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Talking genes (not jeans)

Talking genes (not jeans)

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.”

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.


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