Trix Are For Suckers. Evil Genius Edition.

The relentless Stephanie Strom reports on the fiendishly brilliant change the General Mills has made to their privacy policy.

General Mills, the maker of cereals like Cheerios and Chex as well as brands like Bisquick and Betty Crocker, has quietly added language to its website to alert consumers that they give up their right to sue the company if they download coupons, “join” it in online communities like Facebook, enter a company-sponsored sweepstakes or contest or interact with it in a variety of other ways.

Instead, anyone who has received anything that could be construed as a benefit and who then has a dispute with the company over its products will have to use informal negotiation via email or go through arbitration to seek relief, according to the new terms posted on its site.

One of those occasions when only Mencken will do:
“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”

Daily Essentials | Wednesday | 16 April 2014

1. The Armed Rebellion on a Nevada Cattle Ranch Could Be Just the Start | Alex Altman | Time

2. Takeaways from Bundy Ranch | Marie Bowers Stagg | Oregon Green

3. A Single Pot Plant Uses HOW Much Water?! | Tom Philpott | Mother Jones

4. Vermont puts lessons from past in GMO bill | Jenny Hopkinson | Politico

5. Stumbling through history towards beer
| Jim Chevallier | Les Leftovers

6. Paying Farmers to Welcome Birds | Jim Robbins | The New York Times

7. Texas Still Considering Solutions to Prevent Another West | Terrence Henry | StateImpact: Texas

8. Pesticide law will help Maryland farmworkers [Letter] | Virginia Ruiz, Farm Worker Justice | The Baltimore Sun

9. CBO says food stamp costs could drop by $24 billion | David Rogers | Politico

Ham and Asparagus Strata | Elise Bauer | Simply Recipes

Daily Essentials | 15 April 2014

1. Genetic Gift May Have Turned Ferns Into Masters of Shadow | Ed Yong | Phenomena | National Geographic

2. If Science Solves the Lime Crisis, Will We Accept Genetically Modified Gin and Tonics? | Drake Bennett | Bloomberg Businessweek

3. Ethanol advocates fight for Renewable Fuel Standard | Amy Mayer | Harvest Public Media

4. 150th harvest from world’s longest-running rice experiment | The International Rice Research Institute

5. Where’s The Whole Grain In Most Of Our Wheat Bread? | Allison Aubrey | The Salt | NPR

6. Those Smart Papaya Farmers Know GMO | The Farmer’s Daughter

7. How Farmers Use GPS and VRT Technology To Plant Efficiently | Matt Boucher | The Farmer’s Story

8. Will Massachusetts Be the First State to Scrap Food Waste? | Steve Holt | Take Part

Farmers Need To Get ‘Climate Smart’ To Prep For What’s Ahead | Dan Charles | The Salt | NPR

 photo farmingsmart_zps32f7b438.jpeg

The 10 Minor Realizations That Flipped My Thinking About GMOs


A recent story about GMO testing kicked off a conversation with a friend. The researchers tested the biochemicals from crops to suss out variations in food quality and composition due to genetic engineering. The new process allowed researchers to extract 1,000 or so biochemicals from the fruit of tomatoes. *

When the scientists compared the biochemicals of the GM tomato and a wide assortment other non-GM tomatoes, including modern and heirloom varieties, they found no significant differences overall. Thus, although the GM tomato was distinct from its parent, its metabolic profile still fell within the “normal” range of biochemical diversity exhibited by the larger group of varieties.

My friend was unimpressed. He said:

Can you explain how this is any different from the problematic way the USDA and certain diet plans defines nutrition. As long as foods have a similar nutrient and vitamin profiles they are interchangeable. Food isn’t just a collection of interchangeable pieces there is something that this type of researches misses about the value of whole foods taken whole and not taken apart and reconstituted into food like substances. By this logic it has been claimed that Rice Crispies are heart healthy and margarine is healthier then butter. I understand your desire to find equivalences between GM and heirloom varieties but I have my doubts that anyone who is interested in whole food nutrition would say that this is the proof you are searching for.

I understood where he was coming from. It’s very similar to the way I thought about the issue a few years ago when I first became aware of GMOs. I was learning about nutrition at the time and coming to similar conclusions as Michael Pollan did in his book In Defense of Food: nutrition is a science very much in its infancy and we don’t understand how its constituent parts interact very well. While waiting for credible and durable advice on sugar, sodium, and saturated fat, etc; successful traditional diets based on whole and minimally processed foods currently provide more credible and durable guidance for making choices about what to eat.

When I first started learning about GMOs, my model was trans fats and vitamin supplements. We thought that we could engineer a food that was healthier than saturated animal fats and it blew up in our face. We thought that if eating vitamin rich foods conferred health benefits, then supplementation would be even better. Except in cases of malnutrition, that hasn’t proven to be the case. I wasn’t ideologically opposed to genetic engineering, I just figured that given our current understanding of nutrition and ecology, the technology wasn’t really ready for prime time. I figured if we couldn’t figure out margarine, then we weren’t ready to start tinkering with plants at a genetic level. Common sense, right?

It took a while to realize that was an incorrect model for thinking about GE breeding. There are a number of realizations that I went through before leaving that behind. Here are ten of them:

1. It’s a single gene (sometimes two or three) that is being transferred out of 10′s of thousands.

The cartoon of a tomato crossed with a fish is wildly misleading. It’s one gene from a fish into the DNA of a tomato that contains 31,760 genes. *
A geneticist would say, “It doesn’t matter where the gene comes from it matters what it does.”

2. I share half my DNA with a banana. Half the genes in me are also in a banana.

That doesn’t mean that taking the same gene from me or a banana would produce the same results if you inserted it into a plantain, for example. But it’s worth keeping in mind in regards to our squeamishness about boundaries that nature doesn’t recognize. (See also: 1. “a tomato crossed with a fish”)

Once again, a geneticist would say, “It doesn’t matter where the gene comes from, it matters what it does.” Or, “We’re all wearing the same genes.”

3. The genes/proteins/traits for GE crops are very well thought out and chosen carefully.

None of them seem particularly risky if you understand them.

  • Round Up works on deactivating a plant enzyme called EPSPS. In RR crops they express a different version of EPSPS that is not deactivated by glyphosate. It has allowed farmers to use a relatively non-toxic herbicide and practice no-till farming.
  • The Arctic Apple simply silences the gene that produce an enzyme that causes browning.
  • Rainbow Papaya has a bit of the ringspot virus encoded into the DNA as a built in vaccine. Humans are not susceptible to ringspot virus. In fact if you have eaten organic papaya with a some green spots, you’ve eaten ringspot virus.
  • Bt crops express the protein from the organic pesticide Bt that is toxic to corn borers and other pests but harmless to humans. Lots of edible plants produce their own pesticides.

4. Lots of plants produce their own pesticides.

You can read more about this here and here

5. Introducing a food from another part of the world introduces more risk of intended consequences than introducing a single gene into a soybean.

Cultivating kiwis for human consumption began just 100 years ago and only recently imported to the US market. There was no testing for allergenicity. Some people turned out to be allergic. Yet, no one thinks things like this should require new regulations or complicated testing.

My Irish and French (Canadian) ancestors did not co-evolve in any meaningful way with kiwis or mangos or chocolate or any of a number for foods I eat to great benefit and pleasure.

6. Radiation and chemical mutagenesis breeding have been safely practiced for half a century.

Does anyone look at a bag of Calrose rice or a Rio Star grapefruit and think those are unwholesome foods? Those forms of breeding are more likely to cause unintended consequences than GE breeding. You blast seeds with radiation or chemicals, get random mutations, choose the best ones and selectively breed to finish. That’s also roughly how nature works. This is not to suggest that radiation and chemical mutagenesis breeding is dangerous, just that it’s all a question of relative risks.

7. Traditional selective breeding has had negative unintended consequences.

In the real world. Not just theoretically.

The Lenape potato is the most well known, but in trying to make a breed of celery that was more pest resistant, the breeders dialed up the amount of psoralens a variety of celery expressed. (see also: 4. Lots of plants produce their own pesticides.) That resulted in farm and grocery workers getting serious rashes and the product had to be pulled. That celery was released without allergen testing or compositional analysis. If you want to talk about being a human guinea pig, talk to those farm and grocery workers. Since those cases, breeders are more careful about voluntarily testing for potential unintended effects.

  • This is not to suggest that traditional selective breeding is dangerous, just that it’s all a question of relative risks.

    8. Contemporary selective breeding is incredibly … selective.

    Today’s breeders know exactly what traits they want to achieve and they will achieve them. Whether it’s drought tolerance or herbicide resistance or yield or heat tolerance or flavor or pest resistance, why does it matter to me what breeding technique is used to get there?

    9. Why isn’t the novelty of breeding with wild relatives an issue?

    …if a plant breeder chose to cross breed a wild relative with a plant in order to confer a desired trait of hardiness; drought, heat, flood, pest resistance – take your pick; nobody raises an eyeball. Keep in mind that we have no experience eating the wild relative, no mandated testing of toxins (which of course would be the desired trait in breeding pest resistance) or allergens. We have no experience with large scale cultivation of the wild relative, so it’s hard to extrapolate the environmental impact.

    10. Or a novel new mutation from nature? And what if that novel plant is then selectively breed using genetic analysis to isolate which genes the breeder wants to move and whether they have indeed been moved?

    Scientific American recently told the story of a breeder who had been sent seeds of a habanero pepper that didn’t produce capsaicin, the compound that provides the heat. They then went on to detail the way the breeder had identified the genes associated with the traits he desired and ran the genome of each new cross instead of waiting for the plant to express the traits, saving massive amounts of time and guesswork.

    It took awhile to sink in, but I’ve come to understand that a GMO tomato is a tomato. The reason why testing shows that it is biochemically substantially equivalent to a GM tomato is because it is a tomato.

    Instead, my question has become, “Why aren’t concerns about tinkering with our food any less applicable to the Dutch in the 17th century, breeding nearly all carrots to be orange, in homage to William of Orange?

    Or a contemporary potato breeder like Walter DeJong?

    De Jong has been working with farmers long enough to know that our food supply is never more than a step ahead of devastating insect infestations and disease. Selective breeders like De Jong work hard to develop resistant crops, but farmers still have to turn to chemical pesticides, some of which are toxic to human health and the environment. De Jong enjoys dabbing pollen from plant-to-plant the old-fashioned way, but he knows that selective breeding can only do so much.

    Like I said, today’s breeders know what they want to achieve and they will achieve it, regardless of breeding technique. I’ve learned that I can live with that. In fact, it’s quite exciting.

    [This piece originally appeared on]

    A new approach to detecting changes in GM foods American Society of Agronomy | | 3 April 2014

    When Edible Plants Turn Their Defenses On Us Rae Ellen Bichell |The Salt | NPR | 23 October 2013

    Natural Toxins in Fruits and Vegetables Food Safety Network | University of Guelph

    Genetically engineered food: Allergic to regulations? Nathanael Johnson | Grist | 30 July 2013

    The case of the poison potato Maggie Koerth-Baker | Boing Boing | 25 March 2013

    Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects National Academies Press | 2004

    Contemporary Selective Breeding. Plant Edition. Marc Brazeau | REALFOOD.ORG | 28 January 2014

    What About Wild Relatives? Marc Brazeau | REALFOOD.ORG | 13 February 2014

    Creating Tastier and Healthier Fruits and Veggies with a Modern Alternative to GMOs Ferris Jabr | Scientific American | 23 January 2014

    Are carrots orange for political reasons? Suzy Khimm | Wonkblog | Washington Post | 10 September 2011

    GMOs May Feed the World Using Fewer Pesticides Amy Maxmen | NovaNext | PBS | 24 July 2013

    * There is currently no GMO tomato on the market. The tomato in that was tested in the article was a tomato in development. The Flavr Savr tomato developed by Calgene in the 90′s to ripen without softening, was withdrawn from the market, due to poor sales. The so-called ‘Fish Tomato’ developed in the early nineties with a gene from a flounder to tolerate frosts was never commercialized.

  • Rising Prices, Food Fraud and Regulatory Redundancy

    A few things caught my eye looking over this piece from CNBC on food fraud and rising prices.
    Number one:

    The Department of Agriculture predicts food prices will rise between 2.5 and 3.5 percent this year. And while the consumer price index was up 0.1 percent in February, the food index rose more sharply, at 0.4 percent.

    I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely noticed sticker shock at the check out aisle. Little wonder. According the the USDA ERS, while the CPI rose 1.1% in 2013 it rose 1.4% for food. That 1.4% broke out into .9% for groceries (the same rate as 2012) and 2.2% for restaurant spending. But it’s since the beginning of the year that I’ve noticed the pinch and the numbers bear that out, especially for the kinds of foods I buy. Last year theose items went up faster than the rest of the CPI basket. Since the beginning of this year that trend has accelerated, especially since February and the forecast is for more of the same as we recover from the drought in California and the economic recovery returns inflation to normal historical levels.

    Relative to 2012, prices rose considerably for poultry, eggs, fish, and fresh vegetables; however, prices fell for nonalcoholic beverages, sugar and sweets, fats and oils, and other meats. For the remaining food categories, prices were mostly unchanged. From February to December 2013, average supermarket prices fell by 0.2 percent.

    Looking ahead to 2014, ERS forecasts that food price inflation will return to a range closer to the historical norm. The food-at-home CPI has already increased more in the first two months of 2014 than it did in all of 2013, but given its current trajectory, it is on track for normal annual inflation. Since 1990, grocery store prices have risen by an average of 2.8 percent per year. Inflationary pressures are expected to be moderate, given the outlook for commodity prices, animal inventories, and ongoing export trends. Retailer margins, having contracted since the drought, may expand in 2014 if input prices rise, which should contribute to inflation. The food, food-at-home, and food-away-from-home CPIs are expected to increase 2.5 to 3.5 percent over 2013 levels.

    . . . Eggs continued their recent surge, increasing 0.7 percent from January to February. The CPI for eggs is now 5.7 percent above the February 2013 level. ERS has revised the forecast for egg prices upward to 3.0 to 4.0 percent in anticipation of increased exports as well as strong domestic demand (due in part to high meat prices) in 2014.

    Painful reading for someone who leans heavily on eggs and vegetables.

    Look at that spike in February. Ouch !!!

    Number two:

    I knew about fraud in the olive oil and honey markets, (check out this groovy, animated slideshow the New York Times put together on olive oil fraud) but this jumped out at me:

    Up to 59 percent of tuna is mislabeled, according to a study by advocacy group, Oceana. Customs and Border Protection chemist Matt Birck said escolar is often mislabeled as tuna and could cause digestive issues.

    59% !!! That’s a lot of fake tuna. I had to wonder if a lot of non-tuna tuna was winding up in the pet food market, but it turns out that fish fraud in the fish counter and restaurant trade is widespread.

    Meanwhile in the TMI departemnt, I love escolar and have never had a problem with it, but apparently lots of people do.

    Number three:

    But a Government Accountability Office review found problems in the overlap between the agencies charged with stopping food fraud. For example, while the FDA regulates eggs in the shell, the USDA regulates them once they are in products.

    At first I thought that had to be backwards, wouldn’t the USDA inspect eggs and the FDA egg products? But it turns out to be correct. But that all the more underscores the crossed wires of having US Customs, the FDA and the USDA involved in regulatory overlap in vouchsafing the food supply.

    The FDA inspects shelled eggs, while the USDA is responsible for egg products, including liquid, frozen and dehydrated eggs. The FDA regulates the feed chickens eat, but the laying facility falls under USDA jurisdiction.

    If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is. This year’s investigation into the Salmonella outbreak in Iowa eggs was complicated by the fact that the USDA was responsible for the pile of manure next to the laying facility, but the FDA was accountable for the danger of the eggs themselves.

    Let’s construct a primitive infographic on the topic, shall we.

    [Chicken feed - FDA] –> [Egg laying operation - USDA] –> [Eggs - FDA] –> [Egg products - USDA]


    It seems like that’s the kind of project that could make for a great bipartisan project in Congress, or a non-cabinet level tsar position in the executive branch. That seems like a better place to start than trying to place more burdens on a dysfunctional system.

    Rising prices aid $15B food fraud problem
    Jennifer Schlesinger, Sheila Dharmarajan | CNBC | 13 April 2014

    Food Price Outlook, 2013-14
    Economic Resarch Service | USDA

    Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers: Food and Beverages
    FRED | St. Louis FED

    Olive Oil Fraud Rampant, Trade Agency Finds
    Alan Farnum | ABC News | 25 September 2013

    Extra Virgin Suicide
    Nicholas Blechman | The New York Times

    Honey Laundering
    Tom Philpott | Mother Jones | 7 November 2011

    The Ex-Lax Fish
    Mother Jones | November 2009

    Accountability lost in murky fish supply chain
    pecial Investigation | Boston Globe | 2011

    Who Inspects What? A Food Safety Scramble
    Gretchen Goetz | Food Safety News | 16 December 2010

    Kimberly Kindy reports on the attempt by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to call bullshit on the conclusions that the USDA is drawing from a report on the effect of a pilot program to speed up poultry production lines.

    In a March 26 blog post, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service director Al Almanza said the study shows line speed increases are “not a significant factor in worker safety.” USDA officials have offered a similar interpretation to members of Congress and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights over the past several weeks.

    However, NIOSH Director John Howard chastised USDA officials, last week, saying he was “quite surprised” by the agency’s assertions. “It’s impossible to draw a conclusion about the impact of line speed changes on worker health” from the NIOSH study,” Howard said in a letter to Almanza, adding that to do so “is misleading.”

    Howard said NIOSH “found an alarming 42% prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome” among workers during its first assessment at a plant in South Carolina. When NIOSH returned a second time, some 10 months later, they were not surprised to find the injury rates were about the same.

    What’s stunning is that the USDA felt that a 47% rate of carpal tunnel was an acceptable base rate against which to judge the effect of a speed up. Wow.