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Mendel in the Kitchen, or Please Don’t hate the GMOs

Because you’re reading a food blog, and more specifically because this blog is about making food from scratch, you’re not likely to be receptive to this. But it’s important, so I’m going to say it anyway.

Genetically modified food is awesome and I wish there were more of it.

GMO acreage worldwide, by Fafner (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

I’m pretty sure several people just stopped reading and decided I’m a sad, deluded corvid. It isn’t true. There’s just so much misinformation about science, and so few people who remember and understand the biology they learned in high school, that believing that misinformation is easy. And it does seem that biology and medicine get the lion’s share of paranoia. I mean, the people protesting the large hadron collider are rare and generally considered to be nutters. Physics kills millions of people in the form of car accidents and other rather commonplace (if grisly) manners every year, but you don’t see people protesting the use of cars because of their extraordinary deadly physics.

By Thue (Own work) Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In contrast, no deaths to date can be attributed to GMOs. No illnesses, either. Turns out the FDA is actually really strict about the whole engineering death through vegetable and cereal business. Now, I’m not saying that a GMO potato couldn’t kill someone, if the engineers were careless in multiple different steps in the GE process, and if the oversight boards through which new GMOs must pass were extraordinarily lax. That said, traditionally bred potatoes (specifically the Lenape, a cross between a Delta Gold and a Peruvian wild potato) were on the market and being made into potato chips before anyone realized they were very high in solanine, a glycoalkaloid naturally produced in potatoes that makes them insect resistant. No tests of the new potato variety were required, because it was natural.

Delicious little poison grenades. Image from the USDA.

Natural things kill people all the time. Bee stings are natural, as are deadly nightshade (potato’s close cousin), as are uncooked kidney and lima beans, large quantities of nutmeg, raw sour rhubarb, and the seeds of apples, apricots, peaches, plums, and almonds. Oh, and potatoes, but we’ve bred most of that out of them by now.  In fact, the history of agriculture can be understood as man’s struggle to do two things. First, to make food that doesn’t kill us (or make us vomit or swell up or hallucinate, except on special occasions), and second, to make it grow more calories per acre. You know, so we don’t die the old fashioned way: of starvation during winter, drought, flood, or any other non crop-friendly time.

Now that we live in such a glut of calories (at least for many of us in the developed world; they can be deplorably hard to come by elsewhere), now that we don’t have to worry about where our calories are coming from, we look for something else to worry about: whether those calories are healthful. It’s a valid concern. Obesity is rampant, as are diabetes and high cholesterol. Americans consume too many calories and in some cases, not enough nutrients. Those of us with the luxury of choice in our diet should probably think hard about our health and the best way to improve it through diet. (I know, this from the woman who lives on carbs and salt.) However, those choices need to be appropriate and educated, so before ruling out genetically modified food from your diet, or making it harder for the destitute and starving of the world to reap the benefits thereof, do some research.

Very good book. You read this now.

One good overview of the subject is Mendel in the Kitchen, by Nina Fedoroff. It’s good in that it tries to put things in layman’s terms (though never to the point of talking down to her readers), and really shows the history of mankind’s fear of biotechnology, which gives a little perspective to today’s issues, as well as directly addressing some of the specific fears people have of GMOs.

Because I can’t do this book justice with a chapter-by chapter review, I’m going to stick to a few favorite points. And I’m going to start with Johnny Appleseed.

By André Karwath, Creative Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

He’s an American folk hero, right? Just went around barefoot planting apple seeds that grew into lovely apple trees where all our delicious apples come from.

Or rather, an early nineteenth century religious zealot who, according to Michael Pollan ( I couldn’t find an earlier source, so this could be fictional) said of grafting “They can improve the apple in that way but that is only a device of man, and it is wicked to cut up trees that way. The correct method is to select good seeds and plant them in good ground and God only can improve the apples.” Now, if you’re nodding along in agreement, and you enjoy eating apples, you aren’t aware of something important.

Cower before my clone armies! Image from the USDA, which probably wouldn't appreciate these captions appearing on their very serious work.

All apples grown for consumption are grafted. Have been for hundreds of years. Johnny Appleseed’s seed-grown crop were good enough for making hard cider (and hey, who doesn’t want to get their drink on with apple cider every now and again?), but too bitter and sour for a reasonable person to eat. Oranges are always grafted, too. See, apples don’t breed true. Their triploid chromosomes make them genetic freaking wildcards, and cultivators’ nightmares. So we graft ’em, which lets the grafted stock clone its happy little apples on every rootstock it’s grafted to. And before you shout “OMG cloning!” and throw all your fresh fruit out the window, these clones are perfectly natural, just like all of a person’s cells are clones. Except the gametes. It’s okay.

Now, there are a few ways to get new varieties of apples. you could plant a few hundred seeds, wait for them to mature, taste the apples of the ones that look promising, and start grafting the best of those (probably burning the rest of the plants, because they sucked). You could wait for a sport–a genetic anomaly–to appear, and graft it (this is where navel oranges come from). You could bombard some plant cells with radiation to mutate the crap out of them, and then graft the best results from these (plants engineered this way are organic as legally defined, by the way). Or you could isolate a gene you want your new plant to have, multiply it with PCR, and either paint it onto BB gun pellets and shoot then at plants(yes, really, but not without vegetable casualties) or insert it into a harmless plant pathogen that will in turn insert it into plant DNA for you. That last one is what freaks people out. It does sound pretty Sciency, I know. But there is no reason to think it isn’t safe.

According to all movies containing scientists since Metropolis in 1927, these guys are probably destroying the world right now. Image from the USDA, again. Apologies to scientists Dan Bullock and Ken Overturf--I'm sure you're really awesome and doing science for the greater good, even if the public is now terrified of you.

That last statement–the phrasing of it–is one of the things that makes people scared of science. So why didn’t I just say, categorically, “it’s safe”?  Well, science can’t say that. Science can’t actually prove sweeping, boundless statements; it can just say there is or isn’t any data to support it. There is no reason to think your house will fall down tomorrow, for example, but no scientist can prove that it won’t, because there is the possibility of an unknown variable. Like Cthulhu rising up to go bowling in your neighborhood. But science can tell you that your house is safe given certain parameters. The problem is, people don’t want to hear about specific, safe parameters. We’re sort of all-or-nothing when it comes to–well, everything actually. You hear it all the time about nutrition. All vegetables are good. All sugars are bad. Forget the fact that you need sugars to live (and that a lot of vegetables are quite high in sugars), humans want a very simple, black and white rubric for their lives. Science, and reality, are a little more complicated.

So let’s address the common fear people have raised about GMOs, and why it is specifically silly. If you think of some new things to be afraid of, I’ll do some research and see if I can show you why those are silly, too.

Horizontal Gene Transfer, or If I eat this GM corn I’m going to get it’s transgene, right?

Grandma just hasn't been the same since she ate that GM cornbread. Image from the USDA.

Nope. I’m just going to quote the book on this one. “Sixty-five percent of the Americans queried for an international survey on genetically modified foods got the answer to the following question wrong: ‘Do ordinary tomatoes contain genes, or is it only genetically modified tomatoes that do so?’ All of our food contains genes–all our plant food and all our animal food.” Yet we don’t worry about that natural, heirloom tomato splicing its let’s-produce-toxic-glycoalkaloids gene into your cells. Why? because you and your grandmother and her grandmother have eaten them forever, and none of you has ever turned into Poison Ivy (yes, that was a Batman reference. Deal).

But it’s different with transgenes, you say. They’re inserted, along with a promoter, using a vector called CaMV.  CaMV is pretty effective in most plants–it’s  a virus called cauliflower mosaic virus–though it doesn’t work too great on cereals. In animals, though? Before we used the promoter to help us make GM foods, the virus was already pretty common among cauliflower, yet farmers didn’t worry about catching it. Very simply because they weren’t cauliflower. Our flu can’t infect the cauliflower respiratory tract because, well, it doesn’t have the parts. Likewise, plant viruses don’t attack animals. We’re just not the right environment for them to propagate.

"I can't come to work today. I found out Cauliflower Mosaic Virus was used in growing some stuff in the fridge, and I think it's contagious." (Thanks again, USDA!)

Okay, so it won’t turn you into the amazing Spider-Man, but what about the ecological effects? I heard it kills butterflies!

Yes, in a lab, when researchers forced monarchs to eat pollen from corn that had been modified to contain a pesticide, some monarch caterpillars died. The keyword here is forced. See, monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed leaves. If those weeds happen to be in or near cornfields, this does mean eating corn pollen some times of the year. But when there are pesticides in it, the little buggers just move to a clean leaf or another plant. They don’t like that pesticidey taste. To see if it would kill them (uh, science guys? You kind of designed it to kill them. Did you forget?) researchers had to force the (probably wiggling, crying, begging) caterpillars to eat a volume of pesticidal corn pollen that would never be present in its wild diet, even if the caterpillar in question lived on a milkweed plant directly under the horniest cornstalk in the world.

"Ever thought about moving, Earl?" "Nah. I like that bitter yellow stuff. Also this flower I'm not supposed to eat."(image by Linda Tanner, creative commons, via Wikimedia Commons)

In terms of other environmental effects, GM foods can actually help the environment. GM foods can produce a greater number of calories per acre, which means fewer acres need to be cleared of more complex ecosystems to feed people. This effect is somewhat dampened by our insistence in subsidizing corn for ethanol production, at which it is abysmally inefficient, but that’s a digression I don’t want to get into right now. Some GM foods, such as Bt corn, require far lower doses of pesticide to grow–they produce a pesticide naturally, which means no runoff from pesticides to affect insect life in neighboring areas, not to mention removing the cost of those pesticides (although I don’t know whether this completely offsets the cost of Bt seeds).

Image from the USDA. No funny caption this time; there's nothing funny about corn borer destruction.

To be clear, I’m not saying the technology is all sunshine and puppies and completely safe, but there is risk in all worthwhile human endeavors, and this technology really is there because of people who want to improve the quality and yield of our foods. Some of them are idealists and visionaries, some just want a profit, but the goal is always better food. As a person who has to eat to live, and as a cook who wants to enjoy a variety of foodstuffs, I can’t argue with that. I don’t care if you don’t want to eat GMOs. I don’t care if you prefer not to eat mushrooms (like me), or wheat, or carbs, or animals, or red foods, or any other set. I do care that you don’t make that decision based on misconceptions, and it makes me mad when such misconceptions are spread.

Tomorrow, I’ll just cook for y’all again. But today, let’s think like scientists.

Resources (stuff to read if this interests you)

Websites:

The USDA’s brief answer to the question: What are GMOs? 

The USDA’s “briefing room” section of the website (not completely on-topic, but there is a lot of fun stuff to nerd out at over there. Plus, I used six of their images; the least I can do in return is send some folks a-sniffin’ their way)

Colchiploidy and Histological Imbalance in Triploid Apple and Pear, from the American Journal of Botany vol 52 number 4 353-359, 1965 (warning: this is on Jstor. If you’re not a student at university or a member of an Internet linked library, you can’t read this. Sorry. Although, check your library card [what do yo mean you don’t have a library card?]; you may be able to access articles using the library’s resources from home.)

U Kentucky’s Bt-Corn: What it is and how it works

Gary Munkvold at IA state on disease control with Bt corn (with pictures of corn damage. Also, check out the related articles an the right hand sidebar.)

Genetically Modified foods: Harmful or Helpful? by Deborah B. Whitman (Contains its own host of references, which is the main reason I include it here.)

Books:

Mendel in the Kitchen by Nina Fedoroff

Shrinking the Cat by Sue Hubbell (I haven’t finished this one yet, but still.)

Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa by Robert Paarlberg (I didn’t really talk about this above, but it’s awful. The fact that people are starving needlessly, I mean. Not the book.)

And finally, for a lovely science fiction work in which there is a global food crisis and society is clamped under the thumb of Monsanto-like companies  and foodborne illness is rampant and deadly, read The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. It’s lots of fun.

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Food, Inc: I still look at dinner the same way–delicious

I am annoyed at Michael Pollan.

I should be fair. I am actually annoyed at Food, Inc., a documentary in which Pollan is interviewed. But I was annoyed by his very similar book, too. So I blame him.  Food, Inc. is, if you don’t already know, a documentary about the food industry in this country and how we’re all going to die of obesity and it’s Big Food’s fault.

Now, before anyone starts screaming that I’m just some nutty Texas right-winger who is deliberately deluding herself—

Actually, I don’t think anyone has ever called me right-wing before. It might amuse me. Go for it.

–I’m not annoyed by everything about the film. I just have several large, sweeping problems with it which leave a particularly bad taste in my mouth. I think there are several remedies for bad tastes in my apartment at all times, many of which are probably not Pollan-approved. But I digress. I’m good at that.

So, issue number one came with the very first line of the film. “The way we eat has changed more in the last fifty years than in the previous ten thousand.”Okay, maybe. There are so many possible interpretations of that sentence that I can’t tell you if it’s true or not. “Hey, for the first time we have enough food for everyone in the West to be snotty little foodies if they want to” is true. “Food has become genetically modified and is about to turn us into Godzilla monsters” is not (and by the way, those red things in the supermarket are still tomatoes. You can’t eat “the idea of a tomato,” whatever on Earth that means). “Electricity in every American home and a variety of ethnic foods available in every American supermarket allow Americans to cook a wider range of cuisine than anyone’s grandma thought possible 50 years ago” is true. In fact, my nana says she remembers when you couldn’t get pasta unless you went to an Italian market. And my nana is really young. I’m not telling how young exactly, because she already might run me down and beat me to death with a crepe pan for telling people she has a 25-year-old granddaughter. </digression> “Food in this country is produced, processed, and prepared in such a way that there are certain social and economic consequences that you’d likely rather not think about” may or may not be true. I think, based on the film that followed, that’s what that first sentence means. It bothers me, because that interpretation has nothing at all to do with eating, making the sentence extraordinarily misleading.

 

That's not sunlight making this tomato glow. It's Evil Science.

But that’s just nitpicking, you say. Surely no one expects every sentence in a documentary to be perfectly worded! True, I don’t. My problem is that it is perfectly worded to mislead in a particular way, and as a film which purports to be removing a veil of a similar nature, it has a responsibility to try to avoid using the same tactics.

Speaking of tactics, I was not too happy with the choice to use emotional appeals rather than logical ones when arguing against the current system. For example, a huge amount of time is devoted to one mother’s story about her son, who died due to complications from an E. Coli O157:H7 infection. Which is an awful, awful thing and my heart goes out to that poor woman. However, the lack of journalistic rigor that went into discussing the way in which such an infection becomes possible is quite disturbing as well. Pollan describes E. Coli (all varieties) as a “bug” (rather than the symbiote that it is. We all have E. Coli living in our intestines, and have done since less than two days after birth. Good for us; it makes vitamin K). He states that the hemorrhagic version could not have come into being under “natural” circumstances and implies that cows would not have any E. Coli living in their guts if it were not for the fact that they are corn fed. There is no scientific basis for these statements, and he plays on our cultural fear of microbes of any kind. He implies that E. Coli 0157:H7 is in some way harmful to cows. It is not. All cows, even happy organic free-range cows, have E. Coli in their rumens. Some probably have different strains. At any rate, claiming that the cattle industry created this evil “bug” that is wantonly killing America’s children left and right borders on insane. And actually, let’s look at the infection numbers, shall we? According to the CDC in 2007, there were 21,244 reported cases of foodborne illness, and eighteen deaths. Two of those deaths were caused by E. Coli 0157:H7. And yes, any deaths that could be prevented are terrible. But two? More people have been seriously injured in making the new Spiderman musical. To be clear: I am not saying that I disapprove of government oversight of our food industry. In fact, I think that talking honestly about it is more likely to effect beneficial changes in the system than exaggerations which opposition can easily reveal as such.

E. Coli, or a fun way to decorate cake for a scientist?

And then he does the thing that really makes me crazy. He says it isn’t the consumer’s responsibility to make appropriate food choices. There may have been some truth to that before restaurants began to divulge certain health information about the contents, but not much. The film claims that the poor just can’t afford to eat well. Specifically, “Why can I get two cheeseburgers for a dollar each but I can’t get a head of broccoli?” Well actually, you can. My broccoli this week was $1.19 a pound. I bought two pounds of it. That plus a one pound box of pasta for $1 will feed four people. Need sauce? Most people can get that $1.25 can of crushed tomatoes and season it up. And water is very nearly free to anyone with plumbing, so skip the soda. Soda is a more likely suspect to implicate in the diabetes epidemic than burgers, anyway. That is healthier and cheaper than the $11.84 the documentary showed the family spending on Burger king. As a bonus, broccoli pasta takes less than 15 minutes to prepare, so please don’t tell me people don’t have time to cook. It takes that long to get to a fast food place and back. Restaurants are responsible for setting up an unrealistic idea of a serving size, but a lot people who cook at home reinforce that idea by filling a ten-inch dinner plate every night (most of my dinners are served on salad plates unless I need a place to put bones or something. It’s more than enough food.) Absolving the consumer of all responsibility for his obesity and related diseases is an insult to his intelligence. Yes, you have to think about it to eat better, but as my last few posts have indicated, home cooking isn’t always healthful. I’ve made two enormous puddings in less than a week.

Ah, the big damn T-bone. Three servings, not one.

Then there’s this really cool rancher who they keep calling a farmer. He keeps a small number of cows and pigs and chickens and lets them all roam about and probably smoke pot on the weekends (kidding, of course. Chickens don’t have thumbs!) His small business model is great, but it’s just that: a small business model. There are more than three hundred million people living in this country alone, and I seriously doubt thirty million of us want to be farmers or ranchers. That’s what it would take to put everyone on that model. It is inefficient, and efficiency is not actually evil. Yes, it’s hard to watch all those animals on a killing floor full of terror and involuntary bowel movements. Don’t like it? Go vegetarian, because morality is not scalar. If it is wrong to kill animals for food, it doesn’t matter if they get a happy massage first or not. As a side note, Mister Awesome Rancher doesn’t kill his large livestock on screen either. Maybe he hires a butcher, I don’t know, but either way I doubt it’s pretty. Blood and death tend not to be.

Another emotional argument revolves around genetically modified food. For the record, I think GM foods are awesome. I’m glad they’re making potatoes that are resistant to viruses, bugs, and Phytophtora infestans (potato blight). Ever bought a potato that looked like this?

I have, and it’s gross. Also, GM foods can be labeled as organic in this country, and they’re easier to grow organically since insect resistant strains don’t need the high levels of insecticide necessary to ensure a profitable crop yield. Food Inc. chooses to conflate “organic,” “natural,” “free-range,” “GM-free,” “environmentally conscious,” and “healthful.” None of these are or should be treated as synonyms. Not to mention the fact that we’ve been selecting our food for specific traits for thousands of years. I don’t see any reason to think it’s worse to do this scientifically and therefore better predict and control the results than it was for early man to turn corn into what it is today.

Source: Genetically Modified Corn— Environmental Benefits and Risks Gewin V PLoS Biology Vol. 1, No. 1, e8 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0000008

The above image shows how corn has been changed by selective harvesting and planting by humans. And yes, people have objected to this stuff at least since Mendel.

Now, I don’t have any real arguments with the sociopolitical side of the film, but this is a food blog, so I’m not going into them. Are there some problems with the food industry today? Absolutely. Is the situation comparable to the events described in The Jungle? No way. Does the only way to eat well involve eating only organically? Nah. Just think a little more about food, and it really isn’t that hard.

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