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Do GMOs have a role in the next food frontier?

There is no shortage of discussion topics emerging from Josh Schonwald’s relatively new book The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food. If arugula can replace romaine, then what, pray tell, is the salad of the future?  Could meat made in a lab instead of a cow be a good thing? What is the next ethnic cuisine frontier? And, perhaps the most tantalizing question (considering the political conversations of today), could genetically modified organisms (GMOs) be a welcome addition to the food of tomorrow?

Book club anyone?

After reading a few reviews (see the Washington Post’s and The Fiscal Times pieces), I jumped right into my e-book, skimming over to an evocatively-named chapter, “The Culinary Potential of Frankenfood.” Frankenfood is author Schonwald’s former pet name for genetically modified foods. “Potential?” I thought. Diehard foodies (which the author no longer purports to be, although Michael Pollan did lead him into thoughts about food) are supposed to be diametrically opposed to GMOs, right? Their Twitter feeds should be resplendent with #justlabelit hashtags, a reference to the political campaign that would require food companies to label products containing GMOs. (In case you were wondering, that would probably include the vast majority of processed foods, since the seeds of most soybeans and corn grown at the commodity level are genetically modified to achieve better disease resistance and yields, for example).

An example of GMO labeling in the Netherlands. Source: GMO Compass

Though the Just Label It campaign’s petition to the FDA has surpassed 1 million signatures, it’s not the only voice in the food world. Virginia food and farming legend, Joel Salatin, wrote a column in the spring edition of Flavor Magazine about why he opposes GMO labeling. The gist of it? He doesn’t think the government shouldn’t get involved in much about food, so it follows that he thinks the labeling and packaging of foods should not be decided in the halls of power. That does not mean that Salatin, whose Staunton farm focuses on whole and sustainable foods and practices, thinks GMOs are a good thing. In fact, he says he detests them and finds them “in blatant disregard for the biological order and patterns per the Genesis record.” Beyond that, he says, such labeling requirements would place an undue financial burden on small farmers and foster more distance between farmer and eater.

Schonwald, however, explains in his book that — in a search for the next foodie frontier, i.e. what salad mix will they have at Whole Foods in 2035? — he began to embrace the possibilities of GMOs, though with some caveats. He says at the beginning of his Frankenfood chapter:

“When I started this project, I had a healthy suspicion of GMOs. I thought the idea of transferring genes between sexually incompatible species was creepy, and I was deeply troubled by the notion that large multinational corporations were patenting and profiting from genes.

“But after my biotech immersion, I found myself intentionally redirecting conversations with friends and family to agricultural biotechnology (I don’t call it Frankenfood anymore), so that I can say things like ‘Vitamin-A-enhanced golden rice could save half a million people from blindness each year.’

“I didn’t totally fall under the spell of Monsanto — It’s not an unequivocal embrace.”

The GMOs Schonwald seems to accept, at least in theory, are those that lead to better or more interesting taste (grocery store tomatoes that take on a Chicago or New Jersey taste despite being grown in the same region of California) or that make nutritious food more accessible to more people. Perhaps what will emerge is a split view on GMOs — one that accepts them if the goal is deemed moral by the food world, i.e. feeding poor people, but doesn’t accept them when they are intended to make farming more efficient or more profitable for corporate agriculture.

Schonwald’s book does introduce an interesting scientific scenario that could, one day, marry the dueling interests of the “Prius drivers,” as he puts it: what about a genetically engineered Brandywine heirloom tomato? That’s almost too many buzz words to digest at once, let alone filter through the myriad contradictions that come to mind. GMO and heirloom in the same sentence? Heirloom varieties are often become heirlooms (or extinct) because they lacked the genetic ability to withstand the changes of time and soil. But genetic modifications through the science that’s available could tweak that to make life — and making it to market — much easier for those Brandywines and others. For now, that science is too expensive for most research facilities and companies to pursue to the fullest extent, says Schonwald.

One of the scientists who helped changed Schonwald’s mind has spent much of her career on advancements that would add nutrition to the food of third-world countries, like the Vitamin-A-enhanced golden rice. It’s this piece of the pie that begins to make Schonwald think GMOs could be used for good.

In An Economist Gets Lunch, Tyler Cowen lays out other factors — besides the “commercialization of food” — that explain why American food became “bad” and what continues to feed its poor perception. Amid the 1920s’ technological advances and prohibition shutdowns of popular restaurants and — “wham” — World War II, American “taste got lost in all the efficiencies.” But not all of those efficiencies, he says, are bad.

He, like Josh Schonwald, says some of those efficiencies and technologies can make good — or at least better —food available to more people. The way genetic engineer and author of Tomorrow’s Table, Pam Ronald, put it: “It’s not the process that’s bad or good. It’s the product.” Ronald, who’s married to an organic farmer and bears all the societal markers of a true foodie, claims that some applications of genetic engineering — like the crossbreeding the Mesopotamians did to create a new breed of wheat — could have very practical implications for the expansion of good food.

Some giant pumpkins from one of our favorite Skagit Valley farms… not genetically modified, but still GIANT.

As journalists write about food and its advancements, we have a responsibility to do more than throw facts and buzzwords at people. Every one of those words has a context and, most likely, is breeding a hearty debate in some facet of the food community. Like reporting on the front lines of any new movement, there will be new research and new developments that are later proved less-than-right or even downright wrong. Trial and error is more true on the food frontier than perhaps any other.

I, for one, am thankful that I don’t have to have an opinion (at least publicly) about the pitfalls or merits of GMOs. I’m just telling you that there are a lot of opinions out there. I am glad to be eating and writing as this “movement” creeps both backward and forward, reaching for the best things that used to be while leaving room for innovations that could make them better.

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