Most often when we don’t feel well we assume it is due to the latest bug going around or perhaps last night’s dinner. But what if it was more than just one meal that was making you sick. What if it was a food item that made its way into every aisle of the grocery store, hidden behind names like ascorbic acid, xanthan gum, and dextrose. We are talking about corn. In 2013, Caitlin Shetterly published a highly controversial article in Elle magazine entitled, The Bad Seed: The Health Risk of Genetically Modified Corn, highlighting her doctor’s recent diagnosis that she was allergic to genetically engineered (GE) corn. Though this article began as a simple piece about her own journey with food allergies and trying to understand GE corn’s place in the market place, overnight Shetterly was thrust into the middle of a very heated debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
In search of answers to her crippling struggle with food, Shetterly journeyed across America’s farmland (and the Atlantic) stopping to speak with conventional farmers, scientists, activists, beekeepers, and other representatives from both sides of the GMO debate. What she found is that the issue is highly complicated, her book Modified, breaks down just how complicated it all is and how deeply it impacts people working on both sides.
Shetterly’s words are beautiful and touching and show the deep fractures in America’s heartland. She puts names and stories to the conventional farmers who have bought into the GMO system and who are doing back-breaking work, proud to feed the nation but unsettled that people are placing blame on them. She profiles the scientists who have suffered irreversible damage to their careers as a result of trying to learn more about the impacts of GMOs and their corresponding pesticides; the activists who have worked for years to bring awareness to the issue; and the scientists who created this technology, believing that they created something to benefit the world.
What she found is that there aren’t a lot of clear answers, due to the lack of research. But, the independent research that has been done shows major cause for concern. GE crops aren’t currently in any allergy database, so there isn’t a proper way to detect them as allergens. The existing regulations are outdated and do not require independent testing of either the GMOs or pesticides. Shetterly summarizes it perfectly by stating “the bottom line is that we just don’t know enough yet.” To believe that this technology will not have an impact is naïve. It also puts mankind in the role of “maker” and as Shetterly puts it, “they are living things, after all, unleashed into the environment where they will undoubtedly have consequences.” We are just starting to see the consequences, but they will impact the environment for generations to come. Researcher Nassim Taleb fears that GMOs will cause a cataclysmic failure simply because they can’t be contained.
Modified is a must read, for everyone, but particularly for those who aren’t so sure what GMOs are or if they should care at all. Shetterly didn’t embark on this path to become an advocate, but rather to address her own lingering fears that her illness would come back or that perhaps GE corn wasn’t the cause. This isn’t a boring book filled with scientific data. It is a beautifully written and heartfelt tale of the battles being waged across the country to take back our food system from corporations.