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The ABCs of GMOs

March 5, 2011 •  2 comments.

 •  Blog, News, Uncategorized

Written by Christina Le Beau. It originally appeared on Spoonfed and is a dialogue that Christina had with her 7-year old about GMOs:


Talking GMOs with my 7-year-old:

Me: “You know how cows eat grass?”

Tess: “Uh, huh.”

Me: “Well, some of that grass is made by scientists instead of by nature.”

Tess: “How do they make it? Do they rip the plant or give it surgery?”

Me: “Kind of. They put genes from bacteria into the grass cells. You remember what genes and cells are, right?”

Tess: “That’s what’s in living things.” (Followed by a brief detour into the hilarity of cells wearing “jeans.”)

Me: “Right. And when scientists put these weird genes into grass, it doesn’t die when you spray chemicals on it. So it isn’t really like natural grass.”

Tess: “So it grows in, like, funny shapes?”

Me: “Well, no. It looks like regular grass. But its cells are all messed up, which probably isn’t good for the animals that eat it, or for us or the environment. And sometimes companies do really crazy things, like put fish genes inside tomatoes so they don’t freeze. Or jellyfish genes inside pigs so cells light up and can be studied, and that even makes pigs’ noses glow!”

Tess: Uncontrollable giggling. Burst of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Me: “So, anyway, that’s why we try really hard to not eat things that have been genetically modified.”

Tess: “Ge-what?”

Me: “Genetically modified. That’s what it’s called when scientists put genes from one living thing inside the cells of another plant or animal.”

Tess: Long silence. “But why would they do that?”

Why indeed.

So the big news recently was the USDA’s surprising decision to approve the unrestricted cultivation of genetically modified alfala. (See the video below for a great visual on how GMO plants are made.) And that set off a firestorm of controversy and commentary, not only about alfalfa, but about genetic engineering in the rest of our food supply, too.

Numbers vary, but most of what I’ve seen claims that 80% to 90% of the corn, canola, soybeans and cottonseed grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. GMO sugar beets, traditionally a large crop, are on hold because of legal action last year, but that’s about to change. All told, 60% to 70% of processed foods contain genetically modified ingredients. And animals raised for meat and dairy eat mostly GMO feed. (On the horizon: GMO salmon.)

And none of this is labeled.

GMO proponents argue that genetic engineering makes plants grow better, faster and in greater volume on less land, able to resist disease, pests and drought. But I’m in the camp that believes GMOs exist mostly so chemical companies like Monsanto can control agriculture from seed to harvest. (The GMO alfalfa just approved is bred to resist Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.) I also think GMOs probably do a whole lot more harm than good.

Unlike traditional breeding techniques, genetic engineering creates plants or animals with traits impossible to achieve naturally. What does that mean for human and animal health? How well can these engineered proteins be digested? Can they lead to food allergies? Do they have other still-unknown consequences? And what about threats to the environment and biodiversity (including the rise of superweeds)?

That’s too many what-ifs for me, so we’re steering clear. If you’re similarly inclined, the best way to reduce your GMO load is to buy certified organic products; check labels for non-organic corn, soy and canola ingredients; and look for the Non-GMO Project seal.

Two helpful shopping guides (both also include mobile apps):

Non-GMO Shopping Guide (Institute for Responsible Technology and the Non-GMO Project)
The True Food Shoppers’ Guide to Avoiding GMOs (Center for Food Safety)

And some good reads:

Organic fallout
Organic Inc.” author Sam Fromartz details the potential dangers to organic food production: “Now you might argue over whether Roundup-Ready Alfalfa is safe or not. But long before that argument’s settled, organic farmers will face major economic losses — the same small farmers that the USDA likes to present as poster children for agriculture.”

GMOs vs. food waste
“The Unhealthy Truth” author Robyn O’Brien asks why we need GMOs and Big Ag to “feed the world” when we throw away 96 billion pounds of food a year. (Answer: We don’t.) Don’t miss the trailer for the documentary “Dive!”. Compelling stuff.

Ranting run amok
Following the alfalfa decision, things got heated between the Organic Consumers Association and three companies (Stonyfield Farm, Organic Valley and Whole Foods) because of that trio’s decision to fight for organic protections when it looked like a total ban was off the table. Read the OCA’s initial screed, plus rebuttals by the Cornucopia Institute, Stonyfield Farm and Fair Food Fight for insight into how things get messy when you forget the big picture.

Political pressure
Were politics at play in the alfalfa ruling? (Is the sky blue?) Grist’s Tom Philpott and Food Politics’ Marion Nestle tell us more.

Lawsuit ahead
The Center for Food Safety plans to sue the USDA over the decision. A Who’s Who of the sustainable-food world signed a letter supporting that effort. Click through for links to receive legislative alerts, donate to the legal fund and lend your voice to the cause.

That labeling problem
New York Times columnist Mark Bittman tackles the lack of labeling and concludes: “It seems our ‘regulators’ are using us and the environment as guinea pigs, rather than demanding conclusive tests. And without labeling, we have no say in the matter whatsoever.”

Finally, in this clip from the documentary “The Future of Food,” the Center for Food Safety’s Andrew Kimbrell explains how GMO plants are created using bacteria and viruses, and a great animation sequence brings it home. (Tune in at the 1:45 mark.)

Journalist Christina Le Beau blogs about food literacy and sustainability at Spoonfed: Raising kids to think about the food they eat. Recent posts: deconstructing food dyes and questioning Girl Scout cookies.

Patriotism on a Plate

March 3, 2011 •  no comments.

 •  Blog, News, Uncategorized

I recently had the honor of presenting in Texas. The audience was a big one, over 600 Texans, and they weren’t there for me to tell them what to eat.

But as I shared my insight, well-honed from my days as a food industry analyst, they took note. I spoke about serving my kids tubes of blue yogurt and rolling my eyes at anyone who spoke about organics. And they leaned in. I then spoke about my daughter’s sudden allergic reaction and how it had triggered every analytical gene in my body into researching our food supply. And then I shared what I’d learned.

I’d learned that in 1996, in order to drive profitability for the agrichemical industry, commodities like soy, primarily used to fatten livestock (like the ones that I had grown up around in Texas), had been engineered to withstand increasing doses of weedkillers and herbicide. A brilliant business model, as now the agrichemical giants could not only sell more herbicide but they could also sell a newly patented soybean and license its use, new traits and technologies to our nation’s farmers for fees. Which they did, driving profitability and market adoption rates as seen in the chart from the United States Department of Agriculture.

I then spoke about the recent engineering of corn, and how scientists had engineered it so that it could produce its own insecticide, sharing how other developed countries had not allowed this corn, or the soybean that had proceeded it, into their food supply because they had not yet been proven safe. And how in the US, for the sake of profitability we did not choose to exercise the precautionary principal, but rather allowed this corn and soy into our food supply because it had not yet been proven dangerous.

I then shared that since the introduction of these unlabeled ingredients into our food supply in the 1990s as the rest of the world either did not allow or restricted their use, the United States now has the highest rate of cancer of any country on the planet according to the American Cancer Society.

And while correlation is not causation, the fact that other countries were concerned about the carcinogenic effects of these genetically engineered ingredients should give us reason to pause. And yet, that is not what we are doing. Rather, the USDA has just approved three genetically modified crops and does not call for their labeling despite the fact that they have not yet been proven safe.

And while the agrichemical corporations, addressing their fiduciary duty to shareholders, continue to externalize the liabilities of these crops onto farmers and consumers, our economy is bearing witness, as the US spends more on health care than any other country in the world – sixteen cents of every dollar that we spend as a country goes towards managing disease. In other words, the liabilities have been shifted off of the balance sheets of the agrichemical corporations onto our personal ones and the companies that we work with.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Each and every one of us has the ability to create change in our own families, our own schools, communities and corporations. We can opt out of this genetically modified food supply, the same way that countries around the world already have, and we can exercise precaution by not eating foods that contain genetically modified corn and soy. We can call for the labeling of these ingredients and eat like the health of our country depends on it, because…it just might.

And while none of us can do everything, all of us can Do One Thing. So if you want to be part of the change, you can pick one thing from the list below.

But first, find a friend to do it with and start there. And then get going and Do One Thing:

  1. Remove artificial bovine growth hormones from our kids’ sippy-cups: you can find rBGH-free dairy in most grocery stores now.
  2. Reduce exposure to highly processed foods. Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that 80% of them contain ingredients that were just introduced into our food supply over the past 15 years by the biotech and agrichemical industries.
  3. Cut the colors. Kraft, Coca-Cola and Walmart don’t use yellow #5 in the products they sell to kids in the U.K. because of its link to hyperactivity. So, instead of the blue yogurt, try switching to white yogurt and decorate it with sprinkles, raisins or chocolate chips.
  4. Eat like our grandmothers ate. Forty years ago, one in three children didn’t suffer from obesity, one in two men weren’t expected to develop cancer, one in three children didn’t have autism, allergies, ADHD or asthma – but they do today. Why? Our grandmothers’ kitchens weren’t loaded with foods full of artificial and genetically engineered ingredients.
  5. Eat only food with ingredients we can pronounce. Look for pronounceable ingredients on the labels. Not products that contain the recently introduced genetically-engineered corn and soy organisms (GMOs) because of the lack of allergenicity testing that has been conducted on the novel food proteins they contain.

And remember, one person really can make a difference. Because none of us can do everything, but all of us can do something. And together, as a nation of 300 million eaters, we can influence the production of our food supply, as we vote with our dollars and create the change we want to see in the health of our country.

Two Cents: A Cornell Scientist Explains GMOs

March 2, 2011 •  one comment.

 •  Blog, News

The Cornell Daily Sun recently published a series of opinion pieces debating the pros and cons of genetically modified organisms. In the interest of fostering further dialogue on the issue, The Sun solicited the opinions of several knowledgeable professors on the topic — in what will be the first in a series of debates on a host of controversial matters. The aim is to present a sampling of views, which in no way will be entirely comprehensive, but will hopefully allow readers to learn about different topics from a variety of perspectives and disciplines.

What are genetically modified foods?

“Much of the form and function of a plant is encoded by the DNA in its cells. When you eat either a genetically modified plant or an organic one, you are also eating its DNA. Knowing the code of a specific gene in a plant, or the code of a plant’s entire genome, allows us to observe and understand this source of variation in plant form and function. Two common types of DNA variations are often detected. First, differences in the code for a gene arise due to mutations in the DNA resulting in alleles or different forms of a gene. The second is diversity in which alleles are strung together to comprise the plant’s genome and brought together by pollination of the parent(s). Transgenic or genetically modified plants (G.M.O.s) contain a specifically targeted change in a gene or an insertion of an entirely new gene into a genome.”

–– Prof. Mazourek, plant breeding and genetics

Lack of FDA Regulation

When on sabbatical in Washington, D.C. in 2002, Prof. David Pelletier, nutritional sciences, explored the scientific and legal basis for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s regulations on genetically engineered food. Two categories exist for food regulation: food additive and food adulteration.

As described by Pelletier, the food additive category is more preventive in orientation and requires publicly available testing, documentation and approval before a food goes to market, while the food adulteration clause allows the FDA to respond to unexpected events that happen at some point before and after a food goes to market. From a strictly legal perspective, the FDA chose to give genetically engineered foods (as a class) the presumption of being Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS), and thereby subject only to the adulteration clause.The dilemma is, G.E. foods do meet the legal definition of a food that needs to be regulated under the food additive clause, but in 1992 (and to this day) we do not have adequate tests for producers to assess the safety of the varied unintended compositional changes that can occur in G.E. foods.

“The pro-G.E. scientists typically give the example, ‘picture a string of yellow beads representing a strand of DNA in the cells of a food and having one bead replaced with a red one. This bead will produce the intended new protein. It only changes one thing in the food.’ However, we now know that the insertion of one gene can disrupts the functioning of dozens or even hundreds of other genes throughout the genome. It’s not beads on a string, but more like a spider web, if you pull on one part, it affects other parts.”

“None of this means G.E. foods are not safe –– it means we don’t have good methods for testing them. It also needs to be recognized that the FDA does not require foods from other technologies to undergo such testing.” Interestingly, Pelletier’s research documented that from 1994-2004, 21,936 USDA research projects were funded in all areas of food research, but only 19 of these had the keywords of “plants, biotechnology and allergens,” and most of these were devoted to detecting or reducing the risks from known allergens.

To date, no such research initiative has been launched. Another problem is that there is no requirement that G.E. foods be labeled, so it is not possible to do epidemiological studies to see if there are any adverse consequences of consuming G.E. foods. Most disturbing to Pelletier is the way in which the policy was developed. He said the FDA did not request input on its draft policy statement from an expert committee of the National Academy of Sciences, nor did it consult any of its advisory committees. “My beef isn’t with genetically engineered food; it’s with the process FDA used to formulate its policy, which was an inside job from beginning to end and even disregarded the concerns of senior FDA scientists.”

–– Interview with Prof. David Pelletier, nutritional sciences

You can read more from the Two Cents interview here.

MSNBC is currently running a poll asking”Do you believe that genetically modified foods should be labeled?” You can learn more and make your voice heard by voting here.

CEO who Led a David-and-Goliath Battle for Milk Labels Dies

March 1, 2011 •  5 comments.

 •  Blog, News

Stanley T. Bennett II, chairman and CEO of Oakhurst Dairy and a longtime leader in the industry, died at age 64
Written by John Richardson of www.pressherald.com

Bennett, who was diagnosed last summer with pancreatic cancer, was remembered as a champion of agricultural initiatives and a generous supporter of nonprofit organizations, especially those that support children or a clean environment.

He took over as president of Oakhurst in 1983, after his father’s retirement, and oversaw a continuing expansion of the business and aggressive investments in clean-energy technology such as solar power.

Bennett also led the Portland-based company through a David-and-Goliath battle with Monsanto Corp., which sued Oakhurst in 2003, demanding that it stop labeling its milk as free of artificial growth hormones. Oakhurst kept the pledge on its labels, and the company’s stand has since spread throughout the dairy industry.

Bennett, who grew up in Portland and lived in Falmouth, graduated from Tufts University in Massachusetts and earned a law degree from Boston University. After a brief stint as a legislative aide in Augusta, he went to work full time for the business started in 1921 by his grandfather, the first Stanley T. Bennett.

Most of his six siblings continue to work for Oakhurst Dairy, the largest independent dairy processor in Maine. The business employs about 230 people, distributing milk throughout Maine and New Hampshire and parts of Vermont and Massachusetts.

”It’s a great loss to the industry,” said Cheryl Beyeler, executive director of the Maine Dairy & Nutrition Council. ”He has been active in so many agricultural initiatives.”

Oakhurst, for example, is using its school milk cartons and offering grants to promote good nutrition and physical activity in schools, she said.

The company also is regarded nationally as an industry leader in reducing fossil fuel use by improving efficiency and switching to clean energy, such as biodiesel fuel for its trucks and solar panels to heat water and make power.

Bennett made a name for Oakhurst when he and the company stood up to Monsanto.

”He wasn’t trepidatious to take on a very large company,” Beyeler said. ”A lot of farmers thought by not using (growth hormones), it impeded their use of technology. I think now … across the nation, most of the processors and co-ops have asked their farmers not to use it.”

Although the fight with Monsanto was expensive, Stanley Bennett didn’t waver, his brother said.

”Stanley was very proud of our stand with Monsanto. We thought it was very important to be able to tell our consumers what was not in our milk,” he said.

Stanley Bennett was the company’s unofficial ambassador to the community and was quick to help a worthy cause. Oakhurst contributes 10 percent of its profits to local organizations that support ”healthy kids and a healthy environment.”

The long list of Bennett’s favorite organizations included the Friends of Casco Bay. He got to know the bay aboard his motorboat, Lucia II. ”He had as much time on that bay as many lobstermen,” William Bennett said.

Another favorite was the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine, which made him an honorary life director in October to recognize 20 years of support for the group.

In 2003, an Oakhurst promotional campaign generated $100,000 for the clubs from milk sales.

Bennett sometimes went to the clubs to help serve meals. ”He very much liked kids. He loved his visits,” Clark said.

Bennett’s community involvement included serving on the Falmouth Planning Board.

He recently used his influence to help independent Maine dairy farmers, even though they weren’t affiliated with Oakhurst.

Bill Eldridge, chairman of Maine’s Own Organic Milk Co., said he asked for Bennett’s help in 2009 when 10 small organic dairy farmers lost their buyer and were in danger of closing. Bennett offered to help with distribution of their new organic brand, MOOMilk.

Rather than seeing the new brand as a competitor, Bennett wanted to support the industry and saw the independent organic farmers as partners, Eldridge said.

”He put Oakhurst money and himself out there. Whenever we needed something, he was right behind us all the way,” Eldridge said.

In honor of Stanley Bennett and his remarkable contribution to the labeling of genetically modified foods, in particular milk containing the genetically engineered, synthetic growth hormone, rbGH, introduced into the US in 1994, while not allowed in Canada, the UK, all 27 countries in Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, we invite you to visit your local Wal-Mart, Sams, Costco, Kroger, Safeway, Whole Foods or local food retailer to purchase milk that has been labeled “rbGH-free” in celebration of Stanley’s life which is an inspiring reminder that one person can make an enormous difference.