Folmsbee: There’s no need to fear genetically modified food

Sai Folmsbee, Columnist

October is a month that ends in a celebration of our fears. But gone are the monsters of our youth, now replaced with something much more terrifying. In an age when virtually all kinds of food are affordable, available and safe, we still find ways to fear what we eat. Whether it’s our dread of the “chemicals” in the list of ingredients or the horror of genetic modification, this anxiety has evolved into a much more debilitating fear of science.

In a recent online piece that went viral, Vani Hari of Food Babe aggressively accused Starbucks of selling pumpkin spice lattes filled with carcinogens, allergens, pesticides and a “toxic” dose of sugar.

This kind of fear mongering is not new. Hari made news just a few months ago when she “exposed” Subway for including azodicarbonamide, which can be found in yoga mats, in its sandwich bread. In doing so, she proved that these kind of articles are not toothless because she successfully pressured Subway into removing azodicarbonamide from its bread.

In either case, even the most cursory of scientific examinations will show that there is certainly no reason to believe any chemical in these foods will have such negative health effects. All of these additives have been exhaustively tested to ensure that our food is safe, and many of these chemicals have varying uses in food and industry because we have the scientific research to justify it. But this isn’t a simple case of chemophobia, a fear of chemicals. This represents something far more sinister within the psyche of American consumers: a distrust of science itself.

For example, Ben and Jerry’s has also joined in increasing our fear of our food. It recently announced its support for the political movement to label genetically modified organism foods. Unsurprisingly, a company that survives on pun-inspired ice cream names does not have a nuanced understanding of the science behind GMOs. Ben and Jerry’s cannot even define what an organism is. The first version of its website proclaimed, “GMOs aren’t just altered organisms; they can be plants, vegetables or even things like fish.” Not only does Ben and Jerry’s not seem to understand that all of the things it listed are organisms, it also seems to think vegetables aren’t plants.

After receiving criticism, it has since taken down this error-riddled sentence. However, more scientific inaccuracies remain. Ben and Jerry’s defines GMOs as “DNA from one species … injected into another species in a laboratory,” which gives the false impression that GMOs are simply normal foods clumsily injected with some kind of scary DNA. The truth of how GMOs are created using precise genetic manipulation, breeding and testing has been entirely overlooked. The only reliable information is at the end of the webpage, where Ben and Jerry’s claims, “We know we’re not scientists.” Perhaps it should have been left at that.

I’ve discussed GMO use before, but there is no scientific reason to believe that GMO crops pose any greater risk than non-GMO, from the initial engineering of the foods to their impact on public health. The political and economic turmoil around GMOs, including patenting of crops, is much more complicated, but the science behind GMO safety as foods is clear.

Some would argue that labeling itself poses no true harm and merely offers consumers information and the freedom to choose. But the only reason to label GMO foods is to imply that they are substantially different from non-GMO foods. And such a label, though seemingly benign, has a high price. Enforcing such bills have been shown to cost each state millions of dollars, costs that would likely drive up the price of food. Right now, a GMO-labeling bill is sitting in committee in the Illinois legislature and could be called on to vote in the near future.

But whether we fear sandwiches, lattes or GMO food, it all stems from the same overarching anxiety: the horror of the unknown. It is much easier to find preservatives terrifying and genetic manipulations a criminal act of nature because the alternative requires effort beyond what any typical individual would place toward something so banal as food. But the right choice, the hard choice, is necessary. Our fear and misunderstanding of science has spiraled into an anti-vaccination movement and a miserable decline in funding for scientific research. We have to be willing to invest time and energy into understanding the complex science behind our everyday choices because a fear of science itself is becoming much more dangerous.

Sai Folmsbee is a Feinberg graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to [email protected].