Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The GMO Lowdown Part 3: GMO Myths and Facts

I'm not one to reinvent the wheel, so for this post, I wanted to share with you a video and two articles that I have found which are really eyeopeners to the GMO debate and many myths that surround them. Check out this video first:

These next two articles give further explanation into other claims that just aren't true or fully explained. I encourage you to follow the links below to learn more:

However, I have decided to highlight a few myths and give you the facts as I have come to understand them:

Myth #1: GMOs cause cancer: FALSE--there has been no scientific linkage between consuming GMO products and cancer. GMO research has actually been useful in helping understand BRCA mutations which in turn could lead to better cancer treatments and even possibly a cure with enough time and resources dedicated. Stay tuned for a post dedicated to this topic in the future!

Myth #2: GMOs are responsible for more herbicide use: Maybe--the most popular GMOs have been created to be pest resistant (meaning less pesticides--yay!) but also herbicide resistant (meaning the farmer can spray the crops and weeds more without killing the crop--not so good). BUT, you should keep in mind that herbicides are expensive and farmers don't want to spend more money than they need to AND they strive to have the best quality products and be good stewards of the land, so it is unlikely they are spraying tons of unnecessary herbicide. I love this quote from the recent Slate article put out by William Saletan: "The more you learn about herbicide resistance, the more you come to understand how complicated the truth about GMOs is. First you discover that they aren’t evil. Then you learn that they aren’t perfectly innocent. Then you realize that nothing is perfectly innocent. Pesticide vs. pesticide, technology vs. technology, risk vs. risk—it’s all relative. The best you can do is measure each practice against the alternatives. The least you can do is look past a three-letter label."
Myth #3: Monsanto will take over the world: Unlikely--Monsanto, DuPont, and other big ag companies don't have evil intentions. All these companies are made up of people just like you and me who have families and want to do good in this world. Yes, farmers may have to buy seed every year, but it takes huge investment on the part of these companies to create better yielding crops that allow for less inputs and more profit for the farmer, while also feeding a growing world. 

Myth #4: GMOs decrease genetic variability: Maybe-I heard this argument for the first time last week. A colleague of mine mentioned that his wife was concerned that if crops are genetically modified, then the DNA will be the same and should a disease come, it could wipe out the whole crop completely. She was also concerned regarding "inbreeding" of such similar crops and the negative side effects of crop existence and quality. I think there is some merit to this concern, however, that's the beauty in heirloom varieties that many farmers are working hard to preserve. In addition, when a GMO crop comes out, there has been research on many other varieties as well, which may have the option to also become commercially available. 

Image result for monarch butterflyMyth #5: GMOs are responsible for the pollinator crisis: Not Entirely--While there has been some concern of milkweed being contaminated with Bt corn pollen, which then in turn affects Monarch butterflies, there isn't a direct relationship between GMOs and pollinator decline. The bigger concern is the loss of pollinator habitat from increased monoculture. Monoculture and increased urbanization has led to a decline in natural bee habitat, which is more directly related to the decline of pollinators. I'll be putting out an article with more details on this soon!

It would be wrong to say that GMOs are completely innocent, but so would saying that a world of non-GMOs would be better. As with anything in life, the GMO debate is a balancing act and all perspectives and consequences must be evaluated.

The last and final part of the GMO low down will feature practical advice when shopping in the grocery store and some clarity on many of labels you see on food products!


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The GMO Lowdown Part 2: Pros and Cons of GMOs

I was planning on getting this article out last week, but one, I want to make sure I get the most relevant and right facts to you all and two, I’ve been having a lot of discussions lately around GMO’s (including most of yesterday on a trip to and from Iowa!) and had to include some thoughts I’ve heard from others!

There is a lot of misinformation floating around out there when it comes to GMO's. Most of the time, GMO's are seen as the Frankenstein of foods. However, there are far more positives out there that are not often highlighted. I want to reiterate that my goal here is not to sway you one way or the other. Instead, I want to present you with the most relevant thoughts and truthful facts to help YOU make educated decisions when it comes to the food you and your family consume. So here you go!

The Pros of GMOs:

1.     Increased yields: GM crops have led to significant advances in agriculture both in the United States and around the world. Because GMO’s are created to have higher yield and withstand harsher conditions—think drought resistant corn or tomatoes that can grow in salt water—proponents of GMOs say they will help us feed the extra 2 billion people that will fill the plant by 2050. Keep in mind that much of this population is occurring in underdeveloped nations, which have less productive acreage so the utilization of GMOs have the potential to help farmers create sustainable livings while feeding the growing population.

2.     Environmental Efficiency: Often times, GMOs are associated with pesticides and herbicides, when in fact, using GMOs allow farmers to use less chemicals than traditional farming. GM crops have been engineered to be more tolerant to weeds pests which means less herbicides have to be used. In addition,  some GM’s are less appealing to pests, so less pesticides have to be applied—a win win for both consumers and farmers who can save on input costs! Back to point number 1, because there are increased yields, more can be grown on less land and with less water as varieties are developed to grow in drier conditions.  Also, GM fish have been making appearances and have the potential to save wild fish populations…read about that here: 

3.     Nutrition: It is estimated that 1/3 of the world’s population is food and nutrition insecure. The International Union of Nutritional Sciences outline four benefits from GM foods: enhancement of nutrient and food security, more targeted health benefits, and reduction of diet related, adult onset chronic diseases. The most dramatic results are seen in lower income countries where biofortification is necessary to combating malnutrition. A claim to fame for GMOs that most people have heard of is Golden Rice. In 2000, the first strain of Golden Rice was created to provide beta carotene in the diets of people, especially children, living in impoverished nations that often suffer from blindness caused by Vitamin A deficiency. Then in 2005, a new variety was released which produces up to 23 times more beta carotene. By 2009, a study was conducted that showed that just one cup of Golden Rice could provide half of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A, a game changer for nearly 500,000 children a year who go blind from lack of Vitamin A.
4.     Renewable Resources: Many crops can be genetically modified to produce oils, starches, fibers, and proteins to be used for energy and other industrial purposes. While we’d have to make sure to keep these crops separate from the food supply, imagine if we could eliminate the use of petroleum and other non-renewable resources by growing all the energy we need—that’d be pretty cool, right?

5.     Biotech Research: I hadn’t thought much about this until a friend of mine from high school, Zach, shared with me the incredible contributions of GMO research in the medical field. Here’s what he had to say: “As someone who has done plenty of bench work, I understand that GMOs are also invaluable to medical research. For instance, I studied mutations in in the BRCA1 gene in E. coli and the insulin taken by diabetics everyday is made from recombinant DNA that has been spliced into E. coli or yeast. I think so much goes back to education. People tend to be afraid of, and are easily swayed, on topics they don’t understand. Educate them on the facts and the issue goes away. However, this is far easier said than done.” Take a look at this video that illustrates how genetic modification of bacteria led to insulin production for human use—pretty cool, huh? 
6.     Lower Cost/More Accessibility: The U.S. has the safest, most reliable, and most affordable food system in the world. Yes, you heard that right—our farmers work hard to provide us with low cost food (In 2012, we only spent on average 6.4% of our income on food compared to the average of 25.2% in India) that is thoroughly  tested and regulated, more so than any other country. This is something we often take for granted, as 1 in 9 people across the globe go hungry. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have the access and income to choose between organic, non-GMO, traditional, cage free, conventional, etc. foods have years of research and technology development in the agricultural industry to thank for increasing availability, variety, and quantity of food.

As with anything however, there are concerns regarding GMOs that I hear day in and day out that I believe are important to address. 

The Cons of GMOs:
1. Pest/disease resistance: There is some concern that the use of GM crops that utilize biotech traits to be resistant to certain bugs or diseases that damage crops may allow for adaptation of these pests and diseases into so called “superbugs.” While no one can say that won’t happen, chances are it could also happen if we do the alternative, which is apply chemicals (organic or not) to combat pests and diseases. The ultimate alternative would be to not take any action against these damages, but then we wouldn’t have enough food to feed the current population let alone a growing one!

2. Genetic Drift: This is a huge challenge, especially when trying to develop a non-GMO and organic supply chain. Technically called “adventitious presence,” this is essentially when a trait is spread via pollen in the air from a field planted with GMO crops to a field that is either organic or non-GMO. Keep in mind this is how plants breed—via pollen—so there is a chance that a field of non-GMO corn may have a few stalks of GM corn because of this genetic drift. No big scary concerns here, just the challenges that come when having to test the corn for this presence, as many a times corn may be rejected from the Japanese non-GMO market because .9% of the crop happened to have this trait introduced by accident.

3. Allergic reactions: This is a valid concern for those who have severe allergies—say for example that a gene from the almond was used in a tomato variety. This could pose an issue if the gene used was the origin of an allergen, however, I believe scientists are in tune with this and there is enough genetic research that they won’t intentionally add an allergen to a food. What may be more important here is the transparency of knowing the science behind a GM food you choose to consume. Many people are also concerned that new allergens could be created. While there is no evidence of this, I even encourage you to think about the opposite—what is biotechnology was developed so that the allergen causing gene could be REMOVED from the crop all together?

4. Not “Natural”/Playing God:  This one is an ethical balance beam. We’ve been crossbreeding plants and animals for centuries, and genetic engineering could be viewed as just the transfer of this crossbreeding to the lab with more precise technology. While it may not seem “natural,” you must decide for yourself what your definition of natural is. Many people also say we shouldn’t “play God.” I don’t think this is fair to say about agriculture when the same could be said about medicine—from vaccines to pain relievers to cures for cancer to in vitro fertilization. Humans have evolved and progressed to where we are today because of technology,innovation, and efficiency. There is a reason farmers 
adapted GM crops and doing away with it may just set us back.

5. International Trade: An economic argument I have heard against GMOs is the fact that many foreign countries have strict regulations when it comes to accepting GMO crops, if at all. While the ongoing TPP and T TIP trade talks currently going on work to address these standards and concerns, it is a valid point that by producing an overwhelming majority of GMOs, we are limiting our international trade capability. 

I hope this gives you a foundation of understanding when it comes to the issues surrounding GMOs. Next post, I will highlight some crazy myths surrounding GMOs and give you the facts!

As always, feel free to let me know if you agree, disagree, or if I left something out, etc. Your opinions and perspectives matter to me!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The GMO Lowdown Part 1: What is a GMO anyway?

It may be Shark Week on the Discovery channel, but here at The Conventional Foodie, this week's all about GMOs! I've had some great feedback and suggestions the past few days from some old high school friends (thanks Zach & Chloe!) and one thing they asked me about was GMO's! So, I'm going to break this down into three parts since there is a lot to cover. Part 1 will focus on what a GMO is, the history, and how its made. Part 2 will cover the implications of GMOs, myths, facts, and some surprising stories. Lastly, Part 3 will give you all some tips and tricks to watch out for when shopping!

Without further ado, let's get started! GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. I know, I know, most of you already know this, but you'd be surprised how many people avoid GMOs without even knowing what it stands for! This video by Jimmy Kimmel highlights this--totally makes me giggle! According to the World Health Organization, GMOs are plants, animals, or microorganisms "in which the genetic material does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination." (Recombination is the rearrangement of genetic material, especially by crossing over in chromosomes, for those of us who didn't always pay attention in genetics class ;) ). Other terms that are referred to when talking about GMOs is "modern biotechnology," "gene technology,", "recombinant DNA technology," and "genetic engineering."

There are two main processes for creating GMOs. The first is by a "gene gun," where DNA from another organism is essentially shot via a vector onto plant cells. This DNA then is incorporated into the DNA of the recipient plant. Another method is the use of a bacterium to introduce the gene of interest into the plant DNA. When put this way, of course it sounds scary!

What should ease your nerves though, is that all this technology is just an application and advancement of the breeding of plants and animals from the field, to the lab. Think about how far we've come from the days of Mendel breeding pea plants to the real possibility of allergen free nuts! Another relief is that GMOs must undergo several tests and years of studying before they are released. For example, it takes 13 years for a GM seed variety to be released--that's 3x as long as it takes a new car to get to the market, and one year longer than it takes to get a new medication from the lab to the pharmacy. In addition, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have stated that there are no health concerns when it comes to GMOs. If their word isn't enough for you, check out these  1,783 studies that Italian scientists pulled together and GENERA is adding to which show no harm caused to humans or animals from consuming GM foods: .

We'll get into more of the other pros and cons in Part 2, but for now, I'd like to give you a brief history on GMOs:
1973-Genetic engineering techniques developed
1982-US FDA approves first genetically engineered insulin
1988-Genes successfully inserted into soybeans
1992-US FDA declares GM foods not dangerous
1994-Delayed-ripening tomato first GMO to be produced and consumed
1996-Commercialization of GM crops

As of 2014, 94% of soybeans, 80% of corn, and 84% of cotton grown in the U.S. are grown from GM seed. What this translates to is that roughly 75% of our food contains GM ingredients or was fed GM crops, not to mention in many cases the shirts on our backs were made from GM cotton!
This means that for nearly two decades, we have been consuming GM products and in most cases, haven't even noticed it!

Ingredients of an All-Natural BananaSo why all the fuss now? I think a recent Washington Post interview with an agricultural economics professor I've had the pleasure of meeting this past year, Jayson Lusk, sums it up nicely. In the last decade, as natural and organic food came onto the market, many products were advertised as not containing GMOs, as a way to gain sales. And anytime a word shows up on a label we don't know, we tend to get wary of them. It's like when a high school teacher put together a list of all the components of an all natural banana (seen here on the right). At first glace, you probably wouldn't get anywhere near a food with this label, but as it turns out, its the ingredients in a very healthy fruit!

Hence the case of GMOs, where people have a "negative reaction to something that seems like an additive or unusual. The base issue is however, that consumers just don't have a lot of knowledge about GMOs and as humans we tend to have a fear of the unknown.

Stay tune for Part 2, where I'll dig into the pros and cons as well as myths vs. facts when it comes to GMOs. What are your thoughts on GMO's? I'd love to hear them! As always, I want this to be a forum full of various perspectives--feel free to disagree or bring up other points--this is how we all learn!


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Heading to the Farmers Market Soon? Read this before you go!

I LOVE going to farmers markets. It's one of my favorite things to do whether I'm at school, home, or in a new place! Farmers markets bring people--of all ages and backgrounds--together in a community space to not only buy food, but to share a cultural experience. It's an experience that you don't ever see in the grocery store--customers are engaging with each other and the people that actually grow their food, kids and dogs are running around, and everyone has a smile on their face as they reconnect with their food, the earth, and one another.

Summer is of course the best time for farmers markets as everyone is out enjoying the sunshine and fruits and veggies are in peak season! Who doesn't love getting fresh strawberries and spinach to toss for a salad with local goat cheese on top? There are so many benefits from shopping at your local farmers market. First, you get an opportunity to redefine your relationship with food and those who grow it. Going to the market is an opportunity to meet the individual who spends HOURS, DAYS, WEEKS, preparing, growing, and harvesting the local goods for you to consume. Having a relationship with the person who grows and raises your food is invaluable and a chance to learn more about how they grow it and oftentimes you can even visit the farm! Secondly, you are stimulating the local economy. When you shop local, each dollar you spend is circulated an average of 3X within the community! Oftentimes, young, small, and beginning farmers use the market as an incubator for their business, so you are also helping small businesses and entrepreneurs survive and flourish! Thirdly, shopping at farmers markets helps preserve farmland and rural livelihoods. One last benefit (and of course there are so many more!) is access to fresh food that hasn't traveled hundreds of miles. While there isn't any scientific evidence of difference in nutritional quality, a tomato just picked yesterday will always taste better than one from the grocery ;)

As great as farmers markets are, there are five things to keep in mind when buying from the farmers market so that you have the most authentic buying experience:

Radius and Regulations:
Every farmers market has a different requirement as far as distance traveled from farm to market. In most cases it is an average of 50 miles, meaning the farm or home that goods were made in must be within a 50 mile radius from the market. However, some may not have a radius distinguished and since technically local is defined as within 300 miles, you could be getting food and products from two states over! There are also other regulations that vary including the use of GMO's, resale goods, and some markets even have specifications on baked goods like all ingredients must be local, or they may not, meaning you might just be buying boxed brownies! My recommendation is to check out your farmers market's vendor regulations which you can usually find online or from the market director/coordinator.

Organic Certification:

One thing I often see is that a farm vendor claims to be "organic". While they may use organic practices and take awesome care of their land and harvest, there is always the chance that they are just claiming that. The best way to ensure organic or any other type of production claim is to talk to the farmer, understand how they farm, and visit the farm. If organic is your thing and absolutely important, you'll want to ask if they are USDA Organic Certified. It's a daunting process, so for me personally, I feel better knowing my farmer and how they farm versus whether they actually have a certification or not.


I, personally, have never had a bad experience, but note that not all farmers markets have strict sanitary and cleaning requirements. Because the products you buy have most likely NOT been inspected by an official, know that you are taking a risk and that you should always wash your fruits and veggies! Raw milk is of course a dicey issue and not recommended unless you grew up on it! Also keep in mind that just because something was grown "natural" or "organic" doesn't mean that lower chemical level pesticides/herbicides were applied and that animals and bugs have most likely come across the produce just like those sold commercially.


While it seems second nature, oftentimes we get so excited to purchase fresh and direct that we forget to think about what's actually in season. This doesn't tend to happen in smaller markets, in bigger city ones vendors may prey on shopper ignorance and sell fruits and veggies straight from the grocery store. Yikes!I experienced this last summer at the Minneapolis Farmers Market. There were lots of honest, authentic vendors, but also a few larger ones who had all sorts of tomatoes, zucchini, mangoes, and bananas for sale in the beginning of June--obviously not in season or even grown in Minnesota! So how do you avoid this? Consult a seasonality chart. Here is a general one:


There are also ones that have been developed for specific states and these are links to ones for Virginia, North Carolina, and Minnesota!

Oftentimes, the farmer will tell you when the produce was harvest or meat was slaughtered. This is a good indication of how soon you should consume the goods and one quick tip is to look at the bottom of stems on veggies and make sure they are still moist and not hardened over, which would indicate longer time from picking.

I hope these few tips will help make your market experience better and I encourage you to ask questions to the farmers and get more connected with where your food is coming from! Happy shopping!

Our loot from the Minneapolis Farmers Market!