What about the children?

Genetically modified foods, the contents of processed foods, organics, and sustainable food systems are among the hot topics in the media and health conscious. These topics were indeed contributed to my eventual decision to major in Environmental Science, and were major topics in many of my classes. My favourite class was even called “People, Pesticides and Politics”. It was brilliant. The fact that I was part of a relatively small group of environmentalists in amongst the same agriculture school (Michigan State University) as the agribusiness majors made the conversation all the more interesting, particularly considering the school received quite a bit of funding from the big companies like Monsanto and Dow. I honestly feel like the conversations I had about GMOs and sustainable agriculture during this time were some of the richest, most enlightening conversations of my life because everyone at the table was knowledgeable and genuinely interested in solutions, even though we were often at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

If you ever visit the outback, you will find heaps of these in the toilet. Flushing them was very disturbing for me, a lover of frogs.

Unfortunately, the conversations about GMOs and sustainable food systems I hear these days are one-sided and often involve ill-informed individuals. On both sides of the spectrum, people are incredibly passionate, and that makes me very happy. However, in spite of all of the mental energy I have put into this topic over the years, I can’t help but feel left out. I can’t find sources that aren’t biased (please, please recommend them if you know of any). I can’t find sources that don’t stretch or misuse data. I am no expert, so when I can identify flaws in the research I must admit that it turns me off from believing the rest. Of course everyone makes mistakes, but I can’t help but tire of the Chicken Little approach to the discussion around food. Either the sky is falling because we are doing it wrong, or the sky is falling because changing the way we will do it will never feed the world. The truth may lie somewhere in between, but I don’t think I can ever know where it is with the information that is available in the mainstream press right now. Of course I can read it in the journals, but I know my limitations. I am no toxicologist. I am no agricultural scientist. Nor a soil chemist.

Take, for instance, this recent report that was released about the link between RoundUp in birth defects. If it is accurate, then it is scary stuff considering the prevalence of RoundUp around the world. So I tried to look into it further, but I quickly became overwhelmed. The story itself has only been covered by anti-GM media sources. I can’t find much about Open Source Earth. As far as the academics who wrote the report, well, their credentials look fine, but considering the article isn’t in a peer reviewed journal I would have to dig deeper to feel more comfortable with the source. While I would like to believe that academics are above writing reports that are biased, I know this isn’t the case. In addition to a fair bit of experience with this recently, time and time again meta-analyses and experiments have shown that results are subject to researcher bias (whether consciously or unconsciously). In addition, the report starts by citing toxicology research. Again, I would have to go back and read that research to feel comfortable that it is being used in the right way, particularly as the research was done on frog and chicken embryos. Though alarming news for frogs and chicken, I would need to know more about how this translates to humans.

Do you see where I am going with this? There are so many layers that it’s hard to even know where to begin. Yet I am left feeling like there is something wrong with me because I have studied these subjects in University, but I am unable to form a steadfast opinion on these matters. On the other hand, it seems that everywhere I turn people have strong opinions on these topics, and they are confident in their accuracy. Meanwhile, I am stuck in an existential fit just trying to make sense of it all. The life of a skeptic, perhaps?

However, the event that really prompted me to write this post was not a moment of frustration with the black and white debate around agriculture. That’s an ongoing struggle. In this case, it was a realisation, courtesy of my boss, that arose from a discussion of this research.

Recently, I have repeatedly heard variations of the following assertion from people who do not believe the proverbial sky is falling (not to be confused with the anti-GM arguments above…see, I don’t discriminate.):

Don’t people realise that [X] (e.g. CEOs, farmers, Monsanto employees, geneticists, etc.) eat the food too? And they feed it to their children?

The statement is generally used to illustrate the point that there can’t be much truth to the claims that [substance x] is bad for us. After all, they rely on the food system too, so they would want to change it if it were causing harm. This argument has never sit right with me, and though I could rant about it quite a bit (as I am prone to do), I could never quite pinpoint why it was so illogical. Jo Ann to save the day.

The food on their children’s plates tells us little of the safety of that food. The risk perception literature gives a clue as to why that is. People will always do their best to avoid accepting something if it would be a serious blow to their worldview. We do this to protect ourselves. Think about it: if you worked for a company, and you learned that your chief product could be harming your children, and you really believe in this product, would you really give it up so easily? We’d like to think that there would be some sort of unequivocal proof that they couldn’t ignore, and if they did…well, then it’s a conspiracy. But science doesn’t usually work that way, and people don’t work that way either. Of course you know so-and-so who read Food Inc and it changed their entire worldview. Or that other person who watched “Meet your Meat” and never touched a hamburger again. But this only works when people are open to it. It doesn’t work for the majority of people (I assure you millions of people have read that book and saw that film and never changed a thing). This is precisely the reason that so many people find climate change research so confronting. If they accept it, then they have to accept a massive shift in the way they live. It’s terrifying. It’s so terrifying, in fact, that it’s easier for many people to deny it altogether. You can shove evidence their way, but in many cases it won’t even make a dent.

So what about the parent working at Monsanto? Even when faced with research that suggests health problems could be caused by RoundUp, we cannot assume that people at Monsanto would react for the sake of their own health and their children’s. Agree with it or not, the people at Monsanto believe in the products they sell. Whilst it would be easier to imagine them as fat cats in suits, puffing a cigar and laughing maniacally all the way to the bank, the fact is that they are human beings with human traits. Even if they are faced with evidence that their products are causing problems, it may take them a very long time to shift from their position. On the other side of the spectrum, we could have research suggesting that GM foods are good for us and the planet, but you aren’t going to convince someone who is vehemently opposed to GM foods. Unfortunately for those of us somewhere in between, there is not easy answer to who is right. I value the work of those that are challenging widely accepted practices like those who are writing about GM foods, but I recognise that they are human beings just like those at Monsanto. Unfortunately, we cannot look at the food on their plates to know who is right. If only it were that simple.

There are countless books and research articles on this topic. From smoking to landfills to sunbathing, this has huge implications for the way we communicate with one another. Once you start to recognise the patterns in risk perception generally, it is fascinating to look at yourself and others. And though it doesn’t make human beings less frustrating when you feel like your message just isn’t getting through, it will certainly help you make sense of it.

If you’re interested in learning more, here’s a classic risk communication book. Slovic has many good books on risk perception.