Isn’t current oversight enough? I ask Atay, who laughs. “The mongoose is in charge of the chicken coop!” He cites examples of conflicts of interest, such as President Obama’s appointment of Michael Taylor as senior advisor to the EPA — he’s the former vice president of public policy at Monsanto. Atay’s suspicions of corruption aside, government regulatory agencies are undeniably overwhelmed. They’ve all suffered steep budget cuts over the years. As a result, they often fall far short of their own mandates. A Civil Beat article published November 17, 2014, revealed that the state’s five pesticide inspectors struggle under a backlog of cases. In 2013, officials managed to investigate only seven of seventy-two possible pesticide violations on Kaua‘i alone.
The FDA, which monitors what we consume, isn’t performing any better. Last November, the Government Accountability Office reported that in 2012, the FDA tested less than 1 percent of domestic fruits and vegetables for pesticide contamination. Furthermore, the agency doesn’t test for several of the most widely used chemicals, including glyphosate. As Ness says, anti-GMO activists might not be the most articulate, but they have valid concerns.
Meanwhile, Monsanto asserts a commitment to transparency. “We don’t have anything to hide,” say Stoltzfus. “We grow corn here. We wish people would take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about what we do.”
Back at the university, Irwin urges people to educate themselves. She’s discouraged by what she views as a growing anti-science sentiment, even on her own campus. People conflate GMOs with pesticide use, and the science of genetic engineering with industry. They’re not the same, she says. Biotechnology exists outside of the big companies. In universities and labs worldwide, her colleagues are working on exciting projects without industry ties: tobacco plants that can grow Ebola vaccines, American chestnut trees engineered to resist blight, and drought-tolerant crops that can feed sub-Saharan Africa.
The GMO debate invariably touches on issues bigger than biotechnology; it’s an ideological tug-of-war over industrial agriculture, patent rights, and the future of food. Some, like Stoltzfus, believe that large-scale farming is necessary to feed an increasingly hot and hungry world. Others disagree, noting that industrial agriculture has ushered in factory farming and processed ingredients so divorced from their origin that they no longer resemble food. Meanwhile, according to the USDA, 40 percent of what U.S. farmers produce ends up in landfills. Merely producing more isn’t the answer.