A Look At GMOs

There is a lot of discussion in the news about GMOs – organisms whose genomes were modified using DNA recombination.  Those who have a strong opinion on the matter tend to argue that GMOs are unnatural to nature, unhealthy to humans, and should not be part of our modern diet. While these arguments may have merit under certain circumstances, taken as a whole I do not believe that GMOs are a threat. In fact, I believe that GMOs can hold the key to bringing freshness, flavor, and supply to our food markets.

For the last 10,000-13,000 years, the only way for food cultivators to introduce a desired trait into a plant organism was to crossbreed sexually compatible species and hope for a positive outcome. Generally, this was a very positive strategy – we’ve created many species of food items which maximize edible parts, minimize useless parts, and confer characteristics that make agriculture easy.

Top: A cultivated, modern banana. Bottom: A “wild” banana, the kind you’d encounter before agriculture.

However, crossbreeding is a very imprecise act and desired outcomes often require scores of generations. DNA recombination sidesteps this process by allowing desired genes to be transferred with pinpoint accuracy. The most typical traits that are inserted into food species confer herbicide tolerance, resistance to pests, and resistance to viruses.  The basic idea is the GMOs can be grown in the absence or reduction of harmful farming techniques (i.e. pesticides, tilling, fungicides, virucide, etc.).

Anti-GMO activists tend to argue that these desirable traits can have undesirable consequences, ranging from unintended cross-breeding to serious health effects. Some of these claims are true but disingenuous: though unintended cross-breeding is a concern, it is not solely relegated to GMOs – all newly introduces organisms pose the risk. Other claims are patently false: there is no scientific evidence to suggest that GMOs cause generic illnesses. These and other unsubstantiated claims have caused a bottleneck in the production and dissemination of GMOs into our food supply.

Though I am generally wary of corporate farming techniques, I do not believe that GMOs are a part of the problem. I want my food to be grown in an environment that closely resembles my home garden, so I would much rather eat a tomato whose genes resist pests than one that was covered in neurotoxic pesticides or broad based herbicides. I would rather the world have a steady supply of high yield corn than to let people starve over unscientific hysteria. I would rather my food production be highly regulated (as is mandated for GMOs) than to eat food that has never seen scientific scrutiny. I would rather help craft legislation that controls the industry than dismiss GMOs as a viable production method for my food. I am no friend to Monsanto, but neither do I support pseudoscientific fear-mongering. GMOs have a place in our modern society, and I fully support having them as a part of my food source.

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GrubHub Alternative?

As new mobile and web applications change the way we interact with food, The Foodery is looking at new ways to make local, organic meals available to Boston consumers through delivery services. Customers make a weekly order of meals that arrive a few days later, ready to refrigerate. With a focus on local, organic, and sustainable agriculture, these meals are a little different than your average GrubHub order and  probably a lot healthier, too. While the meals, at around $18 per person per meal, are probably more expensive than your average takeout order, they may not be more expensive than restaurant meals.

weight-loss

As an avid Foodler user, the convenience of being able to open a smartphone app and quickly and efficiently order local foods is unparalleled. My only complaint is not having enough healthy take out options. As a consumer I would be willing to pay a premium to enjoy locally grown, sustainable and potentially much healthier food. In order to stay competitive within the changing market place, these online food ordering services should begin to explore the possibility of partnering with services like The Foodery.

It’s interesting to see the ways that our access to ever-improving and changing types of technology can start to challenge traditional ideas like the “take-out menu” or “fast food” with healthier options that support local farmers more than national restaurant chains. While The Foodery might not exactly be competition for GrubHub now, it’s great to see ideas like this enter the convenience/delivery arena.

I’m really interested to see the way that technology, and particularly mobile technology, continue to change the way we access food. Already there are some apps that are challenging the traditional ideas about access to restaurants. We’re all familiar with the line to get into a fabulous restaurant on a Saturday night and with the process of trying to make reservations at a small and trendy new spot. Apps and websites like OpenTable.com and NoWait allow us to follow that same strategy in a slightly more convenient way, but allowing us to make reservations or get in line at a restaurant faster and easier ways.

But some new websites and apps are challenging even the ideas of lines and reservations. Apps like KillerRezzy, ReservationHop, and Zurvu work by purchasing reservations at trendy restaurants ahead of time, and then selling those reservations back to consumers. While these increase our access to fine dining, they sometimes do so at the expense of dining democracy, allowing privilege and money to edge in.

Other apps approach food access with a slightly more equalizing perspective, including apps like Locavore, which allows users to quickly and easily find farmers’ markets and farms that sell seasonal, locally grown food.

It’s so interesting to watch how these tools of technology are changing the way we access food, think about food, and build relationships with food.

Vote with Your Fork Rally

This month’s Let’s Talk About Food festival kicks off with the Vote With Your Fork Rally on the 26th at Trinity Church in Boston. There will be speakers on hand to talk about why voters should look at food and farming platforms for candidates when casting votes.

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The scheduled speakers include Chef Barton Seaver (Director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at Harvard University’s School of Public Health), award winning chef Michel Nischan, Representative Chellie Pingree and Ken Cook the president and co-founder of Environmental Working Group (EWG).

Michel Nischan was recently interviewed as part of the National Geographics’ Future of Food series where he talked a bit about the importance of using our collective buying power, as consumers, not just to make healthier choices for ourselves, but also to improve our local economies. Someone made a comment on the interview about the cost of produce at local farmer’s markets still being too costly in comparison to the cost of produce in commercial venues. I thought it was interesting that Michel Nischan had actually addressed this point somewhat in his interview, where he is, I think, calling for a shift away from thinking about the cost of buying the “product” towards thinking about the cost of buying the seeds/plants and growing our own food in individual or community settings.

Personally I find the quality and longevity of the farmers market products to be far more reliable than to those of a traditional supermarket. I have also noticed an uptick in the individuals using government assistance at local farmers markets. Within Massachusetts EBT/SNAP benefits can be used at farmers markets throughout the states.

TOPfamersmarket

Nationally the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program is helping to expand this benefit. These programs are helping to provide healthy food choices to families who may be experiencing food insecurities. I’m looking forward to hearing this year’s Vote With Your Folk speakers address these issues further.

The purpose of this blog.

I grew up eating food from nearby farms and our large garden, but when I moved to the city I was happily exposed to all sorts of different flavors, cultures, and ethnic cuisines. Over time, I became interested in how these foods arrived to the stores and restaurants that I frequented. Through this blog, I will be exploring how food production, transportation and consumption has an impact on a city’s health, sustainability, and culture. I’m specifically interested in how social media is used to help food producers, restaurateurs, stores owners, and consumers communicate and change the current food production and consumption climate.

I love that food production and food sourcing is becoming a very big topic. People use sites like Twitter, Yelp, and Urban Spoon to talk about their foods, and to advocate for closer relationships between farm and plate. Before social media these voices weren’t well heard, but now anyone can talk directly to a farm or a restaurateur and ask about their ingredients. This has lead to a lot of new food movements, such as slow food and farm to plate.

For instance, check out this new restaurant I just dined at while visiting Seattle:

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The Walrus and the Carpenter

All of their food is locally sourced, and even the farms producing the ingredients are specifically listed on their website! This is what gets me excited about the use of social media and it’s ability to have a direct impact on informed choice.