Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad “Frankenfood”?

By Sheila Kennedy

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on January 10, 2014]


Last Sunday’s New York Times ran an extensive article about the highly emotional grass-roots effort to eliminate or label GMOs--genetically-modified organisms–and the political risks to those who resist that emotionalism in favor of reliance on the science. 

This is an issue that drives my cousin, a cardiologist and scientist, up the wall. At his own blog, he has written extensively on the subject, pointing out–among other things–that foods made with GMO crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people around the world for more than 15 years with no discernible ill effects; that virtually all processed foods sold in the U.S. contain GMO ingredients; that genetic engineering simply “speeds up” the conventional cross-breeding and hybridization that humans have done for thousands of years. 

He also points out that genetic manipulation allows us to produce plants more resistant to insects and disease–which in turn allows us to reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides that can be harmful. He also points to the promise of better nutrition for people in third-world countries. 

The scientific community is solidly in my cousin’s corner on the issue. 

There is one thing, however, that I think my cousin gets wrong. He has concluded that ”the irrational opposition to these products is likely being propagated by the same individuals who deny, among other things, global warming and evolution.” 

Not quite. 

As the New York Times reported, 
Scientists, who have come to rely on liberals in political battles over stem-cell research, climate change and the teaching of evolution, have been dismayed to find themselves at odds with their traditional allies on this issue. Some compare the hostility to G.M.O.s to the rejection of climate-change science, except with liberal opponents instead of conservative ones. “These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything,” said Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who testified several times against the bill. “It hurts.” 
So why are liberals willing to accept the scientific consensus on climate change and evolution and most other things, but so suspicious of that same science when it comes to GMOs? 

There is a lack of scientific literacy that contributes to all “denialism,” of course, and we all suffer from a lack of good reporting on scientific issues. But I think something else is going on here. Liberals are willing to trust scientific expertise in other areas–why not in this one? 

I think at least part of the answer is that the GMO issue has become confused in the public mind with other practices of the food industry that are far less benign. 

The use of hormones and antibiotics in order to fatten chicken and cattle more quickly and with foodstuffs they wouldn’t otherwise tolerate is a cause of widespread and well-founded concern. The rapacious and well-documented business practices of companies like Montsano certainly suggest that those companies are willing to put profits above people’s health, and shouldn’t be trusted. Films like “Food, Inc.” have disclosed the frequently inhumane treatment of the animals raised to feed us, and engendered a visceral response in viewers. (I couldn’t eat chicken for months!) 

Add these unquestionably valid concerns to our very imprecise use of the term “genetically-modified” and you get an understandable–if misplaced–reaction to anything considered remotely “unnatural.” 

We need more measured and well-researched articles like the one in Sunday’s New York Times.


Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana's ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI's Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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