Chicken Little Alive, Well In Food Science

You may already know how I feel about agribusiness. For the most part I am NOT a fan. In particular, I don’t like the way agribusiness practices have put our food supply in danger by putting profit ahead of quality. On the other hand, I don’t believe in the alleged danger of so-called Frankenfoods, genetically modified food animals and plants.

You’ll be hearing a lot about this issue this month as a sensationalist author makes the round of talk shows shilling a new book. Seeds of Deception by Jeffery Smith attempts to make the case that genetically modified food is putting our environment and our health in danger. But to me, it sounds a little too much like a story designed to scare us all to retreat from modern life in favor of living in caves again. Smith is on a book tour that will include an appearance on the Dr. Oz Show December 7.

I must admit I haven’t read more than excerpts of the book, but I have heard these same claims before. Smith says the federal government, in concert with agribusiness interests, have deliberately lied and covered up information about the dangers of genetically modified food. The book, which reads more like a spy thriller than a work of scientific and journalistic research, claims scientists have been manipulated into faking or hiding data that would give a negative impression of genetic modification of food crops. It claims government researchers unwilling to go along with the deception were harassed or even fired. And it claims that evidence of harmful affects to test animals and even humans has been covered up.

By and large, I have not been positive about agribusiness or the troubles in our Food and Drug Administration. It is beyond question that problems are there and that money has had a lot to do with them. But to say the public is in actual and immediate danger sounds a little too much like a Chicken Little story.

The real danger from these claims is that those with little or no knowledge of science will force all food research into the category of “mad science.” Agribusiness companies, like Monsanto, have done some things I don’t agree with. But they have also helped design food crops that could bring much needed nutrition to poor places in the world where people are starving. They have spent a lot of money bringing these food crops to places that could not otherwise afford it. On the other hand, they haven’t always done this in a way that allows farmers to remain sustainable, often creating a spiral of debt that forces farmers to remain under the thumb of these companies.

But that is no excuse for bad science or sensational claims designed to anger the public. In reality, genetic modification of food crops is really not much different from what farmers have been doing for thousands of years. Genetic modification allows science to do in a few years what used to take decades to develop. Selective breeding has been going on since the beginning of civilization. By using selected micro-organisms to insert genes into the seeds of plants, food scientists have sped up the process and allowed greater variety in the traits that can be promoted.

Also, this work has been going on for decades and many genetically modified foods are already in your local supermarket. Books like Seeds of Deception are designed to sell to people with a poor science education, an all-too-common trait in America with its besieged public schools. I’m a little suspicious of a book that has the backing of another food company that promotes homeopathic cures to medical illness.

The FDA has many issues. Under previous regimes, I wouldn’t argue with the possibility of corruption and collusion. But the current FDA is less favorable to business and more interested in providing quality food to people. They have a lot of work to do. But they are trying.

It sounds to me like this is more about scaring up book sales than exposing a health risk to the public.

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