How Do Leading Chefs Feel About GMOs?

This is one in a series of stories; visit The Daily Meal Special Report: GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) for more.

There are many different types of genetically modified foods out there, serving different purposes. For example, scientists have been able to engineer a variety of rice (called 'golden rice') that contains additional nutrients apologists say are vital for the health of the developing nations that depend on it. At the same time, companies are altering the genetic structure of crops like corn to be resistant to certain diseases, to increase yield, extend the season, and expand where it can be grown. Genetically modified protein is also entering the conversation, with both Whole Foods and Trader Joe's publicly announcing that they won't sell any GMO fish — so-called "Frankenfish" — even if it's just salmon engineered to grow faster.  

The Non-GMO Project has taken it upon themselves to verify food producers who remain GMO-free, and there are already plenty of products that contain nothing that's genetically modified, including just about everything sold through Whole Foods' store brand, 365. But surprisingly, only two restaurants — Mighty-O Donuts in Seattle and Nature's Express in Berkeley, Calif. — have been thus far certified GMO-free (interested parties need to fill out an Enrollment Inquiry Form and go through a lengthy and costly verification process). However, that doesn't mean that chefs around the country don't care about this issue; in fact, we spoke with seven leading chefs and it's clear that they all have strong feelings on the matter, even though interestingly enough the vast majority of chefs we asked were unwilling to comment due to the complexity of the issue.

Here are their opinions:

Floyd Cardoz (Paowalla, New York, N.Y.):
”I love science and all it can do to make our lives better and to improve quality of life. That being said, I do disagree with GMOs and what they mean for food. Letting life happen in the fields and in the farms, cross-breeding plants naturally by natural selection, I am all for. I do; however, have a problem with introducing a gene that does not belong or modifying gene the structure of any organism in a lab. In my opinion, most of this is done not to improve the organism so as to make it perpetuate, but purely for financial gain. Copyrighting and patenting food product is also totally wrong. The whole aspect of suing farmers [for inadvertently growing GMO seed] is totally against what I believe.”  

”Directly or indirectly, this leads to an imbalance in the ecosystem, as all organisms are connected and play a specific role in nature. I do not believe in humans changing this balance. We do not know what the long term effects are, and I am not willing to take a chance.”

”I do not like to cook with GMO food products and am all for labeling the products. So what if we lose a natural product due to disease one year? It normally does come back the next year and makes us crave that ingredient even more, making it more special. I do not believe it has any positive environmental effects.”

Cesare Casella (International Culinary Center, New York, N.Y.):
”In Italy, GMOs are something that people worry about a lot and it has been a popular topic for a long time, and not only in kitchens or in the fields. I recently read that over 75 percent of Italians — no matter what industry they work in — are concerned about GMOs. Throughout the European Union — especially in Italy — there are many laws about the proper identification/labeling of GMO products and over the past decade, there has been a very powerful and widespread effort to create GMO-free regions. Italy has been especially successful, and of the 20 regions in Italy, 16 are considered "GM free." Tuscany — where I'm from — was really a leader in these changes.”[pullquote:left]

”For the most part in the U.S., it is very difficult to identify what products are GMO free. Only recently has a label/stamp been created, but otherwise it can be very hard to know. Also, I find that the price of GMO-free products — which are not guaranteed to be organic — and organic products can be very similar, so in my own kitchens I typically focus on buying organic.”

”Ultimately, I think it's still a subject with a lot of confusion... but for sure we're going in the right direction.”

Jim Lahey (Sullivan Street Bakery, New York, N.Y.):
”GMO foods represent this colossal disconnect between humanity and nature. I think diners should stay away from them if at all possible. If you don't have to eat them, support or associate with them, that is the best. Only in cases of extreme desperation — i.e., choosing between life and death, but that's not what GMOs are about.”

”With the way the food movement is going now, where selling out can be an attractive option, I don't know where GMOs will fit into the culinary landscape 10 years from now. Hopefully the issue of global warming will force the issue of biodiversity in our seed stocks so that older varieties or the creation of new ones through hybridization will be a focus to deal with changing conditions.”

Michel Nischan (CEO, Wholesome Wave, Bridgeport, Conn.):
”I am not against the science of GMOs. With the challenges facing the world, we need to lean on a variety of potential solutions and take advantage of the best intelligence. That said, I am strongly against deploying products and proliferating practices that have not been fully tested and vetted to ensure human and environmental safety. I also challenge the claims by large bio-tech/ag companies of ”feeding the world” as their mantra. Their efforts to shut down the voice of the farmer and forcing their supply chain on a woefully under-informed public are ominous. There have been valiant innovations created by bio-technicians that actually could help struggling populations in drought- and monsoon-ravaged areas of the world. Unfortunately, we don't see the same large bio-tech/ag companies flocking to distribute drought and monsoon resistant seeds because they are designed more for the purpose of feeding vulnerable populations, than for feeding the commoditization engine that fuels the big food and bio-fuels industries. In short, it's not about feeding the world at all, and an insult to the scientists who have devoted significant time and effort to demonstrate potential hope for human and environmental health.” 

”Organic agriculture and soil health/management still show the very best outcomes for crop yield regardless of growing zone, drainage, and run-off resistance in times of monsoon, water retention in times of drought, maximum nutrient delivery to the plant and hence to the consuming human. With scores of millions of fallow acres throughout the globe, sustainable organic practices show the very best short-to-medium-range solution, even for our exploding population — and there is no question regarding the human and environmental health benefits of the practice.”

”I see no need to cook with genetically modified ingredients. With an ever-growing supply of super-high quality, non-GMO ingredients — from animal, to plant, to mineral — becoming ever more locally and regionally available, why would I? We have not reached the place as a global society where we need to pump this practice throughout our supply chains. We throw away enough food to daily feed the 1 billion global citizens who are currently starving. Let's fix distribution and the practice of using access to food as a political tool or weapon. Doing so would go a long way to feed the world for some time to come. In the meantime, supporting GMO science tied to truly good intent, with rigorous third-party testing before public release, would be a very prudent thing to do.”

Andrea Reusing (Lantern, Chapel Hill, N.C.):
”For all the hype, GMO technology hasn't been able to improve either of the two most important things about food: flavor and nutrition. It's also questionable whether GMO technology will ever be able to match conventional old-fashioned breeding on creating traits like yield or drought tolerance.” 

Frank Stitt (Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega Restaurant, Chez Fon Fon, Birmingham, Ala.):
”It seems to me that the minimum that should be done is for the government to have GMO foods clearly identified. The larger questions or problems are the big agricultural businesses that pursue producing the cheapest possible products with no ethical or moral concerns.”

"The consumer should have a choice to purchase foods that are not genetically modified and the only way to do that is to have labels that include GMO status.”

”I prefer to source non-GMO foods but realize that many commodity products — oils, flours, etc., contain them, and that it is very difficult for us to be completely GMO free. Doing business with companies like Anson Mills [the South Carolina-based artisanal grains producer] is a step in the right direction.”

Jasper White (Summer Shack, Cambridge, Mass.):
”I don't know a lot about the subject, but my instincts tell me that it's not a good idea. Every food that man alters with intentions that aren't based on love — for nature, family, customers, etc. — diminishes the original flavor and integrity of that ingredient. Aquaculture is a good example; although it may be necessary to feed the world, the fish can never approach the quality of their wild counterpart. I imagine, but don't truly know, that GMO food probably won't be able to make my taste buds happy.”