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May 8th, 2014

Another View on Mark Bittman’s Recent Note to Food Activists

By Wenonah Hauter

For the Presss: High Resolution Image of Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch Executive Director

I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel Tuesday night with Mark Bittman, who mentioned that his New York Times opinion piece the following day about GMOs would be controversial. On Wednesday morning I looked and saw why: it called out the food movement for focusing too much on organics and GMOs—saying of the latter, “GMOs are probably harmless…. It’s helped accelerate industrial agriculture and its problems and strengthened the positions of unprincipled companies. But the technology itself has not been found to be harmful.” He argues that instead, the movement should focus on making agriculture sustainable and promoting healthier food in general.

But these concepts aren’t mutually exclusive—in fact, GMOs are part and parcel of the industrialization of the food system, as Bittman describes. What’s worse, disparaging the views of people who care about organics and GMOs is disempowering to the tens of thousands of food activists fighting to have a say in their democracy by working to label GMO foods—clearly an important transparency issue. Dissing those who are concerned about pesticides and GMOs distracts from the real debate about the harms of chemicals and untested technologies in our food supply—and the fact that both phenomena stem from the corporate control of our food system and our democracy.

I have great respect for Bittman, and think that for the most part, he’s helped bring about much needed attention to the myriad problems with how we grow, sell and eat food (I look forward to reading his new cookbook highlighting his “flexitarian approach.”) And much of the piece I agree with: we need to talk about sustainability more generally. We need to talk about food marketing to kids and the harms of processed foods. We need to encourage people to eat better and to stay away from processed food. But I don’t agree with setting up these examples as a way to squash debate on organics and GMOs. They are all issues that people who fight for a better food system should address. We should be talking about them all in the narrative about the dysfunctional food system and our vision for the future.

I am baffled by Bittman’s unwitting support for the agrochemical industry. The health effects from agrochemicals are well documented and while EPA sets limits on the amount of each pesticide that can be on each food item, the agency does not limit the number of different pesticides or the synergistic or accumulative effects they may have—especially in children.

What’s more, Bittman disregards the fact that there have been no long-term studies on the human health effects of genetically engineered foods. As Bittman acknowledges, giant agribusiness companies have used GMOs to take control of the production of crops, hiding behind false claims of sustainability. But he does not go on to say that the production of genetically engineered crops requires massive amounts of herbicides that create superweeds, pose risks to human health and threaten ecosystems.

Indeed, none of this seems harmless, or “probably harmless,” to me.

Honestly, while some in the food movement lauded the piece, it left me scratching my head. As someone that the movement looks up to, it’s really disappointing to see Bittman setting up GMOs and organics as things that we shouldn’t care about. We most certainly should fight against untested, unproven genetic experiments that rely on chemical inputs and give corporate food giants increasing control over our food. Debating the details of whether the science itself is imminently harmful is really a red herring—one that the industry is happy to have journalists focused on because it distracts the public from the real fight we’re engaging in for a better food system.

For that, I fear Mark Bittman’s piece is actually, probably, very harmful and I would ask that he reconsider.

24 Comments on Another View on Mark Bittman’s Recent Note to Food Activists

  1. K. Schmidt says:

    I am also a Bittman fan, but he is wrong on this point.

    Everybody makes mistakes, but not all of them are published in the New York Times.

  2. Doug Bateman says:

    I appreciate and agree with Wenonah’s assessment. The GMO labeling issue is a no brainer in my opinion. There is no reason to disparage a group who wants to move towards a more organic approach to food and agriculture. Info needs to be accurate free of distortions and readily available.

  3. Bret D says:

    The entire GMO safety paradigm in the US is based upon a lie called “substantial equivalence.” Back in the late 80’s when Bush Sr. was president, he got together with the biotech industry to cook up a scheme by which they could get GE foods approved for the market without “burdensome regulatory oversight.” In short, biotech knew that GE was the next big gold rush, and they were afraid they were going to miss out if they actually had to take the time to prove their products were safe for human consumption. So, along with Dan Quayle’s “God Squad” and then-Monsanto attorney Paul Taylor, they cooked up the idea of substantial equivalence which basically says that no human safety testing is required of GMO foods because they are the “substantial equivalent” of their conventional or organic counterparts. In other words, they don’t need to do safety testing on GMO corn because humans have been eating corn for 1,000+ years with no ill effect. Why is this a lie? Well, simply put because neither the conventional nor the organic corn have a registered pesticide growing INSIDE them–while the GMO corn does. NOT the same thing! So, for 18+ years now we’ve all been unpaid and unwitting participants in the human safety trials of GMO foods, and it needs to stop.

    • larry says:

      The fallacy in your comment is your assertion if lack of testing. In fact, there are over 2,000 studies that all show the same thing, gm crops are a safe tool. Google Forbes GMO studies and you will get the link to the list of studies. Bt Corn contains a bacteria that occurs in soil and is used by organic farmers. It is just invoked differently.

      • EcoScientist says:

        And the fallacy in YOUR comment is implying that those “over 2000 studies” are in no way influenced by those with vested interests, and accepted by all those in the field. Neither of those two implications could be further from the truth.

      • Bret D says:

        Larry, I said lack of HUMAN safety testing. Would you care to provide us with a link to published human safety studies done on GMOs? Also, regarding the so-called 2,000 GMO safety studies, it’s actually 1,700. About 1/3 of those on the list are duplicates (i.e. the same research published in different journals) and a 1/3 of the remaining ones are directly paid for by industry. For decades they told us that smoking, PCBs, Dioxin, and Asbestos were safe too……

  4. tamsen says:

    I agree with this review, but when i read the opinion piece was him focusing on ways that folks who cannot participate in the organic food movement (because it is a privilege for those with some disposable income to do so) to still be able to change their food choices and eat healthily.

    I read him saying that organics were the healthiest option, and that GMOs are a symptom of the dysfunctional and unsustainable agribusiness food system, just not the only symptom. But i agree with your assessment because what most people “heard” him saying was that the fight for organics and GMOs don’t matter.

  5. Paulette Graf says:

    I just could not agree with you more. Thank you for what you have written here.

  6. Frederica Huxley says:

    Thank you! I was appalled, and saddened by the NYT article, and I wrote a comment on today’s NYT Facebook blog that substantially mirrored your comments.

  7. First Officer says:

    I’m still waiting for the GMO apocalypse. Does anyone know if they set a date?

  8. Peter Garnham says:

    While the debate continues about the safety of GE crops as food, there is no disagreement about the effect of herbicides and pesticides on soil life. These chemicals decimate microbial, fungal, and insect life in soils, and the plants grown there are junkies, dependent for nutrition on their next chemical fix. This is why the nutrient density of industrial crops is so appallingly low. Plants grown in healthy soils are far, far higher in nutrients, but vegetables and fruits are mostly judged by their appearance … their nutritive value is a forgotten but obviously important factor. Bittman is neither a farmer nor a soil scientist, and his deplorable article betrays his ignorance of these matters.

  9. John Ranta says:

    So many of the arguments against GMOs focus on the risks of genetic manipulation. That’s not the problem. The issue with GMOs, at least as it applies to the majority of GMO modifications to common agricultural crops, is that they enable extensive applications of herbicides and pesticides. The engineered genes themselves are probably harmless, but the flood of herbicides those genes enable are going to sicken us…

  10. David Appell says:

    It’s very odd that you would write “The health effects from agrochemicals are well documented…”, and not even give it a link.

    This leads me to think that, in fact, there ISN”T much documentation to cite….

  11. Jessica says:

    Kudos to you Wenonah for your response to Bittman’s op-ed which had many untruths. There have been human studies that show the adverse effects of glyphosate on humans. Many more long term studies are needed but it’s clear that there are serious dangers to this chemical that is being doused on crops that cows/pigs/chickens are eating and humans are then eating via factory farmed meats. Glyphosate is being found in human breast milk and it’s being passed on to our children. It’s been linked to autism and Alzheimer’s. Clearly it’s not “probably harmless” and many folks are confused and don’t understand the connection between GMOs and glyphosate. Bittman’s article fuled the confusion in my opinion, especially with his seemingly “reasonable” tone.
    This is a great article and interview with a glyphosate researcher which includes sources. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/02/04/roundup-glyphosate-toxicity.aspx

  12. Alfred Hall says:

    “Better” is not always better…removing Organic and GMO from our vocabulary and discussion is not the answer…

  13. Carrie T says:

    When you state that “production of genetically engineered crops requires massive amounts of herbicides that create superweeds”, are you claiming that ALL GE crops, including BT-only crops and PRSV-resistant papaya, require more pesticides than their non-GMO counterparts would? Because otherwise, you are using herbicide-resistant GMOs as a stand-in for possibly beneficial types. Yes, there are environmental issues with herbicide-resistant crops, and possible health issues with Roundup and Bt. But the inability to consider the unique merits and risks of different types of GMOs in the debate is exactly why scientists don’t take activists seriously.

  14. Arthur says:

    How does Bittman show “unwitting support for the agrochemical industry”? Can you provide a couple of quotes from him that demonstrate this?

  15. Jacques Bakke says:

    We must remember that Bittman writes for the NYT and not the Sun– He has to say some untruths to keep his job.. and NOT “probably.”

  16. Hermie Kann says:

    Long term effects of GMO’s on humans are just now coming to light. Why do you think nearly all of Europe and additional countries have banned GMO food? We have a RIGHT TO SAFE FOOD Keep fighting for it.

  17. Tom Kennedy says:

    I have been advocating for GMO product labeling, and removal of these crops & all methodologies involved because they do exactly what I don’t want to eat: unhealthy, unsustainable, and unmerited byproducts of chemical dependencies. I have gone organic more than ever before.

  18. Geary Jones says:

    I personally find it offensive that Monsanto has manage to buy it’s way into the FDA and EPA, and that they have been using not only Americans, but populations throughout the world as human guinea pigs with the tacit approval of at least 4presidents, and numerous congressmen.

  19. Sylvia Niedner says:

    I agree with both you and Mark in different ways, Winona. I do think we need to concentrate on what we want to build. “What we resist persists”. In other words – we give energy to what we focus on. And framing what we want to build in as positive and simple terms as possible seems *very* important. At the same time, I do think GMOs present very real dangers: supporting increased use of horribly toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers at the least. So I think a big question is how do we frame what we want to build?

  20. Elmer A. Fugman, Jr. says:

    I too in the main agree with Bittman on his food critiques and matters regarding food growing in the USA-but I oppose totally his latest remarks regarding the possible harm that herbicides must be used to sustainability of GMO’s and attempts to squelch public outcries on this most important issue!!!

  21. Dana says:

    Here is a very specific example about Wenonah’s concerns regarding Bittman’s article.

    It’s believed that the use of crop pesticides – manufactured by Dow Chemical and Syngenta – are responsible for plunging honeybee populations in recent years. Honey bees are vital to our food supply because they pollinate fruits and vegetables. Pesticides like thiamethoxam and sufloxaflor kill honeybees, but the EPA has refused to eliminate their use in the U.S. even though their use has been restricted in Europe. Recently, Dow and Syngenta have asked the EPA to allow increased use of these chemicals.

    This is just another example of Wenonah’s point: that we put too much trust in the industrialization of our food system. We naively think that corporations can be trusted to use untested technologies like GMO. The EPA may set limits on the amount that each pesticide can be in food items, but clearly, it’s not helping honeybees. What is the point of having GMO foods if the pesticides needed to have them work are creating problems in other areas of the food system?

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