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!


  1. Hi Nicole! This is an intensely interesting post :) Love all this food stuff, I totally geek out on this so I'm glad Ella shared it on FB. I'm a whole-foods vegan (no processed, no added sugar, etc.). But, thanks for a love of crossfit, I have a LOT of exposure to Paleo, since practically everyone who does that sport eats paleo (and of course, tells me to do the same). It's an interesting comparison vegan vs. paleo since we're ultimately out for the same thing: A healthful, non-processed diet.

    The area where I have a lot of confusion is around legumes. You've obviously given this a lot of thought, making the change from vegan to paleo. I'm curious to hear your thoughts!

    Paelo folks all think legumes are the devil and that they're poisoning us. I obviously rely on them as a MAJOR source of protein (the change to whole foods eliminated wheat gluten and all the fake meat stuff - so I eat lots of beans, tempeh, soy, etc.), and vegans/vegetarians and even omnivorous non-paleo nutritionists say they're an entirely valuable and healthy choice. I'm a little lost. Whenever I look for the "truth" online, I can't find anything that sounds reasonably balanced - all the information I come across is so extreme as to not be very trustworthy. I'd love to hear what you think as someone who made the switch.

    BTW - nice to "meet" you on your blog, I've heard lots of lovely things about you from my boyfriend, Scott :)

  2. Hey Karla!

    To answer your question about legumes, the Primal/Paleo communities group them in the off limits zone, as you mentioned, but the Primal view is less villifying:

    My perspective is there's good and bad to everything we're eating, it's just a matter of finding foods that tip the scale more towards the good and work for your body. Being vegan, the last thing you want to do is limit your sources of protein even further (though I would definitely put soy at the bottom of your list of what provides your protein if possible). Nuts are another good source but also have anti-nutrients and therefore shouldn't be consumed in too large of quantities. So, I'd keep legumes in your diet for sure. If you were vegetarian and not vegan, I might say suggest something different.

    On a less serious note, I am SO happy to hear you say that vegans and paleo/primal people are all on the same team. I whole heartedly agree. Most of the major voices on the paleo side are former vegans and vegetarians. We're all coming from a good place and can definitely help each other...but the arguing kind of gets in the way :) I started learning about nutrition and the politics of food because I was vegan and this is where it's led me. Certainly not the expected path but it's been awesome.

    Thanks for the rad comment and it's super nice to "meet" you as well! Hopefully real life meeting at some point!