The State of Agricultural Research

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I'm a big proponent of supporting local farms and knowing your farmer.  Therefore, I was a bit ashamed that I didn't know what really went on at the University of Maryland Farm that is right down the street from the house I grew up in. Luckily, they hold an annual open house that I managed to attend last year.  I took a tractor ride tour of the land.

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And felt inside of a cow's stomach. I had seen the whole "cow with a hole in the side of it" thing before on documentaries, but actually putting my hand inside was brand new. I'm still not sure that I think cutting a hole in the side of a cow is particularly ok, but the cow I met was very sweet and didn't seem in any pain. They swear that she was not drugged and that she is, in fact, not suffering.

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Some interesting facts that I learned that I really wanted to share with you all deal with the state of agricultural research in this country.  The sad truth is that it is extremely rare to get independent research conducted today.  Students at the University of Maryland, and other agricultural universities, don't receive enough government or university funding for research. Which means that they must go out and get grants elsewhere.  And where do you think they get this money from?  Industry.  

Now think about that.  If the research being conducted is being paid for by the very companies who have a stake in a particular outcome, how unbiased and trustworthy are the results?  

Independent testing is important.  The government is often overly entangled in things in this country, but research is an area where it actually should be, and it is  becoming less and less involved.  Fair and unbiased research is in the good of the country.  

In case you were wondering, yes, the UMD farm plants all GMO corn.  Even BT corn.  Anyone surprised?

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Katie Dawn Habib

Katie Dawn Habib is a Holistic Nutrition Coach with a M.S. in Nutrition and Integrative Health. By combining her nutrition knowledge with a love of writing, Katie created her own website, The Hungry Gypsy, where she talks about food, nutrition, wellness and travel. On her site you can also find information about her nutrition coaching practice and join in on the conversations. Katie would like to contribute in some small way to global healing and help her clients and readers feel inspired.

Label Overload

So many labels, what do they all mean?  

There are way more labels out there in food-world than I could possibly hope to go over, but I can at least hit some of the big ones.  The big thing to understand is the basic concept of what labels actually mean, and what they don't.

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Before you get completely overwhelmed by the vast array of tiny designs that can appear on foods, first understand this: descriptive words that are not an actual label are part of a marketing campaign. They are not well mediated or well substantiated.  For example: "made with whole grains" or "supports your child's immunity" don't really mean much.  There may be some whole grains in the product, or it may contain some amount of vitamin C, but the implication they are trying to give probably doesn't align with reality.  Bear in mind, they haven't actually tested whether or not eating their crappy processed food improves health.  They know that a particular nutrient is associated with health, so they pumped some of that one nutrient into an otherwise completely terrible "food" and are now using it to make a health claim.  DO NOT BE FOOLED BY MARKETING PLOYS.

An actual label, on the other hand, must be obtained through a certification process. Whichever certifying board is responsible for each label will have their own rules that must be met.  When a food or product has been validated, it will be able to display that label on its packaging (or as a sticker), thus informing you, the consumer, that the certifying body guarantees that the product meets their standards. 

And one more point before we get into some specific labels, the following are words that are not verified and therefore can pretty much be claimed by anything that isn't an obvious lie: Natural and Sustainable. Sorry folks, neither one of those words is truly regulated.  With that said, lots of products that claim to use sustainable practices actually do, so do your own research with those.  As for natural, companies seem to love that word a little too much for my comfort.  Get to know your companies!

Also, animal related terms to know:

Cage free: There really isn't third party regulation.  The implication is that the birds are not in cages, but usually they are kept in extremely overcrowded, dark warehouses.

Free Roaming/Free Range: Defined for poultry meat only.  The USDA regulates that they must have access to the outdoors.  Of course, whether or not they actually go outdoors, and how much time or space they have is unregulated.  For laying hens (eggs) the term free range is not regulated.

Pastured: No legal definition or verification.  The implication is the animals were raised on pasture, but  the claim is unverified.

Grass Fed: There are multiple definitions. Note that the USDA grassfed logo allows cattle to be confined on feedlots with cut grass shipped in on trucks.  The American Grassfed Association logo verifies that the animals were raised on pasture, without confinement, antibiotics or added hormones.

Humane: It implies the use of humane practices, but it is completely unregulated.

 

Now, onto some Common Labels:

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Referring to Non-Genetically Modified Organisms (common ones being corn, soy, canola, beet sugar). Products must be deemed compliant with the Non-GMO Project Standard.  They require testing of all ingredients that are being grown commercially in GMO form. They have an Action Threshold of 0.9%, which is the same as laws in the European Union.

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Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye that some people have an allergy or sensitivity to.  The Gluten-Free Certification Organization is an independent service that conducts field inspections to verify that products are truly gluten-free. 

 

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The Fair Trade certification is designed and audited to ensure equitable trade practices at every level of the supply chain. To earn a license from Fair Trade USA in order to use the Fair Trade Certified™ label on their products, companies must buy from certified farms and organizations, pay Fair Trade prices and premiums and submit to supply chain audits.

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This is the major one so here's the story:

According to the USDA: Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.

Crop Farms:

(They must have 3 years with no application of prohibited materials before being declared Organic)

  • Implementation of an Organic System Plan, with proactive fertility systems; conservation measures; environmentally sound manure, weed, disease, and pest management practices; and soil building crop rotation system
  • Use of natural inputs and/or approved synthetic substances on the National List
  • No use of prohibited substances while certified
  • No use of genetically engineered organisms (GMOs)
  • No sewage sludge or irradiation
  • Use of organic seeds, when commercially available
  • Use of organic seedlings for annual crops
  • Restrictions on use of raw manure and compost
  • Maintenance of buffer zones, depending on risk of contamination
  • No residues of prohibited substances exceeding 5% of the EPA tolerance

For livestock operations:

  • Implementation of an Organic Livestock Plan
  • Mandatory outdoor access, when seasonally appropriate
  • Access to pasture for ruminants
  • No antibiotics, growth hormones, slaughter byproducts, or GMOs
  • 100% organic feed and approved feed supplements
  • Sound animal husbandry and preventative health care
  • Organic management from last third of gestation or 2nd day after hatching
  • No rotating animals between organic and non-organic management

Single Ingredients

On foods like fruits and vegetables, look for a small sticker version of the USDA Organic label or check the signage in your produce section for this seal. The word "organic" and the seal may also appear on packages of meat, cartons of milk or eggs, cheese, and other single-ingredient foods.

Multi-Ingredient Foods

Foods such as beverages, snacks, and other processed foods use the following classification system to indicate their use of organic ingredients.

100% Organic: Foods bearing this label are made with 100% organic ingredients and may display the USDA Organic seal. 

Organic: These products contain at least 95–99% organic ingredients (by weight). The remaining ingredients are not available organically but have been approved by the National Organic Program. These products may display the USDA Organic seal.

Made With Organic Ingredients: Food packaging that reads “Made With Organic Ingredients” must contain 70–94% organic ingredients. These products will not bear the USDA Organic seal; instead, they may list up to three ingredients on the front of the packaging.

Other: Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may only list organic ingredients on the information panel of the packaging. These products will not bear the USDA Organic seal.

 

Of course, here is the ultimate tip for avoiding getting overwhelmed by packaging: buy very few things that actually have packaging.  I get that some whole foods come in packaging: bread, eggs, spices, grains etc. But generally those packages are mostly transparent and therefore not quite as overwhelming as, say, a cereal box. Boxed, processed foods are a marketing division's dream.  The entire point of processed foods is to purchase large quantities of cheap commodity ingredients, process them in various ways, and then charge a huge markup for "added value."  How do they inform you of just how much "value" they've added? By plastering claims and cute cartoons all over the packaging.  These are marketing devices.  The claims they make are typically unsubstantiated and loosely regulated.  For the real story, read the ingredients list. Those are really the only words that matter.  But again, if you are buying, say, a squash, there isn't any packaging to be found.  Between a box and a squash: go with the squash.   

Yes, to further complicate things, if you are rockin' and simply want to decide between various good things: do you buy organic or local or fair trade? I say ideally buy as much organically grown food as possible.  Hopefully, it will be labeled, but if you know your farmer and he isn't certified but adheres to organic practices, buy it.  Aim for local and in season as much as possible.  (I love buying local, it's the easiest way to know your farmer. But if that farmer sprays lots of pesticides and plants gmo crops- no way! That means he's selling contaminated food AND contaminating my water supply!) For imports from countries with poor working conditions, buy fair trade.  But to be fair, as long as you are deciding between organic versus local produce instead of Lucky Charms versus Fruit Loops, you deserve a massive shout out because you are awesome and I'll call it a WIN either way!

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Katie Dawn Habib

Katie Dawn Habib is a Holistic Nutrition Coach with a M.S. in Nutrition and Integrative Health. By combining her nutrition knowledge with a love of writing, Katie created her own website, The Hungry Gypsy, where she talks about food, nutrition, wellness and travel. On her site you can also find information about her nutrition coaching practice and join in on the conversations. Katie would like to contribute in some small way to global healing and help her clients and readers feel inspired.

Genetically Modified

What the heck is a genetically modified food?

Well for starters, we probably should use a different term: transgenic.  Technically speaking, any deliberate form of cross breeding is a form of genetic modification.  This is not, however, what people are usually referring to when they speak of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  Therefore, I will use the less ambiguous term, transgenic, to refer to the specific splicing of the DNA of one organism and the subsequent insertion of a gene(s) from a different organism.  Although, note that when you see the terms GM or GMO elsewhere it is most likely referring to transgenic organisms.

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The process of creating a transgenic organism (whether plant or animal) is not a natural process.  There are many steps involved that require the invasion of a cell usually through a bacteria or virus that has been altered with the desired gene.  The plant or animal that is being modified will have the altered bacteria or virus forced into the nucleus of its cells.  

Here is a great video that explains the process.

The main question is why have biotech companies created transgenic crops?

The original idea is based around improving crop yields.  Whether or not yields have even been improved is up for debate, but what is for sure is that the biotech companies have created a profit generating machine by patenting seeds (live organisms which can replicate and cross-contaminate).  The most prolific transgenic seeds are those that have been engineered to be resistant to a specific herbicide: Monsanto's Roundup Ready Herbicide.  This means that farmers can spray massive amounts of Roundup Ready Herbicide without fear that it will destroy the crop.  Of course, Monsanto is the company that has both patented the seeds and the herbicide.  How convenient?  The company is making money selling farmers seeds and the herbicide.  So, now we've got transgenic food that is being sprayed with a massive amount of herbicide.

There is also Monsanto's Bt corn which is engineered to have an insecticide built into its DNA, which can liquify the stomach linings of insects trying to eat the crop.  What does it do to humans?  We don't know.  

There are a number of others, but Monsanto owns 90% of all transgenic crops and those are the two big ones.  Do not be fooled by Monsanto's claims that it is trying to feed the world.  It is the chemical company that brought us Agent Orange and it is mainly concerned with profits.  Otherwise, Monsanto would perform the necessary tests to determine that it is actually safe to feed the world transgenic foods.

For those of you who may not know much about transgenic foods, the following may come as a shock:

***In the U.S.A., transgenic foods are in as much as 80% of all conventional processed foods***

The following are considered high risk transgenic crops:

  • Alfalfa (first planting 2011)
  • Canola (approx. 90% of U.S. crop)
  • Corn (approx. 88% of U.S. crop in 2011)
  • Cotton (approx. 90% of U.S. crop in 2011)
  • Papaya (most of Hawaiian crop; approximately 988 acres)
  • Soy (approx. 94% of U.S. crop in 2011)
  • Sugar Beets (approx. 95% of U.S. crop in 2010)
  • Zucchini and Yellow Summer Squash (approx. 25,000 acres)
  • Also, Animal Products due to contamination of feed and rBGH (Bovine Growth Hormone which is a transgenic hormone inserted into conventional cows)

[statistics from the Non GMO Project: http://www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/]

Essentially, this means processed foods.  Canola, corn, soy and sugar (sugar beets) make up the majority of ingredients in conventional processed foods.  Also, any actual corn, soy or canola oil that is non-organic and not certified as Non-GMO is almost certainly transgenic.  Alfalfa is poised to become a big factor because it is both easily spread and fed to livestock.

Transgenic crops have been around for well over a decade, which means that almost all of us have, at one time or another, consumed transgenic foods without our knowledge or consent.  This is unique to the U.S.A.  In the European Union, transgenic crops are banned.  Even Russia and China require labeling of transgenic food.

Despite their proliferation in American diets, very little testing has been done on the safety of transgenic crop consumption.  The big biotech companies have a lot of money and have managed to lobby the government to reduce regulations and treat transgenic crops as normal.  Which means that they've entered our supermarkets and our stomachs without extensive testing, causing the public at large to be the biotech industry's own personal guinea pigs.  I, for one, do not appreciate that these companies have placed profits over public health.

 via golivegreenlife.com

via golivegreenlife.com

Clearly, eating a single serving of transgenic food does not produce immediate, acute effects that are easily identifiable, but what about consumption over time?  The answer is: we don't know.  Biotech companies have attempted to prevent testing of transgenic crop consumption, but slowly tests are coming out and the results are not looking good.  Connections are coming out between transgenic foods and infertility, immune problems and altered organ function, among others.  See the links below:

What does this mean for us, today?

Personally, I want to see labeling on transgenic foods.  This is extremely relevant today.  In an exciting new turn of events, Senator Barbara Boxer (D- CA) and Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OH) have sponsored new federal legislation that would require labeling of all transgenic foods in the U.S.  This is a right to know issue.  

If you do not want to consume transgenic foods your best bet is to: 

  • Avoid processed foods
  • Buy certified Organic and/or certified Non GMO foods
  • Try heirloom varieties of foods

If this resonates with you, please get involved.  Monsanto, Dupont and others spent just under $25 million in order to block Proposition 37, which would have required labeling of transgenic foods in California in 2012 (1).  We need people who will protect the interests of the public, not the interests of company profits. Get the word out.  Encourage people to call their representatives and tell them that they want transgenic food to be labeled.  We have the right to know what is in our food.

Some resources for getting involved and/or learning more:

(1) http://www.forbes.com/sites/amywestervelt/2012/08/22/monsanto-dupont-spending-millions-to-oppose-californias-gmo-labeling-law/

 

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Katie Dawn Habib

Katie Dawn Habib is a Holistic Nutrition Coach with a M.S. in Nutrition and Integrative Health. By combining her nutrition knowledge with a love of writing, Katie created her own website, The Hungry Gypsy, where she talks about food, nutrition, wellness and travel. On her site you can also find information about her nutrition coaching practice and join in on the conversations. Katie would like to contribute in some small way to global healing and help her clients and readers feel inspired.

What is an Heirloom Variety?

Maybe you've seen them before, maybe not: purple carrots, yellow tomatoes, black rice, red potatoes.

Heirloom varieties.

What does this mean?

An heirloom plant is one that has been grown for a long time in human history, but is no longer commonly grown in modern large-scale agriculture.

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These are not new hybrids.  They have been around for centuries.  Not that hybridization is necessarily bad, but lest you fear that these have ben concocted in a lab and tomatoes are supposed to be red, let me reassure you that tomatoes have been green, yellow, orange and red for a very long time.

 via lexiconofstability.com

via lexiconofstability.com

Modern day agriculture is very focused on uniformity.  As a result, large-scale operations tend to grow only one variety of corn, potato, tomato etc.  While this may be effective at producing french fries that all look the same, we are missing out on a multitude of benefits that various varieties of plants have to offer. Not all potatoes are created equal, for example.  While the common New and Russet potatoes get a bad rap, purple potatoes are loaded with antioxidants.

An article from Rodale with more information: Purple Potatoes: Your New Blood Pressure Medicine

One of the keys to a healthy diet is variety.  We need to consume a variety of foods in order to obtain the vast array of micronutrients that our bodies need.  A great way to do this is to add variety within the foods that you already eat.  Is rice standard in your diet?  Try cooking with different types of rice.  There are dozens of rice varieties, each with their own unique flavor profile that can add to your health and to the deliciousness of your meal.

More information about the greatness of black rice: 

District Avenue Nutrition: White rice, Brown rice, What’s BLACK rice?

Here's another reason to care:

In general, it is hard to find heirloom varieties at standard grocery stores. More health conscious grocery stores, however, do offer a lot of heirloom options and farmers markets are teeming with them. You see, the reason that there are, or at least were, so many different varieties of each plant species is that plants can adapt to be grown in different regions with different conditions.  Through the generations, farmers keep the seeds that thrive and pass those on to their children.  Thus, local heirloom varieties have been adapted over the years to be successful in your local area.  That means that these plants by nature require less external help to deal with pests and weather because they have evolved to be better suited to the climate.  Unfortunately, due to the monoculture mentality of large-scale agriculture, many heirloom varieties have been lost.  We are losing Agrobiodiversity.

Some numbers from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations:

[Box 5] 100 YEARS OF AGRICULTURAL CHANGE: SOME TRENDS AND FIGURES RELATED TO AGROBIODIVERSITY

  • *Since the 1900s, some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties.
  • 30 percent of livestock breeds are at risk of extinction; six breeds are lost each month.
  • Today, 75 percent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species.
  • Of the 4 percent of the 250 000 to 300 000 known edible plant species, only 150 to 200 are used by humans. Only three - rice, maize and wheat - contribute nearly 60 percent of calories and proteins obtained by humans from plants.
  • Animals provide some 30 percent of human requirements for food and agriculture and 12 percent of the world’s population live almost entirely on products from ruminants.

            Source: FAO. 1999b http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/y5609e/y5609e02.htm

We have already lost a lot, but we can preserve what we have.  Buy heirloom varieties and support the use of locally cultivated seeds.

Eating heirlooms can be easy substitutions/additions.  Next time you have a veggie tray at an event, try throwing in some purple and white carrots beside the orange ones.  You'll have the most beautiful display and be helping everyone to eat the rainbow!