As fast food workers go on a one-day strike for higher wages across the U.S., it’s a good moment to reflect on what we are buying when we pay for cheap food. The strength of the fast-food business model is that it is accessible to all: It’s so cheap that even the poorest people in America eat at McDonald's. And in some cases it’s not just cheap, it’s the cheapest. If you don’t have time to cook dinner, or the means to buy unprocessed food in bulk, it makes perfect economic sense to dine out at the closest greasy spork. …
When a 2012 study came out suggesting that a certain type of genetically modified corn caused cancer in rats, many were skeptical. Since then, one scientific group after another has said that the study doesn’t tell us anything new. So on one level it was no huge surprise when the journal that had published this paper, Food and Chemical Toxicology, retracted it on Thanksgiving Day. But it was surprising, or at least illuminating, on another level: Retractions are usually reserved for deliberate deception or major mistakes; in this case, the reason for retraction was simply insignificance.
In a statement the journal publishers wrote: “Ultimately, the results presented (while not incorrect) are inconclusive, and therefore do not reach the threshold of publication for Food and Chemical Toxicology.”
What does it mean that a “not incorrect” but “inconclusive” paper fails to “reach the threshold”?
Corn reproduction can be unruly, as I wrote here. It's hard to segregate different crop types. But if you are willing to accept a few illegitimate kernels, it is possible to maintain relatively isolated strains. It all depends on your tolerance for mixing: It's pretty easy to prevent 95 percent of crosses -- it's that last 5 percent that's tricky, and the last .01 percent is nearly impossible.
One of the people I’d wanted to talk to about the issue of intermingling genes was Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes of the University of Missouri. As an economist, Kalaitzandonakes is strictly concerned with the economic effect that errant pollen can have on a farmer. And what Kalaitzandonakes has seen in his experiments has made him optimistic for a future where many different types of corn -- genetically modified or no -- grow side by side without much mixing.
Most pollen falls near the stalk, and planting a barrier row of corn can help protect a field, he said. Furthermore, you can use time to isolate corn as well as space. The flowering times of the plants are fixed, so if you plant one corn a few weeks after another, they won’t crossbreed, even if they are side by side.
Of course, none of this matters if you want perfect purity: Sooner or later a grain of pollen will travel far enough to find a receptive tassel. But hardly anyone is asking for perfect purity. From those concerned that genetically modified seeds might have some unknown health risk, to those who want to make sure that their sweet corn doesn’t have blue kernels, most people allow a margin of tolerance.
The monarch butterfly is a prime example of charismatic minifauna. Charismatic megafauna -- bears, sharks, wolves -- evoke feelings of awe, but there’s a subtle contradiction in sheltering species that sometime eat us. With charismatic minifauna, however, that contradiction disappears. It may be harder to empathize with insects, but nurturing them comes a bit more naturally.
People like Debbie Jackson, a conservation specialist with Monarch Watch, have been nurturing the insects for decades.
“I started this as a little girl the cornfields of the Midwest, just enjoying them,” she said. “Feeding the caterpillars on milkweed and watching them grow.”
Now monarchs are in trouble -- in part because there’s not much milkweed left in the cornfields of the Midwest.
“The numbers are astronomically horrible,” Jackson said. The monarch overwintering spot in the mountains of Mexico once hosted a billion butterflies. But just 3 million have shown up so far this year, she said.
What if a small, pasture-based egg farm got to air an ad during the Super Bowl? That would probably cause a rift in the space-time continuum and trigger the great poultry uprising. And that would be awesome.
Among those top four businesses, however, lurks another strong contender for the green vote. It’s a toy company, called GoldieBlox, with a mission to inspire a new generation of female engineers.
On the one hand, local eggs certainly feels more environmentally friendly than plastic toys. On the other, a new crop of female innovators might be precisely what we need to tackle our environmental problems.
Everywhere I look, I seem to see this debate: Is it greener to go back to nature or to innovate our way forward?
This isn’t an absolute opposition, of course -- I think we have to do both. Farms like Locally Laid, for example, aren’t moving backwards -- they are innovators as well. But ultimately you have to cast your vote one way or the other. Do we curtail industry and human activity to shrink our footprint? Or do we step up the pace in hopes of tinkering our way to a green techno-utopia?
Of course you could quibble with the assertion that either company really fits the bill. Some will say that no type of animal farming can be good for the environment. Others will argue that the whole concept of gendered toys is sexist and misbegotten.
Me, I just want to keep trying new things rather than just wringing my hands, so I support experimental businesses like these. But I’m having a hard time choosing between them. What do you think?
Ever since Washington state voters rejected a measure to label genetically engineered food earlier this month, I’ve been trying to understand what the vote meant.
On election night, I stressed the importance of advertising, but people on Twitter and in comments have questioned that emphasis. Political advertising rarely changes opinions; it generally sets people more deeply in their convictions. So perhaps what the Washington vote shows us is that fewer people care about GM food than it seems.
Why the measure lost is also related to the question of who voted. In the end, only 45 percent of registered voters cast their ballots -- the lowest turnout in a decade. What does that mean? And what’s the significance of the fact that the race tightened up as officials counted ballots: The measure was losing by 10 percentage points in early tallies, but that margin eventually narrowed to 2 percentage points, with 49 percent voting for, and 51 against.
The answers to these questions have interesting implications for future labeling campaigns. The Washington vote seems to be telling us that concern about GM food is broad and shallow. That is, lots of people are vaguely worried about transgenics, but it’s not a core issue that drives majorities to the polls.
If there’s one thing that everyone in the GMO debate agrees upon, it’s that pollen spreads. It’s a basic fact of biology: Sex has always been hard to control. Expecting corn DNA to stop hustling around the gene pool once it’s been genetically engineered makes as much sense as expecting teenagers to become celibate once they get smartphones.
The technology that farmers use to keep plants from spreading their genes is pretty simple: It’s called distance. Keep cornfields 100 feet apart and you pretty much solve the problem, says Lynn Clarkson, president of specialty grain producer Clarkson Grain. For soy fields, 12 feet is enough, because soy pollen isn’t designed to fly. (Self-pollinating plants like soy are the introverts of the vegetable world; they mostly have sex with themselves.)
Distance, however, provides statistical prevention, not absolute prevention. A distance of 660 feet between cornfields is 99 percent effective at preventing breeding. At 1,000 feet, the effectiveness goes up to 99.5 percent. But it’s nearly impossible to get to 100 percent.
Clarkson understands this because his company deals in blue corn: “We have a pretty good sense of how far pollen will drift because blue kernels show up like beacons on yellow corn cobs.” It takes a separate grain of pollen to fertilize each kernel, so every cob provides a visual representation of the statistics in blue and yellow. “We’ve gotten calls from five miles away,” Clarkson says. “And a good Midwestern thunderstorm with big updrafts can move pollen hundreds of miles.”
So the question becomes: Who is responsible for controlling the plants? Should the person who wants carefully controlled genetics be responsible for planting in a secluded spot? Or do farmers with the potentially problematic pollen have a responsibility to keep their pollen out of other people’s fields?
On Saturday, the Kauai County Council overrode the mayor's veto of a law it had passed to regulate biotech crops on the island. Barring further delays, the law will go into effect in nine months, according to the Honolulu Star Advertiser. Seed companies, which rely on Hawaii's long growing season to propagate their breeds, have promised to sue.
The law -- Bill 2491 -- forces agribusiness to be more transparent, reports the Star Advertiser:
Bill 2491 would require mandatory disclosure of pesticides [farmers] use to spray on their fields and genetically modified crops by large agribusinesses. Affected companies are Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences, BASF as well as Kauai Coffee, the largest coffee grower in the state.
Advocates said the measure is needed to protect public health and the island's environment. Opponents of Bill 2491 contend it's legally flawed and puts the county at risk with legal challenges.
Cracking down on GMOs in Hawaii could have broader implications for biotech in the United States, as we discussed here.
How do we feed ourselves without laying waste to the earth, and ruining everything for the next generation? If you think about it, that's the existential question for humanity. (As opposed to, say, should I use the Oxford comma? What's the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow? And do I wear boxers or briefs?) And it is the question that journalist Sarah Elton tackles in her new book, Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet. Elton wants a food system that allows us to do more than just feed ourselves: She wants agriculture that will allow people and the environment to …
For years, Democrats have been trying to update our food safety laws to prevent food-poisoning accidents. In 2011, President Obama finally signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, and now the Food and Drug Administration is making the rules to determine how to put the law into practice. Everyone wants safer food, but some small farmers fear the rules could force them out of business.
“I’m really worried that if this law is not interpreted in terms of the challenges a small farmer faces, but only in terms of a 1,000 acre field of lettuce, that it could be the end of small, local, sustainable farming,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), a farmer.
“I cannot imagine the outrage on behalf of the consumers if local food systems are regulated out of existence,” she said.
That would be the worst-case scenario. We’re currently in the middle of the rule-making process, and the FDA is soliciting comments on how to protect eaters without putting an undue burden on farms. Lots of farmers are contributing suggestions for refining the rules, but eaters -- and I think that means all of us -- might want to weigh in as well before the Nov. 15 comment deadline.