Genetic Engineering/Modification…Part 1

Something I often wonder about is whether all the bad food industry practices that occur in the USA also take place in Australia. I’m a big business sceptic, so I assume they do….without really knowing. I’m going to start using this blog as an excuse to research some of them and develop a few ideas I have a little further.

The first example that crossed my path recently is that of GE (genetically engineered) crops/food. A lot of doco’s I’ve seen make reference to these – particularly soybeans and corn – in the USA, and here’s a brief outline of the problems as I see them, from my knowledge gained in the films.

**not related to anything in the text, just looks nice

GE crops are grown from a seed that is resistant to a pesticide which kills everything else in it’s path. OK, there’s the first problem – the crops rely on pesticide use to be grown. I am firmly pro-organic and anything that promotes the use of (invariably synthetic) pesticides is unhealthy in my book. In a broader sense, large scale cropping (which includes GE) has an over-arching issue of dependence on fossil fuels – through power for machinery, fertilizer and pesticide use. I buy organic food because I believe all the chemicals used to grow non-organic food are unhealthy for both the planet and my body.

Health concerns are the second major problem with GE crops. Science is divided, again seemingly into two groups that align with whoever supplies the funding for the research. Despite what the industry-backed science might say, I’m skeptical that GE has no adverse personal effects. I guess this issue comes down to ‘who to trust’ again. I feel that short-term studies miss out on long-term effects. Are there studies from the 50’s showing that high sugar consumption is OK? I’m not sure but willing to guess not, and I’m sure today’s diabetics will be unhappy with yesteryear’s scientists for that.

The third major problem, and the one of biggest outrage to me is surrounding the intellectual property of GE crops. The pesticide resistant seeds that are in a field of GE-whatever are patented by the manufacturer, so farmers are forced to buy new seeds every year rather than practice traditional methods of seed-saving from one year’s harvest to the next. If the farmer harvests a GE seed, and plants it the next year, he has created a product that is owned by the original manufacturer – and is in patent violation. Of course, the pesticide that is used to enhance the field’s weed-free status is made by the same company that supplies the actual seed – and so begins corporate dominance over small farmers. Farmers have a choice whether to plant GE or non-GE seed, but nature doesn’t stop at man-made fence lines, so contamination occurs and it seems rather easy for a non-GE farmer to have GE seed blown in from a neighbours property (just one of the ways), which brings on another patent violation law suit. This is just one of many bullying tactics used by the chemical giants to dominate the market. When GE soybeans started in the USA in 1996, they had a 2% market share, by 2008 it was 90% – that situation is only good for a handful of people within a few companies rather than the majority of the world’s population.

Ironically, this is the argument most commonly used by pro-GE (and increasingly pro-conventional or ‘anti-alternative’) folk – namely ‘this is how we will feed the world’. By appealing to our inner humanitarian, the companies’ propaganda machines play quite an effective hand. I see a few problems with arguing that GE crops are the best or only way to feed those starving in the world. Firstly – this thinking assumes that we can’t feed the world now, which is nonsense. As a planet we grow enough to feed every person alive – no-one should go hungry, but politics continues to allow it to happen. Growing a GE crop instead of a conventional one in Somalia will not reduce their starvation rates, but removing barriers that make it cheaper to buy first world grains than their home grown one will. Secondly – GE promoters claim they will feed more mouths through increased yield. Again depending on who you believe, this has be shown to be a fallacy – yield might increase in the first few years after switching but reduces to original rates over the medium term, 20 years or so. Thirdly, as mentioned above, it just doesn’t seem sustainable to me to be relying on crops that rely on fossil fuels. Lastly, it smacks a little of desperation to feign compassion for the starving – as often the only time anyone mentions this argument is within this issue. Anyone who mentions this and is not vegan, has no children (or at least one adopted from a starving country), and actively presses politicians to remove subsidies, is hypocritical in my eyes and probably cares more about ‘winning’ the discussion rather than feeding the masses. Yes, I care about the starving millions and it’s a horrible situation but I’m not going to pretend to solve it by planting a GE crop.

*nice picture of Aussie fields taken from carSo, where does that leave Australia? So far, there’s just canola and cotton grown using GE, but there’s trials for more including wheat. I’ve signed a petition on this issue and actually got a response from Tanya Plibersek (I’ll try to attach it somewhere here sometime). But I’m going to need to do some research and I think I’ve written enough for today….so more in Part 2. In the meantime, if one is interested, these guys are where I’m going to start the researching.

Small Habit, Big Change – Avoid GE foods by downloading the ‘truefood guide

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Who To Trust?

MSG is bad for us right? Well, it all depends on who you believe. I’m using MSG as an example here, but this situation probably occurs with every product available – which research can you trust? I saw an article today about soy milk vs cow’s milk and there were so many varied and opinionated responses in the comments section that reflect how individual our diets can be.

Firstly, what most debaters can agree on about MSG, condensed into about three lines and as my best interpretation – a Japanese scientist in the early 1900s wondered why a particular type of seaweed soup tasted so good, and discovered MSG was the responsible party. He extracted the compound from the seaweed and ‘bottled’ it. It came to ‘western’ cultures after WWII, when American troops occupying a Japanese base wondered why the Japanese rations tasted so much better than their spam. They took samples home and MSG is now used in as a flavour enhancer in more items than we care to imagine.

If one is interested enough, or feels like looking, there is plenty of research to suggest that MSG causes more problems than just the occasional headache from eating Chinese food. Scientists opposed to it have linked it to many conditions/diseases like Autism, ADHD, Diabetes/Obesity and Cancer; as well as plenty of issues surrounding it’s effect on unborn/newborn/ailing.

This kind of research is of course not good publicity for the fakefood* companies that depend on MSG for profit, and they try hard to push the case for it’s continued use. If one purely listens to mainstream media, one is likely to come across articles such as this that seem to relieve MSG of all blame. First question that springs to my mind is – How much do such journalists get paid? Of course, this research is also conducted by scientists, so who or what to believe is still the question.

A large indicator for me that companies put profits before people is their active promotion of less transparent labeling for food, confirmed with a quick glance at the alternative names for MSG. If I see any of these names on an ingredients list –

Glutamate

Hydrolyzed anything

Yeast Extract

Gelatin

anything Protein

E621 or additive 621 or flavour 621 or anything else 620-625

– then the product goes back on the shelf. These are just the more common replacements, there are plenty more at this website. The issue for me with this list is that (yeast extract) vegemite pizza is such a good hangover cure, but we’ve managed to reduce our intake to about every second weekend. Chips/crisps are another problem, and a main culprit for MSG-addictiveness. I had an experience over a year ago where I ate most of a box of Pringles myself, and woke up the next morning with what felt like a hangover despite not drinking anything. After devouring a vegemite pizza, I swore off Pringles for life (successful so far), and only eat plain salted chips now. Know what – they’re good enough to satisfy the junk cravings.

So, clearly my feet are firmly planted on the ‘bad for us’ side of the fence, for three reasons. Firstly, I believe that anytime we process or extract anything from it’s natural state, we alter it in a way that changes how it behaves. So while MSG that exists in tomatoes or breast milk is fine for us, the additive is bad. Secondly, if the product is harmless (or any product for that matter), why do companies fight labelling laws? There should be nothing to hide. Lastly, I like to follow the money on these things; who has more to gain here – a huge company dependant on this product for maximizing profit, or an individual with a few book sales at best. I trust wherever the money isn’t.

Small Habit, Big Change – Buy plain salted chips instead of MSG-filled ones

*fakefood is my new name for things that we put in our mouth but are not really food.

My waste-saving efforts are wasted

I grew up being taught that recycling is the way, so it came as some shock recently when I read two different books that suggest it’s not the best solution to reducing waste.

Household waste only makes up a very small fraction of all man-made waste – the majority is output that is never seen by us, from the factories that produce everything that we can’t live without (and plenty of what we can). The position the books take is that it whilst it is commendable to recycle, you should not think that your duties to a healthy planet stop there. One author even suggested that big industry lobby groups actively promote household recycling as the best solution – and try to make you feel guilty for not doing it – just so that your attention is focused on your own small contribution rather than their massive one.

The author’s preferred household contribution would be to continue recycling of course, but understand that until regulations are in place to limit waste upstream then nothing will really change. Taking this one step further, they suggest putting your plastic to paper by writing a letter to your politician demanding regulation action is much more effective than sorting your paper and plastics.

There are two parts that prevent me from taking this action, the first – which is a no-brainer to solve – is that I’ve never written to my parliamentary representative before, and find the concept a little daunting. The second – which I’m happy to have debated out of me – is a growing belief that they actually don’t do much unless there’s a bit of ‘something’ behind a suggestion to ‘push them in the right direction’. I don’t have that kind of ‘something’.

I’m planning on procrastinating about writing a letter, and remain conflicted that this is the best mode of action. At least I’m aware of the facts now. Until I put plastic to paper, I’m going to continue to try and take the first step in producing less waste – by avoiding it in the first place. The best way I know how to do this is to buy food from bulk food stores – they stock a wide range of products in big sacks direct from the producer, and you take either your own container or fill a paper bag there, thus not using yet another can or box or disposable container.

My favourite store in Adelaide is Goodies and Grains in one of the Central Market Arcades, I have found one in Göteborg called Fram Livs near Linnégatan, and don’t know much for Melbourne – suggestions for there and any other city welcomed, along with good tips for avoiding waste!

Small Habit, Big Change – Find a bulk food store to start avoiding waste. It means soaking beans etc overnight, but what where you doing at 4am anyway. It’s cheaper and you can store more, therefore spending less time and energy shopping.

Does that coke have corn in it?

A curious question indeed, and certainly not one you would have been asking in your childhood! Next time you buy a can of coke though – or any other soft drink – satisfy your curiosity as well as your thirst and check out the ingredients label. The first item should be water in some form, next should either be sugar, high fructose corn syrup or HFCS, then a bunch of flavourings. But the interest lies in the second item, because most of our sugar – the little white granuled stuff, has been replaced by corn. Yes that’s right, corn – the cobbed yellow stuff that is most delicious in a roast but also fun to dip into guacamole.

Recently we watched an upsettingly interesting documentary called King Corn, about two guys who became interested in food ingredients and decided to grow an acre of corn and follow it’s path through the food chain. There were not many new things to learn if one has already watched Food Inc, one of the most popular food doco’s in recent times. Food Inc seems to be a movie amalgamation of the books An Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation, and is an absolute must to watch to discover more about how your food gets to your plate. I was so intrigued that I watched it twice, and there’s so much to understand that it’s probably worth re-visiting time and again.

I did however learn one mind boggling fact from King Corn70% of all the antibiotics in the USA are given to cattle!! Why? Because they’re fed corn, of course. Makes sense to me! Cattle have evolved to eat grass, but because they get fed corn the poor fellas get all sorts of troubles, and therefore their feed gets supplemented with antibiotics. Seems just a little arse-about to me, why not just feed them grass? The EU has banned antibiotics in animal feed since 2006, but does this happen in Australia? Bet your last grocery shop on it – http://www.abc.net.au/science/slab/antibiotics/agriculture.htm.

Back to the can of coke – curiously, I discovered yesterday that Sweden coke ingredients list  sugar and not HFCS. I’m reckoning on that sugar actually being HCFS – which does not bother me so much for the coke because I buy one as often as I have jam with eggs, but concerns me for the other products that include ‘sugar’. I try to avoid sugar as a rule, but when I choose it I want to be ingesting little granules, not syrup of engineered cobs.

Small habit change – watch Food Inc. That’s not really a habit but it’s the path to many other roads of knowledge about your food. If you’re interested wink wink then send me an email and wink wink I might know how you can get the movie wink wink.