Monthly Archives: May 2014

Science is hard

It’s been just over two months since I launched this blog, and if I could put my finger on the most important thing I’ve learned, it’s that science is hard.

I’ve been tossing around the idea of starting a blog for at least a year, maybe more. What finally kicked me into gear was attending the 2014 AgChat Regional conference, where I talked with some of agriculture’s leading bloggers. I confided the number one reason I hadn’t started a blog: I’m not going to say anything that someone isn’t already saying. I got a really good answer that pushed me forward: true, but you’ll be reaching a different audience and it’s worth saying again.  So I wrote down a lot of advice, went home and got started.

Well, kind of… it took me a month and a half of preparation before I posted my first article.  The reason for that is that I wanted to have a couple of stories written before I launched, and I wanted to have a list of stuff to look into. Coming up with that list was easy; my interest in this subject is immense. Also, every time I mentioned my plan to a friend, I got another idea (Oh! You should totally do a story on XYZ, I’ve always wondered about that…) Now I have this massive list of topics to cover, it’s excellent.

The difficult part is the more research I do, the harder it is to write a story. I started out super-charged: I’m going to do some quick research and hammer out this story! Not so much. Every time I look into something, I think, “Oh, this is complicated. Maybe I should do an eight-part series on GMOs so I can make sure I include all the relevant points.” Only no one wants to read an eight-part series. And even when I do invest ten-plus hours of research and writing on a story (like the EWG one), it ignites another story that needs writing. Take the EWG story, for example: I still need to do a follow-up on the media coverage and their answers to my questions, but after they came out with their report and threw apples growers under the bus, I feel compelled to interview an apple farmer and look into the whole DPA thing. That takes time and talking to people who actually understand the issue.

The thing is, I could do this whole blogging thing a lot faster if I didn’t care about being thorough. And there are plenty of bloggers in this food/ag arena who clearly don’t care about doing their research (don’t even get me started on the Food Babe), but I don’t want to be one of them. I’ll tell you my biggest fear on this blog: looking like an idiot. I’ve started scheduling my really researched stories to post early the next morning (which means people will see them when they check the internet first thing – I know you do it, too.) That’s great for getting views, but it is terrible for my sleep. I lay there worrying that I’ve missed something obvious and important and some commenter is going to say, “this is all fine and well, but you forgot about gravity… so your entire argument is invalid.”  If you can’t be credible, you’re worthless.

So I try my best to be thorough which is hard, because like I said, science is hard. I’ve concluded that the reason so many parents make the decisions they do is because actually understanding the whole issue is hard and it’s so much easier to just throw up your hands and pay a few more dollars for organic and walk away knowing you’re running-1doing the best you can. Plus, as I’ve said before, there’s that whole lack-of-free-time thing. That’s another reason I can’t publish a hard-hitting story every week as I’d like. I have two little kids, and I’m a stay-at-home mom. I have a whopping seven hours a week where my kids are simultaneously in kindergarten and preschool. I’m also a runner – last week I ran for two of those seven hours of freedom. I guess I could do more research at night after they go to bed, but usually I like to watch Jon Stewart and drink a beer with my husband (because you know, I’m a normal person, too.) Next year my youngest will be in preschool an extra day, but you other stay-at-home’s know darn well how very little you can get done in the two-and-a-half hours you have left after drop-off and pick-up. My point is, I wish I had more time to work on this blog because it takes a lot of time to do it right.

The good news is, in the last few months I’ve learned a lot, used my brain for activities that don’t involve Legos or Play-Doh, and I’ve gotten good feedback from readers.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised how many of you feel the same way I feel. People who I didn’t know were just as fed up with the misinformation are sending me stories left and right: have you heard about this, what do you think about this, you should do a story about this, this is crazy, right? A number of friends have said they passed on my posts to others who were wondering about potato peels or pesticides. One person even told me he shares my stories with moms, and the resounding response is relief. Relief that they don’t have to worry as much. That blew my mind.

So clearly I’m staying stuff you guys want to hear, or even if you don’t necessarily want to hear it, you’re interested. Now, if only I could get paid to do this full-time I’d be all set. Until then, be patient, I haven’t forgotten those ideas you sent me, they’re on the list! I just have to make my 451st peanut butter sandwich before I can start in on the research…

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WTFF, Oregon? Why The Fear Farming?

oregon field-1Every seasoned parent has had the experience of someone who doesn’t have kids giving them advice on parenting or waxing eloquent on the right way to raise kids. We all know how that feels. Sometimes they say it out loud and sometimes they just say it with their eyes. The point is we’ve all been there and it’s annoying for a good reason: they haven’t been there and they don’t know.

Why am I talking about this when the title of this story is about farming? Here’s why: there’s a measure on the ballot in Jackson County, Oregon that will let county voters, many of whom don’t know the first thing about real farming, dictate farming practices. To me, that feels a lot like people who don’t have kids telling me how to parent. Now, before you get all hot under the collar, I do know that farming impacts more than just the farmer: we all put food in our bodies and we all share the environmental resources and impact. And I’m also not saying we shouldn’t be aware of the practices farmers are using; I’m on board with the whole watchdog idea. What I object to is using fear and scare tactics to convince people to ban a technology they know very little about and don’t use. Especially when that technology provides real benefits and isn’t a threat.

15-119

Courtesy of Protect Oregon Farmers Facebook page

Here’s the background if you don’t know it: measure 15-119, for which the voting period ends on May 20th, would ban the growth of genetically modified crops in Jackson County. The measure is spear-headed by Our Family Farms Coalition. OFFC claims that organic farmers are at risk of contamination from GM crops and the only way to fix that is to ban farmers from growing them.

When I first heard about this, after I took a few cleansing breaths, I tried to think of some reasons this might make sense. Maybe Jackson County has some unique growing conditions that make it impossible for organic crops to co-exist with GM crops as they do successfully in the rest of the United States. Because GM crops have been grown in the US since the mid-90s, and as I just wrote about in my last post, it’s proven technology. There are established ways for different farming techniques to coexist without impacting your neighbor.  So what makes Jackson County unique?

I talked to Scott Dahlman, executive director at Oregonians for Food and Shelter, a non-profit that promotes education on agricultural technology, to see what I was missing. His answer, “Jackson County is a unique area, but there is nothing unique about it that would make it more susceptible to cross contamination.” But certainly there must be some farmers who have suffered financially as a result of GM contamination, right? Turns out, no. “They’re using fear,” Dahlman said.  “They ‘might’ get cross pollinated. Some organic farmers tilled under some of their crops because of fear, but they never had it tested to confirm contamination.” He then pointed me in the direction of a USDA report to the Secretary of Agriculture from 2012 that discussed creating a compensation method for farmers who have suffered economic loss as a result of contamination from GM crops. “They committee met for two years,” Dahlman said, “They didn’t come up with a compensation method because they couldn’t find a single incident of that happening. A big part of that is because under USDA standards, as long as you don’t plant GM seed, even if it’s cross-pollinated you don’t lose your organic certification.” It says clearly in the organic standards that certification is process-based and the unintended presence of GM material alone won’t result in the loss of certification.

So I had to ask him, what’s really going on here? The bottom line is that Syngenta grows GM sugar beet seed in Jackson County and some people don’t like that. Dahlman told me that GM seed production goes back at least 17 years in Jackson County, so it’s not something new in the county. A few organic farmers discovered Syngenta grows GM sugar beet seed and “now they know,” Dahlman said. “It’s really about awareness. Although they hadn’t had any issues before, once they discovered [GM seeds] were being grown there, a few organic growers started raising questions. One of the chief proponents of the ban is from California, from Marin County where they have had a ban on GM since 2000. That farmer said ‘why don’t we just ban it, we did in in California.’”

Aside from the fact that it probably violates Oregon’s Right to Farm and Forest Act, and Dahlman believes if passed the measure would unfortunately go into costly litigation for the county, the whole premise of the measure drives a wedge in the otherwise inclusive farming community. “It’s really sad down there right now,” Dahlman said.  “Our organization is big on farmers being able to farm the way they want. If for you that’s organic, awesome. It’s about what works best for you on your land. We’re starting to see one small group of ag basically ban the ag they don’t agree with. Traditionally you’ll have farmer to farmer disputes, but at the end of the day farmers are really good about keeping a big tent. So this is really sad to see.”

15-119 no

Courtesy of Protect Oregon Farmers Facebook page

Two other points that need mentioning: 1. Dahlman pointed out that lots of farmers who object to the measure don’t even grow GM crops, but they don’t want preclude their use of future innovation that might solve problems in their crops. It turns out, even some farmers who don’t grow GM crops don’t want this. 2. Oregon has already said this is nonsense. The state passed a bill last fall prohibiting Oregon counties from banning GM crops. The only reason Jackson County still gets to vote on it is because they already had it on the ballot when the bill was passed.

The GMO-ban supporters started a fear campaign, and now they’re trying to use that fear to convince voters to take away farmers’ choice to use a technology that has been available and approved for 20 years. One of the reasons farmers like GM so much is because it provides flexibility and convenience. You don’t have to like that (repeatedly tested and proven safe) technology and you don’t have to use it, but you shouldn’t be allowed to take it away from others who do choose to use it.

Let me put it another way. Moms use a number of technological advances that make life easier and simpler that I can’t imagine voters taking away. For example, in the 50’s and 60’s, two car families became the norm. Two cars enabled women to work outside the home, the establishment of suburbs and after-school sports, and many other things that are now accepted ways of life.  Could you make an argument that having two cars is bad? (Think increased gas, pollution, traffic, accidents, etc.)  Yes. Should we ban having two cars? No.  It’s the same for farmers with GM crops – these new technologies made such a fundamental change in their farming practices by providing flexibility and pest control options, that they revolutionized their day-to-day operations, and they would never support the government telling them to dial back the clock 20 years by banning this technology.

Let’s imagine a group of moms in your county spearheaded an effort to ban cell phones because of the risk to our children (i.e. distracted driving, they’re reducing kids’ abilities to interact socially, and potential effects from radiation). Imagine they used fear and scare tactics to convince voters that cell phones are too risky. I don’t know about you, but I’d be outraged. I use my phone to take pictures of my kids, show them what scorpions look like when we read that word in a book, rearrange plans on the go, call for help in an emergency, find my way out of a nature walk when we get lost (tip: take a picture of the posted map before you start), and someday I will give my kids cell phones so I can get in touch with them and know they’re safe. Can you really imagine banning a technology out of fear merely because voters haven’t really taken the time to understand the technology or appreciate the real benefits?

You may not live in Jackson County, but if you do, I urge you to vote No on 15-119. If you don’t live there, help me spread the word that taking choice away from farmers is a bad idea.

Here are some resources for further reading:

On the Jackson County issue:

Believe science, not ideology, in GMO debate     Medford Mail Tribune Editorial

Professor Martina Newell-McGloughlin Discusses Genetic Engineering

Jackson County, Oregon Voters – No on Measure 15-119     The Farmers Daughter USA blog

 In opposition to Jackson County Measure 15-119 GMO ban     oregoncatalyst.com 

Local Issues with Larger Repercussions?     Nuttygrass blog

 

On GMOs:

2000+ Reasons Why GMOs Are Safe To Eat And Environmentally Sustainable     Forbes blog 

A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops     New York Times

GMO Thought Experiment: What would a world look like without GMO crops?     International Business Times

 

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Conversations in real life: Mommy vs Daddy

June: Mommy, why doesn’t Daddy let me have jam or honey in my yogurt, but you do?

*Daddy is recently trying to cut back on sugar, and he’s trying to encourage the kids to do the same. My willpower is not so great.

Me: Well, Daddy likes to cut things out of your diet… um. I mean… we have different approaches.

June: Like you let us eat chocolate in the car, but Daddy doesn’t?

Me: Shhhh. You’re going to ruin a good thing, darling.

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What is a GMO and why should I care?

Often when I’m at the grocery store I see things that are labelled as “GMO-free.” I’m sure you’ve seen them, too. Usually it’s on boxes of highly processed or prepared food: crackers, cereal, granola bars, etc. Recently General Mills announced Cheerios are now GMO-free, and I’m sure you’ve heard the debate going on about labelling GMOs in our food. But what exactly is a GMO, and should you be concerned if there are GMOs in your food?IMG_20140428_105409900

Let’s talk about what GMOs mean in a context that isn’t “I-don’t-think-it-sounds-natural-just-get-it-out.” If you’ve already decided that you hate GMOs or if you’ve attended a March Against Monsanto, this post probably is not for you. It’s for the moms out there who might not really know what GMOs are but kind of feel like since people are angling to force the government to label it, it must be bad for us, right? Not really. Not at all, actually.

This is going to be a long article; I’ll say that up front. It’s hard to cover this succinctly (and I’m not that great at being brief.) In the event you don’t want to read it all, here’s the summary. I’m going to address the following:

  1. What are GMOs? (plants that have a small genetic tweak to do something we want like yielding more)
  2. Where are they in my food? (primarily in highly processed or prepared foods, probably not in the produce aisle)
  3. Are they safe? (yes, every major scientific body worldwide has declared them as safe as non-GM varieties)
  4. Why should I care? (because they have the potential to contribute enormously to climate change adaptability of crops in the future)

What Are GMOs?

GMO stands for genetically modified organism. It’s also referred to as just genetically modified (GM), genetic engineering (GE), biotechnology or biotech seeds, transgenic, and sometimes Frankenfood. All of these terms describe the same idea: taking a gene from another organism (like another plant or bacterium) and putting it into a plant in order to produce a trait that conveys an advantage we want, like preventing bugs from eating the plant. This can be done in other organisms, too, but I’m going to focus on plants in this article.

Before we go on, let’s take a step back and talk about “genetic modification” in agriculture in a broader sense. Many people view GM as unnatural and view it negatively because it’s messing with nature. (After all, nature is a mom too!) The truth is we, as a people, have been “modifying” the genome of our crops for 10,000 years since domestic agriculture began; we call it selective breeding. We plant some seeds, and we like some individual plants more than others (maybe they grow taller or produce more fruit) so we decide to replant the seeds from that taller, better fruit-bearing plant again next year and leave behind the ones that weren’t so tall and made less fruit. Over many generations of this, we “modify” the genome of the plant in a way we like and the end result is a much different plant, sometimes called a “variety.” You might be surprised to know that every single piece of produce you see at the grocery store (even the organic and heirlooms) has been changed in some way by people. In fact, humans created the corn plant as we know it. The wild variety of corn would be unrecognizable to most people. For that matter, the wild variety of many fruits and vegetables would be unrecognizable. That’s important to keep in mind. Genetic modification, in that sense, is by no means new.

corn-1

Corn plant.

What is new-ish, though, is making the leap from a modification than can be done through traditional breeding to making a modification through biotechnology that probably wouldn’t happen in nature. Up to now, this technology has primarily provided us with food crops that help farmers manage pests. Next to weather, pests are a farmer’s biggest adversary. I’ve never been a farmer, but the idea that your annual salary and livelihood could be devastated by a bug or disease you can’t even see is scary. Keeping crops safe from pests does a number of things that help both farmers and consumers: it increases the yield, it makes produce more visually appealing, thereby cutting down on food waste (think biting into an apple and finding a fat worm), and it helps reduce food-borne illness (damage to crops can lead to toxins in food.) Thankfully, farmers have a whole toolbox of options to fight pests. One of those tools is biotechnology.

How Do I Know if GMOs Are in My Food?

Currently, there are three areas of GMOs in food crops: herbicide-tolerance, insect-resistance, and disease-resistance. To date, there are eight crops commercially available from GM seeds that contain some or all of these traits: corn (both field and sweet), soybeans, canola, cotton, papaya, squash, alfalfa, and sugar beets. So when you’re at the grocery store, where are the GMOs? Components produced from field corn, soybeans, sugar, canola and cottonseed are common in baked, prepared, packaged and snack foods. While sweet corn, papaya and squash have GM varieties, you’re unlikely to see them at the grocery store. Alfalfa and field corn are grown for animal feed. So for the consumer, we’re primarily talking about highly processed or prepared food. Ninety percent of the corn and 93 percent of the soy grown in the US is GM. The bottom line – if that food has an ingredient list, check it for the words corn, sugar, soy, cotton or canola. Unless it explicitly says “GMO-free,” assume it has GM crops as a source for some of those ingredients.

foods-1

Foods that contain one or more ingredients that could be GM.

Side rant: on the GMO-free Cheerios. As you know, Cheerios are primarily made out of oats. Did you see oats on that list? No. The only change General Mills made was to source GM-free sugar (of which there is very little in Cheerios, which is one of the reasons Moms like them) and a very small amount of corn starch. Now that you know what GM crops exist, you’re better equipped to call momsense on a lot of false advertising from the natural food sector. Lots of products that claim to be GM-free have very little, if any, potentially GM-crop ingredients in them anyway. Doesn’t that feel a little misleading?costco-1 I also took this recent photo at our local Costco that boasted hothouse tomatoes and cucumbers from Windset Farms that were labeled as “100 percent non-GMO varieties.” (I kind of have a love/hate relationship with Costco, but that’s a topic for another day.) I went to Windset Farms’ website and found out they also produce peppers, eggplant, endive, and lettuce. None of those exist in GM varieties. That’s a bit like trying to sell you vegetables by boasting they’re vegetarian. All vegetables are vegetarian and all tomatoes are GM-free.

Are GMOs Safe?

On to the big question: what about the safety? If you read my article about registering pesticides, you know the regulatory process is extensive. It is even more extensive for GMOs – on average it takes 13 years and $136 million to bring a new GM trait to the market. GMO crops are the most researched and tested technology in agricultural history and have been declared as safe as non-GMO crops (both for consumption and for the environment) by every major scientific body worldwide. The technology has existed far longer and has probably been better tested than much of the technology we surround ourselves with every day: iPads, wireless Internet, smart phones. It’s been about 20 years since farmers started growing GMOs. In that time, there has not been one single documented incident of health or human harm as a result of GMOs.

But Sara, what about all the stuff I’ve read on the internet about studies saying GMOs cause cancer, ADHD, celiac disease, and a host of other terrible stuff? Unsubstantiated. There have been studies that have made these claims (in fact, you can find a study that backs up pretty much anything you want to say about anything) – but they have been heavily refuted by the scientific community. They’re not reproducible, and they’re not based on sound science. It can’t be said better than molecular biologist Kevin Folta said it in his interview with Fourat of Random Rationality: “If my lab had a slight hint that GMOs were dangerous, I’d do my best to repeat that study, get a collaborator to repeat it independently, and then publish the data on the covers of Science, Nature and every news outlet that would take it. It would rock the world. Showing that 70-some percent of our food was poisonous? That would be a HUGE story — we’re talking Nobel Prize and free Amy’s Organic Pot Pies for life! Finding the rule breakers is what we’re in it for, but to break rules takes massive, rigorous data. So far, we don’t even have a good thread of evidence to start with.” The fact is, the evidence just isn’t there.

In the last ten years, there have been over 1,700 peer-reviewed studies on biotechnology, and a decade of research funded by the EU that concludes GM-food is just as safe as conventional food.  It’s even hard for the activists to continue to ignore the science. Mark Lynas, a well-known activist who helped start the anti-GM movement, publicly apologized in January 2013 for having destroyed GM crops and claims science changed his mind on GM.

There are a host of issues that anti-GM folks trot out when the topic of GM is debated. As with most things in life, it is a complex issue. I know, because I’ve had the conversations.  I’m not going to even try to cover that here, but I will talk more about GMOs in future posts. I understand the issues, but at the end of the day, the science is irrefutable.  Neil deGrasse Tyson said it right, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

Why Should I Care?

15 months-12Here’s my bottom line: our population is expanding, our resources are finite, and you can’t argue that there isn’t going to be (or maybe there already is) a huge gap between our needs and our available food resources. There are lots of ways we can work to address these issues, but biotechnology should be in that picture. Biotechnology is not the end all and be all, but it is one important tool in the toolbox. We should not be scared away from it by pseudoscience and fear-mongering activists, because even if you don’t care about what biotechnology has done for us so far, you should care about what it could do for us in the future. You’ve probably heard about Golden Rice, GM rice that could help combat vitamin A deficiency, something that causes blindness in children in developing countries. Even Michael Pollan says he could get behind it.  Researchers are working on ways that biotechnology could help plants deal with climate change and resource supply: reducing needs for resources like nitrogen fertilizer and water, and making crops more tolerant to extreme variations in temperature and flooding. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be careful with these applications and make sure we are good stewards of the technology and our environment, but let’s not let fear stand in the way of innovation that could help us deal with real problems.

If you have questions about GMOs, there’s a website called GMOanswers that probably has the answers and if not, you can submit your questions to be answered by real scientists in the field.

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