Building Community At America's Table

Meal One: Gettin’ Sciencey

written by Ellen

You should know this is the third version of this blog post I am penning (well, computering). The first two were, rightly, rejected because the person with whom we had our first meal found too much wrongness in what I wrote.

So much so that I just started over.

That person is Natasha Godard, whom I will introduce to you as “she of a sciencey mindset” and kickin’ cooker of huevos rancheros. At the dinner, also, was her equally whip-smart husband Bill Weiss.

Natasha reached out to us after Grant wrote the post about the Research Fog. We, Grant and I, were experiencing, since kicking off One Hundred Meals and subsequently diving into a sea of generally boring though sometimes scary reports, a sense of general malaise about the whole thing. We were trying to get up to speed a bit, you see, realizing that while we may have started this project to learn, it might be nice if we at least had basic command of the issues at hand before we commenced barging into people’s lives and work to ask probing questions.

And what you learn when you dive into facts and figures of our food supply is that the water is rather murky.

Natasha wanted to help get us going on a good track. And, evidenced by my aborted blog posts, it has taken me longer than one dinner to find that track.

Actually, what I have discovered here by blog post draft three of Meal One — Gettin’ Sciencey is that I am not on the right track at all.

I can see the track, sure, but I am not on it.

In some ways I don’t wanna get on it either, frankly.

And, though I have committed to have an open mind about learning for this project — I am finding that more than anything, I am really emotionally challenged by the idea of being unemotional in approaching the topic of our food supply. Which is why the first two posts had to be kaboshed. They proved (scientifically, I should say) just how much of my own ideas and opinions and preconceived notions I lay over the top of conversations. And likely reading as well.

Let me explain with a thought experiment on corn, offered up at the dinner by Bill as an example of understanding the difference between thinking scientifically about a topic and thinking emotionally: Say I have two rooms. In one room, I grow 15 stalks of corn “the old fashioned way.” In the other room, I use test tubes and petri dishes and hydroponics to grow an ear of corn in my lab. The corn is genetically the same as the corn from the first  room. Is the corn different?

Personally, when presented with said experiment, I will admit I didn’t want to answer the question.

My chest tightened — yes, I had an actual physical reaction — as I processed the anger and frustration I felt about not wanting to admit the answer.

The corn, I am sure you know, is the same.

Of course it is the same — that’s the point of the word problem. But, really, I didn’t want them to be the same.

And probably, more than anything, that inner turmoil rejecting the idea that a scientist could make corn that was precisely the same as the corn I grew “naturally,” is the best way for me to describe my feelings and ideas about what is going on in our food supply as it becomes more and more dependent and dictated by science.

More than anything, I plain old just don’t really like when we get all science-y with our food. I don’t understand it and it seems scary. 

And I am not alone. Even when it does goodGMOs can seem bad. And I can’t seem to break myself free from that.

Which, of course, is why Grant and I started this project, even if I didn’t realize it.

But I guess I never really had to come face to face with the reality. And with the reality I realized that I kinda, down deep inside, don’t want to have to learn to be more objective.

But of course I have to be more objective if I want to be informed and not just an ignorant bundle of opinions. Which is what I learned from Natasha.

That and the fact that the only real way to to do this is to dig in and find as much research as one can about any and every topic, be objective when you read it, and make some informed conclusions from there.

But here’s the rub: it takes a lot of work to get to a place where you can make an informed-ish decision. And even then, and this is another thing I took away from the meal with Natasha — even then one can’t conclude that the science one is reading is definitively even conclusive.

Pretty much, you can only decide it is indicative of an idea, it seems.

Let me explain through an experience I had in learning about GMO salmon.

Depending on where you get your information, GMO salmon are cause for alarm or just some faster-to-your-plate salmon — same-same, just a little different. I was, prior to my research experiment, very much against GMO salmon as inherently scary and wrong. There was no informed reason for my position. It just seemed scarypants and wrong.

But, in the interest of the project, I started doing the reading necessary to understand if my opinion was actually valid or not.

Here’s what I learned when I simply tried to find out what the hell it was:

  • According to AquaBounty, the makers of this GMO salmon: “AquAdvantage® Salmon (AAS) include a gene from the Chinook salmon, which provides the fish with the potential to grow to market size in half the time of conventional salmon. In all other respects, AAS are identical to other Atlantic salmon.” Identical! Well, what’s the problem? This one Chinook gene is basically a fish version of marrying your cousin, right? That’s legal in some states.
  • That said, if you read what the sustainability folks have to say, you learn this: “The fish, which is branded AquAdvantage, has been altered with a growth-hormone gene from a Chinook salmon and a gene from a deepwater eel-like fish called an ocean pout.” Whoa, there. There’s a whole new gene from some whole different species going on. Why didn’t the AquaBounty people mention that? How can the addition of a whole gene from a different species go overlooked and what makes that even remotely “identical-ly.”
  • You may laugh at the ignorance of using it as a source, but I thought it may be prudent to check what Wikipedia lists: “The AquAdvantage salmon has been modified by the addition of a growth hormone regulating gene from a Pacific Chinook salmon and a promoter gene from an ocean pout to the Atlantic’s 40,000 genes.” Ah-ha! Here we see what is probably a case of the AquaBounty people not being able to convince the Wikipedia folks to kill the pout gene so they settled on burying the one tiny little pout gene in a huge number to make it seem like dandruff. 
  • And if you were to delve into what pro-industry folks have to say, you’d find this: “Basically, two genes have been inserted into their genomes. One gene simply enables internal growth hormone production year round despite the cold (salmon ordinarily stop making growth hormone in cold weather and therefore stop growing during winter months). The second gene basically enables the first gene to activate and do its work. Most importantly, no hormones that are not native to fish are introduced to this fish, nor are they fed hormones in their rations. There is no reasonable scientific basis for suggesting that these fish are somehow hormonally disruptive of humans or other animals that might eat them, or even that the enhanced growth hormone production is damaging to the fish themselves, the arguments used against hormones given to livestock and dairy cows through feed or direct injection.” So, basically, when this gets all translated by folks who support it, the gene thing is tossed aside and the focus shifts, mysteriously, to a completely unrelated issue.

Seriously, what to do? I can’t even get a straight answer on what it is!

I decided to read the FDA briefing packet, since they are just now deciding the fate of these GMO fish.

Now, for the purposes of this blog post I will not address here the fact that our government, and its FDA, is heavily influenced by corporate dollars so one can’t really read the FDA report without that grain of salt. Let’s just agree, for the purposes of this post, that we have to go with the people who are charged with keeping our food supply safe.

I just felt like I needed to know what the decision is being based on.

The FDA packet is a 172-page scientific study of the fish, dense with acronyms. It begins with balls-out support for genetically engineered animals — they’ve been around since Carter was president! And it goes on in that vein. Only, more boringly, actually. But, by the end of the paper, frankly, I was even convinced they aren’t that bad.

But I also noticed what was missing: The things we don’t yet know we don’t know about.

Because we can’t say we know if this GMO salmon is going to develop new allergies as some studies indicate produce GMOs are. Or whether there will be a new and intensified need for antibiotics as the fish grow in their artificial environment, which seems so obviously going to happen I am not going to even include a link. We also don’t know if the “completely contained environments” in which they grow these things are going to remain as contained as they think.

And I think this point is where I and the pro-GMO folks part ways: I would like to at least have a semblance of knowing a few of the things I don’t know now, only 10 years into testing this new salmon. I’d like to have waited a bit on the GMO corn and soybeans, which now represent the vast majority of our corn and soybean harvests and are also starting to indicate some unforeseen problems.

Because I get the science — but to really get science, and I am never really clear on why scientists who are so pro-GMO don’t really seem to get this, you have to respect that there are unknown unknowns, just as there are unknown knowns and known unknowns. This was a big take away from the dinner with Natasha.

The scientists, of all people, know about the unknowns that are out there lurking in the future.

And I have to wonder: Why are they ignoring them?

•   •   •   •   •

read Grant’s post in response to Meal One: New Views On the Science of Food

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11 responses

  1. Great post! A couple of other things to ponder about science and food — first, all food (with the possible exception of gathering berries and nuts in the woods) is inherently sciencey. The GMOs of today are no more of a logical scientific progression than hybrid seed corn before that or cross breeding plants and animals or the plow before that. These are all monumental changes in how our food is produced. Which each of these radical new innovations, there were tremendous gains in productivity and many unknowns. For example, in recent decades we have been learning more about the problems associated with plowing — it releases carbon built up in the soil, it is hard on microbial life in the soil and it increases opportunities for soil loss through erosion. In response to these findings, there has been a tremendous shift to numerous methods of conservation tillage in agriculture. The guy who invented tilling the soil didn’t know these things, there is no way he could have known these things. Does that mean we should have never tilled the soil, a practice that has arguably saved mankind from starvation a million times over? I don’t know.
    I can certainly understand concerns with sciencey food, but when you think about it, all of our food is sciencey and it almost always has been. One could argue that backyard laying hens, that are the product of hundreds of years of genetic selection, are every bit as sciencey as GMO salmon. I understand how many people could see a tremendous difference in the sciencyness of GMOs and backyard laying hens, but it begs the question: Where does one draw the line between “sciencey food” and just food?

    June 21, 2012 at 7:07 am

  2. Ellen, Great, REALLY GREAT, insights. What I would ask is that you NEVER stop asking your questions. Never stop wanting to know more. I hope that my farmer and I can one day be at the table with you for a meal. (I just hope it goes a bit more quiet than the last meal I shared with you!) As a farmer and as an “eater” I have the lucky position of seeing both sides of the scary sciencey situation. Science has allowed us to use less of everything; fuel, seed, chemicals, water…and produce less emmissions, conserve the soil more by less tillage…all while producing more food on less acres. AMAZING! But as an eater, I, like you Ellen, want to eat safe healthy food. I believe, with all my sciencey brain (as I am also a biochemist by training from a land grant university here in Texas) that what I eat, from the grocery shelf is safe and healthy…of course unless I choose a candy bar or a box of pre-packaged/msg loaded quick meal. Now the healthy thing comes into question, but, I don’t have to choose that and I don’t blame a farmer for a candy bar, blame the candy bar company! I can choose fresh, raw food from my grocery store and I believe it is safe and healthy (unless I do what Rachael Ray says and not cook my beef properly!) I question a lot of methods and products used in agriculture today, wanting to be sure everything we are doing is safe, healthy and that the land we farm will be productive and healthy in another 100 years. I want research to continue and be conducted through all different methods, universities, government and private agencies alike. I want to know, too Ellen. I will keep questioning and reading and listening, just like you. And I am really looking forward to being A Meal.

    June 21, 2012 at 11:45 am

    • elliecm

      Oh we would so love for you to be a meal. And Oh how I wish I could not be a bumble bee with a big stinger at that meal. But as I say, I just am having a hard time separating the emotion from the conversation.

      This is what I am trying to get to the bottom of: I get that you, farmer, don’t want to grow food people can’t eat. And you get that I don’t want to eat food people shouldn’t eat.

      But there seems a big gap in the middle.

      I am working, slowly and not as surely as I should, to wade into that gap and see if the water is warm.
      (Ellen)

      June 22, 2012 at 2:35 pm

  3. Ellen as a person who was at breakfast with you in Chicago, I am starting to understand what you were thinking and saying. As a former HS Agriculture Teacher, cow-calf owner and feed yard owner I am excited you are putting into words your thought process. This is so helpful. I agree with you that there are no guarantees with the science and change. We can all only do our best and make changes and admit when we are wrong and change again. I am sure glad that people weren’t to scared to move forward with many of things that have benefited us through science. Thank you for posting your journey.

    June 21, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    • elliecm

      Thanks, Janice. I am really just learning. And would really love any help along the journey! I guess one of the things that really helped spark this whole project was a farmer saying: we don’t know everything, either, but we’re doing this because of X. The guy was talking about planting GMO corn and frankly, I agreed with his strategy. So really talking, person to person, helps. If you ever have anything to share person to person… No spin or attempting to convince… We would LOVE to hear your thoughts on any food topic!!! We promise the same back at ya.

      June 21, 2012 at 9:53 pm

  4. Jeff Reid

    Very cool & interesting! One thought about the hormone not “Turning-off” during the winter months… does a salmon’s appetite naturally ease-up during these months anyways (thereby allowing other fish, down the food-chain, to regain their numbers). Or, will this hormone cause the salmon to be hungry throughout the whole year (and thus, eat all of their food supply eventually)? Hmmm…

    Bravo on this blog!

    June 22, 2012 at 10:52 am

  5. Mike Haley

    Glad to see this project moving forward and can’t wait until our meals come about!

    June 23, 2012 at 7:39 pm

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