Last spring, I had the good luck to get my hands on a copy of Caitlin Shetterly’s new book in manuscript form. I raced through it and immediately wrote the following quote for the back cover: “Riveting from beginning to end, Modified reads like a hard-hitting investigative thriller. Shetterly is a thorough, even-handed journalist and a clear, persuasive writer. Ground-breaking and explosive, this is a book for everyone who wants to understand what they are feeding themselves and their families. Reading it has opened my eyes and changed the way I buy food.”
After several months of avoiding cornstarch and paying closer attention to honey than I ever have before, I’m happy to have the chance now to ask Caitlin a few questions about the book—why and how she wrote it, and what it’s been like for her to research and publish an in-depth exposé of a highly controversial subject.
You started writing this book as an investigation into your own illness. How did the project expand into the larger story of GMOs?
Initially, as you say, I was really just filling a notebook with my feelings and thoughts and frustrations about an illness that had pretty much leveled me for four years. It appeared autoimmune in nature—headaches, rashes, exhaustion, pain, and limb tingles being some of the hallmarks—yet no one could could diagnose it, despite years of testing for every conceivable malady.
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Finally, an immunologist told me he had a theory about GMO corn, which is ubiquitous in our American foodscape. He said that he thought he had been seeing an uptick in people’s immunogenicity since the advent of the GMO, and he believed that there was something about either the pesticide bred into GMO corn (and soy), the herbicide tolerance, or the two combined that was derailing peoples’ immune systems.
Well, this was a radical idea. One that shocked me. In fact, if I’m honest, I had no idea what a GMO even was! So I opened this dark closet and peered in and I saw so much that was interesting and scary and confusing and didn’t make sense about how we grow our food… and I wanted to know more. I was hooked.
I remember you told me this book came and sat on your head like a cat that wouldn’t budge while you were trying to start a novel. Then it moved in and wouldn’t leave. Is that true? Was this a book that demanded to be written?
It was totally like that. Yes, I was working on a novel—I was about 75 pages in. At that point in my career, I’d published a book of short stories that I’d collected on the subject of divorce and a memoir about the recession called Made for You and Me. So, I was really excited to take this next step in what I thought was the next stage of my career.
You see, I’m really a romantic writer. I like to write about love and heartbreak and the weirdo things people do and eat and say and their kitchen table problems. And then I got this wacky GMO diagnosis and suddenly this subject became my kitchen table problem.
When I first opened that closet to peek in and take a look at our food system and the GMO issue, I closed the door mighty fast and thought: This is a Michael Pollan book, not a Caitlin Shetterly book!
But then the questions I had about how our food is grown and what’s invisible to our eyes—or to a bee, bird, Monarch butterfly or deer, too—started to take over and I needed to know more. So I kept asking questions—first as a sick person, and then as a mother, and then as a journalist.
The book—from end to end—took about 5 and a half years of work. During much of that time I was toiling away while my lovely husband, Dan, did many jobs to keep us afloat. We had no idea what would come of all this work—would it end up being a colossal waste of time? Then, as the story got bigger and bigger, we realized that I had a book on my hands and that I had to throw myself into it.
When I first opened that closet to peek in, I closed the door mighty fast and thought: This is a Michael Pollan book, not a Caitlin Shetterly book!
You published a piece about GMOs in Elle Magazine called “The Bad Seed” that went viral. Because of it you were attacked—hard—by Big Ag. What was that was like for you?
Very odd. Being attacked isn’t ever fun for anyone. But what was fascinating was how I was attacked: First they tried to undermine my credibility (which I now know is step one for big corporations who are being called out). And then they tried to get my sources to recant. They also mocked me and called me “ridiculous.”
But then, the thing that made my piece go viral was that they intimated that Elle couldn’t handle hard journalism. Which made the Editor in Chief of Elle defend not only the piece but my reporting of it. All this hullabaloo was oddly good for me because it helped sell my book proposal.
Later, last winter, we discovered, from emails released in a FOIA to the US Right to Know Campaign, that an executive at Monsanto had actually enlisted my attackers to go after me on Monsanto’s behalf. That was quite a realization, to find my name in those emails.
Your research for the book took you to three places. You drive across the Great Plains and the heartland, interviewing farmers and scientists and activists; you fly to Europe to hang out with beekeepers and government officials; and then you go to California, where you interview two scientists who were threatened by Big Ag. I was struck by the fact that in all of these places, you were a woman in an almost entirely male field. I’m curious to know more about that, how it felt and how it affected your research.
In some ways it was sort of exciting to be a woman researching this topic; I felt like a frontiersperson! But it did also make me feel very vulnerable at times—traveling alone and depending, often, on the kindness of strangers.
There was one moment, in particular, when I’d been driving across Nebraska and had met up with a former Monsanto seed researcher. It got late as we were talking; the sun was going down and some wind was picking up. And suddenly my phone dinged with a text message. And he said, totally deadpan, that perhaps it was my husband making sure I hadn’t been kidnapped. I write more about all the circumstances that led to me just kind of freezing in that moment, but the short version is that I was taken aback; so taken aback that I ended up cancelling my hotel reservation in that town and continuing driving all the way to the Iowa border, to stay in Omaha.
Also certainly, all the way through, I encountered a ton of sexism--in obvious and less obvious ways. I just kind of took that in stride and tried not to focus too much on it. Your friend, Dan Jones, said something that stuck with me: He said, “Sometimes it’s better if they think you’re stupid. You’ll get better answers.”
Later, though, when my friend Susan was reading an early draft of the book, she said, “You’ve got a ton of men mansplaining in this book! Can we get some women?” I hadn’t even noticed that until she said it out loud! I was too close to the subject.
So then I went out there and got some female voices—which was not as easy as you might think. Now, I think, the book reflects the reality of the situation—there are more men than women in these fields, but it also has some terrific and important female voices in it, too.
Although the acronym "GMO" is in the subtitle of your book, it feels more to me like a book about the environment. The revelation for me, reading it, was that the GMO is one thing, but the pesticides are a much larger issue, one that’s intrinsically tied to GMOs. Can you elaborate on this?
When I was researching and writing the book, my heart literally broke. I had no idea until I got into this territory how serious the situation actually was. The truth that emerged, as far as I saw it, is that the GMO is one thing, which may have its own long-term environmental consequences, but the much bigger and pressing issue is the chemical pesticides these crops are not only bred to withstand but also routinely doused with.
In the book, I go into the pesticides just one farmer uses on his corn crop in a single year and it’s mind boggling—the amount of chemicals and how dangerous so many of them are and the fact that we don’t even know the synergistic affect of some of the cocktails of these chemicals farmers dump into their crop sprayers. As one researcher says in my book, “We are the ultimate animal study.” I might modify that and say, “Our children are the ultimate animal study.” The thing that kills me is that these toxins are coming to our kids on their food—something we as parents need to provide them so they can survive.
Your hero and guiding voice throughout the book is Rachel Carson—specifically her book Silent Spring. You’ve said that you developed a strong bond with her as you wrote. Tell me more about that.
Rachel Carson’s courage and perseverance kept me going as I wrote Modified. She sat on my right shoulder, just under that cat!
The thing that shocked me when I got into this research was that we’ve had since 1962 to roll back our use of the chemical pesticides; she brought our awareness to this when she published Silent Spring. And yet, other than eliminating DDT, we have actually increased our production of chemicals and pesticides despite her dire warnings that our bodies, and those of our fellow creatures—not to mention the planet itself—cannot adapt to the amount of chemicals that are introduced every year. Currently we’re inundated with over 700 new chemicals a year and there are over 85,000 in circulation, many of which have never actually been tested for safety. As Carson wrote, many of these chemicals are carcinogens and they are all completely “outside the limit of biologic experience.” A good number of these chemicals come to us and our children in and on our food and water. How did we let this happen?
How do you think the Trump presidency will affect the way our agriculture is changing the environment?
Unfortunately, Trump has said he wants to dismantle the EPA, which is already pretty toothless; we might even go a step further and say it is currently a victim of regulatory capture, in that the industries that could benefit from its being toothless or even nonexistent have already captured it. Add to this the fact that, right now, the EPA doesn’t have enough staff or scientists to evaluate all the chemicals we are already enduring. And with Trump appointing Scott Pruitt, a friend of all the environmentally damaging industries out there—fracking, oil, logging, biotech—and a known adversary of the EPA to, in fact, run the EPA. It’s terrifying.
You spend most Saturdays at the farmers’ market buying local foods to cook for your family during the week. How has this changed your family life and your kids' relationship to food?
My kids know our farmers. They are household names. My kids have been handed the cheese or yogurt or carrots from the hands that grew or made them. They have picked the apples and strawberries we put up for the winter; they have shelled the peas and helped make the blueberry jam we eat with popovers on Sunday mornings. This relationship, I hope, not only teaches them that our food comes from the earth and that having food is a sacred bond between ourselves, the land and all the creatures on the planet, but also teaches them that with a few ingredients they can make their own food to nourish their bodies.
After reading your book, I find myself reading labels more carefully, trying to avoid GMO corn, which I now know is almost impossible (who knew it was in Morton’s salt, of all things?). Have other readers told you that your book has changed the way they buy food?
Yes! I hear this all the time. People say, “Wow, I thought we ate really well, but I am scrutinizing labels way more carefully now.” In fact, I have to tell you that ever since my Elle piece was published three years ago—and this may be mere coincidence—I’ve seen an enormous upward tick in the voluntary labeling of corn in products and also of GMOs. My feeling is that with or without a labeling law, companies are moving in this direction.
See what other Food52 readers are saying.