Vote Yes on Prop 37: The California Right To Know Genetically Engineered Food Act

A few facts about GMOs:

  • A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered to include a new gene or set of genes.  An example is a transgenic organism, an organism that has received DNA from a different species (one example: cows that have been engineered to produce human breast milk.)  Transgenic animals have been used in medical experiments, but they were not approved for human consumption until recently.
  • Many countries around the world have already banned GMOs due to lack of testing and long term studies of human health.
  • Most studies of GMOs suggest that the ill effects are more pronounced in the second and third generations of GMO-consumers, meaning we simply haven’t had time to conduct thorough studies yet on humans.
  • Currently, American food manufacturers are not required to disclose to the public when they use GMOs — which means there is no way to know whether you are eating genetically-modified plants or animals.

If you’re not familiar with genetically modified food, take a look at this corn or this salmon, and read this.

GMOs are a relatively new part of the human diet so the evidence against them is still mounting. Despite evidence that GMOs could be harmful to humans, the Food and Drug Administration and the FDA went ahead and approved GMOs — without labeling — for human consumption. Do you think the lobbyists at Monsanto (producer of most of the world’s genetically modified crops) had anything to do with it?

Until now, food giants like Monsanto have managed to crush all initiatives to label GMOs so that they never made it to the ballot.  But Americans finally have a chance to vote for labeling.

Want to take action without spending a penny?  

On November 6, 2012, if you are a California resident, you have the power to change the course of the obesity epidemic.  Support the California Right To Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.  Vote for the right to know what you eat. Vote Yes on Prop 37.  

Wellness and Equality supports Prop 37.  You can watch this short video to learn about some of the implications that reach far beyond your plate:

Here is a video from the group behind the ballot initiative:

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Does Your Body Know You’re Eating Genetically-Modified Foods?

Yes, according to a new study that could have enormous impact on studies of cross-species communication, predator-prey relationships, and co-evolution.

First, let’s take a trip down memory lane for a brief refresher in high school biology.  Since 1958, molecular biologists have relied upon the Central Dogma to outline the rules of transfer of biological sequential information.  As you may remember from high school biology, DNA makes RNA makes protein.   In special cases, RNA makes DNA, RNA makes RNA, and DNA makes protein.  But protein doesn’t make protein, protein doesn’t make RNA, and protein doesn’t make DNA, or so says the Central Dogma.

Parsing complex studies and understanding the pathways of human DNA is an incredibly complex task.  Even if you are able to do so, it’s extremely difficult to write about such science at a level that laypeople (like myself) can understand.  Today in The Atlantic, Ari Levaux manages to do exactly that in his story, “The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Food.”  As a lover of analogies, I admire the way Levaux compares our current understanding of genetics to ordering pizza:

The Central Dogma resembles the process of ordering a pizza. The DNA knows what kind of pizza it wants, and orders it. The RNA is the order slip, which communicates the specifics of the pizza to the cook. The finished and delivered pizza is analogous to the protein that DNA codes for.

We’ve known for years that the Central Dogma, though basically correct, is overly simplistic. For example: Pieces of microRNA that don’t code for anything, pizza or otherwise, can travel among cells and influence their activities in many other ways. So while the DNA is ordering pizza, it’s also bombarding the pizzeria with unrelated RNA messages that can cancel a cheese delivery, pay the dishwasher nine million dollars, or email the secret sauce recipe to WikiLeaks.

One of the primary arguments in favor of the safety of genetically-modified food — the argument that “gene transfer” moves in one direction — has relied on the Central Dogma.  In simple terms, the FDA has trusted the basic idea that when you eat a piece of fruit, that fruit’s genetic material is not able to effect your genetic material.

But the new findings turn this argument on its head.  Lead by  Chen-Yu Zhang of Nanjing University, the Chinese researchers identified microRNA belonging to genetically-engineered plants (such as rice and cabbage) in human blood and tissue.  MicroRNA are fragments of RNA (the messenger between DNA and proteins) that typically silence or repress certain proteins by binding to and destroying the RNA that would have created that protein.  Indeed, the plant microRNA was found to inhibit a protein in human blood, “suggesting that microRNAs can influence gene expression across kingdoms,” writes Cristina Luiggi in her article, “Plant RNAs Found In Mammals,” published by The Scientist: Magazine of the Life Sciences.

Take a moment to note that ‘kingdom’ is the broadest of the seven major divisions of taxonomy.  We’re not talking about species or genus or family or order or class or phylum; we’re talking about genetic transfer across kingdoms — from vegetable to animal.  This is big news in the science world.

If the results of this study are verified, gene transfer is more complicated than humans ever imagined.  When you eat a piece of fruit, the genetic matter of that fruit (microRNA) is, in fact, communicating with — and influencing — your body’s genetic make-up (via protein inhibition).

Are genetically-modified foods unsafe?  The truth is, we don’t know.  We won’t know for several generations, since animal studies suggest that the full effects of consuming genetically-modified foods are not realized until the third generation of consumers.

But while we wait for science to catch up, age-old wisdom tells us, “You are what you eat.”  Today, Americans eat the same food that has been designed to make our cows gain as much weight as quickly as possibly: genetically-modified corn and soy.  And it has: cows that eat GMO corn and soy feed gain more weight faster than cows ever have in agricultural history.  We humans eat this same GMO corn and soy, and some of us even eat the cows raised on a diet of GMO corn and soy.  Doesn’t it stand to reason that this would make us fat, too?  And it has: American obesity has reached an all-time high.

In the meantime, the European Union, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, and other countries require genetically-modified foods to be labeled.  Labeling works on multiple levels, because it also means that special care must be taken to ensure that GMO foods do not contaminate non-GMOs.  With no real need to separate the two, the United States’ regulations on GMO-contamination are inevitably less strict.  In fact, because of this, in 2007, Europe rejected shipments of U.S. rice after discovering that the U.S. rice contained strains of engineered genes that had never been approved for human consumption — neither by the E.U. nor by the U.S.

UPDATE 1/18: Both Slate and the blog at Scientific American have published rebuttals to Levaux’s piece. 

My personal view is that, as American consumers, we should be informed about the contents of our food — that is, whether we are spending our money on genetically-modified food or not — so that we can make the decision for ourselves.

What about you?  Take the poll below to share your thoughts:

Photo Credit: I love the Tim Burton-esque photo accompanying Levaux’s Atlantic article (Dirk Ercken for Shutterstock).

7 Foods So Unsafe Farmers and Doctors Won’t Eat Them

When experts (in this case, farmers and doctors) were asked what foods they consider unsafe, the top 7 winners spanned multiple food groups (produce, dairy, meat) and were mostly healthy, fresh foods.   For many people, making your own spaghetti and pasta sauces, buying unprocessed meats and preparing them at home, avoiding processed foods with high fructose corn syrup, eating fresh fish once in a while, and filling up on fruits and veggies is a HUGE step in the right direction.  But if you’re already doing these things, how can you take your health further?  Read below to find out how you can upgrade the foods you already thought were healthy.

1. CANNED TOMATOES

In 2010, Canada became the first country to declare BPA a toxic substance.  Both Canada and the European Union have banned its use in infant bottles. Out of concern for public health, Japan replaced much of its BPA with alternatives. The United States has yet to catch up.  Resins containing bisphenol A (BPA) coat the inside of almost all food and beverage cans in the United States. BPA is also used in the manufacturing of our plastics.  Because BPA is known to be estrogenic (this is nothing new — scientists discovered BPA’s effects on the estrous systems of mammals in the 1930s), it is especially harmful to unborn children, infants, and young children whose estrous systems are not fully formed.  Even very low doses of BPA have been linked to increased obesity, neurological damage, hormone changes, thyroid disruption, breast and prostate cancer, and at least one study linked BPA to heritable genetic changes (yikes!).  This isn’t your great-grandmother’s autumnal canning tradition.  Whenever possible, choose fresh tomatoes or those that have been “canned” in glass jars. 

Want to take action without spending a penny?  Despite federal support of BPA, several states and cities are outlawing BPA in some products on their own, including Oregon, Washington, New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, and Chicago (as of July 2011).  Write to your representative or senator and ask what they’re doing to support anti-BPA legislation.
2. CORN-FED BEEF

If cows are naturally designed to graze on grass, why are they fed corn, grain, and soy?  (A) It’s cheaper.  (B) Cattle fed on grain, corn, and soy fatten for slaughter exponentially faster.  (Just like humans.)  (C)  You could make an argument that Monsanto — widely considered the world’s most evil corporation — had a hand in manipulating farmers into using this crazy diet for cattle;  Monsanto just so happens to have a monopoly on corn and soy seeds in America.

If you are a meat-eater, one of the best things you can do for yourself is pay attention to the quality of the meat you’re eating.  Environmentalists and animal-rights groups have long advocated for the improved diets and treatment of animals.  Whether you’re an animal lover or not, the diet and treatment of the animals you eat significantly impacts your health.  Meat from grass-fed cows is leaner, higher in healthy fats, lower in bad fats, and has significantly more vitamins and minerals.  A study by Cornell University found that grain-fed cattle have as much as 80% less of the strain of e. coli responsible for food-born illness as compared with their grain-fed counterparts.  Furthermore, the e. coli that grass-fed cattle do have is unlikely to survive human stomach acid.   Clearly, there is some magic in feeding animals the diets they were meant to eat.  Trust nature.  If you buy or eat beef, be sure it’s grass-fed.

Want to take action but spend less?   Go meat-free several days a week — but don’t replace the meat with soy products like tofu.  Instead, opt for legumes, or dark leafy greens .

3. MICROWAVE POPCORN

If you haven’t had the luxury of tasting organic made-at-home popcorn, you are missing out!  Make it a treat.  Top those organic kernels with real butter and salt.  If you prefer, you can use olive oil, salt, and other seasonings.  I promise you: Real popcorn tastes better.  And no matter how much butter, olive oil, and salt you add at home, you cannot possibly match the levels of fat and salt in store-bought microwave popcorn.

Not only is corn one of the most common genetically engineered organisms in the American diet (it’s right up there with soy — always buy organic corn and soy!), the even larger problem with microwave popcorn comes down, once again, to the packaging.  The chemically-saturated lining of the bag leeches onto the popcorn during the microwave process, coating the kernels before they make their way to your mouth.  That chemical cocktail includes perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a compound linked to infertility.  There is no debate about the danger here.  Food manufacturers know PFOA is extremely dangerous and many have voluntarily promised to phase out its use out by 2015.  But do you really trust the replacement they will come up with?  If food manufacturers’ track records are any indication, it will be worse than PFOA.  Make your own popcorn with organic corn kernels, not just because it’s fun and it tastes better, but becuase it’s dangerous not to. 

Good news:  If you buy organic corn kernels, olive oil, and salt in bulk, this probably won’t cost you much more anyway! 

4. CONVENTIONALLY GROWN POTATOES

I hate advising people against conventional fresh fruits and vegetables!  My concern is that instead of buying the organic alternative, you might become discouraged and skip buying produce altogether.  Please don’t.  Potatoes are one of the least expensive vegetables you can buy and splurging on organic potatoes is a prudent use of your pennies.  They are also an excellent replacement for grains, pastas, and breads.  Overall, I believe the benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables outweigh the known risks of exposure to pesticide residues, but knowledge is power and you should be armed with information before putting anything in your body.

Here’s the scary truth about potatoes: Remember how when you were little, in elementary school, you would stick tooth picks in a potato and the potato would grow thick, foot-long green roots?  Try that today with conventional potatoes, and the results will most likely be a feeble reproduction.  Our fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides are stronger than ever, and potatoes are exposed to many chemicals, multiple times, to be sure they don’t sprout those unseemly roots.  They consistently rank on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen.”  Recent USDA tests have found more than 35 pesticides in conventional potatoes, including a dozen known carcinogens.  Take the lead from potato farmers: they have separate plots of land where they grow potatoes for themselves and their families.  Grow your own or buy organic potatoes.

Want to take action by spending less?   Choose conventional sweet potatoes instead.

5. FARMED SALMON

You are what you eat and farmed salmon are fat, due to a diet of genetically-modified “soy, poultry litter, hydrolyzed chicken feathers… [contaminated with] carcinogens, PCBs, brominated flame retardants, and pesticides (like DDT),” according to doctor David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany.  Another reason to avoid farmed salmon: A year ago, AquaBounty Companies was awaiting approval from the FDA to begin selling its genetically modified salmon whose growth hormone never turns off (see photo at left), and it appears the FDA has granted that approval.  However, since there are no laws in the United States requiring the labeling of genetically engineered food, consumers may never know whether their salmon has been engineered to grow 30 times faster than its natural rate.  We were the first generation of humans to consume genetically modified fruits and veggies, but AquaBounty’s salmon is/will be the first genetically engineered animal ever eaten by humans.  This raises enormous health concerns since most studies of GMOs suggest that the ill effects are more pronounced in the second and third generations of GMO-consumers, meaning we simply haven’t had time to conduct thorough studies yet on humans.  Don’t want to be the FDA’s guinea pig?  Always check the label to be sure you are purchasing wild-caught salmon. 

Want to take action by spending less?   Buy frozen instead of fresh.

6. MILK PRODUCED WITH SYNTHETIC HORMONES

Once the FDA finally allowed dairy farmers and manufacturers who didn’t use rBGH to label their milk in 2008 (of course, only if they included the FDA-written statement ‘no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-supplemented and non-rBST supplemented cows’), consumer demand for rBGH-free milk skyrocketed!  Even Walmart sells hormone-free milk now.  rBGH and rBST — growth hormones fed to cows in America — are banned in most industrialized countries.  I will spare you the stomach-churning details of rBGH-produced milk (the cows have higher incidences of infected udders due to the increased milk production… you connect the dots), but rest assured, you don’t want to be drinking it.  (Once you’ve dropped milk produced with synthetic hormones, give synthetic hormones the boot altogether and consider alternatives to your synthetic-hormone birth control pill.) If you can afford it, buy organic milk.  

Can’t afford organic milk?  At a minimum, be sure you are buying rBGH-free and rBGS-free milk.

7. CONVENTIONAL APPLES

Another food that makes the Dirty Dozen!  Apples, unfortunately, top the Dirty Dozen list at #1.  These aren’t your grandma’s apples; the amount of pesticides in and on apples is increasing like crazy.  Experts believe that the huge increase is due to manufacturers spraying them with chemicals after the harvest (as well as before and during) to improve their shelf life so they still have that shiny-fresh look weeks after you buy them.  And you thought apples were just pretty young things forever naturally?  Nope.  Guess that’s something Hollywood and conventional apples have in common.  Fortunately, like potatoes, apples are one of the more affordable fruits. Let’s rewrite the old adage:  Spend more money on organic apples today, and keep your doctor’s bills at bay. 

Can’t afford organic fruits and veggies?   Choose conventional fruits and veggies that are thought to have the least amount of pesticide.  Veggies like onions, asparagus, and broccoli face fewer threats from pests, which lead to fewer pesticides.  Avocados, pineapples, kiwis, mangos, eggplants, and some melons are thought to have less pesticides due to their thick skins. 

You can find the original list here.

The bottom line?  Food, on its own, is not the culprit.  The way that food is grown and packaged creates the problem.