Two and a half years ago I lived for one whole month without eating, wearing or washing with any Monsanto products.
I undertook this admittedly unusual project for one very simple reason. It was not (as I was often misquoted as saying) because I saw Food, Inc. It was also not to put Monsanto out of business by boycotting their products (the idea that Monsanto gives a damn what one woman chooses to eat or not eat is frankly laughable). It was, in fact, that I was curious.
I had recently become aware of Monsanto as a company, and was curious just how much of my food originated with them. I was a new mother at the time, and I was skeptical that GMO’s were as safe as the government said they were, especially since I had heard that many countries in Europe refused to allow them to be sold in markets there. In retrospect, I now realize that the thing I was really interested in investigating was how much of my food contained genetically modified ingredients, but A Month Without GMO’s didn’t have as nice a ring to it, and given that Monsanto is one of the biggest producers of GMOs, I settled on A Month Without Monsanto.
Oh, what a little alliteration can do.
Because, as I now know, Monsanto is so much more than GMO. Yes, that’s a biggie for them, but they have also been buying up seed companies for decades. Even organic farmers, using all organic farming methods, can easily buy seeds from Monsanto subsidiaries, without ever knowing it (if they don’t do their homework). Seeds that are not genetically modified can still be classified as organic, even if they’re owned by Monsanto. What’s more, Monsanto is the biggest seller of cottonseeds, both in the US and abroad. So if you wear non-organic cotton, you’re wearing Monsanto. And that shampoo you spent too much on? That soy that leaves your hair so nice and shiny? Monsanto. And don’t even get me started on the ethanol in your gas tank – it’s made from Monsanto corn. It is ridiculously hard to avoid Monsanto. I mean stupid-hard.
So why do it?
Well, as I said, I was curious. I was also a grad student, with plenty of time to spend talking to farmers and food processors, to trace down the origin of the ingredients in their products. Since then, I’ve had another baby and landed a full time job, making me a working mother of two.
When Cassie and I started the Digging Deep website, we knew we wanted to repeat the Month Without Monsanto experiment, but the right time never seemed to present itself. Instead we focused on building up our team of bloggers to ask other questions about food, and I could not be more proud of what has evolved from our work. But the Month Without Monsanto always hovered close, just waiting for the right time. And it turns out, that time is now.
You see, on Tuesday, November 6th, just five weeks from now, California will vote on Prop 37 – an initiative that would require labels for foods containing genetically modified ingredients. What better way to show how little we know about GMOs in our foods than to struggle to avoid them for a whole month?
So here we go.
I’ll be honest, I’m daunted. As I mentioned, I don’t have the same time to spend on this as I did two years ago, so I’m setting guidelines that work for me. I am committing to cooking entirely #Nonsanto dinners for my family and me for the month of October. I’ve talked with the farmers at my local farmers market to find out which ones buy #Nonsanto seeds. I know which vendors sell meat that was not raised on Monsanto grain. I even know a few processed foods that don’t contain Monsanto products.
I’d like to take this opportunity to invite you to join us. Maybe you’ve been doing the organic thing for years now and you’re ready to tackle the #Nonsanto challenge for a full month. Or maybe you’re like me and the idea of adding anything to your plate (literal or metaphorical) is overwhelming. In that case, set a goal. If a month of #Nonsanto dinners still feels like too much, maybe you commit to just doing Sunday dinners. Even if you just pick one day in October to go Monsanto-free, we’re excited to have you on board and we hope you’ll share what you learn along the way.
I’ll be posting my #Nonsanto dinner recipes as I come up with them. As of right now, it’s looking like it will be mostly Lundberg Rice and veggies, with the occasional Annie’s Mac and Cheese, but I’m hoping that list will expand.
It’s going to be a long month.
It’s almost October. That means I’m about to go as #Nonsanto as possible for an entire month, starting with my food. And October isn’t even one of those mercifully short months. Nope, I’m about to commit to a full 31 days of going without GMO products. A couple of days ago this all hit me, and I kind of panicked. What a lonely 31 days! No going out to dinner. No grabbing lunch from the coffee shop with my coworker. Since I’m kind of new to the whole GMO issue, to be perfectly honest, this whole experiment is thoroughly out of my comfort zone.
I had an idea. What about getting others in my community to join in the fun? I’ve learned that almost anything can be fun when a community of people gets involved, so I posted my plea for co-conspirators in the fight against GMOs on a couple of foodie- and “green-” themed Milwaukee listservs. Thus far, five people have agreed to give it a whirl. Not only will we be able to share tips and resources, but I’m also hoping we’ll be able to gather together for at least a couple of meals to share our experiences, and maybe even enjoy ourselves!
We haven’t had a chance to decide on our “rules” yet. The dazzling complexity of our food distribution system obfuscates the processes by which food (or in some cases, “food”) is produced, and this is becoming an issue in my search for GMO-free food. For example, can I eat honey? I have no way of knowing whether the bees that made it were hived near a cornfield. Does contaminated pollen mean contaminated honey? And don’t even get me STARTED on trying to sort out what Monsanto subsidiaries have made their way into the natural food aisle. These are some of the questions I’m hoping to discuss with my Month Without Monsanto community; it’s going to be a long, steep learning curve for this blogger.
It’s no coincidence that the sustainable food movement has a very strong communitarian element, and I think this experiment reveals a great example of why that is. For instance, if our communities were strong enough to feed themselves, then maybe I wouldn’t be so worried about finding reliable sources of #Nonsanto grub. We would already know the food because we’d know the people who grow it and what kind of farmers they are. Luckily for me, the farmers markets in my area largely run throughout October. That means I’ll be able to meet the people who grow my food (or at least meet people who work for the people who grows it.) Being able to meet producers face-to-face will save me quite a bit of research and time. Any farmer worth her stripes will know exactly what kind of seeds she is using, or what she is feeding her livestock.
Here’s another reason community is important to the sustainable food movement. Eating sustainably—and that includes avoiding GMOs—is not easy. Maybe you live in California, are a member of two organic co-ops, subscribe to a year round CSA, and have access to fresh #Nonsanto food out of your garden year round. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works for most of us. Eating sustainably is HARD, but it’s a heck of a lot easier when you can rely on your community to help you. Beyond the mutual benefits that can be gained through resource-sharing, there’s a lot to be said for enjoying the companionship of folks who share a challenge with you. We’re all in this together, right?
Sources for this post:
Although corn is pollinated by the wind, bees still “work corn” according to this article:
April’s post on how Monsanto is pretty much everywhere, including organics:
Most of the responses to my call for co-conspirators came from Transition Milwaukee. If you haven’t heard of Transition, check out this global movement here: http://www.transitionnetwork.org/
In prepping for next month’s Month Without Monsanto (starting Monday, and I am so not ready to do this), I’ve reviewed April’s original posts and realized this is going to be harder than I thought. I already have given myself a pass on things in my home (and no, I’m not going to go buy a ton of junk food on Saturday, although the thought did cross my mind). I’ve got decent amounts of non-GMO meat and eggs, my CSA came through and confirmed they don’t use Monsanto-sourced seeds, and I still have some tomatoes, lettuce, cilantro, and cucumbers hanging around outside that are homegrown with non-Monsanto sources. So far, so good, right?
Then I started thinking about organics and the USDA certification. As April pointed out near the end of her original MWM, just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s not Monsanto. UGH. Plus – organic is different than 100% organic. Don’t believe me? Here it is straight from the horse’s mouth (the horse in this case being 7 CFR Part 205, the federal regulation defining the organic certification process).
7 CFR §205.301(b)
Products sold, labeled, or represented as “organic.” A raw or processed agricultural product sold, labeled, or represented as “organic” must contain (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) not less than 95 percent organically produced raw or processed agricultural products. Any remaining product ingredients must be organically produced, unless not commercially available in organic form, or must be nonagricultural substances or nonorganically produced agricultural products produced consistent with the National List in subpart G of this part. If labeled as organically produced, such product must be labeled pursuant to §205.303.
And if you’re really geeky like me, you want to see the National List referenced in this document – that is, The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
7 CFR §205.606
Nonorganically produced agricultural products allowed as ingredients in or on processed products labeled as “organic.”
Only the following nonorganically produced agricultural products may be used as ingredients in or on processed products labeled as “organic,” only in accordance with any restrictions specified in this section, and only when the product is not commercially available in organic form.
(a) Casings, from processed intestines.
(b) Celery powder.
(c) Chia ( Salvia hispanica L. ).
(d) Colors derived from agricultural products—Must not be produced using synthetic solvents and carrier systems or any artificial preservative.
(1) Annatto extract color (pigment CAS #1393–63–1)—water and oil soluble.
(2) Beet juice extract color (pigment CAS #7659–95–2).
(3) Beta-carotene extract color, derived from carrots (CAS #1393–63–1).
(4) Black currant juice color (pigment CAS #'s: 528–58–5, 528–53–0, 643–84–5, 134–01–0, 1429–30–7, and 134–04–3).
(5) Black/Purple carrot juice color (pigment CAS #'s: 528–58–5, 528–53–0, 643–84–5, 134–01–0, 1429–30–7, and 134–04–3).
(6) Blueberry juice color (pigment CAS #'s: 528–58–5, 528–53–0, 643–84–5, 134–01–0, 1429–30–7, and 134–04–3).
(7) Carrot juice color (pigment CAS #1393–63–1).
(8) Cherry juice color (pigment CAS #'s: 528–58–5, 528–53–0, 643–84–5, 134–01–0, 1429–30–7, and 134–04–3).
(9) Chokeberry—Aronia juice color (pigment CAS #'s: 528–58–5, 528–53–0, 643–84–5, 134–01–0, 1429–30–7, and 134–04–3).
(10) Elderberry juice color (pigment CAS #'s: 528–58–5, 528–53–0, 643–84–5, 134–01–0, 1429–30–7, and 134–04–3).
(11) Grape juice color (pigment CAS #'s: 528–58–5, 528–53–0, 643–84–5, 134–01–0, 1429–30–7, and 134–04–3).
(12) Grape skin extract color (pigment CAS #'s: 528–58–5, 528–53–0, 643–84–5, 134–01–0, 1429–30–7, and 134–04–3).
(13) Paprika color (CAS #68917–78–2)—dried, and oil extracted.
(14) Pumpkin juice color (pigment CAS #127–40–2).
(15) Purple potato juice (pigment CAS #'s: 528–58–5, 528–53–0, 643–84–5, 134–01–0, 1429–30–7, and 134–04–3).
(16) Red cabbage extract color (pigment CAS #'s: 528–58–5, 528–53–0, 643–84–5, 134–01–0, 1429–30–7, and 134–04–3).
(17) Red radish extract color (pigment CAS #'s: 528–58–5, 528–53–0, 643–84–5, 134–01–0, 1429–30–7, and 134–04–3).
(18) Saffron extract color (pigment CAS #1393–63–1).
(19) Turmeric extract color (CAS #458–37–7).
(e) Dillweed oil (CAS # 8006–75–5).
(f) Fish oil (Fatty acid CAS #'s: 10417–94–4, and 25167–62–8)—stabilized with organic ingredients or only with ingredients on the National List, §§205.605 and 205.606.
(g) Fortified cooking wines.
(h) Fructooligosaccharides (CAS # 308066–66–2).
(i) Galangal, frozen.
(j) Gelatin (CAS # 9000–70–8).
(k) Gums—water extracted only (Arabic; Guar; Locust bean; and Carob bean).
(l) Hops ( Humulus lupulus ) until January 1, 2013.
(m) Inulin-oligofructose enriched (CAS # 9005–80–5).
(n) Kelp—for use only as a thickener and dietary supplement.
(o) Konjac flour (CAS # 37220–17–0).
(r) Orange pulp, dried.
(s) Orange shellac-unbleached (CAS # 9000–59–3).
(t) Pectin (non-amidated forms only).
(u) Peppers (Chipotle chile).
(v) Seaweed, Pacific kombu.
(1) Cornstarch (native).
(2) Rice starch, unmodified (CAS # 977000–08–0)—for use in organic handling until June 21, 2009.
(3) Sweet potato starch—for bean thread production only.
(x) Tragacanth gum (CAS #–9000–65–1).
(y) Turkish bay leaves.
(z) Wakame seaweed ( Undaria pinnatifida ).
(aa) Whey protein concentrate.
(I have no ideas what those CAS #s are – but didn’t want to delete them from the list since they may delineate a certain type of product from another.)
So – twenty-seven nonorganically produced agricultural products may be used in products labeled as organic if the product is not commercially available in organic form (plus a whole subset of coloring agents under (d) of this list). Some of these sound familiar, some of these you may never have heard of. But there’s at least one that I’ve been looking for recently that pops up in a lot more ingredient lists than I anticipated.
Yep, Mr. (p) – Lecithin, de-oiled. I first noticed this on a chocolate bar that my son was writing about for a science project (he had to write the ingredient list out). The only chocolate we happened to have in the house was an organic bar, so silly me, I didn’t realize it wouldn’t have all organic ingredients in it. He was chugging right along with organic cane sugar, organic cocoa, etc. The only ingredient not listed as organic was soy lecithin. Not having such a substance in my spice rack, I didn’t know what it was for, so we had to look it up. Turns out, it’s an emulsifier (a binding agent) and is ubiquitous in processed foods. It’s even in the organic peanut butter crackers my kids had for a snack yesterday. And since it’s on the official list up there, it and its 26 other friends are probably hanging out in a certified organic food product near you.
However, there is hope. USDA’s National Organic Program has a Q&A posted specifically about the types of lecithin allowed in organic processed products, where fluid lecithin must be organic, and nonorganic de-oiled lecithin may only be used if organic is not commercially available. So the lecithin issue, at least, is inching closer towards organic.
And the last question on the Q&A is helpful, at least:
Can non-organic, de-oiled lecithin be used if it is produced from genetically modified sources?
No. All ingredients used in products labeled “organic”, “100% organic”, or “made with organic (specified) ingredients or food group(s))” must be produced without the use of excluded methods as per § 205.105(e).
Just for additional geekery, here’s the definition of excluded methods:
Excluded methods. A variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production. Such methods include cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology (including gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes when achieved by recombinant DNA technology). Such methods do not include the use of traditional breeding, conjugation, fermentation, hybridization, in vitro fertilization, or tissue culture.
So, what I learned is this: Organic doesn’t automatically equal Nonsanto. But not because of the non-organic ingredients in certified organic products. Check with the company to make sure they’re not a subsidiary of Monsanto, and if it’s USDA organic, you should be safe. I think. Man, my brain hurts.
Sources for this post:
Question: What does the “average” American really know about GMOs?
Answer: Not a whole lot.
Over the past few days I conducted a highly unscientific survey of approximately fifteen of my friends and family members. I asked them three questions about genetically modified organisms.
1) Just what are GMOS anyway?
2) Do you care if you are consuming genetically modified food?
3) Do you think that genetically modified food should be labeled as such?
The responses were fascinating. I confess I sent the questions to friends who do not work in the community food movement and just a few whom I thought would be able to respond to question # 1 correctly and succinctly. It may be useful to note that all of the people who responded are college educated, thoughtful and progressive men and women who care about what they eat. However, the majority of the respondents did not recognize the acronym “GMO” and there seemed to be a lot of confusion about the purpose, safety or quality of genetically modified food. One person wrote that “maybe the food is made in a lab”. Scary!
While most of those surveyed leaned toward not wanting to consume or prepare genetically modified food, a few pointed out the benefits of GMO enhanced product. “Breeding for genetic vigor in plants has really reduced the amount of pesticides that we have actually had to use on our food in this country”. Interesting.
What everyone agreed upon 100% is the need to label genetically modified food and beverages. Over and over, people said “it’s the consumer's right to know” and people need to “be free to make their own choices”. That said, several acknowledged that while they would prefer to avoid GMOs altogether (even if they didn’t quite understand what they are), cost and time are barriers to doing so. Shopping at stores like Whole Foods is expensive, and farmers markets may not be conveniently located. The reality is that going GMO-free in this country is at best, very, very challenging, and at worst, impossible.
The bright news is that more and more people are beginning to explore where their food comes from and how it is prepared (or made in a lab!). As we nourish ourselves and our families, we understand the importance of knowing what we are consuming and how it will impact our health and wellbeing. And we recognize that freedom to choose --- what we eat and what we feed our kids – is critically important. Like most people, I eat some genetically modified food and some GMO-free foods. I buy organic when possible, but a quick look in my pantry tells me I make plenty of other choices, too.
I look forward to a time when making the healthy choice is the easy choice.
Photo thanks to: http://foreverlookinggood.com
You might have noticed a theme around my posts this month - although I do enjoy thinking about GMOs for fun, I have a greater purpose in mind. We're gearing up to repeat April's Month Without Monsanto project in October. We're doing this because 1) it's been a while since she did it, and more of us are up for participating this time around, and 2) with Proposition 37 on the California ballot in November, the potential to have GMO labels on food in the United States is a real one (since as many pundits say, if it happens in California, it will happen in the rest of the country sooner or later).
Since there are a few of us signed up for this challenge, we're working out our own versions of the rules, and how they will work in our different life situations. I'm still sorting out my details, but this is what I've come up with so far.
- I'm not tossing all the food currently in my house and starting from scratch. Frankly, I can't afford to rebuild my freezer contents or my spice rack (nor do I know anyone who can!). I do intend to research what I currently have and see how Monsanto - or Nonsanto - I am without realizing it.
- Most of the meat my family consumes - beef, pork, chicken, and turkey - comes from a local, CNG farm that uses GMO-free feed and pastures their animals, The Farmer's Wife. A longtime friend, I’ve met Maggie’s animals – my kids have helped collect her eggs – and I know what you see is what you get with her. I'm reasonably confident that I can manage my husband's carnivorous ways without cheating.
- All of the seeds I bought this year to grow myself (though I didn't grow as much as I wanted to) are confirmed #Nonsanto seeds, either through April's research or by finding out on my own. So the contents of my pickle jar are safe.
- I’m working on checking with my CSA producer and the farmers I frequent at the weekly farmer’s markets to find out their seed sources. (Keeping my fingers crossed that this is ok because my CSA box goes through Thanksgiving!)
- I declare that it’s ok to have a cheat meal once in a while, both because I know I will cheat unless I get a break, and since my birthday is in October, I fully intend to have a dinner out with my family. Though I will ask my favorite restaurants about their food sources.
- Since I’m a glutton for punishment, I’ve also signed up for the October Unprocessed challenge. You know, because one challenge isn’t enough.
I fully expect this to be challenging, and I know I’ll need some support. My intent is to tweet about my food-related travails and successes (@foodmeonce) as often as I can, with weekly posts here too. Feel free to offer suggestions or moral support anytime!
Question: Is raw milk safe?
Answer: Under the right circumstances, yes.
I was feeling a bit uninspired about this post, so I did what any reasonable person with writer’s block would do: I asked my best friend to tell me what to write. “What worries you most about food safety?” I asked. “I wish packaging said more about how things are made. Meat and veggies, particularly.” In return, I quipped, “here's a hint: if it comes in a package, you might not want to eat it.”
I decided to research the food safety controversy surrounding raw milk, instead. Raw milk has not gone through pasteurization, a process which kills bacteria by applying heat. Critics of pasteurization argue that pasteurization kills all bacteria, not just pathogenic ones, which results in “dead,” less healthful milk. Enzymes and proteins in raw milk are also damaged during the pasteurization process.
A quick Google search turns up a host of pages that are either staunchly pro- or anti-raw milk. My first stop was the Centers for Disease Control website. This seemed like a reputable enough source. The CDC pleads, “Make the best decision for the health of your family. If you want to keep milk in your family’s diet, protect them by not giving them raw milk.” I also found three scare-your-pants-off videos about people who became dangerously ill from infections traced back to raw milk. The testimonials—complete with dramatic photography and concerned male narration—reminded me of something I’d seen in sensational programs like Dateline NBC. This, combined with the complete lack of balance on the issue, made me wonder just how fact-based the CDCs information was.
My next stop was Real Raw Milk Facts, a website that purports to tell straight facts about raw milk. However, there were several sketchy claims—like the side by side nutrition facts comparison between raw milk and pasteurized showing them to be equally nutritious. Last I checked, things like enzymes and bacteria are not reported on nutrition labels. This, too, set off my crap-o-meter and I easily discovered that the site is funded by a Seattle-based lawyer who specializes in food poisoning cases. Not exactly the "straight facts" source I was looking for.
The potential danger of raw milk stems from two possible problem areas: the health of the animal and the handling of the product. No one is advocating drinking raw milk from grain-fed, overly confined, sick cows. That part makes sense. The tricky part comes in the handling of milk. No fecal matter or bacteria should ever come in contact with the milk. That means absolutely no dirty hands, udders, equipment, or flies. If you purchase your milk in a grocery store, you have no way of knowing how it was handled or the condition of the animals that contributed to the product. Of course there are rules, inspections, and testing, but these are no guarantee of a particular product’s safety. See: almost every outbreak of e. coli.
What this boils down to is an issue of trust. Whenever you buy a packaged product, whether that product is a box of cereal, a carton of milk, or a bag of baby spinach, that package represents a series of steps that remove you from your food source. Maybe I’m paranoid, but I’ve lost trust in labeled and packaged food that is supposed to make your food look safe and clean. Are you going to rely on regulations and labels that tell you your food is safe, or are you going to wash the daylights out of your spinach and cook your steaks within an inch of their….er, lives? I’ll take the latter.
If you know your farmer and you’ve shaken your cow’s hoof, you might not have the same trust issues I do. I’m no germaphobe, but I’m also not ready to throw caution to the wind. That goes for raw milk as well as just about everything we eat. All I’m saying is, if it comes in a package, you might not want to eat it.