Marc Brazeau’s 500 Words | When the Food Movement Does Not Move

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Corn
Adding to our ongoing project, Marc Brazeau offers his 500 words exploring his own 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, labor, 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 REALFOOD.ORG and recently became a contributor to Biofortified.org. You can follow Marc on Twitter @realfoodorg to keep up with his other great articles.
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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.

If you would like us at GMO SF to share your story, please see our previous post: Callout for Your Stories! In 500 Words, What is Your Stance on GMOs in Society?
Photo Credit: Marek Pałach-Rydzy | CC
  • First Officer

    Beautifully and detailed written. Unlike you, i didn’t have a journey from one camp to another. For some reason, i saw straight off that the anti-gmo movement was full of it. Perhaps it was my early exposure to MAM’s so called nutrition comparison of GM and non GM corn, both incredibly low carbon in that comparison ! Or it was the cyberbully tone and the blatent use of sexuality of BAB’s fb page, with statements saying they weren’t going to debate the issue.

    In any case, using elementary math and stats, all of the anti-gmo concerns about health and most about environment were obliterated. Like those farmer suicides in India, where comparing the suicide numbers to the # of farmers produced significantly below average suicide rates ! Or Seralini’s study, where you didn’t need a degree in statistics to see he only proved a strain of rats known to have a 70% cancer rate, got cancer 70% of the time.

    Your journey was a lot more difficult than mine. It’s very hard and courageous to throw off years of beliefs when the evidence says otherwise.

    • http://realfoodorg.wordpress.com Marc Brazeau

      Thank you.

      Seeing that the Food Movement was off base on GMOs wasn’t really all that hard, I personally was never particularly anti-GMO. It’s just that my team was anti-GMO and having cut my teeth as a union organizer, I tend to be a team player.

      What’s been harder is finding a larger narrative and understand of where I think the weaknesses in our food system are and what needs to be done about them. I’ve never been one to be impressed with the aesthetics of a political movement for very long. When you put evidence and metrics ahead of fidelity to an aesthetic ideal, both the questions and the answers start to get a lot more complicated. That’s the hard part. (to me)

      • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

        I couldn’t disagree more Marc. Evidence and metrics simplify most situations, especially this one.

        As you’re no doubt aware, there is, according to the rules of organic production, no such thing as “contamination” of an organic crop by GMOs. And marshalling that fact forward eliminates most, if not all, of the objections anti-GMO organic activists have to the new science of biotechnology.

        That seems to me to simplify things greatly.

        • http://realfoodorg.wordpress.com Marc Brazeau

          I just mean that sudden when you put evidence and metrics ahead of fidelity to an aesthetic ideal, then you suddenly have a staggering amount of conflicting evidence to sort through and the right thing to do becomes much more situational. When you are letting aesthetics or cultural/politic loyalties drive the answers, you know the answer before you encounter the evidence. Sifting through the evidence and figuring out what the questions are is more complicated.

          I agree that once you’ve gone through the process, evidence and metrics are greatly clarifying.

          • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

            Well yes. Certainly Marc. And in this case, the evidence indicates that there is no such thing as “contamination” of an organic crop by GMOs. And the sooner we get this fact across to those opposed to GMOs, the sooner we can get back to more important matters. ‘Til then, I’m afraid the anti-GMO organic activists are bogging modern farming, and hence society, down.

            • http://realfoodorg.wordpress.com Marc Brazeau

              I’m referring more broadly to topics like CAFO waste, anti-biotic use in livestock production, the relative sustainability of various agriculture approaches, the environmental impact of meat production, whether policy solutions should address the supply or demand curves, etc.

              I’m talking about broad set of issues that interest me, not just the GMO/Organic divide.

              • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

                Hang on Marc. You say in your article that you want to “fast forward” your friends and colleagues “to an understanding of GMOs that doesn’t call for all the drama.” Surely the means to this end is to begin by disabusing them of their cherished belief that GMOs pose any risk whatsoever to organic crops.

                You’re quite right when you say “There’s a reason the drama is unwarranted, and the reason is easy to understand but hard to get used to.” And that reason is that there is no such thing as contamination of an organic crop by GMOs. Simple.

                I’m sorry to say this, but I’m beginning to think maybe you’re not aware that there is no such thing as contamination of an organic crop by GMOs, and you yourself are having a hard time coming to terms with it.

                Say it a few times while your shaving or mowing the lawn tomorrow. “There’s no such thing as GMO contamination of organic crops.” There you go. Please get used to it. And please use it to bring others along.

                All the best!

          • http://realfoodorg.wordpress.com Marc Brazeau

            Mischa, I apologize for writing a short essay and not the book you would have preferred. I’m well aware of the issues around GMO and organic co-existence and the way that organic activist have used that as a wedge issue.

            I have insisted, in other venues over and over again that the appropriate term is cross-pollination, not contamination. It’s pretty well internalized at this point.

            • http://www.isitorganic.ca Mischa Popoff

              A book? It’s a single sentence Marc: “There’s no such thing as contamination of an organic crop by GMOs.”

              As for the issues surrounding GMO and organic “coexistence,” there are none. So why refer to them?

      • http://realfoodorg.wordpress.com Marc Brazeau

        In my reply to First Officer’s comment, I said that figuring out that the Food Movement was wrong about GMOs was easy. Then I said that figuring out a way of understanding the complete range of issues related to the food system was more complicated if you put evidence and metrics ahead of aesthetics.

        I’m talking about broad set of issues that interest me, not just the GMO/Organic divide.

  • http://rationalityunleashed.wordpress.com rationalityunleashed

    This was fantastic, Marc.

  • Michael Fest

    Well said Marc.

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  • http://www.isitorganic.ca Mischa Popoff

    Quite a good article Marc. It’s most interesting that you say “it seemed to me that cultural aesthetics often trumped metrics and some evidence was more equal than other evidence.” I came to a similar conclusion back when I was an organic inspector, and it stemmed from the fact that organic crops are not tested to ensure prohibited substances are being kept out of organic production, or to ensure manure is properly composted. That was a real eye-opener, a case of the organic pot trying to call the conventional kettle black. then came the fact that organic stakeholders were actually given the opportunity to embrace GMOs by President Clinton, rather than reject them. And when I learned that the whole anti-GMO organic position just crumbled for me.
    Imagine, creating an enemy just to make your position seem stronger. That’s what anti-GMO organic activists did. And they need to be called out into the open on it.

  • http://midwestbarbie.wordpress.com midwestbarbie

    This was a fabulous article. Being the daughter of what the food movement would call a ‘corporate’ farm. It is so frustrating. With degrees in Agricultural Economics and studying plant genetics, it baffles me that people think I’m filling them with BS when I discuss GMOs and their importance in today’s world. I’m not looking to make ANY money on discussing biotechnology yet they trust the documentary they paid to see. They are selling the story, which is fiction.

    • http://realfoodorg.wordpress.com Marc Brazeau

      Thank you!

      People understand the world mostly through stories, that’s why Knigel started this 500 Words series. We hope that we can give people a way to find a framework of understanding that makes sense to them.

      We have a thread on GMOSF/FB where we’ve collected our favorite narrative writing on these issues, I hope that can be a useful resource for you.

      https://www.facebook.com/groups/GMOSF/permalink/324013707737886/

  • http://twitter.com/RobertWager1 Robert Wager (@RobertWager1)

    Good piece. Better take cover now.

  • moomooo

    Glad you had this epiphany. I still error on the side of caution when it comes to gene splicing. Then there is glyphosate. But by all means enjoy all the GMOs you like that’s the thing about choices, you can choose to eat GMOs I choose not to. But when you don’t know if something has GMOs you are left with no choice. Introduction of new proteins means new allergies ( splicing a Brazil nut gene into soybean) now people with nut allergies are allergic to soybeans. My whole thing is that GMOs serve no purpose. The risk is to high for no reward. They solve no problem but create many more.

    • Knigel

      “My whole thing is that GMOs serve no purpose.”

      Not even genetically-modified insulin? Have you already read Amelia’s story? http://www.skeptiforum.org/amelia-jordans-500-words-the-fear-of-exploration/

    • Bill

      What commercial soybean event contains a gene from a Brazil nut? Such a product actually would require labeling in the US (presence of an allergen) and you would be able to see it listed in the ingredients. I’ve gone through the list of soybean events listed at USDA’s website and there isn’t one containing a Brazil nut gene. If you have evidence that such a soybean is being cultivated commercially you should contact USDA.

    • https://www.facebook.com/lynne.finnerty Lynne Jenkins Finnerty

      “By all means enjoy all the GMOs you like.” Ah, but there’s the rub. If the activists succeed in their efforts to ban them, or eliminate companies’ interest in investing in biotech research by putting a warning label on them, then you take away my right to enjoy all the GMOs I like. If you’re really for choice, you leave things the way they are now. Buy organic if you want to avoid them, but stop making the rest of us pay the price for your preferences.

    • http://realfoodorg.wordpress.com Marc Brazeau

      “I still error on the side of caution when it comes to gene splicing.”

      Well said. Many won’t admit the error of misapplied precautionary thinking.

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  • Jamey Warchild

    Initially my introduction to GMO’s was threw Pen & Teller’s: BULLSHIT! Which they make a solid case against the anti-GMO types. My curiosity for GMO’s would have ended there, but fast forward a few years and I have a friend that works for an organic farm and he’s staunchly apposed to GMO’s. He’s also kind of a conspiracy theorist as well (believes in chem-trails and the such) so when he invited me to the march against Monsanto in San Francisco I went to see what all the fuss was about. Like the author of this article I couldn’t help but find the “leaders” and guest speakers arguments felt lacking of any scientific substance. It was just rhetoric to appease a very large crowd. So after the march I rewatched Penn and Teller’s bullshit and decided to do some more research from “the other side”. I’m not an expert at all, but every argument the anti-GMO guys have is easily debunked and doesn’t hold water. When I tried to explain to my friend “hey man, you’re actually wrong about this one and here’s why” he just called me a sheep and spouted off about how evil Monsanto is with out letting me get a word in edgewise. Needless to say, we don’t talk much anymore. And honestly, I’m ok with that. Because at 29yo, I’m done dealing with people that are irrational and are easily manipulated by hearsay or lead by emotion rather than logic and facts. So, I guess my point is, the world is getting smaller and smaller for me and it’s nice to know I’m not alone in this “radical, conformist, sheep” mindset of wanting actual proof.

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