In today's climate of enlightened eating, few issues are as divisive as that of genetically modified foods. While many kale-munching co-op shoppers wouldn't touch the stuff with a ten-foot pole, recent science has come down on the side of GM fruits and vegetables, with significant data showing that their consumption, contrary to what eaters might expect, doesn't have any adverse health effects. And an increasing number of science-minded, pro-GMO writers and activists are speaking up to defend the potential benefits of GM foods like allergy-free peanuts, no-cry onions, and browning-immune apples.
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Kavin Senapathy is one of the pro-GMO, organic-skeptical community's more vocal members. A regular contributor to Forbes and a co-founder of the website March Against Myths about Modification, Senapathy's stance began to take shape when, writing for the evidence-based parenting site Grounded Parents, she realised that "fear-based marketing around GMOs is often targeted at parents" and decided to start documenting her learning process on genetic engineering and food.
MUNCHIES spoke with Senapathy about GMO myth-busting, the organic movement's lies, and the awesomeness of foods like non-browning avocadoes (pristine green guac, here we come!).
MUNCHIES: Hi, Kavin. So, tell me about the "March Against March Against Monsanto." How did you and your co-organisers decide to take action? Kavin Senapathy: March Against Myths is a grassroots organisation I co-founded with geneticist Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel and David Sutherland, a vegan animal-rights activist. Our first annual international event took place in May of 2015, when we protested March Against Monsanto rallies, carrying evidence-based signs and giving science-based speeches. Since then, we've been doing other direct action in opposition to myth-mongers. For example, we were instrumental in having the Houston Museum of Science cancel a talk by anti-GMO scientist Thierry Vrain, and live-tweeted the myths he promoted during his talk, which moved to a different venue.
Many members of the general public either outright oppose GMOs or mistrust them, and believe that Monsanto is an evil corporation up to no good. How did we get to this point? The internet information glut is growing faster than our critical thinking skills. The uncertainty and confusion this glut causes is ripe for exploitation. The truth is, most of what's hated about Monsanto is based in myths and misinformation perpetuated by parties with financial motives. But I'm not Monsanto cheerleader. To me, technology and innovation is so much bigger than Monsanto. It's about agriculture, the Earth, and social justice.
Let's get into some of those myths about GMOs. There are so many! Here are just a few:
That GMOs are the only unnaturally genetically manipulated organisms. Almost all of the foods we consume, including organic, have had their genomes altered in very unnatural ways, in the field or in a lab, using methods that wouldn't occur in nature.
That GMOs are untested and unsafe, and that they cause increased incidence of allergies and health problems. It's also unscientific and arbitrary to subject genetic engineering to more regulatory scrutiny than those created with others methods. Plants created with exposure to mutagenic chemicals or radiation, like commonly available wheat-based products, aren't subject to the testing that GMOs are, even though there is nothing more or less inherently risky about GM techniques when compared to others.
That advocating for genetic engineering is the same as standing for corporate interests. Several of my colleagues and I, writers, scientists, parents, and skeptics promote the truth and science of GMOs because of the injustices these myths perpetuate.
That lobbying and protesting against GM and other agricultural technologies is a way to stick it to Monsanto and big agribusiness. Most people don't realise that the anti-GMO lobby actually helps large corporations like Monsanto, with the current overly stringent, largely unscientific regulatory framework making it prohibitively expensive and difficult for smaller players to get products from research to market.
You're critical of the organic food industry's "fact-scarce messaging." Can you give an example? One of the most common beliefs about organic farming is that it doesn't use chemical pesticides. This is false—organic farming does use pesticides, albeit different ones than used in conventional. Most of these are naturally derived rather than synthetic, but this has no bearing on toxicity. The organic industry also markets its products, rather vaguely, as better for the environment, farmers, and health, and as more natural. Much of their misleading messaging is intentional, and successfully influences consumer perceptions and purchasing behavior.
How is countering myths about modification a social justice issue? Genetic engineering techniques that anti-GMO activists and lobby groups lump under the "GMO" umbrella are tools in an agricultural toolbox. Nearly any desired trait can potentially be realised with these technologies, including drought resistance, pathogen resistance, nutrient fortification and more, all of which can benefit farmers, consumers, the needy, and the environment.
Isn't organic food supposed to be healthier for us? "Healthy" is a popular but nebulous buzzword when it comes to food. What's more important, as I've learned from registered dietitians and other experts, is whether the calories consumed in a meal also carry things that benefit our bodies, like vitamins, fibre, protein, and relatively low amounts of sugar, salt, and saturated fats. Whether or not something is organic has no bearing on this.
You're a mother. How does being a parent and making choices about what to feed your kids affect your position on GMOs? Being a parent is part of what ignited my interest in GMOs, among other food, ag, science, and medical technologies and advancements. As a mom, I have empathy for parents who aren't as privileged as I am, who may be duped by those who oppose GMOs and feel pressure to spend a premium on so-called non-GMO foods.
What are the basic bullet points you'd like the general public to take away from the great GMO debate? We have access to the most abundant, varied, nutritious, and safe food in history.
Farmers are painted as victims of GMOs. As a whole, farmers aren't victims. Rather, they make calculated decisions about their operations. When in doubt, ask a farmer! There are more and more farmers with a presence on social media who are happy to answer questions.
How do non-browning avocadoes, tear-free onions, and gluten-free wheat sound? Good? If so, we need to encourage innovation and competition. Lobbying against agricultural breeding techniques creates an overly stringent, unscientific regulatory atmosphere that carves a clear path for big corporations and prevents these kinds of benefits from reaching consumers.
Thanks for speaking with us, Kavin.
Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.