It all started as pleasantries in a small-town parking lot, but when GMOs came up, the conversation took a turn for the worse. What happens next is a clash between science and public opinion, and why what we think matters so much in building a sustainable food system…
In the small-town South where I live, it’s not just expected but almost obligatory that you speak to anyone who passes within 30 feet of you. It doesn’t have to be anything profound – just an acknowledgement of the importance of simple human contact as a civilizing force in our existence.
So I never gave it a second thought when I walked out of my locally-owned and operated food store and strolled past two well-dressed, well-groomed ladies of a certain age, standing between their two late-model SUVs, locked in animated discussion on some topic or another, each with one hand on the other’s arm, as all Southern belles used to be taught is only polite.
“Find something good to eat?” I asked benignly. Not a particularly creative conversational gambit, I admit. But standing outside the premier local source of organic foods, it seemed as safe and appropriate as anything else I could think of.
“Good…and healthy, too,” the one dressed in green chirped, as they both turned to me with the same beatific smiles my mother used to bestow on those who crossed her path.
Then things took a very different turn.
“And not a GMO in any of it,” the other dressed in blue added.
“Oh, you don’t like GMOs?” I decided to play this one carefully.
“Who does,” came the response. “They are the worst things in the world for you, you know.”
“And how did you learn that,” I asked.
“Oh, everyone knows that,” green lady responded with a small chuckle. “It’s all over the internet.”
I asked where on the internet such wisdom could be found, and to my surprise (maybe shock), the pair began reciting a list of websites that they assured me would set me on the path to enlightenment, and probably a lot longer and healthier life.
Now, I’ve been around the discussions and debates over which foods are healthy and which foods aren’t. There’s lots of information about that subject, and opinions will differ. You have to respect other people’s point of view, and the decisions they make about food, and pretty much everything else in life, too.
But I still pray that everyone makes informed decisions – decisions made on the basis of facts and reason, drawn from sources that have some degree of science and rationality behind them.
What came next caused my faith in informed decision-making to shake its core…
“So I guess that means you don’t think GMOs have any place in our food system,” I observed as non-judgmentally as possible. “Are they really that evil?”
“You have no idea how dangerous they are,” the lady in green observed.
“Or how much they have taken over our food supply,” the one in blue added.
“What do you mean?” I asked. It seemed the obvious question to ask as a follow-up.
Green lady jumped at the chance to teach: “Do you like corn?”
“Sure,” I replied. There’s nothing better, especially straight from the garden. (Hey, it’s the South. We all have gardens here.)
“Well did you know that the FDA doesn’t even define corn as a plant anymore,” she informed me authoritatively. “The FDA says it’s a pesticide.”
Wait, a crop is a pesticide? I could no longer hide my surprise. Or my suspicion, I suppose. “How is that possible,” I asked with genuine and profound interest in hearing her answer.
Here’s the answer I was given. Honestly, this is it:
“Our corn supply has all been genetically modified. It’s called ‘RoundUp Ready’ corn. It’s been modified so it produces its own RoundUp as it grows. That means all those chemicals are in the corn – just growing and growing and growing as the corn matures. No one want us to know that. But I’ve read it on some websites. Go to these sites, and you’ll see.”
At this point, my childhood lessons in southern civility kicked in, overpowering my sense of incredulity at what I had just heard. I thanked the ladies for helping me understand more about food. They beamed with satisfaction at having done their good deed for the day, and one of them actually reached out and touched my arm. That’s more of that belief in the power of actual human contact at work.
I knew the odds of having any kind of counter-argument or divergent point of view was probably a lost cause given the array of web-sourced expertise already on display. But I still thought it worthwhile to stir the pot, if only just a little.
“You know, I read a few websites about food, too,” I casually mentioned. “You gave me several to look at. Maybe you’d like to see some of the stuff I’ve read, too.”
I mentioned a couple website I consider fairly balanced and truly credible on food, like Cornell University’s Alliance for Science, Genetic Literacy Project, The World Health Organization, and a few others that might begin to tell a different story about GMOs and the important role played by genetics in feeding our world. I doubt seriously any of them will succeed in changing the minds of these two fine ladies who crossed my path today.
But I smiled anyway and excused myself with the honest truth that my pick-up pizza was waiting for me. But as I walked to my car, something came over me. I’ve got to at least try.
I can’t let that kind of stupendous misinformation go unchallenged, or just walk away from the super-colossally wrong conclusions they can produce in the average intelligent and well-intentioned person.
I turned on my heel and called out to them, both still deep in conversation in the soft late-afternoon sunshine.
“Be sure to look at a website called Dirt to Dinner,” I said. “They write a lot about food, and GMOs. You might like it.” That last part was a stretch, I know, but it seemed the polite thing to say.
“Dirt to Dinner?” the green lady called back. “That’s easy to remember. We all need dirt, don’t we?”
They tittered at the wit of the response. Or maybe it was me they found funny. Doesn’t matter, as long as they remember the site name.
Public opinion –the level of understanding held by the average person – matters in building a sustainable food system. We just can’t afford to accept a common public dialogue on food based on this level of knowledge and opinion. There’s just too much at stake to ask the public – the voter – to help set food policy when perfectly normal people walk the streets thinking RoundUp Ready corn is a pesticide, rather than one of the bedrock crops for a global food system.
My long-suffering spouse listened patiently as a I recounted my parking-lot adventure and brought me a paper bag to breathe into. Just calm down, she advised. If you don’t like what you heard, go tell the story you think needs to be told. If you don’t, who will?
She’s no doubt right.
Long live Dirt to Dinner.