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Meal Two: Learning From the Dark Woods

written by Grant

A long day visiting a farm is supposed to end with a campfire. The guitar comes out, maybe a harmonica (hey, I packed mine!) and you sing a verse or two of every song you know into the wee hours watching flames turn to embers.

The first day of Chef Camp at Spence Farm ended with a walk in the woods.

In the dark.

We donned headlamps and carried flashlights, following Marty, Kris and Will into their 40 acres of woods. Diverse farms often have woods and in this case the woods, nearly as wild as when the Kickapoo Indians lived in it, represents twenty-five percent of their farmstead. They carefully harvest from it – paw paws, stinging nettles, maple sap and more.

On this night, we all harvested from it; we harvested a peacefulness and knowledge.

Deep into the woods, we stopped in a clearing and Kris asked us to turn off our flashlights and listen. The sliver of moon offered little light. Fireflies darted about. And it was beautiful to just listen to the world. The sounds were magical, and they opened a door for Kris to speak softly to us about the aesthetic of their farm. Spence Farm has been in the family for 182 years and is the oldest farm in Livingston County. It is scattered with small buildings that each speak to their purpose – a chicken coop, a duck coop, an old schoolhouse for teaching visitors, a rescued smokehouse, a sugar house Will uses to make maple syrup. There are fields of course, but to the Spences, the woods are also a vital part of their farm, part of their aesthetic vision of a sustainable farm and lifestyle for the three of them.

Who stands in the woods in the dark and describes their farm as having an aesthetic!? Kris, Marty and Will do.

And how did such talk affect me?

It gave me this to think about – I get worked up in my effort to promote change in our food system. I go easily into argue and debate mode, trying to convince farmers they should farm differently, that pesticides and herbicides and GMOs and heavy antibiotic use are wrong. That we need labeling. And this activism is both energizing and sapping sometimes. And there’s a certain amount of angriness and negativism in it too.

But there could be another way to affect change. You could form community of like-minded people and gently, quietly do what you feel is right.

Can small farms feed the world?

Kris: “I don’t care – I’m feeding my community.”

GMOs?

Marty: “It’s not natural – animals, given the choice, would choose non-GMO from two piles of field leavings.”

Does the science support Farm Practice X?

Kris: “No science required. Our experience and that of others supports it.”

Driving home late the next night, I caught an interview with literary critic Northrop Frye on the radio. It’s interesting how my mindset from the farm tuned me in to catch this thought from him:

“I detest arguments because you’re going to lose any argument with an ideologue because you can only argue on the basis of a counter-ideology and I’m not doing that.  […] The actual technique of argumentative writing is something I avoid as far as possible because when you argue you are selecting points to emphasize and there can never be anything definitively right or wrong about an emphasis, it’s simply a choice among possibilities, and consequently an argument is always a half truth.”

 No arguing. No debate. No Science A versus Science B. No Kumbaya around the campfire. You just stand in the dark woods and choose the outcome you want.

Meal Two: A Fence May Have Two Sides. It Is Still One Fence.

– written by Ellen

The subject of GMOs came up at a friend’s house over the Fourth of July dinner table. I can’t recall the whole of the conversation, it was brief and fleeting. But I do remember the last exchange:

“… there’s a ton of scientific evidence proving that GMOs are really, really bad…” a friend at the table said.

“Actually, no there isn’t, necessarily,” I commented.

And with that, my friend picked up his plate and stormed off.

Now, I get that emotion. I was there once — not too long ago. And I’d frankly find it much easier to be there now. It is, in fact, infinitely easier to just believe what you want to believe and be done with it. To storm off. To ignore the other side. To be convinced that what you think about food is immutably right and if someone doesn’t agree then, well, who even wants to eat with that person?

But Meal Two taught me a bit about the nature of the fence and its two sides.

Let me explain.

Grant and I were lucky enough to go to Chef Camp at Spence Farm. Chef Camp is an intensive two-day immersion in the life and ideas of a sustainable farm in Central Illinois owned by Marty, Kris and Will Travis. Sustainable isn’t actually quite right — beyond sustainable is how they describe it. Or maybe a better way to describe it would be a bucolic Valhalla of a Farm in the eyes of me and Grant.

To the Travises, sustainable involves everything from the environment, to the lives of the animals, their lives, the community, financials, marketing — everything. They are striving to live a life they can enjoy and feel proud of, doing work they believe in, growing food they know is healthful in every way and as nutrient-dense as possible.

And they work hard in their community to support, foster and grow the ideas of sustainability they believe in. They foster young farmers who want to get into business selling “properly raised food” to Chicago’s chefs. One 14-year old boy in their “stable” runs a two-acre farm, Windy Knoll Produce, and sells to the likes of Rick Bayless, you should know. These people are doing good works. More than their share.

14 year-old Derek Stoller of Windy Knoll Produce

And this is the thing: While there were a lot of great speakers to hear and experiences to share (and delicious meals cooked by fellow campers who were chefs!), my biggest take-away was a talk Kris gave to kick off the weekend. I’ll call it “Fences and the Family Farm.”

This was my take-away:  There is no right way or wrong way to farm — there is the way that each farmer chooses is right for him/her and his/her farm. That’s it. They farm their way. Across the fence, their neighbor farms another. Their goal is to try to work together.

In the world according to Kris, “We may not agree with the way they do things (on the industrial farm next door), but we care about them. They are our neighbors, a part of our community, and we’re all in this together.”

Kris Travis

It is some pretty powerful thinking, when you consider that the Travis family are so sustainably pure as farmers that they could be held up as a model for all that could be right in farming in America — they do things like bring back into production Brownie beans from seeds the Kickapoo Indians gave to their own ancestors on the farm long ago and then, after growing the beans, bring a bag of them to the remaining members of the Kickapoo tribe that lives nearby.

I can’t even imagine the soul-fulfilling satisfaction of giving a piece of real heritage back to American Indians. I mean really, you’ve accomplished a lifetime of greatness with that gesture, no?

If you, dear reader, are a sustainably-minded, family farm-focused, localvorey type, The Travises are your holy grail.

And they want you to know that they really don’t judge those who choose another way of farming. I’ll toss in that maybe I shouldn’t either.

Especially when I don’t have all the facts — or worse, if all I have is skewed facts.

Know this: I am still not going to eat GMOs. I will still campaign against pesticides and antibiotics that are baked into the commodity food supply. I am confident I’ll start crying when I end up having to face an animal in confinement.

I am in no way on the fence about this stuff. But I am starting to realize that burning the fence just because I don’t like what is on the other side actually does no good.

Meal Two: Small Farm, Big Reach

written by Grant

Ellen and I were privileged recently to attend Chef Camp at Spence Farm in central Illinois and it was the coolest two days ever!

Spence is a small, diversified farm – 110 tillable acres and 40 acres of woods – selling heirloom and heritage products to Chicago restaurants and they want to reach more chefs and spread the word about the kind of farming they do. Twice a year The Spence Farm Foundation invites a dozen or so chefs, sous chefs and other restaurant people down for a couple days of farm work, cooking and learning – all in the capable hands of presenters Marty and Kris Travis. The chefs are eager to learn. I was impressed by their questions and motivation. Asked what they hoped to get out of the experience, they said things like:

  • I want tips and knowledge to educate others – my staff, my diners, the community, my kids.
  • I want to know how your product gets to my door.
  • I want to develop a stronger appreciation of your product.
  • I just want to be on a farm.

It is good to know that the chefs who feed us when we eat out are thoughtful about their sourcing and working hard to make good choices. And Marty was direct with the chefs, telling them that it’s important for them to ask tough questions of the farms they buy from and to make it clear what expectations they have.

Marty Travis

We sat under a tent most of the first day, learning from Marty and Kris Travis and their twenty year-old son Will about their farm and the methods they use. My big takeaways? Sustainability and GMOs.

Sustainability

They used the term sustainability a lot and I asked them to define it. The most important thing about their definition was that every farm is different and each must produce its own working definition of sustainable. For their part, they think the crucial components are:

  • environmental – is the farm treating the environment in a healthy way that can continue over time?
  • physical – how big is it and how diversified?
  • financial – is the farmer earning enough to stay in business?
  • community – is the farm a welcome and contributing part of its community?
  • soil and animal – given that piece of soil, how many animals will it support and will they be healthy?

How does Spence measure itself against these metrics? Well, they farm an extremely diverse group of crops and livestock in a carefully planned rotation. They farm “beyond organic”, meaning they are not certified but feel they exceed organic standards (and their soil biologist Bob Boehle backs them on this). They use no herbicides, pesticides or GM crops. They maintain 40 acres of woods. They earn a comfortable living and it is a lifestyle they love. It is clear they are a very tight-knit family team and it was impressive to see the responsibility and ease their son Will showed. He built his own sugaring house at age 14 and sells out of all his maple syrup each year even before he starts! When asked how big they felt was comfortable, they were emphatic that they don’t want their farm to be anything the three of them can’t handle. They do all the work now and expect to keep it that way – that is a very conscious part of their definition of sustainable.

Father and son harvesting

Regarding the farm’s contribution to the community, they are very careful not to simply be a niche farm that is selling to Chicago and not in tune with their neighbors. They are currently organizing a local shared garden initiative for the small town they’re near; they started the Stewards of the Land group years ago that works to help young farmers (10, 14, 17 year-olds!) get started and supports them with a farming community knowledge base; and they formed the Spence Farm Foundation which organizes on-farm trips for families, school groups and chefs to learn about farming and food.

Derek Stoller, 14 year-old farmer

GMOs

With the push to have mandatory GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) labeling in California this fall, lots of questions regarding GMOs are on peoples’ minds recently. Ellen’s been thinking and writing about them after our Meal One. Our friends at Just Farmers are blogging about whether the labeling is a good idea or not. A lengthy report from genetic engineers and scientists at Earth Open Source just came out which questions all aspects of GM safety, research and regulation. So my GMO antennae were up at Spence Farm and I have their perspective to share.

Kris and Marty are extremely thoughtful and direct. They described two piles of plant residue sitting in fields, one GM corn, say, and the other, non-GM corn. Animals would eat the non-GMO. They also say that soil microbes do not recognize GM plant residue as natural food. So why should we recognize it as food? Lastly they made the point that they do not have bug and disease issues on their farm. So GMOs don’t strike them as natural nor necessary.

Heirloom corn

They told another interesting story. There was a point years back when their land, owned by Marty’s mother, was being farmed by someone else. The family insisted that this contract farmer use non-GM crops. He resisted but had to concede since it was their land. So he farmed their land and also other property in the area. Yields on the Spence Farm were higher and they spent less money on seed. We were all incredulous to learn that despite this experiential information, the farmer was not convinced and did not implement non-GM crops elsewhere.

Why?

The Travis family and their soil consultant Bob Boehle all agreed – the answer was convenience. In their opinion, it takes less work to farm GM crops.

•     •     •

So a small, diversified, beyond organic farm can be financially viable; it can be energizing and rewarding to the farmers; it can give back immensely to its community; it can care for the land, raise its animals on pasture and provide large quantities of nutrient-dense produce and meats to the nearby marketplace. All with a drizzle of maple syrup on top! Spence Farm, it was a pleasure to meet you!

Pesticides: Learning Or Building Bias?

written by Grant

We’ve been thinking and writing about scientific research relating to foods we eat. And here’s something interesting that happened to me in the last couple days.

As much as we’ve talked about bias when we think about which body of research we choose to believe, one thing that hasn’t come up is timing. We all understand the phenomenon where we prefer the version of a song we heard first as a teenager. Play some other artist’s version to us now and it’s just not the same, right? We have a strong bias for the first-heard.

Up to now I must admit I have done very little reading on the topic of pesticide residue on foods we eat. Why? Well, again, my defense mechanism against a complex food world is simplicity…or just dodge the issue. I buy organic, locally grown, integrated pest management fruits and vegetables and figure that’s the safest thing I can do.

So I’m telling you I have very little bias on the matter of grocery store produce and whether there is pesticide residue on it or not.

Then along comes this article from Steve Savage, a plant pathologist, on his Applied Mythology blog, shared with me by a thoughtful big ag farmer:

How The USDA Unwittingly Aids EWG’s Pesticide Disinformation Campaign

Savage makes these three points in the article:

  1. “…the data (ed: from the Agricultural Marketing Service arm of the USDA) demonstrates […] that pesticide residues are only present at very low levels, usually dramatically below the conservative “tolerances” set during the risk analysis by the EPA.”
  2. The press and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) who publish the Dirty Dozen list each year proclaim loudly that our fruits and produce are pesticide-laden. No comment given in these announcements that the USDA research shows extremely low levels of pesticide residue.
  3. And how is the USDA partially to blame for this spread of misinformation? Savage says, “What USDA does not do is provide a summary version of the data that is easily digestible by ordinary readers, including typical members of the press.”

So here you have my first and primary exposure to the pesticide residue controversy. I don’t know much about Steve yet, but I have to say he makes very clear and believable points. And I’m almost with him on the idea that, hey, maybe extremely low quantities of pesticide are not harmful. The USDA studies this and deems it so. If I can believe the USDA, I can shop at the grocery store.

Next, I find this in my inbox from a thoughtful small ag farmer who writes for a big ag journal:

Cleaning Up the EWG’s Dirty Dozen

The article is written by Henry Miller and Jeff Stier. Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and directs its Risk Analysis Division. Miller’s bio reads, in part: “biomedical scientist; FDA drug regulator; and scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution” and he is a self-proclaimed debunker of the misunderstandings of science and research.

Their points, though presented in a slightly more strident tone than Savage’s, are clear and easy for me to get. Primarily they argue that the amounts of pesticide residue being found are too low to be concerned with and they are exaggerated by the EWG and others:

 “EWG’s 2010 list involved levels of pesticides 1,000 times lower than the chronic reference dose (the level of daily exposure likely to be without an appreciable risk of deleterious effects during a lifetime of chronic exposure)”

So three scientific minds reach me in these two articles and I have to say, I’m fairly persuaded. I understand there is pesticide residue, but that it is extremely low. There is even some natural pesticide that the plants themselves produce and some of these may be more harmful. The early exposure bias, like that favorite song I talked about earlier, is creeping in on me and I’m about ready to allow pesticide residues at USDA approved levels. It is very interesting for me to see this process in action in my mind.

So what does the EWG say about dosage? Nothing:

 “The EWG’s Shopper’s Guide is not built on a complex assessment of pesticide risks but instead reflects the overall pesticide loads of common fruits and vegetables. This approach best captures the uncertainties of the risks of pesticide exposure. Since researchers are constantly developing new insights into how pesticides act on living organisms, no one can say that concentrations of pesticides assumed today to be safe are, in fact, harmless.”

Hmmm. Emotional argument I would have taken hook, line and sinker before. Gotta say, not too convincing for the scientific-y mind, and this is found on their press release, a good place to be convincing if you ask me. Seems like the EWG needs to address the dosage question directly and that’s basically what Jon Hamilton reports on NPR: Why You Shouldn’t Panic About Pesticide In Produce.

There are nagging questions though:

  • Are the USDA’s standards, their “conservative tolerances”, low enough? How do we know?
  • What about accumulation or interaction of these pesticides in our bodies?
  • What about the effects of these pesticides on our environment? Although the EWG’s efforts with their Dirty Dozen list are clearly focused on consumer consumption, you can’t remove our planet’s health from the equation.
  • What about the effects of these pesticides on our farmworkers?
  • Is the USDA testing only applicable for average weight adults? If so, what about the impact on smaller body sizes, like, say, kids?

So you see the trajectory of my learning on this topic. Now I need your help. Chime in. What do you know about pesticides in our farming that would add to my learning? How do you feel reading this? Are you convinced one way or the other? Speak up!

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

Meal One: New Views On the Science of Food

written by Grant

Sitting down to dinner at Meal One I realized there is a wonderful construct in our approach – sharing a meal with someone is powerful.

Natasha Godard has followed our burgeoning project with interest and when she read my post about research confusion and saw our list of intended meals, she thought we might like to talk with her because she is a scientific-thinking person with a biology degree. Hoping we could get some clarification about how scientists think, how they’re funded and how to choose trustworthy science from someone who’s actually done scientific research, we of course invited ourselves to dinner!

Hailing from New Mexico, she and her husband Bill served huevos rancheros – a tortilla topped with refried black beans, then a delicious layer of carne adovada and topped with a fried egg. Natasha bought pork shoulder from Rob over at the Butcher + Larder, which means it was from Slagel Family Farm and slowly simmered it in red chili sauce. (Here’s her recipe.) And because Ellen has a ready supply of “city eggs” to take as hostess gifts wherever she goes, the eggs we enjoyed were from our own birds! All that plus a delicious homebrew made for a fantastic meal that was thoughtfully sourced and prepared from scratch. For me, that alone is a powerful thing to sit down to with new friends. Add intense conversation delving into food and the science of food and you have a great learning experience as well.

So what the heck did I learn?

I read a lot about food and some of the apparent problems with our food system. Over time, my brain has decided that because it is difficult to sort out what is good, nutritious and safe from what is not, I need some simple mechanism. For me and Ellen, that mechanism is to rely on finding foods that seem “natural” and “caveman-like”. Simpler, whole foods that are grown fairly close to the way they’d grow in nature make sense to us. Complicated, processed foods do not. Our friend Seedling Pete is an example of someone who offers a value-added, processed food product – apple cider. When you read the ingredient list though, it says: apples. Yes, it has a short shelf life, but it is food I can understand. Simple.

So inherently I count GMOs in the “complicated” and “unnatural” category.

But I learned, from this scientific mind and eater I trust and respect that casting all GMOs in the same light may not be fair. There can be good science that leads to healthy GMO plants that we may want to consider eating after all – as Natasha puts it, she is not inherently suspicious of GMOs. She trusts the process but doesn’t always trust the intent of companies putting the science to work.

I am beginning to realize that I may not be able to discount all “science-y” food just because it is lab-derived. I am not sure of this yet, but Natasha is asking me to consider it in a compelling way. Perhaps some GM crops like nutrient-enhanced golden rice are ok but others may not be. In any case, it is now important to me to understand the GMO process better and consider whether it’s fair to apply such a broad, dismissive brush stroke to them all.

The topic of rBGH came up too and we were shocked to learn that Natasha has no objection to drinking milk from cows given the growth hormone. SHOCKED! She had reasons:

  • Because she is given to understand that growth hormones are species-specific, her scientific mind tells her it is not going to impact her…or even impact kids. She thinks the early puberty happening these days is likely caused by various endocrine disruptors, including BPA in cash register receipts, baby bottles and canned goods but possibly also by childhood obesity itself.
  • She also understands, scientifically, that rBGH does not necessarily enter the cow’s milk.

All that said, she and Bill drink Kilgus milk which is rBGH-free. Why? Tastes great! And because they have environmental concerns and concerns for animal welfare that they feel Kilgus addresses.

I admit I have not read a lot about rBGH so I am ill-prepared to debate it with her. Again, our food system is so incredibly complex that I apply my “close to nature” filter on milk. Cows should eat grass and produce milk. Anything else is too much science for me. Yes, it may be safe, but I don’t always have time to read every white paper out there, so as a consumer, I choose simple.

Which brings us generally speaking around to research, the topic we most hoped to cover with Natasha. If you happen to be a crazy food person who wants to know more about what you’re eating, how do you suss out which research is trustworthy? Is land-grant university research trustworthy even with all the recent reports showing how much of that research is funded by big ag businesses? Can we trust research from Pew? Who is Pew anyway? What can we trust?

Natasha was pretty clear in her response to these questions. First off, scientists inherently try to be objective. Secondly, it is incumbent on anyone who is interested that one read from a lot of sources. In particular, Natasha stresses that peer-reviewed journal articles are going to be the most fact-based source of information. Use these to form your own synthesis of the preponderance of evidence. In her own words:

“That said, these articles are written for other experts, not laymen. This is why we all (myself included for many fields, ag being one of them) end up needing someone to “translate” it for us. Unfortunately, “translation” potentially comes, intentionally or otherwise, with bias.

This is why I say, don’t just pick one source and stick with it. It’s vital to read multiple sources, especially once you’re into magazines, blogs and what have you, because of that potential for bias.

Please note, though, “bias” doesn’t in this case mean, “having an active agenda”. It simply refers to the honest fact that we all have our lenses through which we view the world, and that will always influence our interpretation of what we read. Going to multiple “interpretive” sources will help a person understand the facts of a study better, and allow them to make their own judgment calls. Hopefully, recognizing their own bias.”

And lastly Natasha would caution, there are researchers who publish results that are NOT in the interest of their funding sources – it does happen. Here’s an example: Dr. Richard Dick at Ohio State University, a land-grant school, used soybean check-off funding (check-off funds are monies set aside by soybean farmers as a group to fund research and marketing) to research the negative effects of glyphosate (herbicide) on soil health.

As for Pew, she is still forming her own opinion of them so she had little to say. We are too and we’ll be working to learn more!

Meal One did two things – it gave Ellen and me a new lens with which to look at scientific literature. We’re not experts now, but we’re better than we used to be!

And secondly, I was touched to learn also that the meal impacted Natasha and Bill too. In an email afterwards Natasha wrote:

“Interestingly, our conversation and my noticing this [rBGH/rBST labels] on our milk has inspired several conversations between Bill and me about labeling. And we’re both curiously noticing them a lot. For example, we noticed last night at Target that Dean’s milk proudly displays that they also do not use rBST on the label. The potential results of labeling, either required or otherwise, has been a topic of endless fascination in this household. So I must thank you two for bringing it out for us. It’s been a truly interesting set of discussions.”

Proof that One Hundred Meals will be a rewarding process for everyone at the table – both because we all got to eat huevos rancheros and because we are all now thinking outside of our previous mindsets!

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read Ellen’s post in response to Meal One: Gettin’ Sciencey