Focus to stop paranoia about bioengineered food

by Morton Sosland
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A series of events at the beginning of this summer helped to expose the way that paranoia is affecting attitudes toward grain-based foods. Up to this time, advocates in behalf of foods made from wheat and other grains mostly felt as if they were under lonely assault by cranks and so-called experts who delight in blaming what seems like every human health problem on consumption of these products. New books written by a range of health and medical professionals were being published in what appeared to be almost a never-ending flood tracing different ailments to pernicious treachery by food makers and wheat breeders. Along with the retail marketplace reflecting a lack of enthusiasm for grain-based foods, the weight of these critiques, as silly or poorly based as they are, at times seem overwhelming.

Making these attacks on grain-based foods more than just targeting this single industry has been the increasing public attention to bioengineered foods and the sudden unfolding of claims that fruits and vegetables have been changed to remove their most important nutrients. In the case of the bioengineered foods, the stepped-up questioning flows from a Supreme Court decision upholding Monsanto Co. in the way it markets modified corn and from Congress’s rejection of an amendment to agricultural legislation that would have allowed states to require manufacturers to label foods containing bioengineered ingredients. Somehow these two actions, which have a sound rational base, sparked public protests, including one weekend where anti-bioengineering marches were planned —not all held — in cities across America.

While it may be unwise to select one food public relations problem as meriting the counter-force of the full grain-based foods industry, it is tempting to cite the public’s doubts about bioengineered foods as worth laser-like focus. Research is under way aimed at identifying a modified wheat that would satisfy the needs of farmers while also providing a solid base for general support. The latter, it is hoped, would include taste and nutritional enhancements. This is great progress that should not be lost to ill-founded suspicions about plant and food science.

In the vein of deriving pleasure from seeing someone else hurt at the same time one experiences pain is the way grain-based foods may view new attacks on the nutritional quality of fruit and vegetables. As a food sector frequently noted as battling with grain-based foods for a place in the diet, fruit and vegetables are not usually prone to allegations like those in a new book (“Eating on the Wild Side” by Jo Robinson) that many of the most popular varieties have had their main sources of nutrition removed by breeding and human selection. Much like the charges leveled against grain-based foods, the claim is made that the principal quality reduction have occurred in the last 100 years as food processors and merchants have sought the most appealing types. Comparisons are made with wild versions of plants as a way of showing that ancient people enjoyed better nutrition. In answer to present-day life spans being much longer than when plants were unmodified, the assertion is made that ancient people died mainly from accidents or infections, while people today succumb to illnesses often due to poor nutrition.

It is beliefs like this that have vexed grain-based foods for so long. There’s no question but that much of this has won acceptance from a public highly susceptible to paranoia, not just about politics, but also about the quality of food and much else. Recent research shows how perfectly sane minds accept some of the wildest conspiracy theories about horrible events. Not surprising is the way that the Internet has made this situation worse as numerous sites usually jump to confirm outright craziness. By perpetuating paranoia about bioengineered foods, the Internet and similarly inclined media potentially deprive the world of urgently needed production advances while diminishing unfairly the genuine contributions of an industry like grain-based foods. It deserves battle.

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