“Sanctimommy” Part Two, or, How I Kicked Over a GMO Hornet’s Nest

Last week, I wrote a post (later reprinted on the Huffington Post) called “Don’t Call Me a “Sanctimommy:” The Latest Salvo in the Mommy Food Wars,” which was my rebuttal to a piece in Salon, “Stop telling me I’m poisoning my kids”: Food crusaders, sancti-mommies and the rise of entitled eaters.”

The crux of the Salon piece, written by self-proclaimed “science advocate” Jenny Splitter, is that because we live in “one of the safest food systems in the world,” a mother is an “entitled,” “arrogant” “sanctimommy” if she’s at all concerned about feeding her children GMOs, conventionally grown foods or sugar.

As I outlined in my rebuttal, I actually agreed with some of Splitter’s points – particularly that it’s not OK for a mom to tell another mom that she’s “poisoning” her kids by feeding them conventionally-grown food (or anything else, short of actual poison.)  But just because our food supply is “safe” in many ways, I believe there are many legitimate reasons why a mom might care about feeding her kids sugar, organics or GMOs; derisively labelling such women “sanctimommies” strikes me as an ugly, patronizing tactic that certainly doesn’t serve Splitter’s cause as a pro-GMO activist.

But precisely because Splitter’s ire appears to be primarily directed at anti-GMO moms, my rebuttal required me to wade into an area that I’ve quite deliberately avoided on The Lunch Tray in the past, i.e., the debate over GMO foods.  And, as I quickly learned, that debate is a fierce and emotional one for many people.  Within hours of sharing my post, one of Splitter’s supporters accused me on Twitter of having personally maligned her.  Soon after, heated comments from both pro- and anti-GMO factions started pouring in on The Lunch Tray.

Rather than answer each of those comments individually, I thought it might be easier to sum up my thoughts on GMO in my first — and likely last — statement on the subject on this blog:

I haven’t taken a public stance on GMO foods as part of my kid-and-food advocacy simply because I don’t believe consensus has been reached on a lot of open questions, ranging from the safety of ingesting GMO foods (though I’m inclined to believe they are safe) to the broader ripple effects of GMO on agriculture and the environment.  (As I did in my rebuttal, let me again refer readers to this excellent piece by Maywa Montenegro, “The Complex Nature of GMOs Calls for a New Conversation,” which encourages us to view the GMO question through a wider lens than just food safety.)

But over the last few days, I’ve learned to my chagrin that just saying “the debate isn’t settled” on any aspect of the GMO question is highly inflammatory to pro-GMO supporters — and will inevitably lead to accusations that you’re an “anti-science” wing-nut, someone who’s irrationally afraid of “chemicals” (and yes, I actually do know that water is a chemical, but thanks to the commenters who shared this free science lesson with me) — or that you’re a dreaded “sanctimommy.”  Well, so be it; I’m certainly not alone in this assessment and after almost six years of blogging, I’ve developed a pretty thick skin.

More pragmatically, though, one of my core interests as a writer and advocate is school food reform, and I personally believe GMO has no place in that conversation at this juncture.  Put more bluntly, we’re currently fighting in Congress just to preserve a whole-grain-rich standard and to keep a mere half-cup of fruits or vegetables on kids’ lunch trays; whether those healthful foods are produced organically, conventionally or via GMO technology matters far less to me as a school food advocate than that they’re actually served to the 31 million kids who rely on school meals for needed nutrition.

But then there’s the question of GMO labeling.  In keeping with my general belief that consumers have a right to food transparency, I do support GMO labeling – along with 93% of the American public.  And it’s worth noting that GMO food is already labeled in 64 countries around the world – even including China – and, despite the dire warnings of the pro-GMO camp, the economies of those countries have not ground to a halt as a result.

Labeling has another role, too.  As Marion Nestle wisely put it on her blog, Food Politics, last year, there are

two apparently irreconcilable views of GMO foods:

  1. The “science-based” position: If GMOs are safe (which they demonstrably are), there can be no rational reason to oppose them.
  2. The “societal value-based” position: Even if GMOs are safe (and this is debatable), there are still plenty of other reasons to oppose them.

. . . . Those who hold the “science-based” position would do well to take societal values more seriously.

Seed patents, monoculture, weed resistance, and other such concerns trouble people who care about food systems that promote health, protect the environment, and provide social justice.

Labeling, right from the start, would have acknowledged the importance of such values. Until GMO foods are labeled as such, the same arguments are likely to go on endlessly, with no reconciliation in sight.

I’m going to link to this post in the comments section on my original Splitter rebuttal and will not be engaging on further debate about GMO on this blog.  If that topic is deeply important to you, there are many other forums on the Internet in which to air your views.

My only regret in even mentioning GMO in my rebuttal to Splitter’s piece is that I fear it obscured my larger point:

There are few more personal matters than how we feed our own children, and we’d all be better served by adopting a live-and-let-live attitude instead of judging other moms.  And when we do need to settle food issues in the political sphere, derisive terms like “sanctimommy” do nothing but poison the debate.

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