“You are poisoning your children,” the woman told me calmly before walking back into the crowd of activists gathered for the Food Justice march this past October in Washington, DC. Activists from groups like March Against Monsanto and Moms Across America rallied because they believe Americans are at risk from our food supply. The spectacle was vaguely familiar to me, because my parents were also activists in the 60s (my dad is still involved in anti-poverty work) and I grew up with posters from Chez Panisse in my home. So it was hard to find myself on what felt like “the other side” of a social justice issue. But there I was protesting with a small group of science advocates because I believe we have more to fear from fear-mongers than our privileged American food system.
My daughter has a life-threatening allergy to peanuts and tree-nuts, so I first became interested in GMOs because I kept reading that they were to blame for skyrocketing allergy rates. I started with “What is a GMO?” and soon found myself reexamining everything I thought I knew about biotech, organic food, pesticides and nutrition. I discovered that most of what I thought was true was false. So, yes, I now feed my kids conventional produce and GMOs, but … poison? Now, you can say a lot of things about my parenting – I yell too much, I don’t attend PTA meetings, I spend too much time on my phone — but I wasn’t prepared for the accusation that I’m poisoning my kids with potatoes.
And yet, these kinds of accusations have become all too commonplace. The charge that moms are sickening and fattening their children with relatively benign food choices has become ubiquitous amongst professional food alarmists.
For Halloween this year, Vani Hari, better known as the Food Babe, told us “How to Stop Poisoning the Neighborhood Children on Halloween.” Robert Lustig, anti-sugar crusader, has called sugar as addictive as heroin. And anti-biotech activist groups like Moms Across America blame GMOs for autism, food allergies and miscarriages. As a food allergy parent myself, I know how frightening it is when your child is at risk from something that you can’t see or make sense out of. Even though I know better, I cried to my daughter’s allergist that her allergies are my fault because I ate too much peanut butter when I was pregnant. I worried about what I could have done differently. Did I introduce solids too late? Too early? Maybe I should have tried baby-led weaning?
But as hard as I was being on myself, judgment from other moms can feel even more damaging. The idea that GMOs, conventional produce and sugar are poison in the mouths of babes has created a whole new breed of sanctimommies and their entitled eater kids. These moms advocate for costly and complicated dietary choices because they insist that choosing only organic, non-GMO, “natural” foods will make all children healthier. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that their concern isn’t genuine. We’re constantly bombarded with frightening health statistics about children. Food allergies in children increased by 50% in the last decade or so. Asthma rates are also increasing — from 1 in 14 people in 2001 to 1 in 12 people in 2009. And while obesity rates have stabilized in some categories, 17% of kids between 2 and 19 are still obese. It’s no wonder that moms are looking for answers. But feeding GMO-free, organic and sugar-free foods won’t guarantee you healthy kids. Whether a food is GMO or organic only gives you information about how it was grown, not whether or not it’s a good source of nutrition. A non-GMO, organic, gluten-free cupcake sweetened with honey is still a god-damned cupcake, and a lot less healthful to a growing body than some conventional chicken and green beans. In fact, the amount of sugar kids consume is only one of many complex factors that can affect a child’s health.
What these privileged diets are more likely to guarantee than a clean bill of health is a whole new generation of entitled eaters. I know, because I was once an all-organic, clean-eating sugar-free mom, too. I spent way too many hours hunting down obscure ingredients like coconut sugar and verifying whether my honey was indeed “real.” My kids weren’t any healthier. I was just making everyone miserable spending time and money chasing what I thought was healthier food.
But the experience was valuable because it showed me how the “mommy wars” are no longer just about breastmilk and working outside of the home. The newest battle lines have been drawn over transgenic crops or so-called “frankenfoods.” Celebrity moms like Gwyneth Paltrow and Sarah Michelle Gellar, as well as Moms Across America food activists like Zen Honeycutt, are some of the most vocal opponents of GMOs.
These moms refuse to accept the huge body of scientific evidence deeming these foods safe. Groups like the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization all agree that GMO foods are just as safe as conventionally grown food. And yet, a constant thread in these maternal narratives is a rejection of scientific expertise for “I’m just a mom” perspectives that seem relatable no matter how little evidence or science they rely on.
Whether it’s Honeycutt or Paltrow, the common theme seems to be the maternal version of what writer Bret Easton Ellis dubs “the sentimental narrative.” Every statement necessarily begins with a modest “I’m not an expert” confession before tearfully explaining that there is a motherly protective instinct at work here, and that instinct shouldn’t be bothered with facts. Now, I’m a mom too, and I can appreciate how frustrating it is when experts imply that a mother’s own experience doesn’t count. It’s frustrating to feel like you’re just a statistic. The problem develops when we trust anecdotal evidence and sentimental narratives without ever examining them with any degree of skepticism or critical thinking. Yes, Honeycutt and Paltrow are mothers who oppose GMOs. But there are scientists and farmers who are mothers too. What about their experience?
Anti-GMO moms have cast themselves as the heroes of their own story. A recent strategy speech by anti-GMO activist Jeffrey Smith of the Institute for Responsible Technology stated quite blatantly that the anti-GMO movement needs these moms — particularly moms of kids with chronic conditions — in order to grow the movement.
There is even a new movie, "Consumed," in which the hero of the story is a mother convinced that GMOs have made her child sick. The fact that there is no scientific evidence to support this anecdotal claim is irrelevant to the sentimental maternal narrative. Anti-GMO moms are the heroes; Frankenfood is the villain.
Unfortunately, the effort to demonize biotech food has real consequences. Public fear over GMOs means that the people who really need these foods never get them.
Genetically modified crops could help feed some of the world’s poorest kids. Biotech innovations like Vitamin A enriched golden rice and the hypoallergenic peanut are life-saving foods that have been left to languish in development rather than becoming available to the public. Sadly, these moms insist on GMO-free food for their entitled eater kids while making it increasingly difficult for biotech foods to reach the children who might actually benefit from them. The assumption is that the needs of their own kids come first, that while enriched golden rice might be better for the child victims of famine in other countries, their own children are somehow more delicate or more refined in their nutritional needs.
Expensive dietary choices require a certain level of economic privilege, too. Moms who buy exclusively organic — whether it’s produce, meat or even clothing — want to lead a high-end lifestyle and still feel good about their choices. Organic food is expensive. It’s a status symbol, sometimes a necessary one to feel like you fit in with the moms around you. I’m sometimes guilty of this too. Even though I know that Amy’s brand organic cheddar bunnies aren’t any healthier than Pepperidge Farm goldfish, I know how these brands read to my fellow moms, and I don’t always want to make a statement at the classroom potluck.
In my experience, there tend to be two types of organic overachievers — luxury organic moms who shop at expensive stores like Whole Foods, and bargain-savvy organic moms who thrill at finding the organic option for less at stores like Costco. Luxury organic moms want to feel like they’re giving their darling entitled eaters the very best in life. Bargain-loving organic moms want to feel like they, quite savvily, got that same best thing for less. They smugly rely on meaningless lists from the Environmental Working Group to validate their grocery shopping choices.
Some of these moms even find empowerment in their organic lifestyle. Moms Across America founder Zen Honeycutt claims to have cured her child’s food allergies and autism with an organic diet. Similar claims run rampant throughout the Moms Across America community. In fact, the mother who accused me of poisoning my children also claimed, minutes earlier, to have cured her own children from multiple ailments. Her claims drive my inner skeptic crazy, but I admit that, even for me, there are moments when I wish I could believe them. Although immunotherapy treatments for peanut allergies will hopefully gain FDA approval soon, there is no “cure” available for my daughter. My inability to cure or protect her is terrifying. As parents, we all want to feel like we can protect our kids from everything, so of course Honeycutt’s promise of a cure is intoxicating. And when a commenter to a recent blog post of mine questioned why I wouldn’t at least try an all-organic diet, saying “I would think you would do anything to make them better,” it does give me pause. Even though I know an organic diet isn’t a cure for food allergies, I chafed at the implication that there was a limit on my love.
The Moms Across America sanctimony is truly egregious, and it isn’t limited to American moms either. Honeycutt and her group run a “Moms Across Africa” Facebook page so they can regularly lecture African farmers on the benefits of organic farming methods. No doubt their entitled eater children will someday feel qualified to lecture farmers in Africa about their farming practices too, rather than let Africans speak for themselves.
Organic food isn’t any better for kids than conventional food. It’s not more nutritious and it’s not free from pesticides. Organic produce is actually quite commonly grown with pesticides, sometimes even the synthetic variety. But it doesn’t matter. These moms and their entitled eaters are so wedded to their organic lifestyle that the lack of scientific evidence almost seems beside the point. There is the food itself, and then there is what the food represents. But I can understand wanting to spend more for peace of mind. I sometimes buy the expensive dedicated allergen-free brands of chocolate chips and cookies because, for me, that label means safety for my daughter. “Organic” has come to have a similar significance for moms, providing a sense (however illusory) of health and well-being.
Now, the sugar-free brand of sanctimonious moms have elevated healthy eating to healthy crusading. In his book "The Gluten Lie," Alan Levinovitz describes how famed anti-sugar crusader Dr. Robert Lustig claims sugar is as addictive as cocaine, alcohol and heroin. In his book "Fat Chance" and also in his appearances in the documentary "Fed Up," Lustig blames sugar for all sorts of health problems in children, including obesity, hyperactivity and diabetes. While these studies offer sound reasons for curbing children’s sugar consumption, when accepted as gospel instead of hypothesis, they can lead to a kind of toxic self-righteousness amongst well-meaning parents, a focus on eradication instead of moderation, and an obsession with sugar “alternatives” like wild honey or coconut sugar that are highly expensive, hard to find and identical to sugar in their chemical composition.
Entitled, sanctimonious mothers — whether anti-GMO, organic, sugar-free or all of the above — are insisting on their entitled dietary choices while shaming their fellow moms for feeding their kids food from one of the safest food systems in the world. As kids in other countries are dying from unsafe drinking water or contaminated food, it seems the height of American entitlement to be insisting on GMO labeling or a worldwide conversion to small organic farms.
Let’s put an end to the epidemic of entitled eaters and the dietary sanctimommies who raise them. Behaving as though costly, complicated and ultimately arbitrary dietary choices can save the world is the height of American arrogance. Lower food costs, increased innovation in agriculture and a science-based approach to food are the real changes we need to create a future with truly healthier families for all.