In the great debate over genetically modified organisms - GMOs - few institutional nods have been sought so keenly as that of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

A “no” from the influential organization’s food policy committee would strike a blow at Big Gene’s attempt to cow the regulatory system and institutionalize today’s GMO-oriented commodity farming.  A “yes” by the committee would speed Monsanto’s progress and stymie attempts to limit GMO foods.

Given the importance of the subject, one might think that the Academy would bend over backwards to ensure the independence of the group. But, as documented in the New York Times, that is exactly not the case. By the committee’s admission, it has no problem with any member’s connection to Monsanto, be it through funding or by membership in pro-industry councils, as long as that conflict is revealed. Why? Because, the committee says, it would be impossible to get enough pro-GMO experts without doing so.

Unfortunately, the Academy’s understanding does not extend to the other side. Last week, the committee unceremoniously removed the one anti-GMO (but independent) member, Carole Bartolotto. Why was Bartolotto canned? Because she made complaints about committee members’ Monsanto connections, and because she failed to disclose her tiny--and largely inactive--website consulting business, “Healthy Eating Rocks.” The incident is a troubling reflection of the current debate: it’s okay for well-funded pro-GMO scientists to have conflicts of interest, but it is not okay for anti-GMO types to point out that conflict. Yet it is also a reflection of the fundamental flaws of the debate: They’re fighting over the wrong thing, and aiming at a resolution that will change nothing.

Arguing over corn science is like arguing over spoons. Both sides are fighting over the wrong thing. Credit: Greenpeace

Let’s say the Academy finds in favor of existing GMOs. That would continue the vast and unnecessary expansion of corn crops that have proven to be expensive to the taxpayer (through farm subsidies), troublesome in our diet ( through high fructose corn syrup, HFCS) and traumatizing to the physical environment (through mono-cultures and industrial farming).

Now let’s consider what would happen if the board issues a 'no' vote: True, efforts to label GMOs would get a boost, but so far those efforts, while important, have been lacking in consistency and were poorly designed. Even some anti-GMO types have opposed them. Worse would be the impact on improvements in GMOs - the development of GMO crops the world actually needs to meet its future population demands.

Here is a set of resolutions and policy suggestions the Academy might discuss instead:

1. Should American agricultural policy be rational? Should the continuation of crop subsidies, especially those of GMO origin, be contingent on diversification of such crops?

2. Should approval of GMOs be made contingent on Monsanto’s progress on key Third World crops? Consider: Cassava, a mainstay of the African that makes up 40 percent of the continent’s food, is often destroyed by a mosaic virus. It is a visrus that might be fought by modifying the genes behind the plant’s immune system, or by developing a fungus-resistant strain. Observers will recall that, a decade or so ago, Monsanto made huge promises on Third World crops as a kind of tradeoff for First World regulatory kindness. Where are the results?

3. Anti-GMO types must come up with a non-Luddite alternatives. How about a list of ten possible GMOs that might be acceptable and desirable for the US?  Many vegetables, fruits, nut trees and even, say, olive trees could be made easier to grown and less resource-intensive through genetic engineering. Making the country independent from all foreign oils could be profitable for American growers. Making such crops easier to grow would save farmers money, allow us to localize crops we now outsource to Chile and Mexico, and make them more affordable to the non-Whole Foods crowd. 

We know, of course, that the crops a nation plants matter, especially when it comes to the nation’s health. Underwrite corn, and you make it easier and cheaper to get diabetes.

Crop diversification also matters. In the Great Depression, when the corn crop failed, farmers were rewarded - yes, by the government! - for planting other crops. In the rural south, longtime corn growers planted row crops of beans and greens and ground nuts. 

One benefit was the virtual elimination of pellagra, an often-fatal disease resulting from over-reliance on Vitamin B3-deficient corn.

Another benefit: people did not starve.

Greg Critser is working on a book about sugar.