Something’s Fishy Here…

Not gonna to lie–I was definitely not expecting to find anything remotely related to new food activism amidst D.C.’s ruckus St. Patrick’s Day festivities, but there it was, literally staring me in the face:

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I spotted this car in the middle of Adams Morgan–a neighborhood in the District notorious for its bar scene and therefore a destination of choice to properly commemorate the Irish holiday. Needless to say, I was pretty surprised by its presence, and a little unsure of whether it was parked there to make a statement, or simply because its owner was joining in on the day’s celebrations. Either way, my first instinct was: “I can blog about that!” (I realize this is not a normal reaction)

This car represents some pretty interesting topics. Clearly it is a statement about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which are a very hot-button issue in food activism these days. While proponents of GMOs claim that they are the future in terms of combatting food insecurity, people remain skeptical not only of GMOs’ ability to generate higher crop yields and withstand adverse weather (as promised) but also their basic health and safety for consumers. According to the Non-GMO Project, “a growing body of evidence connects GMOs with health problems, environmental damage and violation of farmers’ and consumers’ rights.”

Interestingly, as of right now, the main battlefront seems to be playing out only over the issue of labeling. As the car I spotted proclaims, anti-GMO activists are mostly concerned about knowing whether or not their food has been modified, and less concerned about stopping the process of genetic modification altogether.

Beyond the message it sends, the car itself is a great example of public art which, according to Lucy R. Lippard, is an essential facet of activism (“Looking Around: Where We Are, Where We Could Be” 1995). A vehicle as eye-catching is this one will certainly stand out in the sea of neutral-shaded diplomatic sedans that is D.C. The clever morphing of an ear of corn into a fish visually depicts for the viewer what it is that so many people find unsettling about GM foods–namely, the unnatural merger of plants and animals that have no business mating with one another, let alone the physiological capability to do so. However, I find the choice of medium to display this protest at least slightly ironic. Some of the strongest adversaries of GMOs cite the environmental risks they pose. It doesn’t seem too petty to point out the irony in driving a fossil fuel-consuming vehicle to protest an environmental hazard, does it?

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Despite the growing distrust in genetically modified foods, there are of course still pro-GMO fighters out there. As argued in an article by Cameron English on PolicyMic, genetically modifying plants and animals is nothing new–we have been cultivating crops for centuries and the intentional act of breeding is in fact manipulating the genetic process. English goes further to suggest that the fear of ‘foreign microbes’ which is the basis for demanding GMO labels is unfounded, seeing as how “all the plants we eat, genetically modified or not, are loaded with bacteria, viruses, and other living organisms — and their DNA.” This links up in a curious way with my previous post discussing interspecies ethnography. While it is true that bacteria and microorganisms exist harmoniously with flora, fauna and humans alike, proponents of GM foods claim that we are in fact taking a greater risk ingesting these unknown additives than the ones intentionally spliced there by geneticists. Paraphrasing agricultural scientist Steve Savage, English claims “the only difference between the foreign genetic materials found naturally in plants and the genes we intentionally add to them is that we know more about the latter.”

To me (and I’m sure many others) this defense seems more than a little absurd. We’ve heard this story before–just check out these advertisements to get a darkly humorous glimpse at what was believed to be beneficial to our health not so long ago. We’ve learned (or at least been shown) the lesson the hard way that sometimes developments that look great and fool-proof at first turn out to be disastrous in the long run.

Sure, questioning the validity of seemingly unnatural innovations might be viewed by some as an illogical barrier to the benefits of modernity; and undoubtedly some technological advances have vastly improved quality of life. But this does not place categorical immunity on any and all newly developed techniques. This is precisely the philosophy held by adherents of the Back to the Land movements studied by Dona Brown, who questioned the necessity for technology in order to fully embrace the challenges of modernity.

There may be a compelling argument to be made that we have been knowingly modifying foods since Gregor Mendel (or even earlier),  but we have to be willing to draw the line somewhere. As Lippard notes, “nature includes everything, even technology, created by humans, who are a part of nature,” but just because GMOs may be seen as ‘natural’ in this sense of the word, doesn’t mean we get a free pass to start injecting tomatoes with fish genes and expect there to be no significant consequences. Perhaps we should start taking a serious look at the bigger structures that are causing all this food insecurity in the first place…but that’s a topic for another day.

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