics, a former union organizer and farm worker, and an amateur nutritionist when I started stumbling across various voices from the Food Movement some time around 2005. It’s hard to imagine someone better primed for a message of sustainable agriculture, grassroots activism, local economics, and low income community food security. Being a Massachusetts born union organizer who lived in cities but often worked in rural communities in the South has irrevocably scrambled my cultural allegiances beyond all recognition.
I dug into the message of the Food Movement and read everything I could get my hands on. I dutifully watched all the documentaries, Food Inc. The Future of Food, The World According to Monsanto, you name it. There is a lot of appeal to the message of the Food Movement, but it seemed to me that cultural aesthetics often trumped metrics and some evidence was more equal than other evidence. (It seemed a little suspicious when the “proof” of superior organic yields was always David Pimentel’s studies on organic yields from the Rodale test farms. No little data set should ever have to shoulder such a heavy burden.)
When I left cooking for a living, I started to think about writing about food: nutrition, public policy, history. In trying to put pen to paper, it became evident that there were big gaps in my knowledge that needed to be filled if I was going to write with the authority of the writers I admired.
In looking to fill those gaps, the website Biofortified was a big influence. So were Steve Savage’s writings. Twitter led me to the blogs of many Midwestern farmers and Western ranchers (Fiercely proud, Tractor Moms, as I call them). Obviously smart, obviously well informed farmers and ranchers did not seem to find Michael Pollan and Alice Waters as insightful about agriculture as I had. Clearly, this was a case of “more research is needed.”
A disdain for GMOs was part and parcel of the Food Movement package deal. But, it wasn’t a big concern of mine, just something I filed away for further study. My lazy operating assumption was that, while the technology would probably be of use in the future, we currently don’t understand nutrition or ecology enough to monkey around with Mother Nature successfully. Witness the cases of trans fats and vitamin supplements. We thought we were doing the right thing, but the human body turned out to be more complicated than we thought and it bit us in the ass.
But it was clear to me that whether or not the Food Movement was correct that the technology was not ready for prime time, it was already here and further application of the technology was inevitable. There was no getting the toothpaste back in the tube.
When I looked around, I could see leaders in the Food Movement calling for bans or labeling. What I couldn’t find was anyone in the Food Movement who seemed to be putting any thought into what a responsible, egalitarian future with GMOs might look like. Really knowing your stuff was going to be necessary to participate meaningfully in that conversation. It was also clear to me that leaders in the Food Movement didn’t exactly have an encyclopedic understanding of the issue. I was going to have to learn about the issue from “the other side”. That mostly meant Biofortified.org and later Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak’s Tomorrow’s Table. I was happy to find out that somebody was in fact considering what a responsible, egalitarian future with GMOs might look like. The ‘other side’ wasn’t so other after all.
As I started researching GMOs, I was first a little stunned and then really, really angry at how much bad information I had absorbed through Food Movement sources. The documentaries were the worst offenders, factually challenged, emotionally manipulative. I don’t like being made a fool of, and it was only by keeping my powder dry while doing the research that spared me from spouting off some seriously foolish beliefs. Terminator seeds, India farmer suicides, farmers sued because of pollination, the misinformation that I’d been fed just seemed to go on and on. I care about what I feed my body, but I care even more about what I feed my head. I was mad and I became firmly anti Anti-GMO.
As I’ve learned more, and gained what I think is a pretty firm handle on the issue, it’s become harder to see the other side’s viewpoint. As you work through the objections to GMOs, there is just so little there. If it’s not outright misinformation, it’s a critique of industrial or large scale farming, agribusiness or agriculture itself that is being projected onto GMOs.
When you start with a conception of a tomato being crossed with a fish that you got from a cartoon on a picket sign and you wind up finally understanding that it is a single well understood gene out of tens of thousands being transferred from one organism to another, you wonder, why all the drama? When you realize that you share half your DNA with a banana or that an herbicide resistant soybean has been bred to express a different version of a single enzyme so that it is not affected by a single herbicide, the technology is a lot less mysterious and intimidating. When you understand that substantial equivalence means that there is less difference between a variety of Bt corn and it’s parent than there is between the parent and another variety of corn it starts to seem pretty mundane.
So, you listen to people voice their objections to GMOs and you ask, “Why, exactly, do you think corn that expresses a Bt protein could harm humans or devastate the environment?” “What, exactly, is your objection to vaccinating papayas against ringspot virus?” “How can you think Golden Rice is a quick fix band aid, but Unicef workers dropping everything they are doing for two weeks twice a year to administer vitamin A supplementation is not a band aid?” “Why are ‘superweeds’ a GMO issue and not a crop management issue?” I try to remember that they probably watched all the same poorly made documentaries that I watched. I just hope that a few end up as pissed off as I was that the places they got their information from failed them.
But I also wish I could fast forward them to an understanding of GMOs that doesn’t call for all the drama. There’s a reason the drama is unwarranted, and the reason is easy to understand but hard to get used to. GM corn is corn. It really is just corn. It is totally not at all surprising that it behaves exactly like corn, because it is exactly just like corn, owing to the fact that it is corn.