Building Community At America's Table

Posts tagged “GMO

Meal Six: At Monsanto, I Learned I Am the Problem

– written by Ellen

I think a lot of us on the sustainable food side of the table are completely and utterly wrong about Monsanto. And even wronger about their responsibility in the GMO battles that are going on right now. Now, before you lose your shit, I have to ask you to calm the hell down and hear me out.

I am not saying Monsanto is all rainbows and unicorns. In fact, they have a long history of not awesome. But, thanks to Romney, of all people, that past is past. And, really, it is past. Their entire business model has changed from top to bottom. Bringing it up, still, as an argument for why we should all hate them is like condemning a smoker who quit cold turkey 10 years ago. You actually herald the smoker for changing his ways and yet Monsanto keeps on getting bashed for something they no longer do.

It may make you feel better to have yet another reason to hate them but it’s turned them into a straw man and hating them that actually contributes nothing to the discourse at hand. And I think it distracts us from the real problem.

Now, because I know you and know that you’ve decided I’ve been brainwashed, I’m gonna tell you this: I am not going to start eating GMOs. In fact, if anything, the trip to Monsanto has made me more committed to eating out of my backyard (which means, boo! no more Fresca for me, which I’ll explain later). What I am saying is that I think we’re all working off some outdated and occasionally out-of-whack ideas. And, frankly, I don’t think it is doing “our side” any good because, well, we sound a bit like the Fox News anchors sound to us: wrong to the point of sounding slightly insane to the other side.

Here’s what you need to know: the mainstream media reporting about GMOs and Monsanto is definitely biased and, in many cases, flat out wrong. My first experience with this was when CBS reported that GMO grass killed a herd of cows. It was actually hybrid grass, not GMO grass. WTF? Then there was the widely reported story about rats and cancer that exploded on Twitter because of the scaryass pictures of mice with gigantic tumors. The science of the study was bunk. Again, WTF? Then, horrifyingly to me because I thought they were a rigorous news outfit, Reuter’s reported on a paper that suggested pesticide use was increasing because of GMOs, without, apparently, doing any due diligence on the study, which again turned out to be drawn from bunk science.

It is beyond frustrating, really, if you are trying to honestly figure out what the hell is going on. And honestly, I am beginning to believe that I am never going to actually find out the truth. Because even truthful reporting is presented in such a ridiculously biased way that it can be hard to walk away with a clear understanding of what is really going on.

But here’s one thing I do now know: Monsanto isn’t out to “dominate the food supply” in any way different than Apple is out to “dominate the mobile phone market” or I, at RIA, am out to “dominate the restaurant marketing market.” Monsanto is a business and as a business their job is to make products people want to buy and then try and see how many people they can get to buy them. Like Apple, they’re doing a good job. Or I should say like Intel because the reason there is so much market penetration for GMOs is not because Monsanto is a colossus, but because Monsanto sells their technology to other seed companies in the same way Intel sells their technology to computer companies. GMO is like the microprocessor of seeds.

From a business perspective, it is bloody genius.

Does that mean you have to like what they are selling? No. But just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it isn’t really, really smart.

And here’s the thing: the farmers, their customers, do like it. That’s a key point we need to remember. People are happily buying Monsanto’s products (by the way, those products are proudly labeled GMOs).  Monsanto just sells them. So, if you are keeping track here, at this point in the blog, it is the farmers that are “the problem” because they are creating the demand.

But I am not going to stop there. You likely already realized that the farmers are actually selling their (also labeled as GMOs) products to someone, too. And those buyers, by buying the GMO products, are telling the farmers that it is OK to plant GMOs. So, again, keeping track, the blame moves yet another step away from Monsanto. Right now, it is really PepsiCo, Dole, General Mills, Nestlé or Kraft Foods (etc.) that are next in line to shoulder the blame because they are creating the demand that let’s the farmers know GMOs are OK.

(And, if you are keeping track, you’ve already figured out that the point where the products lose the GMO label is when they leave PepsiCo, Dole, General Mills, Nestlé and Kraft Foods and travel to your food store. Which means, they’re the ones to whom you should be directing your label rage, folks. Don’t pack a lunch with Oreos in it if you are planning to attend your local, neighborhood Occupy Monsanto protest.)

Of course, and I think you already figured this out too, PepsiCo, Dole, General Mills, Nestlé and Kraft Foods all sell to someone, who is creating demand for their products. That someone is actually the end-use consumer. That someone is, well, me, for one. So, it follows that, as the originator of demand, me and others like me, actually are the epicenter of blame. By buying products, we are the ones who sends the demand notice that ripples up the supply chain to Monsanto’s seeds.

And if you think about it, you know this already, that means you, too.

Which brings me back to my Fresca.

I don’t have air conditioning in my house and I work at home so, this past summer I nearly melted like the Wicked Witch of the West. It was awful and somehow, even though I don’t drink soda as a rule, at some point during the summer, in the blisteringly muggy death-like atmosphere that was my house, I decided that it was Fresca that would be my salvation. And it was. Delightfully so. God knows how that came to pass but it did and, as the summer wore on, I drank what I believe might be a small ocean’s worth of Fresca. At least a large lake’s worth.

It seemed innocent enough — I was just trying to stay cool. But really, in buying that Fresca, what I was doing was perpetuating a food system I demand is horrendous. What a clueless idiot.

You see, every time I buy salad dressing because I am lazy or buy an apple fritter at Starbucks because I need some comfort, I am telling Monsanto, loud and clear, to sell more GMO seeds. We all do the same thing. The commodity milk in a latte, the soy everyone thinks is so good for them, the takeout Chinese and the fun “Boo!” cookies at the local bakery, the Doritos and Pirate’s Booty, the Powerbars and the Potbelly or Subway — it’s likely all GMOs.

You don’t need a label. You already know that 95+ percent of the corn grown in America is GMO. And you know that corn is in just about everything. So, screaming for a label is just noise because you are still buying the products you know, if you take two seconds to think about it, contain GMOs.

A label isn’t going to change anything. And fighting for a label when you’ve got a Starbucks in your hand is blaming someone/something else for a problem you help create.

You see, the problem is all crap you are buying that you actually don’t believe in but which tells the companies they’re selling the right thing.

You really don’t need a label. You need to start thinking.

And to be honest, I don’t think any of us are thinking. We’ve signed the petition and decried what we demand is “hidden from us,” without admitting that, frankly, unless we are buying organic, we actually know we are buying GMOs. We curse Monsanto for lobbying to kill the labeling law, even though it is within their rights and is best for their stockholders that they do so.

That’s right, lobbying to stop labeling is them doing their jobs. If you don’t like it, you need to work to change the lobbying laws, not get mad at a company taking legal advantage of them. That’s like getting mad at the gun makers when some whackjob goes postal.

And think about it: no amount of screaming is going to stop the folks at Monsanto from doing what they are supposed to do when they go to work each day — producing a product that you ultimately support, even if you say you don’t.

And this is the thing, we’re the ones who are doing the wrong thing: when we leave the Occupy Monsanto meeting, pumped up and ready for a fight, and we stop by Whole Foods to get a snack and we actively ignore the fact that it is likely laced with GMOs if it isn’t labeled organic. We fall for the “All Natural” label, which has no government oversight whatsoever and actually means nothing. We disconnect ourselves from the reality of the Frappuccino (you can make a delicious Frappucino-y thing with coffee, cold milk and honey — you don’t have to be deprived your frappufreakingcino!) and ignore the power of our own dollars to make a change.

It’s bloody well stupid.

And the first person with whom I lay blame is myself. I realize that what I really need to Occupy is my own kitchen — because I am a source of the problem.

Here’s the thing I learned from visiting Monsanto — they’re a bunch of people just doing their jobs and to be honest, they believe in what they are doing. They are excited by the possibilities and feel like they are contributing to the greater good of society. Really. They are super concerned about helping American’s reduce trans fats in their diets and have a nutritionist on-staff who seemed genuinely and sincerely concerned about how well-intentioned but wrong-headed food choices and policies end up distracting society from the end-game: more healthy food in more people’s bodies.

And before you wonder if they genetically modified our brains while we were there, I’ll be honest I was surprised at how little “persuading” they actually did do. As a point in fact, when I told our host, Gary Barton, that I thought the organics vs. gmo nutrient study was misleading because the statistical model was biased, he didn’t argue with me — he just looked sad. At no point did they try to change my opinion, on the contrary, they were eager to find out what it was. They were excited we were there and willing to talk and they wanted to understand why the hell everyone hates them so much. They believe what they are doing is good for us, good for the environment, and the right thing to do — why doesn’t everyone see that?

You may not agree with them. But you can’t go to their headquarters, spend a day all up in their faces, demanding answers, and walk away thinking they are all plotting to kill us with scary ass evil intentions.

No, you walk away thinking that maybe you only have half the story. You walk away and jump on your computer and start Googling “Monsanto Monarch Butterflies” and “Monsanto Chapati Wheat” and “Monsanto Cancer” and you begin to realize that the reporting is so conflicting and so biased and, often, so ridiculous that, likely, we’ll never know who is right.

But I do know who is wrong: it’s the folks who blame Monsanto for selling (labeled) seeds to farmers who grow crops which they sell (labeled) to food manufacturers who make products (not labeled) they are actually buying. The folks who are too clouded by their own ignorant rage about transparency (she wrote, pointing finger at self) that they fail to take a few moments to realize that nearly every single food product that is sold in any sort of package with any sort of label is 99% sure to be GMO, even if the label doesn’t say “yo, GMOs inside” — and that when they buy those products, they are creating demand for the very thing they think they are outraged about.

Me: I’ve got 18 more cans of Fresca in the house. In the last 24 hours, I’ve called upon my CostCo-size bottle of worchestershire, Kikkomen soy sauce and my beloved sriracha. I don’t think the Fresca has any GMOs, only because I don’t think there are any agricultural products in there whatsoever, it’s all a bunch of gross made-up chemicals, but the rest of it surely does.

I know this — I just need to make sure I remember it when I run out. And I need to choose to buy something different.

My next meal, I already decided, is in fact to Occupy My Own Kitchen. I want to come to terms with what I do to perpetuate a problem I think is gigantic and awful and wrong and thus worthy of the effort it will take in my life to right my actions so they line up with my beliefs.

Because the thing our trip to Monsanto taught me is that if I really do want the food supply to change, if I really want to make a difference in how our country feeds itself, feeds the world, I have to start with myself.

And you do too.


Meal Six: Monsanto

– written by Grant

I mentioned to a chef friend that we’d gone to Monsanto.

He looked incredulous.

And he asked in a rather shocked way, “WHY?!” He went on to say, “I could never spend the day with those people.”

So why did we go to Monsanto? Surely we did not expect them to roll over and say, “You know, you’re right that our company practices are not fair and do not have the greater good in mind. We should change.”

We did not expect them to change by talking with us, although I will say they were very genuinely interested in our viewpoints as part of the “disturbed consumer group” out there that dislikes, ok, the word is hates, Monsanto. They listened a LOT to us because after all, they are trying to figure out how to communicate better with unhappy consumers. Most people in the room with us were public relations people after all. Communicators.

Nor did we go because we were thirsty for Kool-Aid. We are thirsty for genuine, civil conversation about our food system, whatever that means.

Briefly, the day went like this: we were met at the Chesterfield Campus by Gary Barton who is one of their regular tour guides and a former Monsanto public affairs employee. He and Janice Person showed farmers Mike Haley and Ray Prock and Ellen and me around the facility – growing rooms, greenhouses, DNA testing equipment and such. Leaving aside any biases you may have, man’s ability to invent stuff and push technology forward is amazing. Our space program is amazing; car manufacturing plants are amazing; Monsanto’s technology is amazing.

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We talked about Monsanto’s history and their move from being a chemical company to being a seed company. Yes, one-third of their revenue comes from chemicals like Roundup, but 95% of their research budget is now devoted to seeds (GM and non-GM seeds) and trait selection. We then drove to their corporate headquarters and had lunch in a boardroom with a bunch of additional employees: Rick a food scientist, Wendy a dietitian, Paulette a plant breeder and Carly in public affairs. Lunch was a catered-looking affair set out just for our group and there were also a few items that featured use of their new Vistive Gold® soybean oil that you’ll read about below.

I began to see Monsanto as what it is, a large corporation. Leave aside the question of their being in the food business for a minute and name one mega-corporation in this country that has a triple bottom line approach to running their business. Name one for whom things like social justice and general good citizenship is truly a big part of what they do. Let’s face it, our (supposed) free-market economy encourages and rewards big, successful businesses and they get that way thanks to government regulations going their way and consumers buying what they’re selling.

In the case of food, we’ve bought into the ideas of low cost and convenience. We apparently like flavorless tomato slices on our sandwich in January and we like a meal that costs a dollar. That is a paradigm that big business has marketed to us – and that is their job, after all – and we’ve bought the bill of goods. We let this happen. I am not sure we can blame big business like we tend to do. I’m not saying I like it, but I am hesitating to place blame. There is nothing about our market economy that requires or even much encourages triple bottom line business. Read David Katz on the subject! At best, we have government dietary guidelines – more on that in a minute.

Let’s look at a new food product that is trying to get approval for sale in the US – the non-browning Arctic Apple. The genetically modified non-browning apple. A lot of folks on the big ag side like to say that they offer choice and that it is the consumer demand that drives this choice. In the case of this new apple, I’m not so sure I’ve heard a lot of consumers speaking out and demanding a non-browning apple. I think it is more accurate to say that big food producers look for new marketable food items and suggest and convince the consumer that they have value. The demand does NOT precede the supply. Marketing creates demand for what the producer is supplying. The question worth considering is, in what way could ethics influence the supply?

Enter dietary guidelines.

One major thing I learned at Monsanto is the degree to which governmental dietary guidelines drive new food products. Here is Wendy:

“Dietary guidelines significantly affect what food companies do.”

And as Rick spoke, he kept coming back to the word guidelines. Look at trans fats as an example. Government guidelines recommended we remove trans fats from our diets. Our fast food chains used to fry in trans fat laden oils. If guidelines restrict that, food companies need to develop new oils that are stable at high temperatures and don’t have trans fats. Enter products like Monsanto’s Vistive Gold® – a low-saturated, hi-oleic GM soy oil. Check out this bullet point from their promotional postcard for Vistive Gold®. It is telling:

“When used in food, Vistive Gold® has the ability to reduce saturated fat intake, helping food companies meet dietary guidelines to reduce solid fat in the diet.”

I underscore, guidelines drive food innovation.

Now you could say, “Hey, our model is broken. We do not need “healthier” oil to fry in. We need to fry less.”

True. If you believe that, eat less fried food and convince your friends of the same. I am right there with you, but at the end of the day, there is a HUGE market in this country for french fries and companies like Monsanto are in business to be in business and they are going to supply that product. They are even doing what they can to make the oil healthier than it used to be.

I am beginning to think that barking at Monsanto will not change our food supply because it is not in their financial interest to do so. Business is about money.

The GMO labeling initiative on the November ballot in California, Proposition 37, brings up an interesting question I have for Monsanto and big food though. If you argue that business responds to consumer demand and aims to MEET that consumer demand, why are the big food companies spending millions to defeat the mandatory labeling initiative? (As of this writing, Monsanto has invested over $7 Million to defeat the measure.) You would think they’d see this as market analysis they did not need to pay for. Go back to that non-browning apple. Suppose you’re developing that product. You’d do some focus groups and check in with consumers to see if enough of them would buy it to make it worth your while, wouldn’t you? You’d do extensive market testing and analysis to determine demand, right? Well, in the case of this labeling initiative, and combine it with consumer interest in Vermont that was squashed, I’d propose to big food that there is some major market analysis right under their noses and they’re trying to defeat it rather than learn from it.

Why defeat it? At Monsanto we asked and got these responses:

  • We are confident that the science is clear and GM foods are safe.
  • If labeling were being suggested for a health reason, then perhaps we’d support it.
  • Monsanto does not control the labeling on foods in the grocery store, food companies do. We are a seed company and we DO label our seeds as GM when we sell them to farmers.

If millions of moms in focus groups said, no, we’re not interested in a non-browning apple, would that food company proceed with the product? No. So why proceed with GM crops and fight GMO labeling when millions are standing up against it? You in big food may be right. Perhaps it is safe, but you are ignoring free market research to the contrary. I guess the consumer is always right … unless he or she is wrong.

These moms I am imagining in focus groups brings up my last point. Surely we can all agree that consumers are engaged with their food and its source in huge numbers right now. Farmers market shopping is on the rise; new farmers markets are opening; an unprecedented number of young farmers are stepping up to be farmers; more and more local organic foods are available; terms like Know Your Food, Farm-to-Table, Farm-to-Bar and Whole-Animal are ubiquitous. People are engaged with their food! That seems wonderful of course. But unfortunately, like in politics, these two very different food systems, local and organic on the one hand and large commodity farming on the other are in tension.

Ellen and I admire our friend Mike Haley, a conventional farmer from Ohio who is working hard to diffuse this tension. He wrote recently about defining sustainability and his point was largely that of course farmers of all stripes must work to achieve sustainability. All farmers take care of their land and animals – it is their livelihood, after all. And Janice from Monsanto put it like this:

“We think we have similar definitions of sustainability but we have different ways to get there.”

I believe we are all dancing around this word sustainability and given that we as a country have one environment to protect and probably should have one set of animal rights to uphold and one set of farm worker rights to uphold, I wonder if it is right and fair for us all to be pursuing sustainability in widely divergent manners.

On the one hand I agree with Kris Travis that each farm has to make its own determination about what sustainable means to it. The Transition Movement argues that too, pushing for decentralized, local decision making that “models the ability of natural systems to self organize“. But on the other hand, I also think that a better shared conscience about the sustainability goal we as a country have is important. We need a north star, a set of guidelines, an agreed-upon definition of sustainability that keeps us all on track together. Working separately and tailored to each farm, but with a national conscience in mind. And of course sustainability is a holy grail we will never actually achieve, but like the north star, it guides us. When someone says that for them, sustainability means caring for the land, what does that mean? Is putting synthetic nitrogen on it “caring” or is companion planting/crop rotation/animal grazing “caring”? Does caring for the land extend to ALL our land? ie: do farmers care for the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, or only their land?Defining sustainability is crucial and mercurial. It could be the way we as a country move forward in agriculture without anger. It supposes government guidelines and regulations, I guess, but it strikes me as the only way to reach shared goals…by actually agreeing on and sharing them! The word sustainability is also on the fast-track to being another worthless word like organic and natural.

I think it would be worth saving.

What did I learn at Monsanto? Keep asking questions.


GMO Labeling Is More Than The Label

– written by Grant

The debate rages in this country about whether we should have mandatory GMO labeling or not. It comes up for a public vote in California this fall and much attention is focused on that outcome. In fact, here is an indicator of the attention Big Food is focusing on labeling:

“In a recent speech to the American Soybean Association (most soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified), Grocery Manufacturers Association President Pamela Bailey said that defeating the initiative ‘is the single-highest priority for GMA this year.'”  [from Huffington Post article]

I’ve been challenged by folks like geneticmaize and noteasy2begreen to explain the reasoning for labeling and oddly, it’s been difficult. In my gut, labeling seemed right. Then when I think about it, I realize it would be very expensive to implement and monitor in a way that would be trustworthy. Another common argument against labeling is that a consumer who wants to avoid GMOs simply has to do a quick Google search on it and take two minutes to learn – you can avoid GMOs by avoiding a short list of foods, especially most packaged and processed foods and be sure to choose things labeled Certified Organic as they do NOT contain GMOs.

These arguments have been hard for me to debate. I found myself relying mostly on emotion and saying things like, “It doesn’t matter whether labeling is a good idea or not, consumers want it.”

I’m surprised to find the answer in a book about slaughter.

I just finished reading Timothy Pachirat’s book, Every Twelve Seconds – Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. Pachirat is a political scientist who surreptitiously took a job in a slaughter house in order to research and write a book about conditions there. This was in a time when there was no “ag gag” law against such things. His was a risky move to be sure, but not an illegal one, as it is now in many states.

He describes systemic food safety infractions and animal abuse, yes, but the real thrust of his book is his explanation of the ‘politics of sight’, and it now helps me understand GMO labeling.

We want to “know” our food. Ag gag laws, pink slime, meat glue, animal cages, e. coli on spinach, rBST etc are hidden from us, both literally and figuratively. As Pachirat describes, “hiddenness” and lack of clear “sight” and knowing is power. It is power held over us by the person, the company, the industry that is doing the hiding. The call for labeling is the populace in our country seeking transparency. We seek transparency because not having it, as we feel is the case now, means we are powerless.

The suggestion that we should simply buy organically labeled foods to avoid GMOs does not satisfy. It does not address this power struggle. In fact, it is a concession to it because we are then offered only a very limited choice of foods and most importantly, we are being offered those because all the others are hidden from us. Organically labeled foods are fine, but the problem we have is with the power held in the other mysterious foods. We seek transparency of those foods too.

We look around at our populace’s health issues, our environment’s health issues, our farm workers’ health issues and focus our anger on Big Food. Labeling is the line in the sand we can draw that says we want food manufacturers to tell us “What’s in there?” “What are you feeding us?” Stop hiding.

This was interesting to hear on NPR – Jeff Leitner and Howell J. Malhalm Jr. of Insight Labs were talking not about food but about voting and democracy. They made the point that the newer generations have different viewpoints and different paradigms than generations past:

“Personal agency is paramount in a democracy simply because people want the feeling that they have control over their own destinies. Voting was the ultimate symbol of agency in the United States for many years, but now that the very nature of agency is changing in light of technological advances that give us an unprecedentedly high degree of personalization and freedom over our own lives, voting seems quite antiquated. Why would the younger generation buy into designating leaders by proxy when their lives are ruled by themselves?”

Younger generations want “agency” or control and power in their own lives in a very different way than generations past. And the internet and social media tools empower them. Upset? Launch an online petition. Want to be a filmmaker? Shoot a video with your phone and put it on youtube. Although I have a great deal of respect for farmers and their knowledge base, they often fall into the trap of insisting that the ill-informed public should stay out of farming decisions. Take gestation crates as one example – the backbone of most arguments in favor of crates often seems to hinge on the ranchers saying they “know what’s best” for their animals and we outsiders can’t know and shouldn’t be meddling.

This stance won’t fly with a generation who wants, no, who is taking agency and power.

It is a bigger question than GMOs – we want more transparency in our food system. We want to feel like we are part of our food system. That we have some power and control over our food system. Being on the receiving end is not enough; purchasing power is not enough – we want to have joint control of the food system.

Small farms and small local food producers offer transparency. They are simple, open and have short ingredient lists. They share power.

Big Food needs to learn from that. Be transparent. Cede some power.

We will still need to eat – done right, ceding power will not mean ceding profit.


Field Trip: A Tour of Monsanto (yeah, you read that right)

written by Ellen

So, as part of the One Hundred Meals project, Grant and I are field-tripping to Monsanto next week. Wait, the WHAT? I mean, really? MONSANTO? YES! We’ll be infiltrating enemy lines!!!!

No, in all seriousness.

You don’t have to stretch your mind too much to realize the shock we both felt when someone with an email address that ended with “@monsanto.com” was actually emailing us, inviting us to travel to St. Louis and tour the facility, have some meetings and, hopefully, have time for a meal at Niche restaurant! And if nothing is going to test the boundaries of our willingness to be open to learning and listening, arriving at Monsanto with a notebook and commitment to being unbiased is it.

It’s where our feet are held to the fire and we have no choice but to decide once and for all that we are going to do with this project what we set out to do — report on the facts as honestly as we can. And really, I know we can do this.

Because we believe that while we don’t need to convert — and really, likely we will not — we do in fact believe that we all need to have a productive, respectful dialog about food if we are going to move forward as a community and thrive.

And really, we very, very much believe that for this meal, we need to be respectful guests with lots of smart questions.

Of course, this is going to take a lot of learning up front about the issues, products and track record of Monsanto. Right now, my knowledge of the company is so limited and skewed I feel like an ignorant asshat. “Monsanto: Hate.” is about the extent of my range.

So, we’re reaching out in this post to anyone and everyone who might help us prepare by sending us:

  1. Links to articles and scholarly papers that serve as good, unbiased introductions to GMOs and Monsanto in general. (OK, nothing is unbiased, likely, so just send it all and we’ll try to take good notes for both sides.)
  2. Titles of good books or documentaries we can absorb (I read insanely fast, so pour it on.)
  3. Questions you have that you haven’t been able to find a solid answer for (and for which you have actually tried to find an answer). We don’t, for instance, wanna ask about the lawsuits against farmers who are sued by Monsanto for illegally growing GMO crops. It is a dead issue and if you take some time to learn about the facts, you’ll understand that to be true. We do, though, want to ask about contamination of organic fields from pollen sources and how they are dealing with that.

I think, personally, it is awesome they Monsanto is opening the door for us. Sure, they’re gonna tell their story their way — but you know, I tell my story my way and you tell your story your way. We get that. We’ll be listening for that. But the truth is, a person I respect actually once told me she believes that Monsanto will answer any question honestly, even if it makes them look bad. I find that astounding and wanna see for myself. And, really, if it’s true, I wanna know why.

Ours is a small project on a small scale. We aren’t some big news outlet with eyeballs from here to kingdom come. We’re just a couple of people who want to find out what is really going on in our food supply. And I think it is significant that Monsanto is taking the time to invite us in and answer our questions.

I can only hope more Big Ag folks take this open-door stance. Personally, I think it would do a lot to help them in their own quest to be understood.


Give ’em an inch of either side

– written by Ellen, in response to an email from Grant

At Meal Three (my post is coming, be patient), conventional dairyman Ray Prock shared with us a “mindset” that gets in the way of everyone moving forward: the give ’em an inch theory.

Farmers think of their work as science-based. The things they do — rBGH, GMOs, Round-Up, all the scary stuff — they do it in the name of science. And the belief is that science is good.

So, when you ask someone like Ray why he uses GMOs, he responds with something sane-sounding like, “I believe they can make a better seed than I can grow.” And in a climate that is changing rapidly, bringing, say eye-popping drought to Texas, the idea of farmers choosing a seed that is designed to grow in certain weather conditions can be very intriguing.

After all, the non-GMO seeds were naturalized to grow in their native climate. And, take for instance in my own backyard, I can only surmise that the climate is changing at a rate faster than Mother Nature can respond to. This year, my garden is a hot mess and I, for one, pretty much gave up trying to sort out how to grow in this crazy weather back in May.

So, the reaction Grant and I have when we sit down to a meal like Ray is, “Yea, I get that. I won’t eat it, but I get why you grow it.”

There’s another reality, though, as well and I’ll use tail docking as the for instance.

“There is no science supporting the benefits of tail docking dairy cattle,” Ray said. But farmers still do it. He explained that they do it because if they stop doing it, who knows what else the pro-animal activists will demand.

They can’t give us an inch.

From my side, it’s pretty freaking incomprehensible that the animals that nourish us are “suffering” because of human ridiculosity.

Until you see something like this:

Now, these folks very well might be kidding. The Twitters are good for taking conversations out of context so you can freak the hell out.

But really, I am not sure why anyone would grow an apple that doesn’t brown. Or, for that matter, tomatoes that can be picked while still hard and green so they can taste cardboardy though reddish in the store.

My reaction, when Grant forwarded this tweet, was the same as his, “Scary – people are actually in favor of the most absurd GM thing, an apple that doesn’t brown! What the hell do we need that for!!????? The minute I start to understand them, they lobby for something nutty like this! Crazypants!”

Apparently, in greenlighting all those GMOs, it seems “we’ve” given them an inch and they’re taking a mile, thank you very much. And that makes me really sad and frustrated and my gut reaction is to stop all GMOs because I think “they” just don’t know when to stop.

So, I am officially letting all you conventional farmers know: if you are pushing for science-based farming because you are actually trying to do good by, say, growing a variety of sweet corn destined for human consumption that can withstand drought, you’ll probably find me not just understanding your decision, but actually supporting it as well.

But if you’re creeping into areas that are just plain old greedy, like a damn apple that doesn’t brown, my natural reaction is to recoil in horror and decide that you — and all your sciencey hocus pocus — is scarysauce.

Really, ALL OF IT.

And because of the tail docking example, I know you understand where I am coming from. I know you know in your heart that the single “bad apple” idea is what spoils the whole batch.

I wanna know what you are now going to do about it.


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.