This is Your Brain on GMO’s

Last week British anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas took to the podium at a conference to apologize (or apologise) for having spent years “ripping up GMO’s.” Now he has decided that Genetically Modified Organisms are “an important technological option” and that critics have been anti-scientific.

Mark

Text and video are available here.

Actually Lynas had explained before that he had been reprogrammed; his 2011 book The God Species announced his new enthusiasm for GMOs.  But this mea culpa on vimeo made for an irresistible internet nugget and it lit up the blogosphere.  It was forwarded to me by several people who I’m sure had never heard of Mark Lynas before.

Much of the online reaction to this story goes along with the basic premise in Lynas’s own statement, which is that there are two ways to think about GM crops, and he has switched from one to the other.

I agree that there are two ways to think about GM crops, but Lynas hasn’t changed one bit.  Let me explain.

GMO’s are one of the most far-reaching developments of the last century.  They have major impacts on biological research, international trade, ecosystems, industry-university relations, patent law, agriculture, and on and on.  We all need to know something about these different facets, especially since we make decisions about them every time we go to the grocery store.

But what we are mostly bombarded with are dumbed-down, deceptive narratives of GMO bad bad bad or GMO good good good.  Most of what is written is explicitly designed to get to that part of your brain that picks a side in a fight.

There are reasons the GMO debate became so polarized.  There is a lot at stake here, including lots of money and political power; there are also clashes of different visions of how the world should work.   Most voices on GM issues are coming from people with vested interests, either direct or indirect.

And polarized debates build on themselves.  Now when someone tries to look into GM issues they mainly encounter invective and polemic.  With GM crops, farmers are killing themselves and losing control over their seeds.  Without GM crops kids will go blind and we will have to cut down the rainforests.  Most people are attracted by one side, or repulsed by one side, or both.  Whether it’s coming from Greenpeace or Monsanto, the message is the same: get emotionally involved, pick a side, then start believing all the claims from that side and scorning all the claims from the other.

footballIt’s as if genetic modification were like a football game, and you could sit in the stands basking in the psychic glow of pure affiliation, cheering your team and booing the other.  You can almost feel your brain shifting into partisan mode.

Actually your brain is shifting into a special mode, and you can even see it.  During the 2004 presidential campaign, Emory psychologist Drew Westen and colleagues recruited a group of students who were committed political partisans.  It didn’t matter if they favored Bush or Kerry, just that they were strongly committed, like football fans.  The students were asked to read statements from the candidates, in which they contradicted themselves and looked like liars.  Meanwhile the researchers used MRI machines to watch the students’ brains.  For a control, the students read contradictory statements by “neutral” people — Tom Hanks, Hank Aaron, and William Styron.

The students processed their candidates’ statements completely differently from the controls’ statements.  This image from their article shows areas that were more active when students were processing the lies from their candidates than from the controls.  So what you’re looking at is the part of the brain that swings into action when you already know your conclusion, and now you’re making the facts fit it.  That area that’s all lit up is called the posterior cingulate.

Brain on GMOs

Source: Westen, Drew, et al. 2006 Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 18(11):1947-1958.

This kind of thinking is called “motivated reasoning.”  This means that “partisan goals trump accuracy goals so that individuals act as biased information processors who will vigorously defend their prior values, identities, and attitudes at the expense of factual accuracy.”

So when the motivated partisans confronted information about their candidate that should lead them to an “emotionally aversive conclusion,” they got busy reworking the information to fit the conclusion they wanted.

Scientists still have a lot to learn about different forms of reasoning, and the role of emotion in rationality, and so on, but the basic idea of motivated reasoning is key in putting Mark Lynas in context.  Sometimes people let factual information shape their conclusions, and sometimes they start with a conclusion and shape their view of factual information to fit it.  Those are the two ways to think about GM crops, and that’s why I say Mark Lynas hasn’t changed one bit.  He used to have simplistic, inaccurate and emotional “cherished beliefs” about how GM crops were bad bad bad ; now he has switched to simplistic, inaccurate and emotional “cherished beliefs” about how GM crops are good good good.

Listen to two examples of his motivated reasoning:

1) I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.

2) I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.

Are you kidding?  On 1) and 2), consider:

1) It s widely known that changes in chemical use have been mixed.  Insecticide use has indeed gone down (I have documented this myself among some of the world’s heaviest insecticide users) but herbicide use has risen sharply.

Then again, the main herbicide being used more heavily is Roundup, which is much more benign than many herbicides. But then again, the next generation of GM crops will be resistant to less benign sprays like 2,4-D.  Herbicide-resistant weeds are a terrible and growing problem due to GM crops.  But then again cotton pests have been slower than we expected to develop resistance.

It takes a lot of reworking by the posterior cingulate to boil this down to a simple, emotionally satisfying, conclusion that we shouldn’t be concerned about GMO impacts on chemical use.

2) Whoa, this lad was a player in international debates on seed saving without knowing about hybrid crops?  The role of hybrids in allowing corporations to capture value from public research and seize control over farmers’ seeds had been well known and widely discussed for decades.  But if Mark Lynas reads up on the topic, he will find that corporations can gain control over seeds not just through biological means (like hybrids) but through legal means (like patents)… and GM technologies, based largely on publicly-funded research, have allowed corporations to do just that.  (And Terminator Technology was never anything more than a side show.)

As to why Mark would swap one motivated reasoning package for another, I’m not sure.  Motivated reasoning is emotionally addictive, and addicts do sometimes switch drugs.  It has brought him more attention on this side of the pond than he ever had before. As the head of the Nature Conservancy blogged, Lynas may now become a household name.

And the road ahead for him is clear: cherry-pick facts favorable to GM crops, and distort unfavorable facts until they fit.  Expect long hours for the posterior cingulate.

Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Obesogens

Multiple choice question:  What does the “Obesity Epidemic” have to do with agriculture?

  1. What epidemic?  Obesity is an age old problem, and this “epidemic” is an invention of the press and the diet industry.
  2. There’s an epidemic alright, caused by a flood of cheap calories.
  3. There’s an epidemic alright, and agriculture is to blame — but it’s not the calories, it’s the toxins.

Source: based on figures in [1].

We can deal with answer #1 first.  BMI (body mass index, the standard measure of weight adjusted for height) has been climbing rapidly; 1980 is often specified as the start of the climb.  BMI has been going up gradually in the world, steeply  in the US.  The average American is 28 lb. heavier than in 1980.  This is not an invention.

But there is still a grain of truth in answer #1.  The only thing that is going up faster than BMI’s is the obsession with bringing them back down.  “Epidemic” is a poor word for the trend.  I’m not arguing for being overweight, but fat people are not as unhealthy as some would have you believe, and they are not completely responsible for being fat (as we’ll see in a minute).

#2

Energy Balance Model

The Energy Balance Model explains weight as a simply function of calories in and calories out.  Source: US Dept. of Health & Human Services website.

How about door #2?  Well we all know it’s at least partly true at the level of the individual: when you eat more calories and when you exercise less, you put on weight. This is the “Energy Balance” dogma: obesity results entirely from more calories going in than being burned off.

Energy Balance seems to be dietary gospel.  It’s central to Michael Pollan’s must-read books Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, where he argues that our industrial agricultural system is making us obese because it subsidizes hyperproduction of cheap carbohydrates.  It seems hard to refute: just compare the cost of the calories in fresh fruit to those in Fruit Loops.

There are even specific links between agricultural overproduction and post-1980 obesity.  The ballooning corn harvest gave us the High Fructose Corn Syrup that started invading our cuisine around 1980. 7-11′s Big Gulp appeared in 1980, soon followed by jumbo popcorn and supersized fries.  Industrial agriculture and increasingly devious food marketers met our innate reluctance to push back from the table.

But here’s the problem: calorie consumption hasn’t actually been going up since 1980. In The Obesity Epidemic: Science Morality and Ideology, Gard & Wright’s careful review of research finds no clear evidence of calorie consumption rising in industrialized countries.  Exercise hasn’t been dropping either.  However intuitive it seems, the energy balance model whiffs as a explanation of the rising BMI.

#3

Which brings us to answer #3: it’s not the cheap calories that are to blame, it’s toxins  spewed into our food supply and environment by agriculture and other industries.

This case has been made recently by Univ. of California geographer Julie Guthman in her 2011 book Weighing In and various academic publications [2].  Guthman argues that by stressing calories, Pollan and others miss this more sinister mechanism by which industrial agriculture produces obesity.  The disagreement is one of the most important debates in the world of food and farm.

At the center of the debate are the chemicals called endocrine disruptors that we are just beginning to understand. “If there were ever a contest for the Most Easily Duped biological system,” writes Sandra Steingraber in Living Downstream, “I would nominate our endocrine system — the hormonal messaging service that guides our development, runs our metabolism, and allows us to reproduce.”  Our bodies have great protective mechanisms, but they have not kept up with modern environmental toxins. The results are deeply troubling.

Two of the worst examples of endocrine disruption were around long before people recognized endocrine disruption as a problem.  DES was a synthetic estrogen prescribed to tens of thousands of women who were pregnant during the baby boom of the 1940s-60s.  It was supposed to reduce miscarriages but it had ghastly health effects, many of them not appearing until their daughters were adults.  DDT, of course, was the organochlorine pesticide that Rachel Carson  went after in Silent Spring.  DDT became notorious for being a “persistent organic pollutant” that gets into the food chain and stays there, but it’s also a serious endocrine disruptor.

Endocrine disruption didn’t emerge as a field of research until the late 1980s.  By the mid-1990s it was finding its way onto the public radar, with books like Living Downstream and Our Stolen Future.  It attracted some popular attention but it seemed a bit like conspiracy theory, with rising cancer rates and dropping age of puberty somehow tied together by speculative science.  In 2002, Paula Baillie-Hamilton explicitly linked endocrine disruptors with the obesity epidemic in an article entitled “Chemical Toxins: A Hypothesis to Explain the Global Obesity Epidemic.”  This generated some interest but also skepticism; it was published in the non-mainstream Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, and Baillie-Hamilton seemed to be hawking a diet book.

There has since been an explosion of solid research on endocrine disruptors.  It’s for real, and not just the diseases — the obesity too.  Bruce Blumberg, a professor of biology and pharmacology at the Univ. California at Irvine, coined the term obesogen for environmental chemicals that corrupt our metabolism and promote obesity.  Today there are around 20 known obesogens (sugar is not one, by the way — these are environmental pollutants).  They are not all from agriculture; nonagricultural industries pump out some of the worst ones, and even some medicines are obesogenic.  Bisphenol A, one of the highest volume chemicals produced worldwide and a common component in the waxy surface of food and beverage containers, is an endocrine disruptor.

Blumberg and others have provided some important recent summaries of what we know about endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC’s) and obesity [3]. Highlights:

  • Prenatal and early postnatal exposure to EDC’s can have effects decades later.  Chemicals may be programming kids to be obese adults.
  • EDC’s have multiple modes of action:
    • they promote multiplication of adipose (fatty) cells
    • they affect epigenetic regulation
    • they can affect the hypothalamus — the  crucial little part of the brain that plays a key role in controlling both metabolism and hunger

Obesogens can be inhaled, absorbed, or consumed.  We spray dieldrin and atrazine on our crops; we feed cattle DES.

All of this makes it incredibly hard to isolate the effects of obesogens.  Since they may have greatly delayed epigenetic effects, you can’t just check fat people for evidence of obesogens.  (By the same token, a major 1997 study [4] found women with breast cancer did not have elevated levels of DDT, which seemed to let the infamous pesticide off the hook.  But more recently, researchers analyzed of a collection of blood samples from the 1960s.  They found that girls who were exposed to DDT under age 14 were 5x more likely to develop breast cancer.  Those who weren’t exposed to DDT until after 14 were not more cancer prone. [5])

babyBut circumstantial evidence is mounting that obesity results as much from environmental obesogens as from calories.  One of the most provocative findings came from a 2006 study of Massachusetts kids.  It showed that between 1980-2001, the obesity rates for all ages climbed, including a 74% rise in babies under 6 months.  This raised eyebrows since neonates couldn’t be accused of not pushing back from the table or being couch potatoes.

I strongly recommend Guthman’s provocative book, even if I don’t agree with all of it.  She is not the only one writing from this perspective, but she does a particularly good job of challenging much of the prevailing wisdom about how to think about obesity.

At the end of the day, obesity really is rising, especially in the US.  And at the end of the day, there is no doubt that our agricultural system is subsidizing the production of the wrong kind of calories.  But those cheap calories being a major cause of obesity trends is just a hypothesis, and plausible as it seems, it’s not well supported.

The role of environmental obesogens is not totally clear either, but now there is a wave of research making the case stronger and stronger.  Industrial agriculture is hardly the only producer of environmental obesogens, but it is a (and perhaps the) leading contributor.  We thought industrial agriculture was contributing to obesity, and now it seems it was — just not in the way we thought.

References
1. Finucane, M. et al. 2011 “National, Regional, and Global Trends in Body-Mass Index since 1980: Systematic Analysis of Health Examination Surveys and Epidemiological Studies with 960 Country-Years and 9·1 Million Participants.” The Lancet 377: 557-67.
2. Guthman, J.  2011.  Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism.  Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
Guthman, J.  2012.  “Opening up the Black Box of the Body in Geographical Obesity Research: Toward a Critical Political Ecology of Fat.”  Annals of the Association of American Geographers 102: in press.
3. Grün, F. and Blumberg, B.  2009.  “Minireview: The Case for Obesogens.”  Molecular Endocrinology 23: 1127-34.
Decherf, S. and Demeneix, B.  2011  The Obesogen Hypothesis: A Shift of Focus from the Periphery to the Hypothalamus.  Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B 14: 423-48.
Trudeau, V., et al.  2011  Neuroendocrine Disruption: The Emerging Concept. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B 14(5-7):267-269.
4. Hunter, DJ, et al.  1997.  “Plasma Organochlorine Levels and the Risk of Breast Cancer.”  New Engl J Med 337: 1253-8.
5. Cohn, B., et al.   2007.  “DDT and Breast Cancer in Young Women: New Data on the Significance of Age at Exposure.”  Environ Health Perspectives 15: 1406–14.
Posted in Agriculture, Food, Industrial Agriculture | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

The Animal Lover’s Dilemma

Today’s guest blog by Elizabeth Vandeventer of Davis Creek Farm, Nelson County, Virginia.  She holds a PhD in Anthropology from Univ. of North Carolina.

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When Green Mountain College, a sustainable agriculture school in Vermont, recently decided to slaughter their two aging oxen and serve the meat in the dining hall, the decision unleashed a flood of angry emails, Facebook posts, and protests from animal rights activists around the world.  From the point of view of the college, consuming beef produced from animals raised humanely on their own farm, rather than from unknown origins elsewhere, fits squarely with their sustainable food production philosophy.

An ox is any bovine used as a draught animal. Usually an ox is a castrated male cow.  For more, see Gone Are The Days that the Ox Fall Down.

However, to animal rights advocates, killing the oxen was simply wrong—regardless of the fact that one of the animals would have to be euthanized for leg injuries anyway. Activists threatened local slaughterhouses, leaving the college nowhere to take the cattle, so in the end, they decided to kill the injured ox without eating it, while sparing the life of the other.

While animal rights groups might consider this a victory, I believe protesting a school that is trying to teach future farmers humane animal husbandry is ultimately counterproductive for animal welfare.

Before saying any more, let me lay all my cards on the table. I’m a livestock farmer: I raise cattle and chickens for meat.  But one reason I do this is that I believe farm animals are ultimately better served by a viable humane alternative to factory-farming than by vitriolic protests over their becoming food after a good life.

I love animals and, unlike small-farm celebrity Joel Salatin, I agree with some of the activists’ criticisms of certain practices on small farms. However, I have come to realize that pasture-based livestock farming serves as part of the solution to the messy ethical dilemma of what to eat in an imperfect world. I have no desire to convince anyone to eat meat; I only wish to explain how I came to this conclusion.

I actually think Americans eat too much meat, and if veganism takes business away from factory farms, I’m all for it. I’m just not convinced that ending all animal agriculture will ultimately best serve the planet or animals or us. While the animal rights movement has helped to raise people’s consciousness about the suffering of animals in the CAFO system, it also protests the pasture-based farms that are the only hope of humane animal agriculture in the face of global growth of factory farming.

Having said that, I understand why people protested at Green Mountain. Killing an animal pulls emotional strings, as it should. Factory farms are based on people being desensitized to the real suffering of the animals. We easily forgot that these animals have sustained humans for millennia, and rather than feeling dominance over them, we should humbly acknowledge our dependence. I agree that we need to minimize our impact on the planet, yet I learned over many years that this is more complicated than just not eating meat.

I was a vegetarian myself for ten years. During that time, I traveled a lot and saw many different aspects of food production that constantly forced me to reassess my assumptions about eating. I learned that my food choices as a vegetarian were not as ethically superior as I had assumed, and ultimately I relearned a lesson from my childhood: in nature, everything becomes food. Roaming the woods and pastures on a dairy farm, I saw baby birds become snakes, snakes become hawks, calves become vultures, cows become people, and all life eventually becomes dirt. Surrounded by nature, I saw life fold into death and death fold back into life and I learned not to fear it.

In college, I worked in a vegetarian restaurant where I heard for the first time that non-violence meant not eating meat. I loved the progressive atmosphere of the place, the wonderful mix of hippies, punk rockers and artists, and the feeling that we were doing something right, so I became a vegetarian. At times it did strike me odd to be preparing rice and beans, avocado melts, and smoothies while decked out in Goth-style black leather jackets and combat boots. I tried to conveniently forget that I was wearing dead cows while avoiding eating meat, or that the cheese on the avocado melts and the yogurt in the smoothies came from animals that would eventually be killed for hamburger and have their calves taken away and raised for veal.  Perhaps no one knew that Kefir, eggs, and ice cream come from animals that will be eaten— laying hens become chicken soup and dairy cows are the basis of most fast-food hamburger. On some level, I knew that shunning meat but eating products from animals that would become someone else’s dinner, didn’t make a lot of sense. Yet I adopted the vegetarian identity because I loved animals and I hoped that somehow it would allow me to live without killing them.

After college, I traveled and worked on different farms. During this time, I was continually confronted with new circumstances that challenged my vegetarianism and my secret hope that one day the whole world would become vegetarian.

I traveled to Alaska where my brother worked as a bush pilot among native Yupik villages. As I flew in his plane over the tundra, it dawned on me why the Yupik ate mostly seal, moose, and caribou. They could never grow crops on this spongy land, under snow and in darkness most of the year. They could never be vegetarians unless they had all of their food shipped in from thousands of miles away. It was a profound realization for me how the land and climate shaped their diet.

I learned the same lesson as a Peace Corps volunteer amongst Senufo farmers in the dusty Sahel of Mali, West Africa. Helping farmers grow soybeans, I slowly came to understand that these people could never be vegetarians, given that repeated droughts often made their crops fail, leaving children and old people vulnerable to starvation. I saw that their goats, chickens, and cows were like food safety nets on legs, a kind of back-up means of survival when their crops failed.

Years later, living on farms in LeMorvan hills of Burgundy, France, I learned again how land and climate determine what foods people can produce most sustainably. Here, farmers raised cattle, goats, and sheep instead of wheat, corn, or soy because the hillsides were too steep and infertile to plow. Raising livestock was the only sustainable way to use the land in this part of Burgundy where the Charolais breed of cattle had evolved.

Raising livestock or relying on hunting and gathering in marginal, arid lands is a typical historical pattern; a vegetarian diet is often not possible or sustainable. In fact, for many of the poor people I knew growing up in rural Virginia, a flock of chickens, a cow and a pig or two made the difference between going hungry or not. The charity Heifer International realizes this basic fact about the importance of animals in household food security and is why they focus their efforts so extensively on helping people in Third World countries obtain livestock.

But I also began to see the hidden death toll behind vegetarian foods. I visited the Korup National Park in Cameroon, one of Africa’s oldest and most diverse rainforests. In order to get to the park boundaries, I had to walk for miles though rows of glossy tea bushes where old women with baskets tied to their heads were bent over picking tea leaves in the harsh sun. There rising above this sea of green hedgerows of tea stood a single African Zebrawood tree, its shallow buttress roots spiraling out into the rows of tea bushes. Horrified, I realized that this tree was the only remains of a rainforest; this whole tea plantation used to be like Korup. In that instant of shock, all my naïve images of tea began to taunt me—the peaceful drink of Buddhists and yoga instructors, the healthy alternative to coffee, the symbolic beverage of the vegetarian restaurant. How was I to know that the tea in my cup might have come from a burned-down rainforest?

Deforestation for an oil palm plantation in Cameroon.  Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.

Deforestation for an oil palm plantation in Cameroon. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.

When I finally arrived at the park, I hiked for two days through a dense tangle of vegetation with the sounds of hooting monkeys and the calls of hundreds of different birds, with elephants and rhinos, butterflies and bats. Abruptly, this glorious symphony of life was transformed into an eerie silence and sameness as I stepped across a straight line into row upon row of perfectly spaced palm oil trees as far as I could see. The rainforest – home to so many thousands of plant and animal species – had been destroyed on one side to grow tea, and on the other to grow palm oil. In that same moment of horror, I felt a small sense of relief that at least I was not eating palm oil –at least, I thought I wasn’t.

It was only later, while reading labels in the alternative food isle of a grocery store, that I began to realize that palm oil is in all sorts of foods. I went through the store frantically grabbing boxes, jars and bags checking for palm oil. I found it in soy milk, peanut butter, chocolate, chips, cookies, crackers, breads, ice creams, vegan cheese, shampoos, soaps and cleaners. I discovered that orangutans were facing extinction from losing rainforest habitat as a result of palm oil plantations, and that so-called “sustainable” palm oil often meant that virgin rainforest would still be destroyed. I was stunned. Certainly I’d heard of ranchers in South America clearing rainforest to raise beef cattle, yet why weren’t vegans and animal rights activists protesting palm oil, especially when the survival of one of our closest living primates is at stake?

But palm oil and tea are not the only plant-based foods I found that destroy rainforest and animals. Working in a raw foods bar in downtown Seattle, I served fantastic smoothies that seemed to be the ultimate pure and clean food. Then while sipping a pineapple-banana smoothie, I had a flashback to walking from the rainforest into the deadened sameness of that palm oil plantation. Suddenly it dawned on me that pineapples, bananas, and coconuts might be grown in the same way as palm oil—in massive monocrops in the tropics where animals were eradicated and irreplaceable ecosystems were destroyed to make room for these domesticated fruits.

Here I was in a vegan restaurant, eating what I assumed to be ethically pure food—only to discover that I was supporting a system of agriculture that had devastated some of the most vital ecosystems in the world. I found out that in the Philippines, Dole Corporation converts rainforest into fruit plantations by leasing the ancestral land of indigenous people from the government for a pittance.Removed from their forest, with no place to hunt and gather, they’re forced to work for the plantations, facing exposure to pesticides, chemical contamination in the water, and poverty-level wages. Despite these human rights abuses, nobody I knew had a diet that revolved around shunning banana bread or pineapple upside-down cake — only meat.

I later realized that fruits and vegetables grown at home had their own death toll. One summer, while driving through the brown California hillsides, I passed through miles of avocado, orange, and lemon groves. In these arid plantations it occurred to me that much of my diet came from California. Many of these crops are irrigated with water from the Colorado River, and years of taking water from this river for agriculture and urban use led to the complete transformation of the Colorado River Delta in Mexico. This delta, one of the largest desert estuaries in the world had been drained, killing countless fish, river porpoises, and jaguars, and taking away the livelihood of the local Mexican people, all to produce vegetables that sustained me.

I should have known: crops grown here in the US also alter landscapes, replacing wild animals and their ecosystems with acres and acres of foods that I ate without question as a vegetarian. Certainly I knew that raising cattle in fragile desert ecosystems in the southwest was a bad idea, but I’d never thought that this might also be the case for fruits, vegetables, and nuts. I’d never heard of anyone protesting almonds or fruit salad—the only controversy was over eating meat.

Later in North Carolina, I worked with a vegetarian farmer on his organic vegetable farm harvesting lettuce, basil and tomatoes for the local farmer’s markets. Over lunch of tofu and tomato sandwiches, we discussed what to do about the deer and rabbits that were eating thousands of dollars’ worth of lettuce? The farmer, a kind and caring man, had tried all sorts of ways to protect his crops, but finally resorted to shooting them. It was eye opening to think that animals were killed to raise vegetables.

I also watched this farmer move massive piles of composted turkey litter into rows to plant spring crops, and realized that the waste of factory farms—the turkey feces, bones, feathers, and even carcasses—would be the basis of our vegetables. He didn’t have any farm animals to make manure, and cover crops were not enough to improve the clay soil’s friability and fertility, so turkey litter was his only option. I knew that many vegetarians came to his market stall to buy the beautiful red tomatoes, green peppers, and yellow squash, but with no meat wrapped in cellophane, there was nothing to show that the vegetables had been turkeys.

These and other experiences revealed to me that attempting to escape death in eating was a futile goal – the ultimate animal lover’s dilemma. I came to the sobering and humbling conclusion that I was dependent on other life, including animals, no matter what I ate.

Davis Creek Farm, Nelson Co., VA

Eleven years ago, my husband and I bought a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, intending to raise vegetables for farmer’s markets. As if my life wanted to make this point to me just one last time, we soon realized that plowing up the farm’s hilly pastures to grow crops would cause erosion,permanently destroying the fragile soils. Eventually,we concluded that the only way to use the land without harming it was as pasture to graze animals, and that livestock, if raised correctly, could improve soil fertility.

After years of uncovering the hidden consequences of my vegetarian diet on the one hand, while learning the horrible truth behind factory farming on the other, I considered that maybe, rather than focusing solely on avoiding death, I needed to find a way to honor life. The farm gave me an opportunity to create an alternative to factory farming by honoring my animal’s lives rather than disregarding them, and by finally taking personal responsibility for my food.

Since that first year, we have sought to give our animals not just humane treatment, but a joyful life. We name each cow to remind us that we are working with an individual and taking a life to sustain our own. Grandmother, mother, and daughter cows graze side by side, year after year—a basic pleasure denied even to pets and we never lock our cows in cages all day like dogs in crates. We hug and scratch them and have taught them to follow us to new pastures with a simple call. When the males are slaughtered, they feed hundreds of people in our community that might have otherwise bought food from factory farms and before any animals are slaughtered, we pause to thank them for their gift of life. Once again, surrounded by nature, I see life fold into death and death fold back into life and I no longer fear it. I’m simply grateful to be a conscious part of it.

I’ve fretted about what to do with my cows when they get old like the oxen at Green Mountain College. Once, a farmer gazing over at my fifteen year-old cow Nova, with her gray eyelashes and protruding ribs, warned me, “Life’s rough for old cows; they get skinny, their hips and legs start to give out, then they get stuck somewhere out in the woods, or at the back of a pasture, until a pack of coyotes eats them alive, or if they’re lucky, you put them out of their misery first.”

Shortly after Nova turned twenty, I found her stuck in the mud, her old frail body unable to cross a shallow creek. For two days, my neighbor and I tried to get her out, propping her up with hay bales and pulling her with ropes tied to the truck. Finally, we had to admit she would not survive even if we got her out. Nova taught me that cows were never meant to get old—and an instantaneous death from a bullet is sometimes a whole lot more humane than this alternative.

The end of life is never pleasant, but to think that the ox at Green Mountain that could have fed so many people was killed then buried, instead of eaten, makes little sense from a sustainability or animal welfare point of view. Would there be protesters if the university cafeteria chose to serve avocado melts using cheese from factory-farmed dairy cows, and pizza with a crust made from almonds irrigated by the Colorado River? If protesters really confronted the ethically messy consequences of eating, perhaps they would have looked into their own refrigerators and pantries to consider the death toll behind tea, coffee, processed foods, tropical fruits, grains, nuts, as well as many fruits and vegetables, before casting judgment on the school.

Posted in Agriculture, Food, Industrial Agriculture | Tagged , , , | 143 Comments

More to the Story — Top 5 GMO Myths

When you hear about “Myths About GMO’s” you can usually expect a polemic from an activist.  It may be an anti-GMO activist debunking myths like “GMO’s can help feed the world” or a pro-GMO activist debunking myths like “GMO’s can’t help feed the world.”

But the recent NPR blog, “Top Five Myths Of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted,” is from science journalist Dan Charles.  Dan knows what he’s talking about, and he’s an excellent writer and researcher, and he doesn’t have a dog in this fight.  (I have my students read his book Lords of the Harvest, a history of the rise of crop biotechnology that manages to be a real page-turner.)

I don’t have any problem with his responses to these myths; he’s basically right.  (Although I don’t completely agree that these are the top GMO myths; there are some even bigger whoppers out there from both biotech boosters and critics.  More on this in an upcoming blog.)  But Dan’s comments are too brief – for each myth there is more to the story.

Myth 1: Seeds from GMOs are sterile.
Charles: No they aren’t; there was a “Terminator Terminology” but Monsanto has promised not to use it.

More to the Story: This really is the most pervasive GMO myth and one of the most interesting.  Although “Terminator Terminology” was developed by the US Dept of Agriculture and co-patented with the Delta Pine & Land cotton seed company (want to see the patent?), it caught the public’s attention only in 1998 when Delta was about to be bought by Monsanto — the bête noire of environmental activists everywhere.  (Actually Lords of the Harvest tells the story quite well.)  That deal was blocked on anti-trust grounds, but not before Monsanto responded to a wave of damaging publicity by promising not to use the technology.  (They did eventually buy Delta in 2006).

With all the negative publicity on “Terminator,” Monsanto stated that it would not commercialize it, and they never did. There are NO “Terminator” crops growing anywhere, except in a research greenhouse, and Monsanto does not deserve the continuing hostility on this point.

But I wouldn’t give Monsanto props for doing the right thing and agreeing not to use terminator.  Atually they could never get the technology to work.  Would they have commercialized it if it worked?  We’ll never know.

Myth 2. Monsanto will sue you for growing their patented GMOs if traces of those GMOs entered your fields through wind-blown pollen.
Charles: They never have; in the famous case of Percy Schmeiser, the seeds may have been intentionally replanted, although there is confusion over the evidence.

More to the story:  There sure is confusion about the evidence of Percy replanting.  Percy tells me the actual % of transgenic plants in his various canola fields ranged from 0-8%.  The 95% refers to the fact that of the few transgenic plants, 95% were Monsanto plants; the rest were Bayer’s.

But the troubling fact here is that if your crops are pollinated by plants containing patented genes, and you replant the seeds, you are probably making and using those patented genes, for which the patent owner could sue you.  A patent gives the ironclad right to block others from making, using or selling their “invention” — the only exceptions are trivial.  A patent is the strongest form of intellectual property protection and granting patents for naturally-occurring genes was one of the most questionable judicial moves in our history.  (In the Myriad case, even the US Dept of Justice argues against gene patents.)

Patents were never intended for inventions that could blow into your field, contaminate your crops, and make you an intellectual property thief.  Monsanto could sue you for this.  The fact that they probably won’t doesn’t mean we don’t have a real problem here.

Myth 3: Any contamination with GMOs makes organic food non-organic.
Charles: No, transgenes do not disqualify organic food as long as they are unintentional.

Papaya tree, organic farm, Kona Hawai’i

More to the story:  It’s true; organic certification is based on the process not the product.  The inspector evaluates the farming practices, not the actual carrots or apples.  The level of GM content in organic foods is usually extremely low or zero, but not necessarily.  How likely contamination is depends partly on the species.

In Hawai’i, GM virus-resistant papaya is a success story for big industrial producers, but Hawai’i has hundreds of small producers growing papaya along with coffee and avocados and whatnot, and it is a huge headache for them since papaya pollen is moved by both wind and insects.  An organic farmer may have a non-GM papaya tree with a GM fruit growing on it. (They don’t have a serious problem with plant viruses anyway.  That’s an ailment of industrial production.)

Myth 4: Before Monsanto got in the way, farmers typically saved their seeds and re-used them.
Charles: Most US and EU farmers were using hybrid seeds – which essentially have to be purchased yearly – before Monsanto got into the GMO business.

More to the Story:  Very true and one of the most misunderstood aspects of farming.  “Hybrid seed” doesn’t refer to the general sense of any mixture of different things, but to a seed technology developed in the early 20th century for corn.  It creates new diversity in seeds but also makes them un-replantable.  Farmers could (and often did) replant their own seeds of crops like rice and soybeans, but as they adopted hybrid corn (and later a few other crops) they committed to rebuying seed every year.

But Monsanto and the GMO business has majorly squelched seed saving in non-hybrid crops.  Commercial crops used to be covered by intellectual property rights that were weaker than patents that allowed seed saving.  Largely because of GM seeds, plants came to be patented  (here’s a good recent summary of the case law). They have also stopped replanting by suing seed cleaners.

Myth 5: Most seeds these days are genetically modified.
Charles: Actually it’s a short list: Corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, squash, papaya, sugar beets, and alfalfa.

More to the Story: The corn and soy are used for oil that goes into thousands of food products.  But the only foods you eat directly that are genetically modified are zucchini and other squashes that are the same species (like yellow crookneck) and papaya (if it’s from Hawai’i).  You now know something that 95% of consumers don’t know.

Both the squash and papaya are genetically modified to be resistant to certain viruses and no one knows exactly what percentage are GM, but you will in California if Prop 37 passes.

Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology, Food, Industrial Agriculture | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Wilk on Diet Change and Nutritainment

Today’s guest blog is from Rick Wilk, a leading scholar of food, consumption, agriculture, and various other topics.  His recent books on food include Home Cooking in the Global Village and Rice and Beans. Rick is Provost Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University, where he heads the PhD in Food Studies.

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Why is it so hard to get North Americans to change their diets?

I am tempted to start this post with the old Monty Python line, “and now for something completely different…” but actually there is a clear connection between my point and issues that Glenn has previously opened up in this blog.  Despite all the bad news about contamination of the food supply, melting ice in Greenland, epic drought, and the dangers of a fatty, salty diet, people in the USA seem to keep munching through mountains of burgers and fries. Generations of nutrition education has done no more than make people feel a twinge of guilt on the way back from the grocery store with bags full of frozen pizzas, 64 oz sodas, and huge sacks of chips.  Recent figures from the Center for Science in the Public Interest on food consumption in the USA show no dramatic change, despite the fashions for local, organic, and home cooking.

The more honest scholars in the field of nutrition and diet have had to admit that educating people about nutrition to change their diets for the better has not worked very well (‘miserable failure’ would be an alternative term).  Julie Guthman even suggests that a lot of diet advice and the implicit shaming of fat people as ‘weak’ is counterproductive.  There is no evidence that treating the overweight and obese as disgusting deviants motivates them to lose weight. Guthman also points to the not-so-subtle way that class and race are connected to weight and diet in the moral politics of the food movement in the USA.

The educated upper middle class has always frowned on the way poor people enjoy themselves. Victorian-era North Americans and Europeans were offended by the rough games, loud language, public drunkenness, lewd behavior and rowdy partying of the working class, particularly at festivals, fairs, and carnivals. Basically they were having way too much fun, and they had to be stopped. Eating was part of all these public and private entertainments – some archaeologists claim that feasting was the first form of human conviviality, even the first human social event. Eating went along with happiness, drinking, letting down formalities, enjoying company, and all those things almost any human can recognize as a good time.

What I find so remarkable is that the Victorians were so successful in turning eating into a dry and often grim affair, devoted to recognizing rank, bound by endless rules of etiquette, and reduced to tedious formalities rather than enjoyment of the food or the company. Under the influence of health nuts like Kellogg, Post and Fletcher, North Americans started counting how many times they chewed each bite of tasteless pap, examining each bowel movement, and worrying that any strong flavor would cause fatal attacks of “wind.”

It should not surprise us that after the privations of the depression and WWII, people in the USA were ready for a change in the way they ate.

Don’t miss James Lileks’ Gallery of Regrettable Food.

The war helped centralize the food industry, which sought out new advertising firms to help them find new ways to sell manufactured and processed foods. To put it simply they rediscovered that food could be a lot of fun.  Mom could make all kinds of funny dishes to entertain the kids! She could use mixes and canned food (and don’t forget the jello) in infinite combinations for neat themed parties!  Give weary dad something to look forward to when he comes home from work to flop down in the Lay-Z-Boy!

The idea of fun food proved an endless gold mine for food corporations and the burgeoning fields of food and flavor science. As the sixties rolled along, sports figures and cartoon characters were recruited to sell new products, and food began to resemble other consumer goods. Instead of being produced by farmers and picked by sweating migrants, it was now brought to you by happy Italian chefs and Green Giants from mythical valleys. New tastes were constantly introduced, brand loyalty was cultivated, fashions and fads were fed by publicists and celebrity connections in mass media. Kids were especially pliable, and by the 1970s the boundary between toys and food had almost disappeared; the packages looked the same.

Artisinal nutritainment: Alien “Take Me To Your Birthday” cake by Chicago cake artist Stephanie Samuels of Angel Food Bakery.

You could buy toys in food stores, food in toy stores (and drug stores, gas stations, office supply, hardware stores…), and sometimes the food comes with a toy inside  or attached. But who cares, because most of the time we are playing with our food as if it were a toy anyway. Food is no longer about nutrition, it is part of a cultural complex devoted to nutritainment.

This makes a lot more sense of the failure of nutrition education, which makes food boring and serious. Most people just tune out those ugly messages about GMOs and salmonella. “We work hard all day, and now we are just trying to relax and have a little fun!”

I find it almost as discouraging to find that most scholars who study food have completely mirrored upper middle class attitudes. We study nutrition, fair trade, environmental justice and a host of other serious and important issues – but where is the literature on food and fun? Yes, anthropologists and sociologists talk all the time about commensality and the convivial pleasures of the dining table. But how about some ethnography of kids’ food fights?  Or tailgate parties? On Super Bowl Sunday in 2012, Americans munched their way through 143 million avocados, 111 million gallons of beer and 100 million lbs. of chicken wings. Now there is a topic for a few dissertations.

Posted in Food | 3 Comments

Two Agricultural Donations

Since I do research on small farms for a living, I don’t normally find it a cause for celebration to be wrong about small farms.  But I am toasting Caromont Farm’s kickstarter success and my complete wrongness.

I described the Caromont kickstarter project in a previous post.  I pointed out that there is much more at stake here than the fortunes of a small farmer & goat cheese maker in rural Virginia.  It’s really about adjusting notions of philanthropy and profit vs. non-profit institutions.  It’s about how we can deploy our consumer dollars to achieve more than just a mouthful of good food.

The problem is that what Caromont needs is a $35,000 vat and they were asking for the whole thing.  I told the the proprietor, Gail Hobbs-Page, that I would make a donation but that she was asking for way too much.  I mean, $35,000 in donations?  (Well, OK, these are not pure donations — you do get something tangible in return.  For my $50 I get a cheese board, and the $1000 donors get a multi-course dinner at her farm.  But for all of us, the main gratification was in supporting the farm and what it’s part of.)

So here it is: as of today, 261 backers have pledged $39,504 — and they still have 46 hours to go! I’m surprised & happy to be wrong on how much support is out there for a goat cheese maker.

Now it’s time to step back and put this into perspective.  Two perspectives actually, one heartening and one troubling.

First the heartening one.  Kickstarter reports that in 2011, when it turned 2 years old, it collected just shy of $100 million in donations.  There were 27,086 projects launched, 46% of which were successfully funded.  Of that, $2.8 million was pledged by 30,682 backers for food projects.  They don’t separate out nonindustrial or “alternative” food/farming projects, but if you peruse the project listings you quickly see that most fall into this category.  Considering how new kickstarter is, and how few people have even heard of it yet, this is really something.

So U.S. consumers are not only spending close to $5 billion a year on local food, for which they often pay a premium and go out of their way more than a trip to the supermarket, they are starting to dish up a surprising amount of philanthropy to support alternative food production.

But the dark cloud behind this silver lining is that we are increasingly buying in to a  system with two separate circuits for reckoning, creating, and paying for value in food. Local/alternative farmers are not subsidized and they don’t make a mess.  Industrial producers claim to be more “efficient,” but what they are actually efficient at is garnering subsidies and evading the consequences of the messes they create in the air, water, soil, and public health.

While consumers were paying full value for unsubsidized local food and even topping off that outlay with several million dollars in food philanthropy, an ocean of pelf was flowing every day from agribusiness into political coffers to maintain government subsidies and protections from responsibility for their messes.

Also see The Bee Keepers by Richard Robinson.

Today’s example: generous donations from German pesticide producer Bayer to both political parties, but mainly the Republicans — $261,000.  Bayer Crop Science produces the most common neonicotinoid insecticide which is increasingly looking like a key culprit in bee colony collapse disorder.  (Make profits selling sprays to farmers but don’t pick up any of the tab when your sprays help kill off the bees.  Now that’s efficient!)

I gave $50 and I get to be part of happy mob of 261 fans of artisinal cheese and small farms.  Plus I get a cheese board.  Let us watch and see what Bayer gets.

Posted in Agriculture, Food, Industrial Agriculture | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

My First Charitable Donation to a For-Profit Business

I just made a charitable donation to a for-profit business.  A cheese-maker, to be exact.  This is not something one does every day, and not something I thought I ever would do. This calls for some rethinking about “profit” and food producers.

My donation was for $50 on kickstarter, to Caromont Farm in rural Esmont, Virginia.  I happen to know quite a bit about Caromont Farm because I am doing research on “New American Farmers” and that’s what they are.  In fact they are one of the most interesting operations in what is something of a renaissance area for alternative food production.  This is just over the Blue Ridge from Polyface farm, which has gotten famous due partly to “Pollanation”, but Polyface is only one of dozens of inventive operations in central Virginia that are redefining quality in food production.

These operations vary in a lot of ways, but they share an ideological commitment to creating a sustainable alternative to our industrial food production system — and to staying afloat while doing so.  One thing that keeps them up at night is the problem of growth – not growing plants and animals, but growing their businesses. How do we grow?  How big do we grow?  Should we grow?

Caromont was started 6 years ago by Gail Hobbs-Page with 13 goats.  She developed a roster of highly inventive, world-class cheeses.  Powered by word of mouth, the operation began to grow: up to 50 goats of her own and regular purchases from other local producers (both goat and cow).   Her cheese is now sold not only at farmers markets, but at several dozen restaurants, including Richmond, Atlanta, and DC, and now in Murray’s Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village.  But although her cheese is popping up in distant places, this is a classic slow money operation, supporting two milk providers, two goat milk providers, several grass hay and alfalfa hay growers, giving free whey to local livestock farmers, and running a huge tab for feed and supplies with the locally-owned hardware store.

Gail and Caromont have now reached a point where they do need to grow, specifically with a new cheese-making vat which costs (drum roll…) $35,000.  For a small farm like this, which gets no government subsidy like big commodity producers, and which couldn’t get a bank loan if their life depended on it, it may as well be 35 million.

Hence, kiskstarter.  But who would donate money to a for-profit business?

Well, me, after some thought.  We might start by reworking our concepts of for-profit and non-profit.  Gail could be making more money as a chef, which is what she was doing at a high-end Charlottesville restaurant from 1994-2004.  There she earned a reputation as a local food advocate before anyone had heard the word locavore.  She could be making even more running a CSA program for Dave Matthews (whose farm is part of the local food renaissance), which is what she did before deciding to start Caromont Farm.  Yes, Caromont is “for profit,” but they don’t make much profit, and it is clearly driven more by ideals about food production than profit.   Meanwhile my employer, Washington University, is a “non-profit institution” but it’s also an enthusiastic player in the university-industrial complex and a leader in academic capitalism.  But Washington University doesn’t pay taxes, and donations to it are deductible; Caromont pays taxes and donations to it are not deductible.  Conclusion: just because the IRS divides businesses into profit and non-profit doesn’t mean I have to.

But here’s the larger issue.  Our corrupt, subsidized, cost-externalizing, environment-degrading, animal-torturing, overproducing agricultural system is never going to be fixed on capitol hill or in the statehouses.  It simply has too much money and political power.  The only way forward is a widespread, economically sustainable, alternative food system, centered on low-external input, ecological sustainablility, slow-money farms.  Surprisingly, such a system is growing rapidly, and you support it every time you buy food from one of its producers.

You can also support it by conventional charitable contributions; there are some non-profits out there doing good work to promote this sort of solution (Union of Concerned Scientists and Keep Antibiotics Working and two of my favorites).  You can give them money any time and they will take it gladly (and pester you in perpetuity with requests for more).

But this is different.  This is a key area in the food & farming renaissance, this is one of its rising stars, and it is at a crossroads.  So here I am, making a donation to a for-profit business, and feeling better about it than about most donations I have made to non-profits.

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Post script: they got more than they needed.  Follow-up post here.

 

Posted in Food | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments