Stories That Matter: How The New York Times Magazine Busted the GMO Myth
Jennifer Kahn digs into the reasons underlying our fear of such products, and describes their enormous potential.
The dynamic is frustratingly familiar: Science gifts us with a breakthrough product, only to face a reluctant, skeptical public. Fear of the new combines with a lack of trust in authority to produce a defiant attitude of “I don’t want this stuff in my body.”
Yes, that describes many people who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine. But it also fits another group, which overlaps significantly with anti-vaxxers: People who are wary, and in some cases terrified, of genetically modified foods.
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, were originally introduced to the mass public in a negative light, when the chemical company Monsanto used the technology as a way of allowing it to use greater amounts of its pesticide Roundup on certain crops. That controversy convinced a lot of people that GMOs are inherently bad, when in fact they have great potential to make food tastier and more nutritious — as well as to keep crops healthy as climate change plays havoc with traditional weather patterns.
Jennifer Kahn makes this point in the July 25th, 2021, issue of The New York Times Magazine, which has a juicy, delicious-looking purple tomato on the cover. The genetically modified fruit, which contains high levels of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, was bred by British biologist Cathie Martin, who at the age of 66 is doing cutting-edge research that could change what we place on our cutting boards.
Kahn, a contributing writer to the magazine and a lecturer at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, spoke with The Postscript about her story and the sometimes-angry reaction she has received. The interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
The only time I have come across the initials GMO in recent years is when I noticed a “GMO Free” label on a package of food. No doubt this led me to assume that GMOs are inherently bad — if they weren’t, why would the makers of this product be touting their absence? Was that true of you as well, and if so, when did you start questioning that assumption?
Kahn: Because I come from a science background, I was never radically suspicious of GMOs. But like most people of my particular socioeconomic position, I wanted to be healthy. I had a vague idea that eating organic was better for both me and the planet, although it turns out to be more complicated than that. For the reader I was aiming at — someone like me — there wasn’t a profound aversion to GMOs, but there was a general sense of “Isn’t this not great? Do we really know what they do to us?”
That describes a good percentage of the readers of The New York Times Magazine.
Kahn: Yes, the WWWs — well, wealthy, and worried.
What initially inspired you to dig into this issue?
Kahn: Initially I pitched it as a smaller story — a look at Cathie Martin’s purple tomato. But one of the editors there, Bill Wasik, was very interested in this topic. He felt this was the moment to revisit this question of why we’re so against GMOs. I ended up being glad he felt that way. It felt like a good time to revisit this question.
Yes, we now have genetic engineering as well as genetic modification, but I’m fuzzy on what the difference is. Can you explain in very basic terms?
Kahn: It’s really hard to grasp. People I know and love — including my husband — still don’t get the distinction. GMO is something that has a gene from another organism. To use an extreme example, if you have an apple and you take a gene from a jellyfish and put it in the apple, that’s a GMO. But it’s also a GMO if you take a gene from a crab apple, since that’s a different species.
Genetic engineering, at least the way I’m using it, means the genome of the thing itself has been changed. You discover an apple has a gene that codes for the apple being very bitter. If you knock that out, you end up with a sweeter apple. So you’re just changing a gene within the genome of the apple. You’re not introducing anything foreign.
From a lay perspective, that seems a little less scary. Maybe we all saw too many science fiction movies as kids, but the idea of mixing the genes of two species creeps a lot of people out.
Kahn: Clearly, it does! At a gut level, it feels wrong or unnatural, or like we’re violating something profound. When I gave the example of taking a scorpion gene and inserting it into an apple, I myself had a negative visceral response! But in fact, you could put a gene from a scorpion into an apple and be safer than if you took a gene from a tomato and put it into an apple. Tomatoes produce a toxin that can kill you just as well as a scorpion can. We just don’t think of them that way.
I did not know the movie Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was grounded in science. That aside, you’re arguing that gene edits can actually produce better, more nutritious foods, or make foods that are already nutritious taste better.
Kahn: Absolutely. What people don’t necessarily realize is an individual gene is like a single, tiny instruction — like “add a teaspoon of salt” in a recipe. It’s one line in a very elaborate recipe. Some genes change things directly, like contributing to the production of Vitamin C. Others do things indirectly. For example, to keep an apple from browning, you can squeeze lemon on it — or you can find a way to make the apple create a little more Vitamin C.
A lot of this involves knocking out genes that are producing something you don’t want. There’s a compound in the peels of cucumbers that repels spider bites. It also makes the peel very bitter. Cucumber breeders ages ago set out to dial this down, since nobody likes the bitter peel. You can do that by modifying the gene.
Humans have been creating new and better varieties of plants for many centuries. Do you see genetic engineering as a continuation of that tradition, or is there something fundamentally different about it?
Kahn: This is one of the big fracture points. To people who are worried about GMOs, it feels like an enormous jump. It’s true that GMOs would never occur in nature. In that sense, it’s different. But I was really surprised to learn how chaotic and haphazard ordinary breeding is. When you cross-breed two plants, it can involve hundreds of genes, even if you’re looking for a single gene that, say, makes the apple sweeter or bigger. Because it’s conventional breeding, you’re not required to sequence the genes (of this hybrid species) and find out what other genes have been dragged along. There’s no way of knowing if they’ve made the apple more or less healthy, or more or less dangerous. It’s a crapshoot. People want strict regulations of GMOs, but that process is often much more precise. They’re sticking in a single gene.
Perhaps because it’s done in a lab rather than a greenhouse, it feels scarier somehow.
Kahn: That’s it. Plenty of people have written me saying “I don’t want to eat anything that came out of a lab.” But once you’ve made the genetic change in the lab, the process is no different than cross-breeding. You make a seed and grow that seed into a tree that produces apples.
Do we consume GMOs every day without realizing it?
Kahn: I found a statistic I couldn’t verify from the Grocery Manufacturers Association that said 70 to 80 percent of processed foods contain GMOs. Now, sometimes the act of processing basically eliminates the genetic material. One thing that worries folks who are anxious about GMOs is if you are eating this in a whole food like an apple, it might be a lot more than you would get in processed food products.
But processed foods have their own issues.
Kahn: That’s one of the ironies of all this. There are so many things we know are terrible for us. Potatoes produce a carcinogen when they’re fried, and yet we eat French fries. We know sugar is bad for us. But we don’t blink at that stuff. Then we have these remote, hypothetical concerns about GMOs. It’s one of the perverse ways we think about what we ingest.
Where did you find Cathie Martin and her purple tomato?
Kahn: I read an article a while ago where she was mentioned. I thought it was interesting, because I, like most people, had defaulted to thinking about GMOs as products of Big Ag. The fact there was somebody out there making this little tomato who wasn’t part of big agriculture was interesting. She was trying to make it healthier, not pest-resistant so she could sell more herbicides. Her story was the opposite of what we conceive of GMOs. I was trying to separate the technology from how it has historically been used, and by whom.
What kind of reaction have you been getting to the piece? Have you been accused of being a tool of Big Ag?
Kahn: I’m definitely a tool of Big Ag, according to the emails I have gotten. It’s not as bad as writing about QAnon, but I’ve gotten emails asking “How stupid are you?” There was also a Twitter campaign, which didn’t really engage with any of the points the piece made. It was outraged that the piece didn’t only talk about Monsanto and Roundup and excoriating Big Ag. I did get a lot of that.
The problems associated with Big Ag are a separate issue from GMOs. GMOs are not the primary drivers of the rise in monoculture, the rise in consolidation in farming, even the rise in pesticide use. People are unhappy that agriculture has become industrialized, but that would be true whether or not we had GMOs.
There are specific cases where GMOs do contribute to this trend, including with the herbicide Roundup. But there are lots of counter-examples. They used to spray broad-spectrum pesticides on crops that would kill all kinds of insects. This contributed to the insect die-off we’re now facing. By making crops that use genes taken from a bacterium, the plants make the pesticide themselves, and it allows them to resist these little caterpillars that would otherwise destroy them. As a result, pesticide use has gone down.
So used correctly and wisely, GMOs could reduce pesticide use, which would be a good thing.
Kahn: You’re exactly right. The other thing people don’t think about is how terrible it is when you lose crops to insects or flooding; it’s a disaster. You end up needing to farm still more land and use still more herbicides and pesticides. The ones you used on the original crop have just gone into the groundwater. If you can produce a more tolerant variety of rice that can survive being submerged for 14 days rather than three days, you can save an enormous amount of waste. We can’t afford to have agriculture take up more land than it is already taking up.
Has writing this piece changed what you feed yourself and your family?
Kahn: It hasn’t, only because there’s really no GMO produce on the market. I still find myself thinking that if I saw a display that said “GMO apples,” I have to fight a tiny, visceral part of me that says “I want something else.” I have to reassert my rational mind — just as we might get a little sketched out by getting a shot, but we do it. I’m not immune to the desire to want things that are “natural” — whatever that means in my mind!
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Predict: What Happens Next?
Jennifer Kahn doesn’t see anti-GMO attitudes changing over the short run, but she suspects that as smaller projects like Cathie Martin’s purple tomato begin to proliferate, feelings could gradually evolve. “The way Cathie is launching her tomato is really smart: Give the seeds to home gardeners,” she said. “That means people are opting in.”
She also suspects minds will be changed as GMO technology allows farmers to adjust to new threats, including those caused or exacerbated by climate change. “Hawaii is very anti-GMO,” she noted, “but when they found that GMO technology could be used to save the papaya industry, people got on board.”
Read: More on Genetically Modified Organisms
A solid overview of the risks and benefits of GMOs from National Geographic: “Food: How Altered?” October 9, 2009
A Time magazine report from 2015 on how GMOs are in the foods we eat every day: “These Charts Show Every Genetically Modified Food People Already Eat in the U.S.,” April 30, 2015
For in-depth reading, check out a Harvard University report from 2015 on the history and impact of GMOs, including the controversy over the pesticide Roundup: “Signal to Noise Special Edition: GMOs and Our Food,” August 10, 2015
Meet: About the Author
Tom Jacobs is a former senior staff writer for Santa Barbara-based Pacific Standard magazine, and a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. He tracks and analyzes trends in the arts and social sciences, with an emphasis on psychology, the role of culture, and the cultivation of creativity. A native of Chicago, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern University.