Monthly Archives: August 2014

GMOs and FOOD SAFETY – Part III

The attempt to concisely discuss GMOs and food safety is daunting.  There is so much conflicting information, studies and opinions that it seems impossible to be able to definitively say whether GMOs are safe or not.    To quote Greggor Ilagan, one of the nine member County Council in Hawaii,

“it takes so much time to find out what’s true.”

When the GMO bill came up in Hawaii, Ilagan was in a quandary.  He promised his constituency he would always vote and take a stand on any issue, but he truly did not know what to do.  Every time he tried to research the topic, new questions arose obfuscating the issue further.

There are many studies the non-GMO community pointed to that would indicate GMOs were a health risk:  a French researcher that found tumors in rats;  a Russian study that showed hamsters lost the ability to reproduce; a study linking GMOs with childhood allergies; disappearing butterflies; sterile seeds – the list goes on.

hamster in a cage

However, most of the studies that have been cited have also been shown to be wildly flawed and already debunked and, therefore,  not worthy of inclusion in the discussion of GMOs.

So, the question remains – is there any evidence of the safety or harm caused by GMOs?  It is true  that we have been eating foods with genetically modified ingredients for years.  Approximately 60-70% of processed foods you buy in the grocery store contain genetically engineered ingredients.  The most common GMOs include maize, soybeans, cotton and grapeseed oil.

The US (also the largest producer of GMOs) government’s position remains steadfast – GMOs are perfectly safe and are the “substantial equivalent” of non-GMOs.   The EU, however feels differently – they want to avoid GMOs and stick with organic food they feel doesn’t pose a health risk.  Their position doesn’t seem to rely on studies but rather avoidance of the possibilities of risks.  If non-GMO food is eaten, there are no worries as to whether or not risks exist.

Here is what has become the main crux for me just on the food safety issue: most of the crops presently being modified are one-gene modifications.  That means that one gene is being introduced to the crop to bring about a desired result.  So far, there is no credible evidence that any of the currently modified crops are unsafe.  That is not to say that they are safe.  The argument that we’ve been eating these crops for years with no negative results is a false assertion.  Because of a lack of any credible studies that study cause and effect, we have no real idea of their safety.

As to allergens, genes that are used are already tested and known to be allergens or not.  Usually when a gene is found to be an allergen, it is discarded.  However, as happened with Kraft Foods, sometimes it gets by and into the food stream.  Case in point, the genetically modified corn that was approved for animal feed.  Cry9C is a protein that was injected into the corn (Starlink corn) and was only supposed to be used for feed.  However, it was found in the food supply by way of taco shells at Taco Bell – shells that were also sold in the grocery store under the Taco Bell name.  There was a wide recall and lawsuits to follow.

http://www.gefoodalert.org

So, of course, accidents can happen.  So far, all accidents have been benign.  But who’s to say the next one will not be?  IMHO, with a lack of corporate regulatory oversight and corporate responsibility, the likelihood that something bad will hit the food supply is just an eventuality.  After all, it has been shown again and again that corporate profits trump public safety.

The World Health Organization, the Center for Decease Control, the US National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science as well as other organizations all seem to agree that there are, as yet, no known safety risks with GMOs.

However, there is a letter put together by the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility which reads, in part:

“(We) strongly reject claims by GM seed developers and some scientists, commentators, and journalists that there is a ‘scientific consensus’ on GMO safety and that the debate on this topic is ‘over’.”

One thing I believe that most agree on, we have to take each instance at a time.  Every time we change the make up of a food stuff, there needs to be testing and understanding of that gene or protein and the effect of adding it to whatever crop they are changing.

Next week, GMOs and food sustainability…

GMOs – what are the controversies? Part II

The controversies surrounding GMOs are numerous and extremely divisive.   With so many groups of people to be affected, it is no wonder the arguments are passionate.   From the US consumer to the EU consumer, populations of third worlds, farmers, activists, scientists, legislators, corporations and small businesses – all with a chip in the game, it has become a virtual maze of confusing and conflicting arguments.

7896

Some of the controversies include:  food safety; food sustainability; food labeling; the role of government; impacts of GMO crops on farmers and corporations; the owning of ‘the stuff of life’ by persons or corporations, seed contamination and impacts of GMOs on the environment.  These will be taken point by point and further in depth in successive posts.

Food Safety:  there is no doubt that much of the GMOs are done via methods that ensure the product could never occur in nature.  However, the word ‘natural’ doesn’t automatically mean “safe”.  There are many poisonous ‘natural’ foods out there.  The question if not one of ‘natural’, but rather safety.  Are these crops safe?  Do they or can they cause harm to humans or animals?  Do they create new allergens?

Food Sustainability:  many have said that we are better able to feed the world’s population with these new engineered crops.  People like Bill Gates have pointed to GMOs as a way to feed starving nations.  However, many representatives from those starving nations have gotten together to address the UN and say that they believe GMOs create more harm than good for their people.

map

Food Labeling:  anti-GMO activists feel it is the right of the people to know (which I agree with BTW).  The other side tells us that labeling is deceptive in that some foods, when processed (ie: many oils, HFCS, etc) contain little if any GM material and labeling as a GMO food falsely informs the consumer.  Also, if labeling is not universal, consumers can look at two products side by side, one labeled ‘may contain GMOs’ and one not.  Because the product not labeled is in a state not requiring labeling, the consumer will assume that product does not contain GMOs.

Role of Government:  it is getting harder and harder for government to  be the arbiter of what is safe and what isn’t.  Also, with so much corporate money funding government, there is now an inherent distrust of what government says or does.

Impact of GMOs on farmers and corporations:  the fight between farmers and corporations is heating up and the very livelihood of small farmers is at stake.  And what of the organic farmer?  GM material spreads – it is impossible to prevent this.

Owning the Stuff of Life:  while hard to imagine that this is legal, it is actually legal to own genes.  There is much to this debate, but it is my view that the pattening of genes is repugnant – but more on that when I address this controversy.

Seed Contamination and the Impact on the Environment:   There are large impacts to the environment regardless of the arguments as to whether those impacts are positive or negative.  Both sides agree that there are impacts – just not on what they are.

Tremendous amounts of money, effort and time is devoted to furthering the arguments of activists on both sides.  From legal battles to biased publications, the controversies themselves have seemingly become an industry in and of itself!  To any person interested in learning about GMOs, and finding answers to their questions, it is harder and harder to find information that is not biased in some way.

It is the opinion of this blogger that both sides are doing the general public a disservice.  The anti-GMO activists devote a lot of energy pointing to flawed studies and hyperbole and the pro-GMO activists only want to put out propaganda.

Next week, we’ll start looking at each controversy one by one – all while I try to maintain a neutral position!

gmo protest

 

Just What Are GMOs and the Controversary? part 1

Part One

Vermont is gearing up for a fight.  Yes, our small state that barely warrants a mention on the weather channel app or in the news is now in the news regularly.  For such a small state, we certainly have a way of being trendsetters as well as being on the forefront of civil rights and progressive legislation.  I’m so proud of our state!

But I digress.  Vermont has just passed new legislation requiring labeling of any food products containing genetically modified ingredients.  While there is a coalition of food associations (Grocery Manufacturers Association, Snack Food Association, International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers) suing the state of Vermont, there is currently a motion in the US District Court to dismiss.    If the lawsuit proceeds, Vermont has already put aside $1.5M to defend the legislation.

What is this all about?  What is a gmo?  It is very difficult to research this online as most of the sites have a viewpoint and only push that viewpoint.

Before getting into what a GMO is, I would like to clarify the legislation.  The legislation DOES NOT disallow GMOs in food.  It simply states that customers should be able to KNOW what they are buying.  While one side screams that such labeling will scare people who don’t know what a GMO is, it doesn’t matter – we have a right to know what we are buying and feeding ourselves and our families.  I mean, my goodness, Canada won’t allow “all natural” on a label if the product uses enriched flour.  Why?  Because the vitamins in the flour are additives and therefore, the flour is not considered natural.   Talk about commitment to its people!

OK, now that I got that off my chest –   Wikipedia defines gmo as:

“an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. Organisms that have been genetically modified include micro-organisms such as bacteria and yeast, insects, plants, fish, and mammals. GMOs are the source of genetically modified foods and are also widely used in scientific research and to produce goods other than food.”

Thanks to the Genetic Literacy Project for this photo.
Thanks to the Genetic Literacy Project for this photo.

The precursor to genetic engineering has been going on for several thousand years.  Humans would selectively breed crops with desirable traits (or genes) and not breed crops with undesirable traits.  Applied to humans, you can see where selective breeding relates to the new debate over designer babies ( a whole new debate).

Genetic engineering started in the 1970s when genes were able to be removed, added and manipulated to produce a desired result.   Commercially available gmos became available in 1976.  It is important to note that GMO does not always refer to food.  GMOs are used in medical and biological research as well as agricultural research.  Genetic engineering remains an important (if not one of the most important) methods scientists have in learning how to combat diseases and create pharmaceuticals.

Of course, in our discussion, we are talking about GMOs in relation to food.  Crops are able to be genetically modified to resist pests, pesticides and rot.  Crops can be modified to include certain nutrients or modified to sustainably grow in areas where such a crop would normally not grow.  They can be modified to grow bigger, thereby needing less room.  It was in the 1990s that GMOs were nicknamed, ‘Frankenfoods’.

corn cartoon

There are only a few crops that are genetically modifed but, according to the National Grocers Association, about 75% of all foods contain a gmo. If you look at some of the crops that are modified, you can see why:  corn, soy, canola, sugar beets.

BTW, so you don’t have to wait for next week, organic crops do not contain any gmos.

Next week…. so why all the controversy?

 

 

 

Gringo Jack’s How is Tequila Made? Part 2

So, how is tequila made?

The Blue Agave plant must grow 8 – 10 years before it can be used to make tequila!  Imagine all that can go wrong in that amount of time – climate & pests have to be controlled so that the plant can be protected before it can be used.

A jimador is harvesting blue Weber agave fields in Tequila, Jalisco

The agave honey is extracted from the pina with grinding blades after cooking the agave to turn the starches into sugars.  Once the juices or “honey water” has been extracted, it is then fermented.  Fermentation is when the tequila begins to form its personality.

This is also when tequila either becomes 100% agave or only 51% agave (by definition and regulation, in order to be tequila it must be at least 51% agave).  If it is to be less than 100%,  sugarcane or molasses are added to the aqua miel (honey water).

As the alcohol is formed, yeast is then introduced to the show and the tanks are lightly heated.  Carbon dioxide forms (as in wine) and tequila alcohol is fully formed to 5%.

Finally, the tequila is distilled.  Regulations require that tequila be distilled twice or else the alcohol would be devastating!  The distillation heats the juice to the point of vaporization and then it is cooled and condensed.  The first distillation removes what is called the ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ which contain all the bad alcohol and impurities.

The second distillation (and sometimes third and fourth for some of the high end tequilas) determines the percent of alcohol.  The higher end tequilas are about 40% alcohol (80 proof) and counter intuitively, the lower end tequilas are usually about 55% alcohol.

OK, so we’re almost there!  We now have Blanco (silver, plata) tequila.  Many prefer what they think of as tequila in its purest form.  However, like wine, tequila can also be aged.  Aging 2-6 months produces a reposado tequila and aging over 1 year to 3 years produces anejo tequila.  Of course, as with most wines, the more aging, the more color, character and tannins are produced.

Reposado tequila is usually aged in oak barrels, but anejo tequila is aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels – imagine the amazing characters of a good, well-aged anejo tequila!

Well, that’s all folks!  You’ve got the basics, so now, on to the tasting – oh, right – you’re on your own!  Of course, you can always come to Gringo Jack’s and try a tequila flight (hint hint!).

Tim sips tequila