Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Monsanto Mess Part 2: What Exactly Does GMO Mean and Why is it Bad?

I'm going to try to make this as simple as I can, while also providing links for those nerdy nerds out there like me who want to dig a little deeper.

For those of you who have Netflix streaming, I highly recommend you head over there and watch "The Future of Food" right now. A lot of the information I'm passing on here is contained in that film, plus it has lots of fancy little graphics and such to go along with the more tedious explanations. However, I know you'd miss my witty comments and sassy photos so....I'm going to slog through this assuming you'll be sticking around

What is GMO exactly?

GMO stands for "Genetically Modified Organism". It means the genes of one species are introduced into the genes of another species through human intervention.
Read here for the fancier version as I'll be skipping words like splicing, recombinant, etc (Don't be sad! Just click on the link if you're into that kind of talk)

Panda Cat brought to you by Selective Breeding!

There are a frightening number of people out there ("out there" meaning the internet) who claim to be pro-GMO, argue for GMO and have no goddamn clue what they're talking about. Shocking right? I know. What a lot of them are arguing for is selective breeding. Selective breeding is simply breeding 2 plants or 2 animals or 2 people with desirable characteristics to increase the likelihood of the expression of these characteristics. I'm sure you're all aware of selective breeding. While this particular version of human intervention in nature is less destructive than GM, there are still repercussions to sticking our dirty little fingers all up in Mother Nature's business. Have a wheat intolerance anyone? You probably do and just don't know it, but that's a story for another blog post. (insert your personal fave impending doom music here. I usually go for the Jaws theme)

The Mayan calendar in a wheat field....oooohhhh, very ominous!

How does Monsanto Genetically Engineer our Food and Why?

So glad you asked! This is the fun complicated part. The why part has a simple answer and a complex-conspiracy theory type answer that I will not expound on very much today.

The simple answer is this: In the 1970s Monsanto developed an herbicide called Roundup. They then went on to genetically modify seeds for various crops so they were "Roundup ready", meaning they were immune to the Roundup. Roundup kills all plants, except for those that have been genetically altered to withstand it. Naturally, this was a killer combination (see what I did there? So many levels...) to sell to farmers. Additionally, to farmers, this meant a lot less work in the fields = more money and more time.

On a side note, "super weeds" have now developed which are resistant to Roundup, but we'll get into that drama later.

The super weeds...coming for our blood.

The complicated answer is this: Monsanto is trying to take over our food supply. By "our", I don't just mean the United States's food supply, I mean the entire world. No really you guys, they are. It is creepy as hell and sounds like the plot to some terrible movie or a really famous book. Yes, I did just send you to a Christian blog site for that.

Now onto the fun part of exactly how and with what Monsanto is genetically modifying our food. Try not to nod off, this is serious shit and there will be no distracting pictures to detract from how serious this is for a few paragraphs.

Cells are tough little fellas. When they're healthy and feeling good, they don't want to change or be invaded. So, what are 2 things that are able to invade and affect healthy cells? Bacteria and viruses of course! Monsanto scientists discovered a soil bacteria that was resistant to Roundup herbicide. They cut out the section of DNA sequence responsible for this characteristic and mixed it with E Coli that has gaps in its sequence. When the 2 are mixed, they combine to create a Roundup resistant E Coli mutant. Fun stuff am I right?? In order to insert this awesomeness into the cell, there are 3 possible methods:

1. They use bacteria which create tumors in plants to ferry the DNA sequence into the cell's nucleus. (Does this just sound like cancer to anyone other than me?)
2. An electric stream is used to create holes in the cell's walls so they become vulnerable to foreign DNA.
3. A "gene gun" blasts gold particles covered with the engineered DNA into the cells.

Are you still with me? Don't make me slap your desk with my ruler! I know your next question is: But Nicole, how do they know it worked? On the edge of your seat now all of a sudden I bet...

The inserted DNA sequence needs a promoter to turn on the desired characteristic. The promoter they use is derived from the cauliflower mosaic virus. In the final step to ensure the process was successful, they attach an antibiotic marker, which is a gene that is resistant to a specific antibiotic, so they can test to see if the inserted DNA is being expressed. Do you see the issue here? "A gene that is resistant to a specific antibiotic" is present in something that we are then consuming. I'll let you draw your own conclusions. Nevermind the fact that we have all kinds of bad stuff involved in this process (E Coli, various bacteria, virus....) and there have been conflicting studies regarding the stability of these cells.

Cauliflower...not to be confused with the cauliflower mosaic virus

Why is GM Bad for us?

Look, if the process alone doesn't freak you out, I don't know what to say...except maybe check out these studies/articles on the many potential health ramifications of consuming GM food:

Other issues with GM Food:

1. The threat to biodiversity: with the crazy increase of GM seeds, all patented by Monsanto, being planted all over the world with no controls to keep the seeds from contaminating indigenous species, we're looking at a globalization of plants essentially. Biodiversity is the key to survival and Monsanto is methodically destroying it.

2. Lack of understanding of long term health effects: GM food was fast tracked through Bush Sr.'s administration with its emphasis on deregulation. No special testing was required ever prior to GM food being introduced to the general food supply. The concept by which this happened is called substantial equivalence. How effed is that??? They're changing the DNA of plant cells and no one thought maybe this needed to be tested or checked out? Nope.

3. Patenting of Life: Monsanto has patents on all kinds of "life" at this point. This is the reason they are winning and will continue to win court cases against farmers whose fields were contaminated by Monsanto seeds. This also begs the question of where does the line get drawn? Will animals eventually be patented? Oh then there's the whole test tube meat thing. PETA approved! Don't get me started on how terrible that is-more corporate control over our food supply. Think beyond the saving animals thing here guys.

On second thought, if this is the route we're going I think I might be able to get behind it.

4. Development of Roundup resistant Super weeds: Just like those NYC DDT resistant bed bugs, this was inevitable right? These weeds necessitate the use of stronger pesticides that have been linked to all kinds of really serious health issues such as cancer, genetic mutation (X-Men is not the likely outcome here unfortunately) and disruptions of the body's hormone messaging system, which sounds innocuous but, I assure you, is a shitshow.

5. Farmers are being duped into becoming Monsanto dependent. Farmers are, understandably, drawn to the apparent luxury of planting, spraying Roundup and calling it a day. However, once their fields have been planted with Monsanto patented seeds that's it. They're dependent on Monsanto who requires farmers to buy new seeds every season. If they're caught reusing, they're blacklisted. If they try to replant using conventional seeds, odds are they'll be contaminated with Monsanto's and they'll be sued for illegal use of a patented product. More on this later as it's a sad sad issue for the state of farming all over the if farming wasn't a tough enough career.


There's so much more, but that's all I can take for now. Don't you kind of feel like someone sucked your soul out of your body? Is it just me? By the way, the United States does not currently require GM food to be labeled, which is nuts. Most processed foods contain GM ingredients. USDA Organic labels do mean there are no GMOs, so at least you know you're safe there. However, this is happening now. If you're at all moved by what you've learned by reading this, please take some action. We deserve to know if we're ingesting this garbage.

Motivational Kitten, send us off:

Good news! Motivational kitten has been genetically modified to glow in the dark using DNA from jellyfish!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Monsanto Mess Part 1: The Company

We've been hearing a ton about Monsanto over the past several months. While I've kept up with the most recent developments due to the importance I place on what I eat and where it comes from, I'm definitely lacking in historical information regarding Monsanto and the bigger picture in general. Today I find myself with some time and decided to do some research because we should ALL be informed about who is doing what to our food and what kind of background they have. If you're not angry yet (and I do know a lot of you are) then you ought to be when you finish reading this little multi-part-stay-tuned-for-more set of blog posts on who these jerks are and what they're doing. My hope with this blog is to ignite some passion in everyone about healthy eating and, as always, to inform people about why what they're putting in their body matters...a lot. Monsanto is doing things that will most likely effect many people's health in the long term and I don't mean in a good way.

Who is Monsanto?

A quick read on Wikipedia reveals a long list of awesomely terrible stuff that Monsanto has had their hands in over the years. I mean, seriously, it's like an Onion article-I can't even believe this list is real. They are pretty much the devil, as far as I'm concerned, in that nearly every single thing they have been involved with has been deemed really bad for either a) people b) the environment or c) both.


The company began in 1901 producing and providing artificial sweetener (saccharin) to Coca-Cola. OK, I mean, I think artificial sweetener is terrible shit that totally screws with our bodies when consumed and eats our teeth enamel, but not the end of the world, I suppose, compared to this other stuff:

-Sulfuric Acid: OK, plenty of useful stuff needs sulfuric acid
-Polystyrene aka Styrofoam: No known microorganism has yet been shown to biodegrade polystyrene, and it is often abundant as a form of pollution in the outdoor environment
-2,4,5-T: used to defoliate broad-leafed plants & was phased out in the 1970s due to toxicity concerns
-Agent Orange
(Pretty sure we all know how those went)
-Aspartame: another bullshit artificial sweetener that has been deemed "safe" despite some medical studies showing otherwise
-Bovine Somatotropin: an artificial growth hormone used in milk production that has been banned in the EU, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan
-PCBs: I'm sure you recall that these were present in things like old ACs. They have been banned in the US since the late 70s. PCBs have a half life of 8 to 10 years so they hang around in the environment for a long long time.
-Operated Mound Laboratories during the Manhattan Project aka the development of the first nuclear weapon

Now, in all fairness, this was prior to a lot of awareness regarding the potential for the long lasting damage these things could do. I'm sure there are other companies out there whose laundry list of products they once manufactured in the first half of the 20th century would look, to modern eyes, like they were trying to destroy the planet and everyone/thing on it. Right? Maybe? However, my concern is this: here we have a company with a history of manufacturing things without fully understanding or caring to understand the long term repercussions. That's what I take away from this era of Monsanto and that's what freaks me out when thinking about the fact that this company is now focused on "improving agriculture" (their words).

In the 1970s Monsanto turned their focus to optoelectrics (LEDs and digital faces for clocks,watches etc).

Monsanto genetically modifies a plant cell and by the late 80s is starting to field test genetically modified crops.

1990s-early 2000s
Monsanto gradually switches its focus from chemical based manufacturing to biotechnology. Their main products are currently genetically modified seeds for corn, alfalfa, soy, cotton, canola, sugarbeats & wheat and herbicides. Additionally the also offer a variety of genetically modified vegetable seeds.

Which brings us to more current times:

Interestingly enough, the current biotech focused incarnation of Monsanto specifically tries to separate itself from its prior identity as a chemical manufacturer. From the Monsanto website, the first few sentences of the Company History page are the following:

"Monsanto is a relatively new company. While we share the name and history of a company that was founded in 1901, the Monsanto of today is focused on agriculture and supporting farmers around the world in their mission to produce more while conserving more." (More on the irony of "supporting farmers" later.)

While technically the Monsanto of today IS legally a separate entity, they still share the same name, the same corporate offices and many of the same executives and employees. Huh. Yeah, sounds totally separate to me! While I'm sure this is somehow beneficial to them in all kinds of scandalous tax and court case loopholing ways, that's not my focus at the moment, but it does give you an idea of what kind of a company we're dealing with.

Let's just get down to it for real though. I'm pretty sure the priorities of this entire corporate entity can be summed up nicely by this quote from Phil Angell the Director of Corporate Communications at Monsanto in 1998:

"Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is FDA's job."

Well fair enough, but to just wash your hands of any and all responsibility to the repercussions of what you're putting out into the market makes you a giant asshole in my book. While I'm sure Monsanto's feelings are not hurt by my opinion, as they are far too busy rolling around in their money pits filled with dollars at the expense of OUR health, I'm pretty sure everyone out there in the world who doesn't work for Monsanto should be pissed. Really pissed. And the only way to show you're really pissed in a meaningful way to a company who only gives a shit about money is to stop buying from brands that use GMO ingredients and tell them why. Scroll down here for a list. I know there's been one going around facebook as well, though I believe the header is "Companies owned by Monsanto", that's misleading in that they aren't owned by them, but use ingredients that are bought from growers of Monsanto GMO crops. By the way, according to that linked site, 91% of soy, 88% of cotton and 75% or corn grown in the US is genetically modified.

Next entry I'll talk about some studies showing the health issues associated with GMO foods, what GMO means exactly and why it's being allowed here yet being fought tooth and nail over in Europe. Here's a big hint (click to enlarge):

Now let's end this with kittens shall we?