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Technology

Peddling Irrational Food Fears

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorFebruary 16, 2011 6:25 PM

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Mark Bittman, the popular NYT food writer, has offered up a column chock full of biotech scare mongering. It's such a half-baked concoction that I can't imagine he'd ever serve a meal based on such flimsy ingredients. Let's inspect just a few of the numerous questionable assertions. He writes (my emphasis):

G.E. [genetically engineered] products may grow faster, require fewer pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides, and reduce stress on land, water and other resources; they may be more profitable to farmers. But many of these claims are in dispute, and advances in conventional agriculture, some as simple as drip irrigation, may achieve these same goals more simply. Certainly conventional agriculture is more affordable for poor farmers, and most of the worlds' farmers are poor. (The surge in suicides among Indian farmers has been attributed by some, at least in part, to G.E. crops, and it's entirely possible that what's needed to feed the world's hungry is not new technology but a better distribution system and a reduction of waste.)

Notice how there's no cite for the "many" disputed claims. But further down he provides a link to a dubious 2008 story in the Daily Mail about the GMO-linked "genocide" of Indian farmer suicides. On to the next graph:

To be fair, two of the biggest fears about G.E. crops and animals "” their potential to provoke allergic reactions and the transfer to humans of antibiotic-resistant properties of G.M.O.'s [genetically modified organisms] "” have not come to pass. (As far as I can tell, though, they remain real dangers.)

As far as I can tell, that last statement is not rational. I should point out here that Bittman's column is an argument for why foods made from GMO's should be labeled as such, and is framed around the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recent approval

of three new kinds of genetically engineered foods: alfalfa (which becomes hay), a type of corn grown to produce ethanol), and sugar beets. And super-fast-growing salmon "” the first genetically modified animal to be sold in the U.S., but probably not the last "” may not be far behind.

(Cue the requisite Frankensalmon headlines.) Now let's jump to the end of his piece:

A majority of our food already contains G.M.O.'s, and there's little reason to think more isn't on the way. It seems our "regulators" are using us and the environment as guinea pigs, rather than demanding conclusive tests. And without labeling, we have no say in the matter whatsoever.

I gotta say that I'm more worried about the cumulative toll from the countless bowls of Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes that I've slurped up since I've been able to hold a spoon. Not to mention the Twinkies and Hostess cupcakes that fell out of my lunch box every day at school. I digress. For a science-based perspective of genetically modified food controversies, let's head over to a highly regarded scientist for some straight talk on GMO's:

What we do know is that after 14 years of consumption there has been not a single instance of harm to human health or the environment (and many indisputable benefits).

But who are we to stand between a foodie and his irrational fears?

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