Monday, October 1, 2012

Genetically Engineered Food - It's What's for Dinner

In the beginning of my talk at the Mother Earth News Fair, I shared why we decided to start wild foraging - or at least why it appealed to us.

In 2006 I first swallowed the Red Pill*, and for me, it was all connected - learning about peak oil led to reading about climate change, which led to topics on food safety, resilience, self-sufficiency, and urban gardening. It seems that a lot of people, at least the people I was meeting online, had started urban homesteading out of a desire (or fear?) to be more self-sufficient.

At that time, there wasn't a lot of information about GMOs, but they were out there, and we already knew they were suspect. In fact, in 2000, taco shells were recalled, because the corn used to make them was a GMO (or GE, genetically engineered - same thing), and it hadn't been determined, at that time, whether or not GMO foods were safe for human consumption.

I mentioned that in my talk, and it was a little like a light bulb went off. When I said it there was a collective head nod from the 100+ people sitting out there, and everyone in the audience remembered that in 2000, GMOs weren't proven safe for humans, and products that were known - by the public - to contain GMO ingredients were recalled as being potentially unsafe to eat. What I also remember was the collective outrage by the public that this unsafe substance had, somehow, been accidentally leaked into our food stream.

How fast things change. How soon we forget.

Fast forward twelve years, Monsanto and the FDA have still failed to prove, conclusively, if GMOs are safe for people to eat. In this January 2012 article, Monsanto insists that there is no need to test, because the plants are altered by adding DNA (from other organisms - not always plants) and everything has DNA, so it must be safe.

In the past twelve years, Monsanto has managed to sneak its GMOs into the food stream, mostly, without any of us knowing. White sugar, which is a dietary staple here in the US and is in many processed foods, is made from sugar beets (according to this article, 54% of U.S. sugar comes from sugar beets [and] 90% of the sugar beets out there are already GE). Over 90% of the soy grown and eaten in this country is from GMO seed. More than 80% of the corn grown in this country is from GMO seed. What's more disturbing is that, even if we try to avoid the GMOs, doing so is nearly impossible. Even reading labels doesn't, necessarily, mean that we'll be successful in keeping those GMOs out of our bodies. Corn, for example, has a huge list of aliases. We see things like "distilled vinegar" in the label, and we think "this is okay", but according to this list that white, distilled vinegar might actually be corn - GMO corn - derived.

Nice, right?

I spend a lot of my time wishing that I had not taken the red pill. Sometimes I'd rather just not know, because once one starts knowing, one cannot go back to blissful ignorance, and it's cumulative and insidious. One fact leads to another, and another, and another.

I no longer trust any processed foods, and while we still have some things in our diet that are processed (not regularly, but as an occasional treat, and I really do struggle with the whole idea that our "treats" are poisoning our bodies), I try to stick with things that are labeled "organic", because - at least I've tried to convince myself - those products will not contain GMOs (and given the number of "organic" companies that are subsidiaries of larger non-organic food companies, that may no longer be true).

It would be nice, if there was a label, even a small one, on processed food packaging that warned us the ingredients might be derived from GMOs, but Monsanto is a very large, very rich, and very powerful company. According to this article, they've invested $7.1 million to defeat Prop 37, which would require food products sold in California (this is just California, mind you. Neither the federal government, nor most other States, have started trying to push this kind of initiaive) to carry a GMO label.

So, to recap, twelve years ago, there were concerns about the safety of GE corn that prompted a nationwide taco shell recall. In the years since, GE substances have crept into our food supply. Monsanto, the company which manufactures these GE seeds, doesn't think it's necessary to do any kind of safety trials of their product on humans, and neither do they wish products that contain ingredients derived from their questionably safe genetically altered seed to be labeled as such.

Personally, when a person or a company works so hard to assure me it's perfectly safe, but the only thing I get from them is their gushing assurances - and especially when they're trying to convince me it's okay because they want my money - I am very apt to question the validity of their words. It's the old saying actions speak louder than words. I begin to wonder, if the product is so safe, why is the company working so hard to keep us from knowing what foods have the GMOs?

I think the answer is that all processed foods contain some GE ingredient - and if we knew this to be true, what would that do to the multi-billion dollar food industry, from which Monsanto earns billions in revenues and millions in profits? Monsanto ranked 357 in the Fortune Magazine's Top 500 Companies and made a PROFIT of $267 million dollars in 2005 (This site was pretty interesting and allows one to compare one year to the next. Monsanto has been around for a long time, and the year I was born, Monsanto was actually in the top 100 highest grossing companies in the US). Clearly, they're in it for the money, and whether or not their products will cause significant long lasting environmental and human health degradation is not their concern - as long as they keep making money.

It is mine, though, and I am very concerned about what's being sold to us at the grocery stores. As my very innocent and very precious young daughter asked (with tears pooling in her big blue eyes) that day that I pulled up a list of food products that probably contain GMOs and should be avoided, "What can [we] eat that won't hurt [us]? I couldn't answer her that day, but my answer, today, is wild blueberries and fried dandelion flowers. Wild foods may not be as much palatable as Poptarts and Mountain Dew, but they are safer, and foraging the wild is a lot more fun than foraging the grocery store aisles ;).

*Reference is from the movie, The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves, in which humans are being used as batteries to power a huge computer, which is keeping people imprisoned by giving them computer-generated images that trick their minds into believing they are living a real life. Keanu Reeves' character, Neo, knows something is amiss, but doesn't really "know" until one day when he meets a woman named Trinity (played by Carrie Ann Moss), and then, he is taken to meet Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) who gives him a choice of a red pill, that will wake him up to reality, or a blue pill, which will allow him to go back to sleep.


  1. I know exactly what you mean, Wendy. Once you hear something or see something, you cannot un-know it. It's frustrating to realize that we've been eating so many things that are worse for us than we ever imagined.

    I was "Ok" with the idea that soda is bad for me. I cut back on HFCS, in soda and other foods, but that doesn't mean that there aren't still *OTHER* items just as insidious lurking in there.

    We've been making a move toward more organic foods as well, preferring locally grown from farms we trust. We grow some of our own, but we're not nearly close to a point where we are growing all our own veggies yet. So, we've got to get our food from outside sources.

    With possible food wars on the horizon, will people really care whether or not their food is GMO if it is the cheapest, and perhaps only, food available to them? Probably not. Folks like Monsanto know this, too. The majority of consumers probably feel they have no choice, or are too afraid to press the issue.

    We all vote with our dollars, so until more people wake up and insist on buying only GMO free foods(if that can be determined, then they'll still be out there in the markets, and likely with the cheapest prices.

    Food is supposed to be our healthcare, and medicines our sick care....but that's only when we can actually count on our food to be healthy.

  2. This is why I try to be as careful as possible in selecting my food. I cook almost everything from scratch and buy organic or raise my produce as much as possible. I pulled this from a Wikipedia entry but remember it from an article in a trade journal for the Health Food Industry.

    "A well-known case of a GM plant that did not reach the market due to it producing an allergic reaction was a new form of soybean developed by Pioneer Hi-Bred in the early 1990s, intended for animal feed. In a bid to use genetic engineering to improve soybean nutritional quality for animal feed use, a gene coding for a protein was transferred from the Brazil nut into soybeans. This new protein increased the levels in the GM soybean of the natural essential amino acid methionine, which is commonly added to poultry feed. Investigations of the allergenicity of the GM soybeans were conducted by Pioneer, including radioallergosorbent testing, immunoblotting, and skin-prick testing. The tests revealed that they produced immune reactions in people with Brazil nut allergies, since the methionine rich protein chosen by Pioneer Hi-Bred happened to be a major source of Brazil nut allergy - it turned out to be an allergen. [118] Although this soybean strain was not developed as a human food, Pioneer Hi-Bred discontinued further development of the GM soybean, due to the difficulty in ensuring that none of these soybeans entered the human food chain.[119][120]"

  3. All food is genetically modified; farmers have been cross-breeding plants for years to achieve better genetic strains, i.e., genetically modifying it. Carrots used to be purple, did you know that? Now they are all orange. Most of the "naturally" grown food today is far different than it was just a few hundred years ago, because farmers have been genetically manipulating it (selective breeding) to produce larger, hardier produce. They know what strains to breed together to produce natural insecticides (resistant to types of parasites), which is, of course, far superior to the crap we spray all over it. Does that mean these plants are dangerous? Mendell demonstrated that cross-breeding different types of plants will create different anomalies - this led to our initial understanding of genetics in the first place! And if you need further proof that we genetically manipulate outside of the lab, just turn and look at your dog. Does it look like a wolf? Do any of the dogs that we now commonly breed look like their ancestors? Of course not. We selected for certain traits and bred these specifically, to create different strains of animal. This is obviously genetic manipulation as well, and just because they can do it more quickly and efficiently in a lab, this does not make it any different. Do some research and learn something (from actual scientific sources, not other people posting their panicked opinions) before you make uninformed, fear-mongering posts to scare those who don't understand basic science. Newflash: we have been eating genetically modified food since we, as a species, started to shift to agriculture thousands of years ago.

  4. Dayna - thank you for your advice, but I understand science and nature well enough to know that there is a very distinct difference between breeding and what happens in Monsanto's laboratories.

    Breeding and hybridization require that LIKE species be crossed. That is a dog is bred with a dog, but if we wanted a dog that would purr like a cat, we couldn't do it with breeding and hybridization, because dogs and cats CAN NOT be mated.

    Genetically engineered organisms don't have the same limitations, and in fact, scientists have discovered how to splice a strawberry gene with an arctic fish gene in the hopes of creating a more hardy strawberry.

    The corn-like substance that goes by the name of Bt corn, that is currently under scrutiny, is a corn gene spliced with a bacteria gene to make it more resistant to certain herbicides.

    So, you see, what you're talking about is apples and oranges ... and since you seem to be of the Monsanto mind-set, I can understand why you would think them one in the same.

    And as for what's superior - I don't spray anything on any of the plants in or around my yard, and neither do I have any problems with insect or disease infestations, because I have a very diverse ecosystem where insects and birds and plants all work together to keep each other in check. Perhaps, instead of working so hard to make us believe that what the scientists are doing is okay, you should consider working to encourage Big Ag to stop growing in a monoculture and learn to use what nature has already supplied. In short, instead of trying to manipulate and control nature, maybe we could start (re)learning how to work with nature.

  5. And I have purple carrots in my garden, too.

  6. Dayna, if you really believe that GM is the same as selective breeding then you may well find yourself with massive problems in your future. Personally I don't care to be a guinea pig for big business and their schemes to strip money out of us.