Tuesday, August 17, 2010

GMO's and frankenfoods

GMO has become a catch-phrase for many referring to plants, animals or bacteria that have been genetically-modified using recombinant engineering techniques. These techniques typically involve taking DNA molecules from one source and splicing or adding them into a new source creating a new set of genes that now express this introduced DNA.

This technique allows plants, animals or bacteria to then 'express' traits or produce compounds that previously were absent in that orgnism. In its most benign form, this might represent something as simple as rice producing a vitamin previously absent in a normal rice granule. Doesn't sound so bad, right?

Now imagine something a little different: transgenic splicing, i.e. taking something from the DNA of one species (animal or plant) and adding it into the genome of an entirely different species, plant to animal, animal to plant, plant to plant, etc. Now its sounding a little more strange, isn't it?

Well why bother then? I mean, just because we can, does that mean we should?

The large agribusiness companies would say this is to improve the quality of life for humans everywhere by eliminating or decreasing our dependence on insecticides, help protect biodiversity, increase yields, and improved livelihood for family farmers.


Opponents say the evidence is very much to the contrary on every point and that there hasn't been enough time to see the long-term effects of these products on human health and the environment.

As someone who believes that modern agriculture is flawed in its most basic principles and ideas, you can imagine which side of the fence I fall on in regards to this issue.

My feeling is that most of the problems these genetically-modified plants and animals were created to counter, are the direct result of modern agriculture's desire to grow monocultures of plants and animals under inherently unhealthy or unnatural conditions.

So , what kind of evidence is there that these GMO's are harmful?

One of the more interesting studies was a French study published in the International Journal of Biological Science (2009; 5:706-726, A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health Joël Spiroux de Vendômois1, François Roullier1, Dominique Cellier1,2, Gilles-Eric Séralini1,3 ) which looked at Montesanto's own data from their own experiments which they felt proved safe 3 varieties of GM corn, two with bacillus thunbergens insecticidal proteins and one with innnate resistance to Montesanto's herbicide ROUNDUP.


What they found were statistically-significant deleterious affects on multiple organs, most noticeably the kidney and liver but also evident in the 'heart, adrenal glands, spleen and haematopoietic system.'

This was the same data (forcibly acquired through the courts by the French researchers) Montesanto had used to show the clear safety of these three GMO products.

But, what was perhaps more relevant, significant, and disturbing was the complete inadequacy of the original study which allowed Montesanto to release these products into the marketplace:

  1. 'Firstly, the feeding trials in each case have been conducted only once, and with only one mammalian species. The experiments clearly need to be repeated preferably with more than one species of animal.'
  2. 'Secondly, the length of feeding was at most only three months, and thus only relatively acute and medium-term effects can be observed if any similar to what can be derived in a process such as carcinogenesis.'
  3. 'Thirdly, the statistical power of the tests conducted is low (30%) because the experimental design of Monsanto (see Materials and Methods). However, it is important to note that these short-term (3-month) rat feeding trials are the only tests conducted on the basis of which regulators determine whether these GM crop/food varieties are as safe to eat as conventional types.'

In fact, the French researchers went so far as to say that through study modifications and inconsistencies “increases noticeably the risks of false negative results.”

Montsanto has criticized the French researchers because of legal support provided by Greenpeace and the Danish government and in their research assessment which relied on what they call “a variety of non-standard statistical approaches.” Montsanto also critcized them for dissecting their data in such a way as to drastically inflate the probability of producing statistically significant findings.

The real shocking part of this whole study is the revelation that so little goes into approving a product that has so much potential to do harm. A mere 3 month study on less than 200 rats was all that was required to assess the 'long-term' health effects of these 3 products.

Research not paid for by big agribusiness is almost non-existent in part because agribusiness is unwilling to grant the use of their 'intellectual property' to outside researchers.

So in the end, we're not talking about the hot new tomato variety as in days of old - we're talking about products, 70+ % are incorporating insecticidal agents or herbicidal resistance to their genetic makeup. So much for "decreasing our dependence on insecticides" (or herbicides in this case.

These are intellectual-property products that have the potential to make billions of dollars for big agribusiness, which is controlled by a very small number of companies worldwide.

We have a lot of experience with 'intellectual-property' products in agriculture and its affect on farmers. Montsanto has aggressively pursued legal action against farmers and won in both US and Canadian courts for 'blow over' affects for genetic material from a Montsanto planted field into a neighboring farm as theft of genetic material.

In addition to the contamination issue mentioned above, there are also significant questions about the creation of super-weeds and super-bugs. Think of what has happened with drug resistance in bacteria from the overuse of antibiotics.

For example, one product, the New Leaf potato, was developed by Montsanto through genetic engineering to contain the naturally-occurring insecticidal proteins found in a bacteria called Bacillus thuringgiensis (Bt). These Bt products have been used from decades by organic producers to help fight insects in agriculture.

Montsanto's approach was to splice it into the genome of a mono-culture of potato, so farmers could decrease their use of insecticides in the fight against the colorado potato beetle.

However, it quickly became clear that when used in this way (instead of intermittent application as previously used), the potato beetle quickly began developing resistance to these insecticidal proteins, a phenomenom never described before in decades of responsible use of this valuable tool by organic farmers!

So commercial agribusiness's insistance on using an unnatural and unsustainable practice (monoculture, reliance of insecticides to control pest problems) has potentially threatened to remove a highly effective tool for organic production in a matter of a few years.

Eventually, the New Leaf potato was pulled because of consumer concerns expressed to McDonald's, the potatoes largest customer in America, who said they would no longer buy GM potatoes for their restaurants (and I use that term loosely in this case).


Different countries have have handled the regulation of GMO products very differently. The EU, Japan, China, Korea, Australia and New Zealand all have label laws, requiring the identification of GMO products. Others, like Ireland, have outlawed them altogether.

The U.S., on the other hand, has no requirement for labeling of GM products and attempts to get labeling laws passed have failed despite the fact that some 87% of Americans are in favor of it.

Order Bans Planting or Sale of Controversial Crop. Court Denies Monsanto Request to Allow Continued Planting.

Recently, a federal district judge for the Northern District of California, rescinded the USDA’s approval of genetically engineered “Roundup Ready” sugar beets because no environmental impact study had been completed.

What kind of environmental impact could we be worried about? Previous experience with similar Roundup Ready crops have led to increased use of herbicides, proliferation of herbicide resistant weeds, and contamination of conventional and organic crops with GMO genetics. (Remember the significance of intellectual property?)

Well then, how common have GMOs become in the food that we eat?

Here is a summary of crops, foods and food ingredients have been genetically modified as of May, 2010:

(NB: the number in parentheses represents the estimated percentage that is genetically modified.)

Soy(91%) Cotton(71%) Canola(88%) Corn(85%) Sugar Beets(90%) Hawaiian papaya(more than 50%) Alfalfa (at Supreme Court).

Other easy to find sources of GMOs in your diet:

  • Dairy products (from cows injected with the GM hormone rbGH) - there was a recent fight in Pa when the Pennsylvania Dep't of Agriculture ruled it was 'misleading' consumers to label rBGH-free milk as being hormone-free.
  • Food additives, enzymes, flavorings, and processing agents, including the sweetener aspartame(NutraSweet®) and rennet used to make hard cheeses
  • Meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals that have eaten GM feed - corn and soybeans.
  • Vegetable oil, vegetable fat and margarines (made with soy, corn, cottonseed, and/or canola)
  • Ingredients derived from soybeans including soy flour, soy protein, soy isolates, soy isoflavones, soy lecithin, vegetable proteins, textured vegetable protein (TVP), tofu, tamari, tempeh, and soy protein supplements.
  • Ingredients derived from corn including corn flour, corn gluten, corn masa, corn starch, corn syrup, cornmeal, and High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).

If you extrapolate from the above list to processed products, the potential list gets even longer:

Infant formula
Salad dressing
Hamburgers and hotdogs
Fried food
Veggie burgers
Meat substitutes
Ice cream
Frozen yogurt
Tamari and Soy sauce
Tomato sauce
Protein powder
Baking powder
Any sugar not 100% Cane
Confectioner's glaze
Vanilla (may contain corn syrup)
Peanut butter
Enriched flour
Bubble bath

Ever heard of Codex Alimentarius Commission? Well, don't feel bad, most people have not!

The Codex Alimentarius Commission was created in 1963 by FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN)and WHO to "develop food standards, guidelines and related texts such as codes of practice under the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme. The main purposes of this Programme are protecting health of the consumers and ensuring fair trade practices in the food trade, and promoting coordination of all food standards work undertaken by international governmental and non-governmental organizations."

So how does this affect me and where do GMO's come into this?

The FDA and USDA have written a draft for an upcoming international meeting in which they say that requiring labels indicating that a food has genetically modified ingredients would be "false, misleading or deceptive" as it is "likely to create the impression that the labeled food is in some way different." Right now, each country can set its own rules for GMO-food-labeling.

Because the U.S. government's policy is that GMO's are not significantly different from other new varieties of crops (i.e. the same as the prize tomato at county fair), they would like to see this same policy applied worldwide. This is conveniently the same opinions held by the world's major agribusiness companies which is no great surprise when you consider that so many of the USDA's top-brass move freely back and forth as employees, consultants, or lobbyists to these same agribusinesses throughout their careers.

According to the WHO website - question: Are GM foods assessed differently from traditional foods?

"Generally consumers consider that traditional foods (that have often been eaten for thousands of years) are safe. When new foods are developed by natural methods, some of the existing characteristics of foods can be altered, either in a positive or a negative way National food authorities may be called upon to examine traditional foods, but this is not always the case. Indeed, new plants developed through traditional breeding techniques may not be evaluated rigorously using risk assessment techniques."

"With GM foods most national authorities consider that specific assessments are necessary. Specific systems have been set up for the rigorous evaluation of GM organisms and GM foods relative to both human health and the environment. Similar evaluations are generally not performed for traditional foods. Hence there is a significant difference in the evaluation process prior to marketing for these two groups of food."

"Issues of concern include: the capability of the GMO to escape and potentially introduce the engineered genes into wild populations; the persistence of the gene after the GMO has been harvested; the susceptibility of non-target organisms (e.g. insects which are not pests) to the gene product; the stability of the gene; the reduction in the spectrum of other plants including loss of biodiversity; and increased use of chemicals in agriculture. The environmental safety aspects of GM crops vary considerably according to local conditions."

Okay, sort of non-committal politico speak, but generally touches on the concerns that many GMO-opponents voice.

In steps the United States representative who at a more recent meeting of the Codex Committee on Food Labeling in Quebec City: "GM/GE [Genetically Modified/ Genetically Engineered] foods are [not] in any way different from other foods", suggesting that mandatory GMO labeling elsewhere in the world could confuse the consumer and should be prohibited.

So the codex has become one forum in which the GM food battle is being played out, between the United States, Canada and Argentina on the one hand, and Europe on the other. Europeans have been resolute in their opposition to GM foods, despite some more recent softening of the stance of certain governments and trade bodies.

To paraphrase other sources more versed on the workings of the Codex: currently in the EU, food containing more than 0.9% GM ingredients must be labelled as such. Canada and the USA are challenging this in the Codex Committee on Food Labeling, which is hosted by Canada.

The host countries of Codex Committees, which also chair the meetings, have a disproportionate influence over the proceedings. They select the Chair, who is privy to more information than the rest of the Committee, such as declarations of conflicts of interests and relevant documents submitted by external organisations. How this is shared with the rest of the Committee is at the Chair’s discretion.

These chairs are also responsible for guiding the meeting towards a 'consensus'. Health Canada, the dep't responsible for the Codex, has come under fire for its lax approach to testing the safety of GM crops and was at the centre of a scandal in 1999 involving Codex's Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).

The Observer newspaper uncovered that a scientist on the JECFA panel representing Canada had been 'suggested' by Monsanto and was in fact a registered Monsanto lobbyist. The Canadian Senate Agriculture Committee has heard complaints from government scientists who say they were 'muzzled' after expressing doubts over Monsanto's safety testing in regards to bovine growth hormone.

So, you can see that there remain significant concerns involving the release safety of GMO products and that the government agencies that are responsible for protecting consumers and the environment from these potentially dangerous products are often the same people producing, marketing, and profiting from them.

If you'd like to become more involved in opposing GMO products and strengthening labeling laws worldwide, here are two organizations involved in these issues:



Sunday, August 15, 2010

Whitmore Farm begins offering 100% certified organic meats

Finally, after several years of work and a little arm-twisting, we have successfully convinced our USDA-inspected meat processor in Littlestown, PA, to get their organic certification.

For those of you unfamiliar with the USDA rules regarding meat processing, for red meats you are required to use a USDA-inspected meat processing facility if you plan on transporting meat across state lines for resale.

Living in a 5-state area (West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and the District of Columbia) like we do, this was clearly a necessity in getting our product out to the consumer.

Organic certification was formalized by the USDA some 5 or 6 years ago (?). Organic production rules are written by the National Organics Program (NOP), under the USDA, but the program is administered and implemented by the individual states. Each state handles the implementation, administration, and surveillance differently, but the program rules are the same across state lines.

We have been producing our meats organically now for 5 years which has entailed getting our pastures certified, our vegetable garden certified, tracking any use of antibiotics or deworming agents, and buying organic hay. Most of these things have increased our costs but without a processor that was likewise certified organic, we were unable to sell our products as organic.

The primary requirement for getting a meat processor certified involves using only approved cleaning agents (to clean the equipment) and good record-keeping. We are proud and happy to say that our area (although not our state) now has an organically-certified abbatoir.

Nell's/Stonypoint in Littlestown, Pa (just over the Pa line from us) is perhaps the only USDA-inspected, organically-certified meat processor for a 7 or 8 hour drive from us.

Nell Charles R Quality Meats

1319 Frederick Pike
Littlestown, PA 17340

We are excited and happy to start selling these high-quality, sustainably-produced, local products to our clients in the 5 state area!

As industrial agriculture has watched the organics movement thrive and prosper, there has been tremendous pressure on the USDA to loosen the rules and requirements for organic-certification.

The Organic Consumers Association is a great watchdog organization that pushes the government on issues related to organic certification and calls out private sector producers for false-advertising and unscrupulous activity.

I highly recommend you subscribe to their organics alert newsletter to help stay informed on important issues involving the organics movement in the U.S.


Monday, August 2, 2010

Greg's date night out.

After getting hogs a few years ago, we were a little hesitant and unsure how this would work - any farmer has to think twice about adding a 600 # animal to the farm that's known to be smarter than many people.

I have to admit that I was a skeptic.

We'd had cattle for 2 years a few years back. Eventually, I was able to get past the fact that I could be squashed pretty easily if I wasn't careful and had actually enjoyed the cattle, although I still think they eat too much! (In the end, the cattle were sold off as we felt our measly 30 acres couldn't support both our sheep & goats and the cows at the same time.)

So 4 little Hereford piglets from Ohio joined our operation at about 8 weeks of age, each a 30 # missile of muscle and energy that I can best describe as a blur of brown and white for the first month or two that we had them. Anyone who thinks hogs are flabby and soft, has not spent time with pigs.

We coexisted quite comfortably for months until one day while standing in the hog pasture, I realized to my horror that 'my,-the-little-ones-had-grown-quite-a-bit' and 'gee,-maybe-I-shouldn't-have-worn-shorts-that-day' crossed my mind.

The email alert of the woman in Virginia that had been attacked by 4 adult females (sows) came to mind. Her mistake - she had thoughtlessly stepped between her girls (hogs she had known for years) and their piglets.

She suffered bilateral forearm fractures, bilateral radial artery lacerations, multiple bites and lacerations, and was in the ICU for days with massive blood loss. The only reason she hadn't died was because she was able to get over two fence lines, broken arms and all, and into the house where she collapsed.

So here I was, arms full of highly-prized house scraps as Laverne and Shirley lumbered towards me. For large animals, pigs can be surprisingly fast and can easily outpace a human.

Our uneasy truce continued through more 'getting to know you' experiences:

1. riding around backwards on the boar's back when he decided it would be 'fun' to run between my legs and play.

2. having to hand deliver multiple piglets when Laverne, the 600# sow, decided she couldn't spit out a dozen potato-sized piglets (I've delivered bigger turds than that and I'm 1/4 her size)...

Ahhh - good times!

But a gradual change occurred prompted by my time spent with Laverne's sole surviving piglet. Laverne was 'indisposed' for weeks after her traumatic delivery and her piglet was not getting milk. She had none and Gloria ('I will survive' Gaynor) became a bottle baby.

She hung out with the sheep and goats, grazing along with the adult ruminants, and would come running when the bottles came out for feeding time. I was really starting to understand the pigs and they seemed to look different to me. When you look into their eyes, pigs more than any other farm animal, seem to have the 'look' you get when gazing into human eyes. They seem to understand more than any other farm animal...

Now pigs are smart for a farm animal, but let's not get carried away - any animal that can't tell the difference between a solid wall and a piece of plywood I'm holding to move them along isn't really all that smart, but they're definitely leagues ahead of your average sheep.

So, it was decided, the pigs could stay! Unfortunately, Laverne went to the 'big pasture in the sky' after her farrowing (having babies) fiasco and Boris was butchered when he rubbed his penis raw on concrete and pissed blood for a month.

So we were left without a Hereford boar. We did bring in 3 Gloucester Old Spot gilts (young sows) and a GOS boar this past spring, so the option of doing all crosses was there, but I kind of enjoyed the Herefords and wanted some purebred animals on our farm. They were leaner than the GOS's, faster growers, and a truly American breed under-represented in the American farm landscape, especially here on the East Coast.

'Let's try insemination', Loran suggested...

'So you want to catch one of the sows, slide a plastic applicator into her and inject semen' I asked increduously.

Well, turns out, when ovulating, sows go into a pretty impressive standing heat and will respond with amazing stillness when you push on the small of their backs and rump! Any other time, and they will scream and run...

Greg's an optimist....

So we spent a few weeks pushing on hog butts, charting ovulation cycles, and ordering semen from the Midwest where Herefords are more commonly raised.

Hey beautiful...come here often?

Nope not ready ;)

Here are some pictures of Greg as we inseminate Shirley with semen from a boar named Lucky! (Lucky seems like an understatement to me). Don't ask how they get the semen...you don't really want to know.

Ahhh! Success!

We should know in a few months whether my girls settled or not - we'll keep you posted!