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The ABCs of GMOs:
Alfalfa, bureaucrats and a conversation with a kid

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.

Pretty little GMO

So the latest big news 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.

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.)

What are your thoughts on genetic engineering, frankenfood, tweaking nature? Do you try to avoid GMOs? Is that even on your radar?

Update on Feb. 15: 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.”

This post is linked into Real Food Wednesdays and Fight Back Fridays.

On March 5, this post was reprinted by the AllergyKids Foundation.

On June 1, this post was included in Healthy Child Healthy World’s blog series.

Digiprove sealCopyright protected by Digiprove © 2011 Christina Le Beau
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{ 22 comments… add one }

  • Gwen~healthy mamma February 5, 2011, 11:37 pm

    Very nice title. Excellent post and info. Thx for the links, will read. I could talk ie. Go off on this subject forever. It’s scary, very upsetting on so many levels. “why would they do that?” from the mouths of babes. Evidence of cattle not digesting the unnatural feed they’re given and no longer being able to form natural antibodies, leading to more and more contaminated ‘beef’ should be cause enough for a downright uproar from society. It makes me sad when I talk to people and more often than not they are some what aware of all of this but shrug it off w lame excuses.
    Thank you so much for posting this! Now how do we get the info to those who need it most? *sigh

  • jenna @ Kid Appeal February 6, 2011, 10:16 am

    gwen – maybe humans don’t care about cows not being to digest unnatural feed properly, because so many humans aren’t digesting their unnatural feed properly either. it’s just accepted as the norm of modern life. GI problems are suffered by many, but the solution is usually take a pill, not change your diet and feed your body what will nourish it, not what will muck it up.

    or maybe it’s just too huge of a problem to think a solution is possible. what would the economic impact be if every mexican restaurant in the states switched to GMO free corn? what about every ISD’s school food program?

    i find that people with a large number of daily unhealthy habits have this mind-set. “it hasn’t killed me, so why stop.” only acute threats are considered serious enough to change habits. habits that harm people slowly are dismissed as problems that don’t need a solution, or that can be solved later.

    christina- i could have lived the rest of my life not knowing there are fish genes in some tomatoes. great post, will dig into the links and post on FB.

  • heather tomasello February 6, 2011, 10:48 am

    fish genes in tomatoes? GMO salmon? so disgusting. im redoubeling efforts to put in a garden, maybe get my own chickens, and find an organicly fed cow…

  • Christina February 6, 2011, 11:00 am

    Just wanted to clarify that if you click through on the “fish tomato” link above, you’ll see that this particular tomato was never commercialized (so far as I could find, anyway). And good thing. Aside from the GMO question, I can’t believe such a tomato would taste any good. In-season tomatoes are one of the most delicious things going. Out-of-season tomatoes? Especially ones grown where otherwise they’d normally freeze? That gives tomatoes a bad name.

  • Michele Garcia February 6, 2011, 10:35 pm

    Thank you for this article and all of the linked articles. I found Anna Lappé’s article on Catherine Badgley’s study to be very encouraging, and highly motivating to increase my shopping at farmer’s markets and stores that sell certified organic produce. Yes, I would try to avoid GMO’s, for the simple reason of food allergies, but who knows beyond that how else the tampering with nature has detrimentally affected our nation’s health. I think what concerns me most is the contamination of natural or organic seed crops by GM seed crops, and the danger that GM crops could permanently alter organic crops. If I’ve understood correctly from other reading and listening I’ve done on this subject, there is also potential for losing organic seed viability through contamination by GM seeds, and the possibility of famine should these huge monocrops fail in the future due to our increasingly erratic weather.

  • Renee February 6, 2011, 10:50 pm

    What worries me most about this is the lack of choice. I don’t know, scientifically, whether GM foods are a bad idea (I’m not sure anyone knows, which means we’re running yet another big experiment in the only environment we can safely live in –just like the climate change problem). However, regardless of what the scientific evidence ultimately shows, I think that people should have a choice about consuming GM crops. Between the problem of GM crops contaminating regular crops and the lack of labeling, we are being denied the ability to have a choice. I think that is wrong.

  • Melissa B February 7, 2011, 11:19 am

    I will just add that I agree, word-for-word, with Renee.

  • Lauren Slayton February 7, 2011, 4:22 pm

    This is the best summary of GMOs I’ve read. I guess you’re used to explaining it to a 7 year old (clearly a special 7 year old, my 7 year old doesn’t know about genes). Thank you for this, will go explore the links you’ve provided.

    • Christina February 10, 2011, 11:57 am

      Lauren, Tess knows about genes in the big-picture sense (i.e., they’re in our bodies). Not ready to enroll her in a Ph.D. program yet!

  • the good soup February 9, 2011, 6:33 am

    Excellent article. I get so overwhelmed with the topic of GM, that I basically eat organic and homegrown just to avoid thinking about it! I’m mostly kidding…

  • Bethesda Locavore February 9, 2011, 9:35 pm

    It’s totally on my radar. I agree with everything you’ve written, and I try to avoid GMOs as much as possible. But honestly, at this point, I’m starting to shut down when I hear about them because it seems so hopeless. I know that’s the wrong attitude – but seriously, how can SO many major decision-makers just press on with genetically modifying the plants and animals that populate such a complex ecosystem? What kind of idiot truly believes that profit is the highest goal one should strive for? Aargh.

    • Christina February 10, 2011, 12:09 pm

      Bethesda, good sense does seem to have taken a detour lately, doesn’t it? Onward and upward…

  • Spinster February 11, 2011, 8:09 am

    I’m an American expatriate who works/lives in Europe. I’ve heard from my colleagues that the (country of residence) government tried to get GM foods approved here, and the (country of residence) people threw a FIT! Riots, protests, all of that. Needless to say, that’s not allowed here.

    I don’t claim to be an expert on these things, so the way the blog author/owner breaks this down to her 7 year old is good because I think I understand it a little more now. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds as if the grass, for example, can have herbicides/pesticides sprayed onto it without dying….. and therefore, animals could be eating herbicide/pasticide-tainted grass. If this is correct, what if the herbicides/pesticides aren’t digested by the animals that we eat? Doesn’t that go into our bodies, our water, our environment in general?

    My goodness. Proud to be an American….. expatriate. :-|

    • Christina February 11, 2011, 10:12 am

      Spinster, in this case, the alfalfa is engineered to resist Roundup, which is an herbicide. But yes, most (probably all) GMO crops are treated with pesticides or herbicides or both, and that’s another reason to avoid them and choose organic as much as possible.

      • Spinster February 11, 2011, 10:24 am

        And I’m assuming that, in alfalfa’s case (and maybe in the cases of other GM foods), the pesticides/herbicides aren’t washed off, so the animals digest it and then we digest it. Just splendid. :-|

        • Christina February 11, 2011, 10:39 am

          Spinster, you would be correct. Sorry to say.

          • Spinster February 11, 2011, 10:49 am

            Wow. What a shame. I’ll just have to be extremely mindful every time I go home to visit. :-| Well, thank you for confirming my thoughts.

  • John S Green March 14, 2014, 1:33 pm

    Christina –
    Have you updated on the GMO discussion lately? My wife and I moved to Washington state 1 1/2 years a go and voted for the GMO labeling here but Monsanto, General Mills, Dupont and the like funded a campaign that won in the end.

    Also, did you see the movie, “Say no to GMO”?

    Thanks, john

    • Christina March 16, 2014, 12:09 pm

      John: I have not blogged about GMOs since this piece, though we’ve discussed it on the Facebook page a fair amount. I’ll start thinking about an update. I have not seen that movie, and, actually, after Googling it just now, I’m not sure which movie you mean. Is that the full title?

      • John S Green March 16, 2014, 5:55 pm

        Christina – I just checked and he title is “GMO – OMG”. Here is the official website… http://www.gmofilm.com/. I’ll check out your fb page. Thanks!

        • Christina March 16, 2014, 8:33 pm

          Thanks, John. OK, I have heard of that one, but I haven’t seen it yet. Though I do have a T-shirt that says: “GMO OMG WTF.” :-) I’ll add it to my list!

          • John S Green March 17, 2014, 2:59 am

            Ha! Funny shirt… nice. Thanks for the connection.

            Best, John

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