Reflection: Food Ethics and Genetically Modified Corn

When I was young, my family had little money, and eating out at all was a luxury. When we did eat out, we tended to frequent such fine establishments as McDonald’s, Taco Bell, or (for special occasions) Golden Corral (not sure if they ever made it out of Texas). The evidence of this can be seen in my memories of my 12th birthday dinner (on our birthday dinners we got to pick the meal): I chose a 20-piece box of McDonald’s chicken nuggets. Yum! What a tasty treat!

Thankfully, most of the time I ate my mom’s cooking, which, while not engineered specifically to crank my food pleasure sensors into panicked overdrive, was at least healthy. Living life on my own in college and afterward, I actually cooked for myself, and by ‘cooked’ I mean ‘prepared a box of Tuna Helper’. When I moved back to Palo Alto, I discovered the endless joys and conveniences of Trader Joe’s, and the boxes I purchased went from advertising such bland American fare as “Creamy Tuna” to exotic culinary experiences like “Pad Thai”. At no point did I ever think about (a) any kind of ‘health’ properties of the food, e.g. number of calories (I was active and naturally burnt calories through constant nervous beard-twisting), or (b) any (what you might call) ‘food ethics’, e.g. the provenance of the food, whether it was ‘fair trade’, ‘organic’, etc… I cared about two things: price and flavor!

California has this way of sort of oozing ‘organic’ ideology into your body if you’re not careful, though, and soon enough I was vaguely aware that I was supposed to feel that what I was eating was bad, tasteless (in both senses), and just wrong! I have to say, I didn’t care that much. Then I went to live in Kenya for a while. While there, I (and my housemates) decided to be vegetarians, in a sort of solidarity with the orphans we were living with (they were too poor to eat meat except on Christmas). For 2 months, I ate exclusively locally-grown vegetarian food, because that is what was available. Also, we were training for a marathon, so I was eating lots of it. Anyway, at some point I had a brief trip back to the States, and stopped at a McDonald’s during a road trip. I didn’t want to give up on the vegetarian solidarity, so I had them make an Egg McMuffin with no meat. I started to eat it and immediately stopped. It was nauseating. All I could taste was fat and flavor—and the thing that they said was an egg was certainly not an egg. For the rest of the trip I became sort of a snobby vegetarian person of the kind I would have mocked a few years earlier, all because real food had spoiled me. It just wasn’t fun to eat crap anymore, I guess!

A few months later, after returning to the States for good, I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. It’s a really good book, and you should read it. It’s all about food, and how it’s produced and manufactured according to several different ‘food frameworks’ (industrial, organic, industrial-organic, hunter-gathering, etc…). It blew the door to questions of ‘food ethics’ wide open in my mind, and, for better or worse, I can’t go back. On top of that, I’ve married my wife Jessica, the Queen of All Things Organic Even If There’s No Hard Evidence To Suggest They’re Any Better. Between her and Michael Pollan (or maybe because of Michael Pollan and despite her efforts to convince my recalcitrant self otherwise), I now exhibit the following characteristics:

  • I look at all ingredients in food products before I buy them, and reject any food which contains non-natural ingredients.
  • I’ll spend more money to buy organic food if it is available.
  • I’ll spend more money to buy local food if it is available.
  • It feels like a serious moral dilemma (because I actually believe it is) when different bits of the ethical food pyramid collide: what’s more important? Fair wages for producers or food production which doesn’t harm the environment?
  • Slow food is where it’s at. The process of producing, gathering, cooking, and eating the food is a sacred one that shouldn’t be rushed.
  • …and so on.

Essentially, I’ve become just the sort of California wacko I never understood before, and find myself on the other side of the same arguments I used to have with Jessica! Strangely, it feels like what I have is a great and integrated way to relate my body to both the world and other people. One other benefit of this approach is avoiding a lot of the crazy things that can happen in the world of highly-processed food, like what I learned with great sadness is how they make my precious McDonald’s chicken nuggets. A bit of news that inspired me to write this entry: apparently a recent study claimed to find significant links between genetically-modified corn (the kind of corn which has been genetically engineered in order to withstand the pesticides which are most effective) and several serious disorders in rats. Not surprisingly, trace amounts of the pesticides were found in the rats’ bodies after ingesting the corn. I guess it makes sense: if you make corn immune to Roundup (a particular popular pesticide herbicide), you will probably use Roundup on it. But Roundup is not good to eat. But, hey…the corn survived and looks good, so let’s eat it! Mmmm, Roundup! … I don’t know, but to me the whole idea seems a bit stupid.

Another point that Michael Pollan made in his book is that we might want to be a bit careful of genetically engineered food for reasons other than possibly ingesting pesticide residue. We’re discovering that our bodies have evolved in a complex symbiosis with our natural foods, and that, while we can perform chemical magic and make our bodies think they’re eating well, after a long time it can lead to degeneration. I’m neither doctor nor chemist, so I don’t want to overreach my authority, but it does seem like a decent point to consider: at what point does fiddling with the genetic makeup of our food pose a threat to us as eaters? How many generations do we need to test the food on in order to discover whether it’s safe? A few, at least, I would think. And all the data I’ve seen about people who eat “that kind” of food suggest that obesity, diabetes, and cancer are what may indeed result.

Anyway, all this is to say that food is worth thinking about deeply. Not only is it important for the very obvious reason that we need it to live, but it is connected on the level of essence to what makes us human in so many strata other than the biological: it motivates work, drives and sustains social experiences, procures meaningful, enjoyable, and lasting experiences, echoes deep theological principles, and teaches us about our limits and our needs. I hope to write more about this stuff as Jessica and I continue to explore how we engage with food, in a world no longer set up to make the answers to some of our questions obvious. I guess, from the point of view of reflection, that’s a good thing!

Author: Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan is a Director of Open Source at Sauce Labs, leading a team of open source developers to improve the web and mobile testing ecosystem. Apart from being the project lead of Appium, he has worked as a programmer in tech startups for over a decade, but is also passionate about academic discussion. Jonathan has master's degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively. Living in Vancouver BC, he's an avid rock climber, yogi, musician, and writer on topics he considers vital, like the relationship of technology to what it means to be human. Visit jonathanlipps.com for more.

4 thoughts on “Reflection: Food Ethics and Genetically Modified Corn”

  1. hehem. to be fair, mr. ‘fairman’, i am not the queen of all things organic. i feel that term is quite diluted now;) given its recent popularization! how about…sustainable?
    🙂

  2. I thought Roundup was an herbicide. At least that’s what I spray on the weeds that grow through our fence from the vacant lot next door. It seems to work. 🙂

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