Mommy, What Is a GMO?

Or, what you don’t know will never hurt you…

“John Muir walked away into the mountains in his old overcoat, a crust of bread in his pocket. We have no knowledge and so we have stuff and stuff with no knowledge is never enough.”
— “Two Little Feet,” Greg Brown

When I was in the homestretch of writing my new book, Modified: GMOs and The Threat to Our Food, Our Land, Our Future (due to come out from Putnam in 2016), my five-year-old son, whom I’ll call Rabbit[1] turned to me over a Friday night supper of fried local haddock[2], seared purple pole beans from Jan Goranson’s farm and boiled blue gold potatoes from Freedom Farm — slick, waxy skins on the outside and floury insides — steeped in a sauce of butter (I use an outrageous amount) salt, pepper and chopped chives and parsley, and said, “Mommy, what is a GMO?”

My husband, Dan, and I looked at each other and started to laugh. We were taken aback. Not by the question itself — because it was a good one, one that I’d learned many people would be hard pressed to answer correctly. But instead, we were thinking, “Oh my God, how did we miss this?” Regaining composure, I asked, “Buddy, have we been talking about GMOs all this time while Mommy writes her book and you haven’t known what they were?” (We’re talking years, here.) “Yes,” he said matter of factly, with the tiniest hint of an outraged whine, his lovely, red bottom lip puffing out just a bit.

How had this happened? Had I somehow wanted to protect him from too much knowledge? Or had it just gone over his head until, suddenly, at age five and a half, a light bulb went on, and now he needed more — or better — information?

As I considered my response, I knew I needed to be careful to present the information in as balanced a way as possible. This was a direct question, one that deserved a concise and concrete bit of pithy lowdown. After all, this was a virgin mind. As a parent, I always figure, why close doors when I can just as easily open them? For all I know, this little Rabbit might someday grow up to become a scientist who comes up with some kind of GMO that saves the planet from the various inconvenient catastrophes that appear to be looming in our futures.

So I decided to try to use our dinner as an example. “So, okay, let’s see… It’s like if you take the DNA of this fish, which is the code that’s written inside the fish and makes it a haddock instead of a flounder — the same kind of writing that makes you you instead of a flounder, in fact.” He was already confused (and who wouldn’t be?). But I sallied forth, trying to figure out how to say something cogent even though — still — after months and years of work on this subject, it can sometimes be confusing to me, too. “Okay, so you take this writing — this code — like the kind Henry and Mudge break in the Sneaky Crackers story…?” He nodded. The code thing was sort of working. “So you take this teeny tiny code that makes the fish a fish and you take it out of the fish and then you take a gun and you shoot that fishy writing into some corn seeds and then the corn seeds grow but they smell like haddock…that would be a GMO. Basically. The point is that Nature would never do that on her own — make some kind of haddock corn. It takes a person — or a scientist who really knows what they are doing — to mix a haddock fish and corn plant.”

“What?” he shouted. “That’s crazy. Why would you do that? You use a real gun? Does the corn grow up to look like a fish?”

“Yes, when this all started the scientists used real guns. Pistols, in fact.” His eyes widened. He sort of knew (maybe) what a pistol was, in that bizarre gun osmosis way that seems to happen with kids, no matter how sheltered they are from the hard truths of the world.

I continued, “And, no, the corn wouldn’t look like the fish — you wouldn’t be able to see this change. But it might do something the fish does really well. Like — and this is a real example — let’s say you put some flounder DNA inside a strawberry. The reason for this is that flounder don’t freeze — they live far below the surface of the ocean and their bodies know not to freeze even in the coldest depths, sunk down into the mud of the sea floor. If you can put some of their non-freezing DNA inside a strawberry to make it not freeze during a frost or something… some people think that’s a pretty neat idea. In the case of corn, scientists have figured out how to put a pesticide — which is a chemical designed to kill a bug — inside the corn to make it so that some bugs, called corn borers, take a bite and just keel over and die. You know the pesticides those tractors are spraying in your John Deere tractors book?”

“Yes,” he said.

“It’s like those, but in this case they are inside the plants. The bugs can’t see or smell the pesticides — they’re just there inside the corn.”

He looked horrified. “The pesticide is inside the corn, Mommy?” I could see this rather heady information ricocheting around in his brain.

“Yes,” I said as neutrally as possible. I was waiting for him to lead me to the next question, if there was one.

“Would we be able to see the pesticide?”

“No. It’s invisible to our eyes, too.” He shook his head, incredulous. Sneaky things were too interesting for words.

“Is corn the only GMO?” he asked.

“No,” I said hesitantly. The list of things might be confusing, I worried. Or just overwhelming. “There are some others, too. Like there’s a GMO beet, and a GMO zucchini, and GMO cotton and GMO trees and GMO potato, papaya, canola, alfalfa, salmon, wheat and apple, too…But they don’t all carry pesticides. Some things are GMO’s for different reasons — like the apple is modified to not turn brown when it’s cut open an put inside your lunch box.”

Rabbit’s face looked blank, or tired. I couldn’t tell which. But I could see that we had hit information overload.

And then, as kids tend to do, especially when they’ve had it, the subject devolved into all the crazy pairings that couldn’t –as of yet — naturally happen in nature: a moose with an ostrich tail, a tomato that’s part goat, a donkey that hops like a bunny, a marmoset that smells like a petunia. And before long we were veering into the oh-so-predictable scatological possibilities (I won’t go into them here), and the silliness was at full, exhaustive tilt. It was time to shepherd my inquisitive little bunny up to the shower and pivot the conversation to safer topics like tooth flossing and the choice between salamander or owl pajamas.

But later, as I washed my face, brushed my teeth and slathered my hands with Shea butter, I reflected back over the last four years as I wrestled with my subject. I thought about all the times, I, too, had had no idea what we were really talking about when we talked about GMOs. I thought of all the people I’d spoken to, and how many times I’d changed tack — sometimes thinking that the anti-GMO people were hysterical and insane and that the people who created and supported the GMO technology were the only sound-thinking people around. And then, at other times, feeling skeptical, at best, that forcibly modifying the DNA of anything was a very good idea, especially when the goal was to make plants carry their own inherent pesticides.

As I made my way to bed, I realized that Rabbit’s questions had honed something important for me: It was the invisibility, really, which was the crucial crux of the issue with GMOs. After all, we are creating, growing and eating things to which we’ve given characteristics that are undetectable to our naked eyes and discerning noses — and for that matter, to the eyes and noses of birds, deer, butterflies[3] and racoons, too. And if these traits are invisible, the next logical question is, does that mean if we don’t know about them, then they can’t hurt us? Because, honestly, what does it actually mean to use science to modify –or change — something living? Might there be real, visible, and, perhaps, unintended consequences? To our own bodies when we eat them? To the land on which they are grown? To the creatures with whom we share this planet?

When I started out, four years ago on the path that eventually became Modified, I had not realized that these would end up being my questions. Back then, I was just trying to get well from a long and debilitating illness, which was finally diagnosed by an immunologist as reaction to GMO corn. As wacky as his diagnosis seemed –even to me — as soon as I took corn out of my diet, I got better.

Getting well was wonderful — uncanny and miraculous, even. But somehow it wasn’t enough. The pain-in-the-ass-always-asking-why in me was unconvinced that GMO corn — or GMO anything — could really have made me sick. It seemed just as plausible that my body had decided, somehow, to get over it and be well. Or that by eradicating corn I’d somehow managed to collaterally treat something I wasn’t even aware of. I figured there could be a myriad of possibilities for my miraculous recovery.

So, armed with my natural skepticism and an insecurity — how can I possibly explain this illness and recovery to anyone without them laughing at me and probably thinking I’m a New Agey insane person? — I gathered up my old Marantz voice recorder from my public radio days and set out on a personal quest to ask more questions and get more answers. I wanted to get answers if not only just for myself, then for every other mom or dad who, like me, spent hours scrutinizing labels at the supermarket only to become more confused about what’s actually in our food these days.

My journey took me from my hometown of Portland, Maine out to the Great Plains and across our Heartland; to Europe; out west to California; and into the offices of and on the phone with as many scientists, doctors, farmers, activists, industry spokespeople, USDA officials and politicians who would speak with me. Without knowing what I was doing exactly, I found myself headed straight into the epicenter of a loud and contentious debate about GMOs.

I had no idea it was going to be such a shit storm. But I kept going, I kept taking notes and I kept writing. Because at the end of the day, all I really wanted to know was simply this: Could GMOs make us sick? It turns out that it’s an easy question to ask. The answer, however, is complicated.

[1] A nickname bestowed as much because of the furry animal as by John Updike, an elegant and inspiring mentor of mine.

[2] We’re Mainers, so haddock is basically de rigueur once a week. I love to cook it either fried in rice flour with lemon wedges or top it with mayonnaise into which I mix finely chopped fresh herbs — usually some combination of chives, cilantro, parsley, sorrel, oregano, marjoram and thyme, depending on what’s fresh and available in the garden or at the market — some fresh lemon juice, a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper and then I broil it until it’s bubbly and light brown. I serve this with rice and salad. Warmed baguette is also great with it to sop up the sauce on the plate.

[3] Yes, butterflies can smell. Even better than humans!

Caitlin Shetterly’s new book, Modified: GMOs and The Threat to Our Food, Our Land, Our Future, will be published by Putnam in 2016.

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