February 27, 2011

It has been quite awhile since I’ve written anything. Maybe, I was waiting on my muse, after years of going on and on about being behind on farming chores or what is going on this season.

As my time in farming and my relationship with food deepens, some matters rise to the top in importance, more than others. Many of the things I’ve learned disturb me…a lot. First, let’s announce the topic. Which is, The exponential presence in our domestic foodstuffs of crops, or their byproducts, that contain genetically modified material.

Like many people who read the news, I’ve been following the introduction of genetically modified (GM) technology that occurred over a decade ago. At the time, from what I had read, it seemed sensible enough and a great application of science. Make plants better, stronger, healthier, in the laboratory. Improve yields, save farmers money and labor…corn would still be corn, soybeans would still be soybeans. Sounded fine to me. I heard outcries from time to time from the organic community. Sometimes, the voices were easy to ignore. Organic growers and consumers are not known for their willingness to embrace technology, nor are some very well informed about the intricacies of large scale food production. So when the complaints started, it seemed like sour grapes and an unwillingness to see the positive.

Do my early impressions seem vague and poorly formed? They were. This issue of GM food is an amazingly complex one, that spreads out like the spokes from a wheel hub. Any attempt to learn a lot about the subject in detail leaves one feeling confused. And that of course assumes a person took any time at all to look into it in the first place.

The first hints that all might not be well came years ago, with the tales of farmworkers returning to Mexico. And that in the next season, one plant in the patch of their family’s centuries old, open-pollinated maize grew like a giant, eclipsing all others. And that next year, more “super plants” followed. GM pollen, hitchhiking on clothing, found its way to distant places. And then came the Monsanto stories. Because if the discussion is about GM foods, the discussion is also about Monsanto corporation. Monsanto first became known for their brand-name herbicide RoundUp. Widely embraced and adopted, this chemical was everyone’s best friend. Studies assured us that it broke down rapidly in the soil, wasn’t toxic, and was highly effective at killing weeds by a non-poisonous mechanism. RoundUp’s active ingredient, glyphosate, blocked the biochemical process by which the plant makes food for itself. And so the plant dies, withering away to nothing.

Afterward came the GM food crops. And many of them were GM with a dominant purpose: RoundUp Ready. Farmers would buy this patented, heavily regulated, and expensive seed, and once the plants grew, RoundUp herbicide could be sprayed all over the top of them. Since these GM crops were engineered to have no reaction to RoundUp, only the weeds would die. Farmers had to sign contracts with Monsanto that forbade saving seed. But remember that traveling pollen? Sometimes a farmer who had never planted RoundUp Ready seed found that some of his crop at the edge of a field didn’t die when the RoundUp was sprayed. Monsanto found those farmers, and sued them for growing their product without authorization. All common sense and human decency would indicate that since farmers have saved seed for millenia, it shouldn’t be anyone’s problem but Monsanto’s if their pollen crossed the road. But judges can be bought and paid for, and the courts ruled in favor of Monsanto.  To add to the insult, in the view of many people, Monsanto should be held liable for releasing an uncontrollable organism into the environment. I can grow heirloom corn, a strain handed down for centuries. But if GM pollen comes into my patch, I not only have no recourse for my loss, but am in jeopardy of being sued. Wow, nice.

That all bothered me, and it was easy to conclude that I didn’t care for Monsanto after that. But eventually their patent on RoundUp expired, and glyphosate herbicides were available inexpensively. I read up on them, a lot. I asked questions of friends with extensive knowledge of toxicology. From what I gleaned, the product seemed safe enough when used responsibly. I avoided it when possible, but when you are caring for acres and acres, alone and without a garden tractor, you have to have a few tricks in the bag.

As time went on, more and more GM crops made their appearance. There were the news items of the GM crops now making their way in increasing amounts into the food supply. I guess I expected to see on the package label in the stores: “Contains GM foodstuffs”, but of course that didn’t happen. Maybe that taco shell at the Bell had GM, or perhaps the Tostitos in the chip aisle. Whatever….it didn’t really impact my thinking or shopping habits.

The years went on, with me farming away. Sometimes, while working, questions popped into my head. I’m always thinking about something, and the advantage of the Internet and iPhones is that when those questions come, all one has to do is take the phone out of a pocket in order to Google the subject. One day the question was, “why are GM foods bad?” I had to admit, I knew that the organic folks refused to eat the stuff, but realized that I had no idea why, or what their reasons were. Had I missed something? To make a long story short, a great number of reputable studies concluded that consumption of these foods carried increased risk of allergies, toxicity, nutritional problems, and even new diseases. Hm, I hadn’t heard any of that before. Why did it cause the problems? Well, think about it. The human body has evolved alongside the proteins in foods for a long time. GM engineering has changed the design of these foods, at the molecular level. Our bodies, our immune systems, react to foreign invaders. It isn’t the same corn and soy after all. Hmmm. This led to the second question….”if there is really this kind of risk, why isn’t the public hearing more about it?” I am not going to dwell this question, but I would recommend to you to view the film “Food, Inc.” I certainly hadn’t realized, in such a “slap me upside the head” manner, that far too many persons in high positions of governmental authority are the same persons who are heavily connected to the corporations that are making money selling or profiting from the GM products. Imagine that.

Last year we farmers had a nasty wake up call. Our fields were full of two really noxious and annoying weeds: mare’s tail and hairy-leafed fleabane. They reproduced prolifically and were just EVERYWHERE and….the RoundUp didn’t work on them anymore. We began to see articles about how some scientists thought that the RoundUp Ready genes had somehow “jumped” into the weed population. No one expected that unintended consequence….I wonder if Monsanto will send a team out to sue the weeds?

And lately I’ve been reading more about RoundUp. Seeing studies that I hadn’t seen online before, about the stuff harming the soil, leaching nutrients, even chelating minerals from human bodies. Hmm. It is hard to find accurate information about this subject, everyone has an agenda. But the more I look, the more doubt there is. And the more I doubt, the more I want to quit using it. There are many ways to kill a weed….

Lastly, I fast-forward to today. Because I like cooking and I like food, my culinary horizons have broadened quite a lot in recent years. Much of my time is spent learning the kitchen skills of bygone days, and understanding how to make things from scratch. Today I found myself stirring a pot of vanilla Jell-o, and out came the iPhone. Why was I buying Jell-o, couldn’t I just make pudding myself? It took a few minutes of reading to find that even Jell-o contained GM cornstarch. Really? Seriously, it’s even in the Jell-o? I guess this was a seminal moment. I have to work from a new set of rules: If it comes from a package in the store, the odds are very, very high that the food contains GM plant material or byproducts. And if I decide that I would prefer not to risk what isn’t known about GM foods and what they might do to my health, the irony is delicious: In bygone days the ladies spent hours in the kitchen to prepare nutritious meals. Then came the convenience of packaged foods. And now they are largely packages full of Risk, since so little is really known about GM foods. And so now, if it matters to me, there is no choice but to spend long hours in the kitchen, preparing nutritious meals.

I can’t be dogmatic about this; getting away from GM foods is going to be like getting away from toxins. It surrounds us, in the air and water, food and manufactured goods. All one can do is hope to lessen the impacts on one’s own health. I do know that more and more, I will be making a conscious effort with my dollars at the store to cease buying processed foods, and just make the food myself or do without. I hope that what I’ve written gives a small window into a subject that is affecting each one of us, and a realization that our government is utterly failing to regulate GM crops responsibly. The foxes aren’t just running the henhouse, they’re in charge of the whole farm. Few things are as personal and necessary as access to wholesome foodstuffs, and I feel there is reason to believe that access is shrinking faster than most people realize. Don’t take my word for it; start Googling…….and start cooking.