Spring 2013: “Genetically Modified Food” College Winner Ryan Barry

Read Ryan's essay about his concerns surrounding the health effects of GMOs, and his recommendation to follow the European Union's lead and adopt the precautionary principle.

Ryan Barry, a student of Professor Tom Hudspeth at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont, read and responded to the YES! Magazine article “A Month Without Monsanto,” by April Dávila, a story about the potential health effects of genetically modified foods, and her need to learn where her food came from. He is our university winner for the Spring 2013 writing competition.

Writing prompt: April Dávila discovered that around 70 percent of processed foods on American supermarket shelves contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Does this concern you? What matters most to you about the food you eat?


GMOs: A Right to Know


I am deeply troubled by the widespread consumption of genetically modified (GM) foods. Genetically modified foods are incredibly difficult to avoid in America. According to the Grocery Manufacturers of America “70 to 80 percent of American processed foods contain genetically engineered ingredients”. Further, the agricultural giant Monsanto enjoys a virtual monopoly on seed companies throughout the nation. In the YES! Magazine article, “A Month Without Monsanto, author April Dávila rightfully laments that avoiding Monsanto involves “Talking with the person who grew your food—every ingredient of every bite.”

Farmers have difficulties preventing their crops from becoming contaminated by genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Peter Schmeiser was sued after GM canola drifted onto his farm. Monsanto, the owner of the GM canola, argued that Schmeiser should pay for the unwanted, but patented, product. Schmeiser stood his ground, eventually settling with Monsanto to pay cleanup costs. Unfortunately, many farmers have been bankrupted by this company through no fault of their own.

Some studies have shown that genetically modified (GM) foods may have major impacts on health, but other scientists claim that GM foods are safe. In a situation where there’s been plenty of debate and so much at stake, there still appears to be no conclusive data about the safety of GM foods. In the interim—while it is uncertain whether genetically modified food is harmful or safe—I would recommend applying the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle states: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. ”Guided by this principle—preferring to be overly safe rather than retrospectively sorry—the European Union decided to ban the cultivation of GMOs. Additionally, 64 countries already have GMO-labeling laws in place.

I attend college in Vermont, where the state’s House of Representatives recently passed GMO-labeling legislation by an overwhelming margin. This proposed law, which still needs approval from the senate and the governor, would make Vermont the first state to require the labeling of GM foods. The main reason lawmakers argued against this law was based on fear of the big agriculture industry. According to Vermont Public Radio, the most frequently cited opposition to the law concerned “a likely lawsuit from the biotech or food industries that the Attorney General’s office estimates could cost the state more than $5 million.”

April Dávila advocates avoiding processed foods, eating less meat, and buying organic dairy products. These diet changes undoubtedly have numerous health benefits. Unfortunately, there are many people who do not have the financial resources to afford these food choices. Unhealthy and potentially dangerous foods are much cheaper because our government heavily subsidizes our unsustainable agricultural industry. Without these subsidies, organic and healthy foods would be priced much more competitively. The burden should not be on us to pay extra for higher quality, healthier food. As consumers and taxpayers, we should know what is in our food, so that we can make informed decisions.

Giant agricultural companies like Monsanto will argue that GMO labeling will generate unnecessary fear surrounding GM foods. I argue that if these companies truly believe that GM foods are safe, they should have nothing to hide. If they believe their product is superior, they should be proud to label their food as genetically modified.

During my junior year at the University of Vermont, I lived in an environmental cooperative on campus. We prided ourselves on knowing where our food came from. We grew our own food, and bought the rest from local farms. It was empowering to know that we were achieving a degree of self-sufficiency while ensuring that we were eating healthy and supporting sustainable livelihoods.

A few years ago, I enrolled in a course called “Human Health and the Environment. I learned a great deal about how we are constantly affected by harmful chemicals in consumer products. A very small proportion of these chemicals have been tested for their health effects. We cannot keep risking our lives, not knowing the effects of our consumer products and the food that we eat. I hope that other states follow Vermont’s example and stand up to the big agricultural giants. April Dávila took it upon herself to ensure that she knew what she was eating, and how it was produced. We as consumers and voters must follow suit by telling our political representatives that we have a right to know what we’re eating.



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