- A national debate is rising for and against genetically modified foods
- Children know more about nutrition than their parents did at their age
- Awareness about "real food" is growing in both old and young, columnist says
On Election Day, California residents will vote on Proposition 37, which would require food companies to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients (known widely as GMOs).
The national debate for and against GMO foods has reached a fever pitch, with activists on both sides now weighing in virtually hourly over social media.
There is, however, an emerging wave of unlikely activists on the front lines of the food revolution, whose voices and opinions you are not likely to hear over traditional or social media for some time to come:
What I knew about food when I was growing up could be counted on one hand -- and the first two were: "I like it" and "I don't like it."
Not so with this new generation.
Kids are sponges and often alert to the concerns of their parents. Nowadays, that translates into an uncanny sophistication, from a very young age, about food, even as mothers and fathers struggle to understand and react to the alarming proliferation of diet-related maladies in children, from obesity to diabetes and severe allergies.
Offer a child a snack these days and there's a good chance he or she will ask you if it contains nuts or wheat.
There are now 4-year-olds who can lisp "high-fructose corn syrup"; 5-year-olds who run little fingers over the lines of an ingredient list to look for Red 40, Blue 1, and Yellow 5 and 6 dyes; and 10-year-olds who will turn a snack box over to examine sugar and saturated fat content.
Did we ever discuss the nutritional merits of the contents of our lunchboxes when we were little? These days, lunch conversations on elementary school playgrounds sometimes turn to what each child has brought and whether it's "good" or "bad."
I have two young children who attend a public elementary school in Southern California.
A few weekends ago, my daughter overheard a child at a birthday party say, "That's not real food and it never will be." The girl was pointing out a tray of neon-colored treats sitting on a table. ("I would have considered the host's feelings," I told my daughter later, "but her point was fair enough.")
Don't get me wrong, Generation Peewee still loves its snack-food indulgences, but it is also increasingly savvy about marketing, particularly as it relates to food: "If they put children's characters on the box of snacks and know kids will want to eat them, why do they put yucky stuff in the ingredients, mommy?"
What's at stake here is far bigger, far more fundamental, than just the labeling of food products that contain genetically modified ingredients.
There is a growing awareness among both young and old about what constitutes real food. What exactly have we been eating these past several decades? And what relationship does our food have to the skyrocketing obesity and disease rates in ourselves and our children?
I can tell you that my own outlook on food and environment changed irrevocably the day after I became a young person diagnosed with late-stage cancer five years ago: I had no known genetic predisposition, no risk factors.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, "lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise and excessive weight are thought to play a major role" in trends for a number of different cancer types, including breast and prostate.
Did lifestyle factors play a role in my illness? I have no way of knowing, though I certainly have my suspicions.
A similar dynamic plays out for parents of children with food-related illnesses. As families look around for the reason(s) why their children may be suffering, they begin to cast a wary eye at the foods they have been consuming.
"I did the best I could with what I knew at the time," they might say, or "I assumed if it was sitting on a supermarket shelf, it was safe."
I have heard some version of these anguished refrains uttered by mothers dozens of times. (Here's one such story from Robyn O'Brien, a mother who went from a food industry analyst on Wall Street to "real food evangelist," after her child suffered a serious allergic reaction. O'Brien went on to found AllergyKids Foundation.)
The narrative here is also in large part about trust and its erosion over time.
Research shows a significant deterioration of trust in government and business. A recent survey by Hill+Knowlton highlighted an increasingly aware and skeptical public, many of whom believe that corporations have a responsibility to consider what's in the public's best interest when making business decisions.
If companies are beholden to their shareholders, then who is beholden to us? Because at the end of the day we, America's mothers and fathers, are certainly beholden to our children.
Whether genetically modified foods cause health problems remains controversial, depending on the source. Two points are hard to ignore, however.
First, as The New York Times' Mark Bittman recently pointed out, seed companies appear to be controlling the research on GMOs.
In his October 23 piece, Bittman linked to a 2009 Scientific American article that pointed out that "only studies that the seed companies have approved ever see the light of a peer-reviewed journal. In a number of cases, experiments that had the implicit go-ahead from the seed company were later blocked from publication because the results were not flattering."
Second, assertions that GMO labeling is "unscientific" and "dogmatic" run counter to current GMO labeling mandates or outright bans in nearly 50 countries worldwide -- Australia, Japan, Russia, China, India and the entire European Union among them. Surely these countries are home to a scientist or two.
Causation in science is notoriously difficult to establish. An accomplished epidemiologist recently pointed out to me that it took more than four decades to definitively link tobacco and lung cancer.
In the past we have happily ingested highly processed foods, laden with sugars, hydrogenated fats and treated with dyes, preservatives and additives to make us crave more -- only to find out that they had negative health consequences in the long run.
But while we wait for the black and white of absolute causation, who should bear the burden of proof in showing that engineered foods are not harming public health?
In a 2009 interview, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg acknowledged that the agency has been historically perceived as a "bureaucratic black box" and noted that "it's stunning how underfunded we are given the importance of what we do." It is unclear how much has changed in the past three years to "restore faith and trust in the FDA as a science-driven agency," as Hamburg had hoped to do.
For now, America's mothers and fathers represent the front lines of their family's health and well-being. Most parents are doing their best, given what they know, to safeguard children.
We are long past "trust me on this" when it comes to our food supplies. We need transparency so that we may make informed decisions for ourselves and our children. We need to know what is in our food, even if the prospect of labeling makes the companies that manufacture genetically modified foods uncomfortable.
As John F. Kennedy once said, "A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people."
And though the companies on the other side of the Prop 37 debate may disagree, transparency also makes perfect business sense. Coming up is a generation of consumers who will have cast a smart and critical eye upon food and its health implications since early childhood, and as history bears witness, transparency goes a long way toward trust and good will.
The story of genetically modified foods may continue to unfold for many years to come. In the meantime, we would like to decide for ourselves what we do or do not choose to consume.