Posts Tagged ‘GM food’

The results on Washington Initiative 522, which would require labeling foods that contain GMOs, are coming in… and it looks like it won’t pass. I voted for the measure, but, as I was admitting to David the other day, not for very nice reasons. I want to put companies that push GM seed and farming out of business. I think the “No” side is right- putting “made with GMOs” labels on produce and processed foods will amount to putting warning labels on them. And while GMO labels may not increase the price of GM food itself, I do think that people would end up spending more money on their grocery bill to buy non-GM food, just like they spend more money to buy fair trade chocolate and coffee, and to avoid clothing and shoes made with child labor (though, Nicholas Kristof says that the only worse thing than being exploited in a sweat shop is not being exploited in a sweat shop- gotta start somewhere.)

So, what do we do if this initiative fails? How do we avoid buying and consuming GM food?

First, why are we avoiding GM food? I would hazard a guess that most people are against GM foods because it is unclear whether consuming them is safe. Because they are relatively new, I don’t think we have enough evidence to say one way or the other. Given that the FDA tends to operate on a innocent-until-proven-guilty platform, waiting until food additives have been shown to cause tumors or brain damage in rats and infertility (or what have you) in humans before banning them from US food, it might be smart for consumers to play it safe and not eat them. But as I argued in an earlier post, the foreign gene inserted into the crop (the one that makes corn cobs have those horribly ugly faces on protestors’ signs) is the least of our worries. On the other hand, there is ample evidence suggesting that agricultural pesticides are bad for us (Round-up ready crops get DOUSED in Round-up) and other critters, and that monocropping (which GM companies like Monsanto brutally push) is bad for the soil, the waterways, the oceans, and our future ability to grow enough food to support ourselves during unpredictable and harsh climate changes. The wave of fear and disgust toward weird monster corn genes may not be enough to get WA I-522 passed, but there are plenty of other reasons to avoid GM foods.

So here are some suggestions for how to do that sans label:

The simplest is to buy organic. USDA organic regulations do not allow GM ingredients in processed food, nor do they allow animals to be fed GM feed (which is where most of the GM crops produced in the US go- animal feed), so consumers can avoid GMOs by buying organic produce, meat, and processed foods like breakfast cereal. Buying organic also has the advantage of avoiding antibiotics used to raise animals, which have contributed to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and have led to lapses in cleanliness in slaughtering and processing procedures. (Logic being, why wash shit off the cow hide when the cow is pumped full of drugs?)

But, organic food is expensive. Is there any way to half-ass it? What are the most important foods to buy organic and which are not so important?

If the goal is to avoid GM ingredients,
1) stay away from conventional meat, dairy, and eggs (as animals are often raised with feed containing GM soy and corn)
2) or buy pasture-raised meat and dairy products (I don’t think they’ve genetically engineered grass yet…)
3) don’t buy conventional baked goods or grain products (GM corn and soy), or processed foods (GM corn syrup and soybean oil)
4) avoid particular products that you know have been genetically engineered, like some apples, sweet corn, and salmon- instead, buy organic and wild-caught versions of those foods.
5) uh… what’s left to eat? Based on this list, pasta, beans, and rice.

If the goal is avoiding pesticides, buy organic based on this list compiled by the Environmental Working Group. Some produce is more heavily sprayed than others. Produce grown by small farms often carries less pesticide residue than produce grown by huge farms. Know that washing your produce won’t get rid of all the pesticide.

Lastly, if you want to avoid GMOs because of the effect farming them has on the environment, on genetic diversity, or on small farms, buying your produce, meat, dairy, and bread at a local farmers market is your best bet. How much extra money are we willing to spend to save the environment, our health, and local businesses? That’s a tricky question. If you come up with a dollar amount appropriate for yourself or your family, spend it at the farmers market!

-I apologize for not citing my sources- it feels wrong… but perhaps when I’m finally finished with my PhD- two weeks till my defense!- I will come back and write about this in a more scientific way…

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Occasionally the New York Times publishes articles like this one on the crises modern agriculture brought on by gawdawful weather. Some discuss government-paid crop insurance and lament the plight of farmers across the country. This one actually mentions compost as a way to ameliorate the effects of drought, as well as gray water systems, and the importance of maintaining seed banks so that we can weather the weather with drought- and heat-resistant varieties of crops. I’m going to go ahead and add a plug against big Ag companies that promote and sell and monopolize crops with single varieties that are bred or genetically engineered to do well in shitty soil with lots of synthetic fertilizer. Bad idea. We need to be increasing the genetic diversity of our crops and animals, not whittling our base down to a teetering giant disaster waiting to happen.

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I used to be a supporter of genetically engineered crops, especially so after researching Golden Rice (rice engineered to contain vitamin A) for a class project in college.  If we have the technology, why wouldn’t we want to make food more nutritious for populations that are suffering from malnutrition?  In the ‘Political Ecology of Food’ class i’m taking this quarter at UW, i was prepared to argue against all the GMO-bashers that genetic engineering is a pretty sweet technology and we can do some amazing and useful things with it, like prevent people from going blind due to vitamin A deficiency.  And, we’ve been breeding plants and effectively modifying their genes since the advent of agriculture- isolating genes in a laboratory and sticking them into new plants is just a faster (and way more expensive) method of breeding plants.   I finally watched ‘Food, Inc’ the other day, which talks a bit about Monsanto’s business practices, and tonight i watched ‘The Future of Food,’ an interview-style documentary about the dangers of GM crops.  The movie is fairly one-sided and hokey, but very interesting and informative.

GM crops “for good” like Golden Rice and cassava with extra protein may have problems themselves, but the main problems with GM technology comes in the form of crops engineered to produce pesticides or be resistant to herbicides by corporations in developed nations, and more importantly, how these crops are used and regulated.  The genes inserted into these crops may have harmful health effects (as of yet unknown) on people and animals that consume them, but that’s hardly the biggest reason to be wary of GM crops and the companies that produce them.

First, there are several ways to introduce a gene from one organism into another, but a commonly used method to determine whether the new gene has taken up residence in the host cell is to couple the gene of interest to a gene for antibiotic resistance.  The cells are then grown in the presence of the antibiotic, and only cells that have the gene of interest and the associated antibiotic resistance marker will survive.  The GM crops that result carry a gene for resistance against that particular antibiotic- not necessarily a problem, unless harmful bacteria get a hold of the gene.  This can happen quite easily; no special methods are needed to introduce foreign DNA to bacteria- they just scoop it up from the environment around them and begin using it to their advantage.  Potentially pathogenic bacteria may come across these genes in the digestive tracts of livestock or people that eat these GM crops.  Should these bacteria later cause a harmful infection, it will be impossible to treat the patient with those antibiotics.

Now, I should mention that there are other ways to recognize an inserted gene than antibiotic resistance- other reporter genes can be used as well, like green fluorescent protein or a gene for an enzyme that reacts with an added substrate to turn the cells containing the gene a different color.  I’ll have to take a closer look at how most GM crops are engineered- i’m hoping most of them are made without antibiotic resistance markers.  Also, many antibiotics used in laboratories are not front line antibiotics that infections would be treated with, due to expense, ease of use, or because non-laboratory strain bacteria are already resistant to them.  However, the fewer antibiotic-resistance genes that get spread around the world, the better- multi-drug resistant bacteria are already a serious problem in tuberculosis and hospital-acquired infections- we don’t need to make additional antibiotics ineffective.

Besides potential public health problems, companies that make genetically modified crops practice horrible, horrible business.  Monsanto makes both Roundup (an herbicide that kills pretty much anything green) and ‘Roundup Ready’ corn, soybean, and canola seeds that are resistant to Roundup.  This is a fairly ingenious business strategy in itself, but the company goes farther.  Farmers that buy Roundup Ready seed may not save seed from the resulting crops to plant their fields the next year- they must buy new seed.  Seed cleaning is a dying profession in which a person got paid to bring a “seed cleaner,” a big mechanical machine on a trailer, around to farms to prepare seeds from crops so that they could be planted the next season.  Because seed cleaning gives farmers a reason to save seed instead of buying GM seed, Monsanto has sued several seed cleaners for “anti-commerce.”  Ridiculous.  But there’s more.

Monsanto has patented the gene for Roundup resistance…OK, fine… but the courts have ruled that because they own the gene, they also own anything that contains the gene.  If a farmer’s crops are cross-pollinated by a neighbor’s GM crops, the progeny of those plants will contain the genetic modification, and if the seeds are saved and planted the next season, that farmer will be infringing on Monsanto’s patent.  The things is, there’s no possible way to prevent cross pollination from field to field.  When a farmer’s seed becomes contaminated, he’s fined or sued, and forcefully pressured into buying GM seed.  As the gene spreads across the US, will anyone able to buy/save/plant non-GM seed?  And the company has begun to push GM crops on farmers in developing countries- they’re having enough trouble as it is- they can’t afford to be screwed over by a giant corporation!

I could go on, and likely will in future posts, but for now i’ll end with a comment from my Political Ecology of Food class.  The professor mentioned a study in which cows were given a choice of GM corn or normal corn to eat.  The cows refused to touch the GM corn.  “It’s like they know that it’s different somehow…”  I think they refused to eat it because it’s drenched in Roundup!

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