The Problem With Food

Food is in the news these days, and it’s a surprisingly controversial topic. The biggest problem with food — as I see it — is that there isn’t enough of it for everyone. Perhaps the biggest news is the fight over labeling foods containing GMOs — Genetically Modified Organisms — and how major food conglomerates are generally against this labeling.

I have a relationship with food like most people; I love to eat. My parents always — ALWAYS — did their best for me and my brothers, but by the time I was old enough to understand much, we were poor. My folks – both of them — were decent cooks, and I grew up, like so many of my generation, with the “clean your plate” mandate. We never went hungry when I was a kid, but we often had to do without other things.

My parents were also big on trying exotic foods. Exotic to them usually meant Italian or Chinese, but that was life in small town Wisconsin in the 60s and 70s. They instilled in me the value of trying new things, for which I am eternally grateful. Today there are very few foods I will not try, and even fewer that I refuse to eat at all. Though there are some things I wouldn’t choose on my own, if they are served to me while I am a guest in someone’s home I will eat them without discomfort or complaint.

With all this in mind, I’d like to talk for a moment about vegetarians. Frankly, I know a good many people who worship at the temple of meat, and while I’m happy for them that they enjoy it so much, I also have concerns. Too much meat can lead to health complications, the least of which is obesity. Humans evolved to be omnivores, hunting and gathering what we could during the earliest days of human development. Having a balanced diet is really the best option to maintain a healthy digestive system, and numerous medical studies have shown that cutting back a bit on meat helps this.

I admire vegetarians. I am not really one myself, but I try to include more meals in my diet that are without meat. I rarely eat beef much — usually relying on chicken or pork — though I do enjoy the occasional hamburger or prime rib. There are numerous reasons for a person to become a vegetarian, the most compelling of which is probably that raising cattle is very costly in resources. At a time when we increasingly can’t feed everyone on the planet any more, it’s vastly more efficient to feed people rather than cows. In one study, scientists determined that with the grain fed to livestock annually, we could feed 800 million people. Seems a fairly compelling argument to me.

Some have argued that GMOs are the answer to our food problems. I disagree. Look, there has been a lot of talk about how anti-GMO folks would have us return to the stone age, and are luddites ignoring centuries of selective breeding, etc. MY biggest concern with GMOs is twofold. First, plants are being bred to be resistant to the effects of more and more toxic pesticides. Human beings are undergoing no such resistance breeding, so those toxins are already finding their way into our systems. What are the consequences of that? We don’t know.

My second issue with GMO organisms comes from the Law of Unintended Consequences. I’ll give you an example: GMO salmon, produced by AquaBounty Technologies, has been engineered to grow fast. It’s taken decades, but they were finally approved as safe for both human consumption and for the environment by the FDA in 2015. While I’m not so concerned about the ‘human consumption’ part, I harbor deep dread for the ‘safe for the environment’ part. These fish grow very fast. It will be no time at all before they out-compete everything else in their environment, which will lead to mass extinctions of other species. There have been assurances that the redundant obstacles to these farmed fish escaping are foolproof, but there is no such thing as an unsinkable ship, or a fool-proof plan: eventually some of them will escape, with dire consequences for all other fish. Also, farmed fish are less safe for human consumption by the very fact that the fish are held in large concentrations. This is necessary for efficiency and profit, but exposes the fish much more readily tothe rapid spread of disease and infections, requiring strong doses of anti-boiotics to be used. We’re already seeing the effects of the overuse of antibiotics, as resistant strains of lethal diseases are growing more common throughout the world.

History is littered with people introducing new species to an environment without any thought or consideration. Cane Toads and hundreds of other species of plants and animals, introduced to new environments either intentionally or by accident, have had severe effects on the biodiversity of the regions into which they were transplanted.

In our rush to create new and better plants and animals to serve our needs, I fear we are not taking the time to analyze the potential side-effects. Perhaps the future will prove me wrong; I certainly hope so, but the odds are against it. And while it may be fiction, Jurassic Park has a thing or two to say about the subject — things that are both relevant and highly cautionary.

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