Digest – Features: The ABCs of GM foods, Alice as the Sustainable Kitchen Fairy, clean-food catastrophe

This Digest was amended at 11 a.m. to add the excellent New York Times Magazine feature on water.

starA frank look at frankenfoods: Science writer Elena Conis has a top-notch, clear-eyed primer on the science of, and debate over, genetically modified foods — which can be found in 70% of processed foods. We consider ourselves pretty well briefed on the subject, but we learned something new: scientists sometimes insert the desired gene along with a gene for antibiotic resistance, too, as a sort of benign "marker gene" — only not so benign if you want antibiotics to keep working. (Los Angeles Times) Related: Chicago-based researchers have just announced they've developed a method to take crops' genetic manipulation to a higher level, by inserting an artificial chromosome (thx Jack). Also: Learn where the candidates stand on GM foods

OMG, we smell a reality TV series: Alice Waters, aka "the Glinda of … sustainable locally-grown cuisine," does a makeover on the fridge, pantry, and cooking of a "gastronomic fallen woman" and her two sons. Somebody should pitch Alice, Dan Barber, and Wolfgang Puck to the Food Network as a white-coated "What Not to Eat" team. (If they're not available, we are.) (New York Times Magazine)

"There's no feral pig lobby": A close look at the lengths to which the E. coli outbreaks in leafy greens have driven California's salad-bowl producers — 8-foot-high deer fences, razing all surrounding vegetation (in violation of environmental laws), and doing everything they can to reassure suppliers about crops that after all, are grown in the dirt. (Hydroponics, anyone?) Craziness. Meanwhile, as one person observes, where's the research into the causes and containment of E. coli 0157:H7? (AlterNet)

starSplash back: The bottled water industry is on the defensive, yet even at supposedly environmentally conscious stores like Whole Foods Market, bottled water is still the No. 1 selling item. And then there's the little problem that some of the same environmental groups that oppose bottled water have also warned against tap water contamination, especially in rural areas. Long article, but well worth reading if you're seeking a blood-pressure spike. (AlterNet) Related: Chicago Mayor Richard Daley proposes to add a 10-cent tax to each bottle of water

Happy cows make great steaks: Britain's most enlightened farms are revolutionizing the way cattle is reared and slaughtered. (The Observer)

Trough times: About how rural Iowans cope with the ammonia-rank smell of hogs — mostly by not going outside. We're wondering, just how many jobs do these hog factories actually provide, that small towns would sell out residents to attract them? (AP)

They're our heroes, too: Chip Giller of Grist.org — what the Ethicurean aspires to be when it grows up — is included in TIME magazine's cover story on "Heroes of the Environment." (Time)

Trick or treating, LOHAS-style: Yup, organic has jumped the shark…costume. (Wall Street Journal; free)

Getting over "fluffy bunny syndrome": Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on eating rabbit. (The Guardian)

Slow food in Fast Company: How Patrick Martins of Heritage Foods USA set out to save the old breeds of turkey. (Fast Company)

starstarWater, water, nowhere: The American West is headed into a catastrophe of epic proportions when it comes to water. This Pulitzer-worthy epic examines what states and towns are doing to ensure they continue to have a reliable source in a rapidly warming climate, and elucidates damningly how there's no way we have enough water to sustain all the farms, all the cities, and all the rivers at current growth rates. Soon, one source predicts, we will talk about our “water footprint” just as we now talk about our carbon footprint. Utterly depressing must-read. Goodbye, California's irrigated salad bowls; hello dry-farmed tomatoes — and everything else. (New York Times Magazine)

The real king of corn: The Kitchen Sisters explore the birth of the Frito. Its creator, Charles Elmer Doolin (a vegetarian), imagined them as a side dish — "He never imagined anyone would consume an entire king-size bag." (NPR)

Urban farmer loves growing (if not eating) bountiful harvest (SF Chronicle)

4 Responsesto “Digest – Features: The ABCs of GM foods, Alice as the Sustainable Kitchen Fairy, clean-food catastrophe”

  1. Now if we could only get wild rabbit at a butcher's. D'Artagnan should have wild hare soon, but that's imported from Scotland. And she doesn't import wild rabbit.

    All thanks to the silly idea that the USDA wants to see the living animal before they approve the meat, whereas Britain's inspectors want to look at the actual meat.

  2. Anastasia Bodnar says:

    There are so many real things to be afraid of that we should try to avoid being afraid of things that aren't true. There is no evidence that plant DNA can be taken up by bacteria. Yes, bacteria can take up loose DNA, but the plant genome is tightly bound up in cell nuclei, including any transgenes that may be present.

    Regardless, the antibiotic in question is biaphalos, and the resistance gene is the bar gene. Biaphalos isn't used as a human or animal antibiotic. It's actually used as a herbicide - commonly called Liberty - that blocks the plant's ability to process nitrogen. The excess nitrogen builds up and kills the plant.

    In transgenic plants, the gene is used to help identify which cells have been transformed. Cells without the gene die on a biaphalos treated medium. Transformation can be done without the bar gene, it just takes longer to screen for the cells that were transformed.

    The mini-chromosome has been around for a while, and poses exciting possibilities. The new press release is to share the news that the chromosomes are inherited like a natural chromosome. I didn't create an account to to see the article about mini-chromosomes posted here, but I had read another on Science Daily: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071019092025.htm

    There is a big problem with the way we insert genes - we don't know where they'll land. If they interrupt a native gene, there could be unforeseen effects. As pointed out in "Biotech foods are still hard to swallow" article, this is precisely why we've seen pesticide-resistant and insect-resistant crops instead of the great variety of improved crops that was promised on the advent of the technology. It's just easier to do the resistance type instead of spending years on improving nutrition.

    With the mini-chromosome, we can put whole biosynthesis pathways into the plant without interrupting any natural genes. We could create crop plants with greatly improved nutrients, something that could be very useful in countries where one grain is the only food source. I don't know about you, but I think it's criminal to stop a technology that could solve health problems like anemia in the children of third world countries. If the children could achieve normal brain development by having the right nutrients, where would those countries be today? Where will those countries be tomorrow without crops that can withstand drought and heat stress brought on by climate change?

    My point is that the mini-chromosome could be the key to producing truly improved crops, crops that will benefit mankind, not just make things easier for agribusiness. And, transformation with them won't need the bar gene :)

  3. Anastasia Bodnar says:

    Whew, that was longer than I thought. Sorry!
    Hopefully it's at least a little informative to make up for the length.

  4. Bonnie P. says:

    Anastasia: When you say "there is no evidence that plant DNA can be taken up by bacteria," how many studies have there been on it? How many studies have tracked the buildup of these hybrid genes in the environment, and looked at what they might do to every single species in the ecosystem, under conditions both normal and adverse? Just look at this recent Indiana University study indicating Bt corn is unexpectedly killing insects in nearby streams that fish depend on. The fact is, as case after case of GMOs gone wild shows, we may think we understand how they work, but we don't. And as you yourself say, we don't even know where the genes we're inserting will land. Nor has sufficient time been spent studying how they affect the intricate web of interdependent species in various environments.

    Scientists are only looking at a self-selected set of variables. Until large-scale, long-term (like 20 years) risk-management studies of transgenic organisms are carried out in consultation with epidemiologists, entomologists, ecologists, microbiologists — I could go on — I think that saying that "they are safe" is a faith-based proposition, not a science-based one. And as for the hoary old "save the children in third-world countries" defense, there is absolutely nothing wrong with trusting in the nutrition offered by foods that we have been growing and eating safely for thousands of years — not 20.

    To me, what's "criminal" is for the U.S. biotechnology to continue to take ill-considered risks with public health (both Americans' and those in poor countries we are "helping"), the ecosystem, and our supply of seeds simply because the technology is available to do so.