Category Archives: Food politics


My 2¢: Genetically Modified Crops

In the last decade or so, I’ve been scratching my head over how to think about genetically modified agricultural products. The debates over GM ag were no-holds-barred mud fights, and I was wary of the claims made by either side of the issue. Recently, The New York Times published an article by Amy Harmon, “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops” (Jan. 4, 2014). It generated more than 1,400 reader responses. Thinking that they would help give me some perspective on the issues, I shoveled through the comments, trying to sift out the hyperbole to reveal the nuggets of relevant information.

I didn’t read through them all — I’m a blogger, not a martyr! — but I only put away my fine meshed sieve when the comments started rehashing points that were only repeating things that I’d already seen. This is what I learned: my opinion about GM crops continues to be cautious. It boils down to a couple of points. First, GM crop technologies have not been adequately tested for long term consequences. Second, we are underutilizing agricultural solutions that would limit or eliminate the supposed “need” for GM crops. So, as I can, I’ll vote with my wallet by avoiding products made with GM crops. It would be helpful if food products were labelled, maybe with a “GM-Yes” or a “GM-No” on the ingredients list. The rest of this post shares some of my rationale. It was really interesting to delve into this topic. Hope you find it as interesting as I did! But now I think I’ll go shower off all that mud….


Just to be clear, this post is only about crops, not animals or medicines or other GM products. The vast majority of GM plants falls into two categories: those that are created to be resistant to herbicides like glyphosate (most popularly sold under the brand name Roundup by Monsanto), and those that are created with a pesticide (most often Bt) spliced into the genes of the plant itself. Glyphosate-resistant crops include soy, corn, canola, sugar beets, papayas, and alfalfa: in the US, most of these crops grown are now glyphosate-resistant varieties. Bt-GM plants include corn, potato, and cotton.

I’m leery of GM plants because longitudinal studies of long-term consequences have not been carried out. Studies done by the manufacturers are closely guarded industry secrets. Though the US government declared these plants to be safe, its history of backstepping on products that had previously been declared safe is long: BPA plastics, tobacco, agent orange, dioxins, DDT, asbestos, and lead paint, to name just a handful. To me, skepticism is merited. Even if the plants themselves are safe for our health and the environment, glyphosate use should be monitored more closely. When properly applied, studies show that glyphosate is among the most benign herbicides currently available; however, over application and improper application have negative consequences. The same way that overuse and improper use of antibiotics have contributed to the rise of “superbugs,” glyphosate resistant weeds have proliferated. Similarly, though Bt is used as an organic insecticide, it is used topically, where it degrades naturally in sunlight or washes off. Bt is not meant to be eaten by people or food animals, but the Bt in the Bt crops are, by necessity, eaten, and again, long term studies on potential health and environmental effects have not been done. Meanwhile, Bt resistant insects are also emerging. New, more intractable problems are being created by technologies meant to help us.

One solution is to support well-documented agricultural practices that have been shown to increase the resilience and strength of the environment and desirable plants. Among other steps, farmers should encourage and support a diversity of species, move away from the monocultural/factory model that is essentially an all-you-can-eat buffet for pests, and plant native species along the edges of fields, roadside ditches, and waterways to reduce run-off. Agricultural scientists and farmers can and should develop other techniques that rely on mechanical and structural changes to reach our agricultural goals.

The politics surrounding GMO ag suggests the wisdom of caution as well. “Politics” includes the host of social and cultural issues that aren’t about the actual plants themselves: government regulation, corporate control of agriculture, world wide population growth, consumer expectation of cheap food, etc. Sixty countries have banned, require labeling, or restrict the growth of GM crops, but rather than interpreting these policies as precautionary, GM ag supporters call it a result of political pressure and scare tactics.

Some opponents of GM crops distrust the corporations who develop and market these products. They suspect that, as a general rule, corporations value profits over the public good (think: tobacco, credit default swaps, and the insurance industry); therefore, corporations responsible for GM crops deserve heightened scrutiny. They fear that agriculture and food production will become controlled by a few large corporations. And after all, the most likely way to combat superweeds and superbugs created by GM crops is via more technological intervention, again, most likely provided by the corporations whose products first created these problems. This is already happening. I recently read a newspaper article about the next generation of GM crops, which modifies the RNA of target crops: corporations hope to have these new seeds available by the end of the decade. If the cycle continues, will farmers and individuals be able to grow food outside of the shadow cast by corporations? What are long term health and environmental consequences of these technologies?

Meanwhile, supporters of GM crops cite increased yields and nutrition to feed an ever-growing world population. The opposition contests this claim. Regardless, worldwide population growth does not need to be inevitable. In addition, a majority of GM crops currently grown are commodity or cash crops, used for animal feed, processed foods, and biofuels. They are typically not used to feed hungry populations across the globe. Meanwhile, rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other medical issues in the developed world have exploded ever since cheap, processed foods flooded grocery stores and since food costs as a percentage of total household spending have continued to drop. In the US, consumers have been trained to put a low value on food, but what we don’t pay up front, we surely pay later in health and environmental costs. From a global perspective, ⅓ of food grown for people is wasted, and in the US, the percentage of food waste is even higher. The amount of food lost or wasted every year is equivalent to more than half of the world’s annual cereals crop! Focusing on political solutions would be positive for the environment and for people.

Other points are contested by both sides of the issue: whether GM crops have sterile seeds or are self-replicating, whether GM ag products with added nutrients, such as vitamins, are absorbed by the human body in the same way as nutrients that have not been transgenically manipulated, and whether GM crops are as “natural” as crops created by hybridization techniques. I don’t have the answers to all these contested issues. But let’s hang up a big old PROCEED WITH CAUTION sign, and study each GM crop product for 50, or better yet, 100 years. It’s a long time for us, but for Mother Earth, it’s just a blink of the eye.

Caution photo by Michael Theis


Michael Pollan and the alchemy of cooking

Cooks are modern-day alchemists and mages. We are sensualists, spiritual pilgrims, and death-defying stuntmen. We are healers, change agents, and activists. Our day-to-day routines may obscure these awesome truths, but Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (Penguin, 2013), is a heartening reminder. In the second half of May, I had the pleasure of hearing Pollan twice—once in a radio interview, and then live at a book signing in the San Francisco Bay Area—as he “entice[d] people into the kitchen by showing them how interesting and pleasurable it can be.” Of course, with Cozy Foodies, he is preaching to the choir, but he sure has a knack for connecting the dots between good food and cooking, and just about everything that is (or should be) central to living well.

Frankly, I like the idea of a little sorcery in my everyday life. But to become adept at transforming those lumps of leaden raw ingredients into golden morsels of food, you need a few more things. Pollan draws an analogy between cooking and doing yoga: both require patience, practice, and presence. I don’t do yoga (Ssh. Don’t tell anyone! They’ll take away my license to live in the Bay Area!), but sometimes I do a mindful breathing exercise, and—man!—it’s hard to keep your mind only on breathing. Every seventeen seconds or so, my mind shifts to thinking about the worry du jour or the obsession of the moment. But, on good days, cooking is like meditating: I become solely focused on the activity of dicing and slicing, and everything else melts away. My brain quiets down; I’m calm and relaxed. The activity of cooking can be, in and of itself, a moment of living well.

Living well means coming to terms with death. Cooking means that I must grapple with death: as an omnivore graphically contemplating the animal who gave its life to nourish me, but also in the act of fermentation, which Pollan piquantly calls “the management of rot.” It’s not polite, but it is true. Thinking about rot and other earthy topics isn’t comforting when I bite into a well-matured piece of cheese that’s been hiding in the back corner of my deli drawer (I sure hope that was Gorgonzola!). Understanding fermentation, however, adds an extra layer of interest and depth to things like bread, beer, or yogurt. And when I really pause to allow the thought to percolate, it’s also a spiritual one too, in an “ashes to ashes” kind of way. Do you know what I mean?

By now, people’s eyes tend to glaze over when they hear that making more home cooked meals is an important way to take charge of our health or to strengthen our family bonds, so I won’t gnaw on that old bone again. But cooking is also a way to take part in “maker” culture, the D.I.Y. movement—it’s hip and fashionable! Who doesn’t want to be more in control of their lives? By making our own food more of the time, we challenge the balance of power between corporate food producers and ourselves when we cook. As Pollan notes, we don’t outsource our workouts and hobbies; why should we outsource so much of our cooking, an activity that is essential to better health and can be a source of deep satisfaction?

Many of these Big Ideas have knocked around in the old thinker at one point or another, so it’s affirming to have them displayed beautifully like a bouquet of roses. There is so much upside to cooking for ourselves; I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and do some magic! How about you?

A foodie at the pro b-ball game

At the end of March, the DS and I went to the Oakland Warriors v. Portland Trailblazers basketball game with his swim team, which had reserved the Skybox. I’m not a basketball fan, but I figured I’d just go for the experience. The outing left an impression on me, but not because of the game play; what has stayed with me was what a whacky total-immersion cultural experience it was—kind of like going to Disneyland, but not as much fun—and the schizophrenic food messages embedded in it.

Happy pop music with a driving beat, amplified to a mind-numbing roar, set the mood as we climbed up to the entrance of Oracle Arena. As we passed security, near-continuous chatter by an M.C. was layered onto the throbbing music so that conversations had to be carried on at a quiet shout. We were drowned in odors blasting from the fried-food vendors. Eye-popping billboards screamed for our attention. Basketball per se was sandwiched in between hula and maori dancing demos (it was Pacific Islander Day, coincidentally); peppy cheerleaders in small outfits shaking their things (and I’m not talking about their pom poms); stuntmen making improbable baskets after bounding acrobatically from a trampoline; couples encouraged to kiss, or audience members to dance, on camera; and lots of advertiser-sponsored breaks.

And here’s where the head-trip really hits a Cozy Foodie, and why I’m writing this post. Throughout the evening, we were bombarded with bizarre food messages. Let me set the stage. “Guests” are forbidden from bringing “outside” food or beverages into the arena. It’s an understandable precaution when a friend pointed out that it’s impossible for security to distinguish water from vodka, but Cynical Foodie that I am, I thought about the unfettered profit margins that could be wrung from the captive audience. Indeed, water went for $5.50 for 1.25 pints; prices went up from there. The food choices ran the usual gamut of fast food options: burgers, chicken tenders, pizza, fries, nachos, popcorn, beer, and soda. But while fans downed their greasy cardboard pizza, they gazed up at Lucky Supermarket’s full-color, bigger-than-life banners advertising healthy meal choices; during the game, the M.C. asked rhetorically which meal the fans would choose, but nobody could actually get any of those healthy meals at the arena. Lucky also sponsored a break where a fan was pulled from the stands: if he could make a basket, he would win free groceries, but the poor schlub missed all his throws. Seems like Lucky wasn’t so lucky for anyone that night. Meanwhile, McDonald’s parachute drops with coupons, and advertisements for 20 chicken McNuggets for $4.99, had people practically diving and wrestling in the aisles. And coupons for free 16-ounce smoothies from Jamba Juice if the Warriors won and kept the Trailblazers from scoring 100 points or more fed the frenzy of the home crowd.

The group of swimmers I was with eventually did find dinner at a small stand tucked behind a big column. Staffed by two African American women, it purportedly sold Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, but which were really just heros dressed up with a large slice of cucumber, shaved carrots, and some cilantro on top. A bunch of us opted for these as the best option. I ate my banh mi and was hungry again before the end of the game. When I got home, I snacked on leftover chicken fajitas in the quiet coolness of my kitchen with the lights turned down low, ruminating about this upside-down trip where I paid a lot to have a three-ring circus shot at me from point-blank range so that ads could then be injected directly into my inert, overwhelmed brain. Now that’s entertainment!

Obviously, I wasn’t the target audience for pro b-ball. I’d rather clear poison oak! …from around the base of that tree with the wasp’s nest! …(it’s not even my tree, or my poison oak!) …on a high pollen count day! …than go to another game. I’m only exaggerating a little. But if I ever do go to another game, say hello, you’ll recognize me. I’ll be the Crazy Foodie with the empty water bottle that I can fill at a fountain after I get past security.


My dilemma

What would you have done? As I prepared to finalize the text for my ebook, Twice As Nice, I couldn’t decide whether to include a section I had written about factory farms and chickens. I had several conversations with friends and even nice (or perhaps simply polite!) strangers who I met at a party about whether to include it or not. In the end, I decided to omit this section, on the grounds that foodies already know this, and others might feel put off or resentful, since agricultural practices are not usually the purview of cookbooks. But I promised myself that if I started a blog about food and cooking, that the factory farming essay would be among my first posts, so here it is: Food for Thought—The Chicken in the Factory Farm.

Looking over the essay now, I think my factory farming essay does a fair job of giving readers a general idea of the stakes involved, without getting into gory details. I didn’t want to change it from how it would have appeared in the book, but I feel like I could have pointed out the upside of the factory farming system, which is that it has made chicken, and food of all types, more affordable for everyone. And if you’re an omnivore, eating chicken certainly has a lower environmental impact than eating any kind of red meat. For example, the amount of water used to produce one pound of beef could be used to produce four pounds of chicken. Across the board, the environmental cost of eating chicken is much lower than the cost of eating red meat. Of course, having a vegetarian or vegan diet would have the lowest environmental footprint of all.

As I said in my essay, I still choose to eat meat; I write about that choice in the essay. Ultimately, I feel fortunate to live in a place and time where I can make choices that feel right for me and my family. I can find answers and information about questions I have about the food I eat. I love that there’s a lively conversation happening about the whole range of food culture: not just the best new restaurant in town, the hot new ingredient, or the newest diet fad, but the agriculture and processed food industry, the environment, and the human impact of our food choices.

So, join the debate! Tell me what you would have done:

[1] You should have followed your first impulse, and included the essay in the back of the book, between the Index of Recipes by World Cuisine and Sources.
[2] This topic is too political and depressing. You did the right thing leaving it out of the book, but it was OK to bring it up here in the blog.
[3] This topic is too political and depressing. You did the right thing leaving it out of the book, and I wish you didn’t bring up in the blog either.
[4] Other. Tell me about it!