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What’s On Your Plate: Genetically Modified Food

By Hilary Callahan
Associate Professor of Biological Sciences

 

Last year, in one of my classes, we focused on Snapple’s 2009 switch back to sugar from high-fructose corn syrup. This may seem like a marketing case study rather than science, with a company simply trying to rejuvenate its ‘all natural’ slogan. For me, the case included a good plant biology question: had the switch lessened the brand’s reliance on genetically modified organism (GMO) crops? We learned that more than half of the nation’s refined sucrose comes from beets, not cane, and that more than 95% of the sugar beets grown in the U.S. are a brand-new variety, genetically modified for herbicide resistance. In short, a highly unnatural agricultural system is supplying a company that blithely and legally sells its product as “all natural.”

I am a long-time transplanted New Yorker, and a native to the Boston area, so my fixation on food production and agricultural technologies may seem a bit odd. It helps to know that I grew up in an area rural enough to support dairy farms and orchards, and that my father worked as a U.S.D.A. auditor. He never met Ben or Jerry, but he checked out the books at Stonyfield Yogurt long before they were famous. Also, before the existence of Take Your Daughter to Work day, he took me behind the scenes, to barns and milk plants and testing labs. He encouraged my dual interests in science and the media business, but after working in marketing and public relations for several years, science won me over. After starting biology graduate school, my dad began to badger me about a controversy that was rather new at the time: recombinant bovine growth hormone.

I was studying at Wisconsin, a school I had chosen on solely academic criteria. I know that Madison was a hotbed of activism, but I was not expecting my Ph.D. advisor to be one of my strongest scholar-activist role models. He lectured engagingly, wrote for lay audiences, testified in Congress, and even helped a citizen’s group sue the U.S. Forest Service. He taught me to value having scientifically-informed opinions, and how to develop them. When it comes to biotechnology, the key is tracking developments in marketing, lobbying, labor, and litigation, analyzing and re-analyzing issues through a variety of ecological and other lenses. This is the key to understanding how the food and biotech industries can roll out of one GMO product after another, with little or no outcry from a bewildered American public. Next semester, I’m sure I’ll to continue to teach about corn and sugar and other GMO crops. In fact, I’m quite tempted to turn my students’ attention to Hawaii’s soon-to-expire moratorium on GMO coffee research.  In short, my Barnard teaching duties are stimulating and fun, because there’s always a new controversy brewing.

On November 1 at 6:30 p.m., Prof. Callahan and other Barnard faculty will participate in a panel discussion entitled "What's on Your Plate? The History and Politics of Food." Read more about food politics from other faculty panelists in anthropology and history