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Repentance of a Food Skeptic

I urge you to watch the video above. It’s 18:27 long, but it is really over at about 18 minutes. When I was in college about 20 years ago, I began to hear about “organic food.” As a chemist, the term, then and now both, bugs me for dozens of reasons. My initial reaction beyond that was intense skepticism of something promoted by wild-eyed hippie types who were just being disestablishmentarian. That view has only slowly eroded over 20 years, but it is largely (not completely, though) washed away.

This erosion has been due to more and more folks learning more and more about how the food industry works and the unintended consequences of otherwise logical decisions, based on good, but incompletely tested scientific research. It has also been based on personal experience.

Back around 1997, I started suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). I attributed it largely to stress, but I have failed to find a clear correlation between them. I’ve tried various medical treatments over the last nearly 15 years, with only temporary success with any given treatment. Back in 2009, I was in Germany and Poland for just over a week. I had NO problems, which was a big surprise. They resumed shortly upon my return.

Robyn O’Brien, the speaker in the video, explains with hard data the likely cause of my troubles. The advent of genetically modified foods began in 1994 with milk, but in 1996, it expanded to the key grains in our diet, especially corn and soybeans—a year before my symptoms began. Furthermore, the US is the only major first world nation (and possibly the only major nation) to have allowed this change in diet. Thus, when I was in Europe, I was eating unmodified food. That I should respond so drastically in such a short time was eye-opening.

Mrs. O’Brien is not a wild-eyed hippie. She is a trained analyst, with a successful Wall Street career as a business analyst…of/for the food industry. It wasn’t until one of her children had a major medical reaction to a ‘normal’ American breakfast that she began to analyze this aspect of the industry. She very carefully and respectfully traces the history and motivation of the change in food production and shows the results. The one set of graphs I would like to have seen is how the rates of cancers, obesity, and other health concerns (and costs!) have tracked both in the US and globally over the last, say, 30 years. She also offers some suggestions on how to begin to change.

Given my lifestyle and work schedule, changes are difficult. I am slowly trying to change, and am seeing small improvements as I reduce the amount of processed food I eat.

I am not going to use this as an excuse to blame anyone for criminal negligence. Was there some negligence and possibly even deliberate ignoring of possible problems? Likely yes. The real crisis facing our country is whether the industry will honestly look at the data and make necessary changes or continue to ignore the building information due to corporate inertia. Evidence that corporate inertia is insufficient justification is given by what O’Brien claims—that major food corporations sell/export unmodified processed foods to those countries that forbid it. Thus, they already have a process stream of unmodified foods, so transitioning to that stream exclusively is certainly doable.

One of the most difficult tasks to teach students in technical fields is risk assessment. What constitutes reasonable risk? What are appropriate ways to assess risk and evaluate unintended outcomes before they happen? How often should risk be reassessed to incorporate new data? In one critical sense, college classes are like business—there are many deadlines with many decisions about risk/reward and opportunity costs for each decision. We need to do a better job of harnessing that similarity to help them learn how to make better decisions on things with surprisingly large impacts on the world. The food supply, the global political situation, the economic fragility—none of these are video games with virtual consequences. Real people sicken, lose wealth, even die.

One final thought:  much of the famine we see in Africa is due not to food shortages but political corruption, keeping aid and food from the people. How much of our increasing fragility as a nation (in health, manufacturing strength, economic crises, and so on) is due to the last 15 years of food modification? O’Brien hints at a strong correlation because of the burden of the skyrocketing health costs crippling our GDP due to the rise in cancer and chronic health issues. How can a sick people be prosperous? How can they learn and innovate? Recently I was telling my dad that on a good day with my condition, I feel at 90-95%, but it is often much less. How much productivity and creativity is sapped by simply not feeling well?

Please note:  I am not advocating that government jump in with new laws and new regulations. There are too many opportunities for that to make things worse. Their track record isn’t that good. Better is to person by person make better decisions and educate each other, and encourage companies through our shopping, through letters, and through working for them or talking with friends who do to change their business model. As educators, we have the opportunity to train up their next generation of employees and executives to think more clearly about a larger picture. This should be easier and easier to do as these students now were the children raised on this food. They only have to look at their friends to see the impact.



  1. I couldn't agree more with you. The biggest problem is that products are not labeled gmo. Some are labeled when they are NOT gmo and that is helpful. If you shop at farmers markets-the farmers will be able to tell you about their seeds. If we as individuals put our money where are mouths are (so to speak) then change will happen and can happen quickly. No need for legislation. "Chew with your mind open"

  2. Are you suggesting we Occupy the Vegetable Aisle?

    Seriously, there is some scientific evidence regarding behavioral problems and artificial food coloring, even if it's not as definitive as our local food commune would like us to believe and our oldest child (who meets the very nonspecific criteria for ADHD) has had a fairly drastic change in behavior after removing the majority of artificially flavored/colored foods from his diet.

  3. I am as pleased as organic, artificial food coloring-free punch with the revelations in this post. Your repentance is sincere and thoughtful. You are a better scientist because of it! Tip of the hat!