A personal essay by Olivia Auclair
For Prof. Jeffrey Gandell’s course entitled Nonfiction Writing
Nine months ago, I became a vegetarian.
It all began on the seventh floor of Dawson College with my teacher, Carl Saucier-Bouffard. We discussed world views towards human interaction with nature, including Christianity, Buddhism, and Darwinism, which are all very fascinating, but worthless to the flustered brain of an eighteen-year-old college student. I gained sudden interest in his class the day he introduced the Animal Liberation Movement. I had found a cause worth defending.
Dinner that night was a bitter experience. While everyone was cutting away at their bloody slabs of steak, I stared at my plate of gooey broccoli and mashed potatoes. In that instant, I realized that I knew nothing about how to eat as a vegetarian. So I did my research. I scavenged the Internet for information and recipes, I attended conferences held by health advocates, I got second opinions from other vegetarians. But my findings led my focus utterly astray. Suddenly, my attention shifted towards the health benefits of a plant-based diet.
That’s when I came across the GMO-phenomenon. Back in the 1940s, scientists discovered how to genetically engineer DNA so as to alter certain genes in crops. This “new DNA” could prevent the presence of unwanted pests, thus yielding more of a crop (Anderson, J.C., Wachenheim, C.J., & Lesch, W.C.). This innovation benefits big agricultural corporations because it’s a cheap tactic that maximizes profits.
Here’s the problem: people are skeptical towards genetically modified foods. Many people fear these synthetic foods because they contain pesticides, pose a threat to the environment and disarrange the natural order of biodiversity. Therefore, it’s entirely rational to wonder whether they also pose a threat to our health. Along with the revolutionary science of genetic engineering, commercial organic food is a fairly new phenomenon that is sweeping markets across North America and Europe. The sudden craze for organic foods, which are produced without the usage of pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, hormones, or genetically modified seeds, caused more skepticism among people, inferring that GMOs were unsafe in comparison to organic foods.
These mainstream perceptions towards genetically modified and organic foods are entirely rational. However, is it possible that these popular conceptions are skewed? We’re in the dark about the GM versus organic debate.
Several weeks ago, I began my quest at Atwater Market. Despite the grey clouds that hung low above me, it was a pleasant day. I slowly inhaled the damp October air as I paced through the rows of kiosks, taking in the colorful mélange of fruits and vegetables that lined the street. I pulled my oversized sleeves over my quivering hands. Microscopic bubbles shimmered like tiny stars on the ends of my unkempt brown hair. I strode back and forth, hesitant about approaching the vendor. After wasting several minutes, I gathered up my courage and walked up to the man. He was a burly guy and towered a good two feet above me. Like a human-sized version of Hagrid, I was deceived by his appearance before hearing the warmth radiated in his voice. His name is Francis and he’s the owner of Les fruits de la relève at Atwater Market. When I asked him whether GM foods posed a threat to human health, he responded, “Are our great grandchildren going to be genetically modified because we eat GM foods? Maybe.”
Whether or not Francis is right about the human genome undergoing transformation due to long-term consumption of GM foods, synthetic seeds have definite potential to threaten our health. Monsanto, a large agricultural corporation that specializes in the genetic engineering of foods, states, “there is no need for, or value in testing the safety of GM foods in humans” (Levaux). However, “GMO crops are often engineered to produce pesticides or resist herbicides” (Walls-Thumma). If crops are genetically modified to “turn on” certain genes that are meant to wipe out unwanted pests, shouldn’t we fear that GM foods could harm humans as well? For example, genetically modified seeds that act as artificial fertilizers and insecticides are killing off the honeybee. Bees are fundamental to the environment because they pollinate a wide array of crops, including fruit and nut trees. Even if this type of genetically modified seed has no direct impact on our health, without bees, our world would lack many of the plants and crops that are essential to our health.
One of the most significant studies conducted in the field of GMO safety experimented with rats and GM corn. The experimental group was fed Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready (GM) corn, while the control group received non-GM corn. The rodents were observed over a period of two years, the average life span of the species of rat used. The results were revolting. The rats, mainly those in the experimental group, developed malignant tumors, as well as damage to their kidneys and liver. “50 percent of males and 70 percent of females died prematurely, compared with only 30 percent and 20 percent in the control group” (Philpott). The study proves the dangers of genetically modified corn to rats over the span of their lives. The researchers “propose that agricultural edible GMOs and formulated pesticides must be evaluated very carefully by long term studies to measure their potential toxic effects” (Séralini, G.E). If Monsanto’s corn results in tumours in rats, GM foods can also cause cancer in humans.
“Monsanto has a history of lying and hiding the facts from the public,” according to Carl Saucier-Bouffard. Monsanto, a company that once produced chemical weapons, now owns 282 million acres of land utilized for cultivating GM crops. They are responsible for 1,676 seeds, plants, and other patents grown and sold worldwide. They produce 80% of the United States’ corn and 93% of its soy, all of which sprout from genetically engineered seeds (Organic Consumer’s Association).
Despite evidence suggesting the dangers of GM foods, there are arguments that defy these conventional views. In his article, “Why Organic Advocates Should Love GMOs”, Keith Kloor claims that “the scientific consensus is that the GMOs we’ve approved for human consumption are entirely safe” (Kloor). Kloor also states that GM foods can boost nutrition. For example, the Golden Rice Project aims at feeding kids around the globe who lack Vitamin A with rice that is specifically engineered to produce the vitamin. Inspired by the synthetic rice, researchers have created a cassava seed that contains more Vitamin A, iron, and protein. Cassava, which feeds seven hundred million people around Africa, is one of the continent’s primary crops. Africans will benefit from the crop as scientists have increased its nutritional value.
One week after my visit to Atwater Market, I met with Carl Saucier-Bouffard for an interview. We took a seat at his desk, which was piled with papers, books, and yesterday’s unfinished lunch. “Is there such a thing as 100% organic?” I asked. In quite a dissatisfied tone, he replied, “There’s no purity in life, eh.”
I wasn’t expecting the answer he gave me. Is it possible that there is absolutely nothing left on the planet that isn’t sprayed with pesticides, injected with hormones, and/or genetically modified? Even foods that are certified organic by Ecocert, USD Organic, and/or Organic Canada are not 100% pure.
I zoned out for a moment as my mind raced back to that brisk Sunday morning at Atwater Market. Bright green and yellow, the sign fastened across the top of his kiosk read “Pure Horticulture.” Anthony Bucquet, the owner, agreed to an interview. I began by asking whether his produce contained any pesticides or hormones:
“In theory, none of our products contain growth hormones. They’re all organic products.” I made two significant remarks from his careless response. The first was that he said in theory: was he not certain of the contents of his products? The second was that he denied using growth hormones, but avoided the part of my question that asked about pesticides.
I snapped out of my sudden daze and was back in Carl’s office.
He informed me that “When you see natural on labels, it has no meaning. Everything you eat is natural, insofar as industries are concerned.”
Again, my mind trailed back to Atwater Market. Mr. Réal invited me behind the counter of his kiosk, where he was packing handsome orange carrots into containers.
“People don’t ask questions. They think we don’t spray crops, and they just grow. We need to use pesticides to kill pests.”
He spoke in a whisper, as if to hinder people from hearing this top-secret information he was relaying to me and my pen and paper. Just as Carl had mentioned, nothing is pure. There is no such thing as one hundred percent organic.
Even so, are products that are certified organic by Ecocert, USD Organic and/or Organic Canada healthier than conventional produce? The popular conception is that organic foods are the safer, healthier choice, as opposed to genetically modified foods. Kenneth Chang, a journalist for The New York Times, argues that organic crops are not significantly healthier than GMOs. He states that low levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are found in organic meat, but the bacteria are killed anyway when cooking the meat. Also, even though organic foods contain more phosphorus, there are many crops that already provide people with a sufficient amount.
Furthermore, a study showed that more phenols, (chemicals that prevent cancer), are found in organic foods. However, since the study used small samples and had varying results, this finding is not completely sound. Chang also claims, “a lush peach grown with the use of pesticides could easily contain more vitamins than an unripe organic one” (Chang). Although organic food may not be significantly healthier according to Chang, it’s been proven that there are fewer traces of pesticides in organic foods than GMOs.
Becoming a vegetarian is not as easy as I had originally intended. How do I know whether the fruits and veggies I eat are healthy? How can I be sure they won’t cause cancer? All this contradictory evidence concerning GM and organic foods has made me exceedingly skeptical about what I eat. Big agricultural industries, like Monsanto, are blinded by money and couldn’t care less about our health, or their health for that matter. So what can we do? The truth is, we need to eat. And most of us will continue to opt for the pretty packages on supermarket shelves, showing no concern towards false labels and synthetic foods. It’s sad but true. Eventually, the truth will come out. But until that day, I have come to the conclusion that it’s hard to trust labels, but it’s even harder to trust people.