By Allison Kamel
On April 3 and 4, Caitlin Shetterly visited SJC Long Island to talk about her book, Modified. During her time on campus, Shetterly visited individual classes, as well as held open book talks during Common Hour on Monday and on Tuesday evening, which included a book signing. Additionally, Shetterly attended dinner on Monday night with a few members of the student body and SJC faculty.
Modified talks about both the positive and negative aspects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Shetterly spoke more about her journey before and during the writing of her book more than the contents of it. Her interest in GMOs came originally from a personal illness. After being sick for some time and doctors being unsure what was causing her to feel unwell, a doctor suggested removing GMOs from her diet. She wasn’t prepared for how far she would dive into GMOs.
“I’m just a mom. I live in Maine. I’m a writer who really wants to be writing a novel,” said Shetterly during her talk on Monday in the McGann Conference Center.
The book began as an article, originally to be published by The New York Times but actually published in Elle Magazine in August 2013. She was attacked for the piece.
“Jon Entine, who had started the attacks, had made a couple of mistakes,” said Shetterly. “He went after me in a way that seemed gendered. He had called me ridiculous and put me down as a woman journalist. And then he had gone so far as to say that Elle Magazine had no business publishing a piece that had science in it. And that made Elle mad. They did something very unusual. They defended my piece.”
Because of the controversy, the article went viral and Shetterly was given the chance to write a book on the topic. Writing this book was a journey for her. She traveled to “Flyover Country” (the Great Plains) to talk to farmers and Europe to investigate beekeeping. The goal was to ask a lot of questions and see where it took her.
“I wrote this book like I’m talking to you now, like I’m talking to a friend,” said Shetterly. “This is not a big scientific book. I wrote it specifically not to do that.”
Instead, she wrote the book for people like her who wanted to be informed about the food they are consuming without getting a Ph.D.
“I pictured a mom at the beach,” said Shetterly. “Her children are coming in and out of the water and she needs to give them snacks and water and put sunblock on them. She needs a book she can put down and get sand and peanut butter all over and pick it back up in the middle of a sentence and know what the hell she’s reading.”
Shetterly completed her talk by discussing what she had learned through her journey.
She said, “I became an environmentalist. My heart just broke about what’s happening to the planet.”
Through her research, it became less about the GMOs themselves and more about larger issues surrounding the usage of GMOs.
“I really used GMOs as the trojan horse to look at this bigger environmental problem, which is climate change and environmental toxins,” Shetterly said.
She ended with a quote from Modified which sums up the book and her feelings: “As we modify the environment we modify ourselves.”