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Genetically modified food and you -- Part 4

Past installments: Read the entire GMO series

I think I've established how I feel about GMOs, but really, I do try to keep an open mind. It just seems a bit hypocritical that a natural sweetener like stevia isn't approved as a food item by the FDA because not enough is known about it, despite it having been used as a natural sweetener in Japan for more than 40 years. Japan has shunned all artificial sweeteners, and so even American-branded diet sodas, including Coca-Cola, are made with stevia for the Japanese market. Sure you'll find stevia in the supplements aisle here in the United States, but you'd better not call it a food additive because, well, I can't even justify it with a "because" when it's considered perfectly acceptable to sweeten our food and beverages with aspartame, but the nearly half-century of commercial use of a leaf extract without any documented or suspected ill effects isn't good enough.

And yet, somehow, biotech foods grown from genetically modified seeds whose DNA has been tampered with by the introduction of a foreign gene are promoted as perfectly harmless, even when researchers have linked them to debilitating and even fatal effects in mice and hamsters. If we don't know enough about stevia to deem it safe, why do we claim to know enough about GMOs?

Having said all that, can the entire world really eat a sustainable, local, organic diet? I say no. There are many remote places on Earth that aren't suitable for growing food, and horrific famines ensue. Even the film "Food, Inc," which I like, and which aims to make a case against GMOs and for sustainable agriculture, contradicts itself:

When small-scale organic farmer Joel Salatin, who's frustrated with how USDA rules seem to favor unhealthy practices at large, industrial agribusinesses, is asked about his ability to supply the masses, he replies: "I have no desire to scale up or get bigger. My desire is to produce the best food in the world and heal. And if, in doing so, more people come to our corner and want stuff, then heaven help me figure out how to meet the need without comprimising the integrity."

"I have absolutely no desire to be at Walmart. As soon as you grasp for that growth, you're gonna view your customer differently, you're gonna view your product differently, you're gonna view everything that is the most important ... differently."

So, tell me Joel, while you're up on that local, sustainable food pedestal telling the masses that they should all eat only the kind of food you produce: How exactly can that happen if only small farmers -- who don't have the ability to produce enough food for everyone -- can produce quality food? Small scale usually does equal higher quality, based on logistics alone. But there's a big, hungry Walmart crowd out there, all over the world, that needs to be fed. Small-scale organic farmers aren't going to meet that demand, but assemby-line, industrial agribusiness can and will.

Does this mean we have to resort to GMOs? Weeds are a fact of life, and they're not going away. Let's remove the potential safety issues, which I discussed at length in prior posts and which in all fairness haven't been proven to be harmful to humans, and play devil's advocate:

Unless farmers are going to go out into the fields every day and hand-pull those weeds, the only options left are weed-killers like Roundup, which end up throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water -- killing the crop as well as the weed -- or growing Roundup-ready plants from seeds engineered to be resistant to the effects of the chemical. There are organic alternatives, which I employ in my own backyard, but they aren't practical for large-scale farms.

Genetically modified food also tastes better. Corn has been engineered to taste sweeter, for instance, not necessarily a big draw for me because I liked corn the way it was. But GMO corn also lasts longer than conventional crops, both during transit and in your refrigerator. So, right there, that's a check mark in the waste-not-want-not column that can even be argued to be beneficial to the environment as well as the pocketbook.

GMO plants and animals reach maturity faster, too, saving time and money. Modified farm animals are resistant to disease and are bred to handle the less-than-savory factory farm conditions that can sicken regular livestock. And biotech crops don't need to be treated with pesticides. That saves the farmer money, so he doesn't have to raise produce prices, and eliminates pesticide contamination in your food.

So maybe the answer isn't absolute. Consider how suburban sprawl has affected Long Island in the past generation alone: My neighborhood was filled with apple orchards in the 1950s. Now it's populated by people like me, many of whom have a chemical- and water-sucking lawn and a gas-guzzling car in the driveway. So much for the small farmer. There just isn't enough land left to meet demand the old-fashioned way.

What do you think? Do the the safety concerns outweigh the benefits of GMO foods, and if so, how do you propose we meet the rising demand for food without them? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

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