GMO-a-No-Go: Part 1 – What is a GMO and Why Care?

food

GMO OMG. It’s everywhere nowadays. …. but what’s a GMO? Why should you care?

You may think that “organic” stuff is another gimmick for the “Whole Paycheck” crowd. But there is a lot more to this movement than meets the dismissive eye. It’s lies, cover-ups and manipulation. It’s your life span and your rising insurance deductibles and the future of the food supply of the planet you live on. It’s the cutting edge of Science. It’s David versus Goliath: Money versus Health.

Intrigued? Read on.

I recently listed to a podcast host wistfully pine, “I dream of a world without GMOs.” Sadly, that world was as recent as the Clinton White House, but GMOs have become so ubiquitous in our food that it’s hard to imagine life without them. 

You are eating GMOs. Americans live in a world where the majority of food sold is made with GMOs, and the majority of consumers don’t even know this. The top GE foods are corn, soy, sugar beets, and canola. Try to find something in your local grocery without them. You’re likely ingesting GMOs indirectly as well, through the beef you had for Memorial day that had munched on GMO soy, or through the milk you drink from cows injected with bovine growth hormone.

So what are all the court battles, activists on the streets, and cries for labeling or outright bans all about? There is no way to contain this beast of a topic in one post, so I’ll be posting a primer in serial form. Here’s a rough sketch you can look forward to:

  • Part 1 – What is a GMO and Why Care?
  • Part 2 – Scientific Studies – thinking critically, their relevance and trustworthiness.
  • Part 3 – Who are the people and companies involved?
  • Part 4 – Are there benefits to GMOs? Why do we plant them, why do we buy them?
  • Part 5 – GMOs in the courts and patenting life
  • Part 6 – Labeling Initiatives.

It’s a work in progress. I welcome your comments, questions and constructive criticism! Now let’s get to it:

What is Genetically Modified Food? GM-Fish-Strawberry

Basically, it’s food that would never ever happen outside of a laboratory. If a Salmon and a Strawberry had a one-night-stand after a few too many they wouldn’t have to worry about a little strawberryfish surprise. Another important fundamental about frankenfoods is modification happens instantaneously instead of over generations or aeons of breeding.

But let’s back up a moment and get the lingo down: GMO = GM = GE. An “O”rganism (plant or animal) is “G”enetically “M”odified or “E”ngineered. You may see the term “transgenic” in more scientific publications. The terms are interchangeable. Organic and GMO, however, are not interchangeable…Organics do not contain GMOs* but Non-GMO food does not have to be organic (think pesticide use). We won’t even get into the “Natural” advertisement on packaging-you can read up at Grist. You may as well eat products “Made with Real Cheese.”

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Really, just go to your local farmer’s market and talk to the farmer.

But wait, you say, isn’t everything genetically engineered? We all learned about that dang monk with his pea plants in high school bio, right? Surely food has been bred for thousands of years to have the best qualities of flavor, disease resistance, and growth resilience.

Stick ’em up, Plant.

We’ve come a long way from the meticulous selective breeding of Mendel and generations of farmers. GM food is Frankenstein’s monster on the level of DNA. Selected parts of organisms that were never meant to go together naturally are forced together in a laboratory creation. This occurs at gunpoint. No joke. Most plant GMOs are created with a technique called “particle bombardment,” which means the target organism, say a corn plant, is shot with a .22 caliber “gene gun”. The picture to the left is not a parody; it’s a depiction of the process from a scientific laboratory.

Evolution happens over time, engaging natural processes like sex and cross pollination.  Natural organisms adapt to changes over time–it’s how species survive. But engineering happens instantly. Then, instead of an organism adapting to its environment the natural state of things is flipped on its head and the environment adapts to the organism. Genetically engineered organisms rocket past evolution and exhibit unexpected side effects…even if those effects aren’t understood for generations. cheshire cat on head

Why Do People Care?

I’ll give you two reasons: Health and Money.

Health

People care because they want to know what they’re putting in their bodies and what effect it will have. People care because they don’t want to be guinea pigs. They care because they believe the governmental agencies and actors that are in place to protect their interests in this respect have failed them by not properly regulating or testing these scientific creations. They care because diseases and disorders are skyrocketing over the last couple of decades… Remember how I mentioned the Clinton White House? The first GMO food hit the market about 20 years ago…coincidence? Perhaps, but people want answers, and that’s reasonable. The smarty-pants among you realize that correlation does not equal causation…but you also realize that correlation can be a flag worth checking out, right?

People care is because they’re eating it. Many people don’t know what GMOs are, and conservative estimates say 75% of processed food (read: it comes from a can or box) contains GMO ingredients. I’d bet even the majority of those that try to avoid GMOs have had that moment when they realize, well shoot I missed that one! (Like learning that the Whole Foods “organic” food sourced from China can still contain GMOs, or that PLUs don’t actually have an organic code number).

I will delve into this scientific debate in the next Part of this GMO-a-No-Go Series, so sit tight. But for the time being, riddle me this: how can a substance be so commonplace and similar to already existing substances that it merits no specific testing or labeling, yet so novel and original that it merits financial protection by the US Government?

Money

Author Gary Hirshberg illustrates an interesting contradiction. The US Patent Office sees genetically engineered foods as significantly different from anything in nature enough to grant patents to seed chemical companies for their creation. A patent is given out when a person or company creates something that is a product of their own vision that has never existed before. As a country we recognize and encourage creativity by granting that imaginative and productive individual or company exclusive rights to sell that invention for a certain period of time. In other words, novelty generates money to encourage innovation.

However, a separate agency under the federal umbrella, the FDA, treats these inventions as if there is no substantial difference between the engineered seed and the food we’ve been eating since the dawn of time. What? How could two federal agencies take such diametrically opposing views? This alone raises some eyebrows, and some flags for consumers.

We’ll delve into the money issues a bit later in the series, but suffice it to say, GMOs are big business.

Conclusion

There’s something for everyone in the debate about GMOs–whether you’re interested in the ability to play God in a laboratory, or want to feed the world, or sympathize with the 99%, or wonder why rates of autism and asthma and obesity are on the rise, or revel in government corruption…it’s here.

Stay tuned, and stay healthy.

Sources and More Information

Seeds of Deception, Jeffrey M. Smith

http://www.whatisgeneticengineering.net/

*Even “Organic” food, as certified by the USDA is not necessarily 100% non-GMO. For example, the label doesn’t prohibit indirect GMO introduction such as regulating feed of cattle which has been found to affect the composition of beef itself.

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That’s My Placenta! A Survey of Ownership and Activities

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If something is removed from your body, who owns it? The question may gross you out, but it has a serious side. Take for example, the human placenta. A little bio-class refresher: it’s an organ grown by a woman during pregnancy to attach the fetus to her uterus via the umbilical cord. It transfers oxygen, nutrients and hormones to the baby, and removes waste. (So get that-momma’s already feeding and picking up after you even before you’re born! That’s love ladies and gentlemen.)

If a woman gives birth in a hospital, as a majority of women do in the U.S., you’ll likely never see this amazing organ. Many may thank their lucky stars but a growing number are grabbing for a doggie bag–literally and figuratively. There is a growing contingent of families that want to keep the placenta for personal use. Hospitals and governments have policies that run the spectrum from allowing momma access immediately without question, protected by law, to a waiting period or injection of a preservative, or a blanket refusal. However, a lack of uniform policy combined with social stigma creates situations that can be simultaneously comical, sad, devious or hazardous. When faced with an official policy of refusal, some women call a funeral director to have the placenta released then returned to them via straw man. Some find a sympathetic hospital staffer to drop it in a designated biohazard bin then look the other way when the bag disappears. A few are lucky enough to be able to take it home in a cooler with permission. Some need a court order to get their body part released.

Why Want it and Why Would that Be a Problem?

There are a variety of reasons a person would want to keep their placenta, but  I can summarize three main: spiritual practice, placentophagy, and memorabilia. For  many, keeping the placenta has spiritual implications–some cultures believe the soul is attached, or individuals may want to perform their own memorial or ritual by, for example, burying it near a tree so that the tree grows as the child does. There is a beautiful and fascinating book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, that describes the intersection of Hmong culture with western medicine, in which the placenta burial ceremony is depicted. Other people choose to ingest their placenta, either raw, cooked or encapsulated. There’s plenty of googling to be done on this one if you’re interested but I’ll leave that to you and focus instead here on logistics and law. Suffice it to say that many strongly believe in this practice (including yours truly) and believe it can provide healing nutrients, prevent or slow postpartum hemorrhaging  and alleviate baby-blues. Finally, some use the placenta to create art as a way to honor the woman’s body or memorialize a birth. Again, google away if you so choose.

So what’s the problem? Why would Hospital refuse to allow a mother to take home her own organ? Again, no single answer. Hospitals may cite risk of disease due to releasing human tissue full of blood. There could be prejudice to hurdle–utilizing a placenta in private circumstances is not the norm in American culture. There could be a profit incentive for the hospital–placenta is increasingly being used in beauty products for such things as anti-wrinkle creams and shampoos. More altruistically, but also with funding in mind, the placenta is a source of stem cells for medical research.

So Who Owns It? Momma or the Hospital?

I’m going to give you the classic lawyer response on this: “It Depends.” It depends on whether the state you live in has laws that directly address this, or what indirect laws the hospital and department of health choose to apply. It depends on what the placenta is called, or how it’s classified. You can find a survey of law and legal issues here and here.

In 2007 the placenta ownership question made its way to a Nevada courts in Swanson v. Sunrise Hospital. In short, Mom wanted to take her placenta and the hospital refused. Ultimately, the court ordered the hospital to release it (though too late to encapsulate so it was buried instead). But that’s just one case in Las Vegas, Nevada. It probably doesn’t apply to your situation. Precedential persuasion only goes so far, and less so the more “icky” or stigmatized the subject matter.

Hospitals have a tightrope to walk when releasing placentas–honor patient rights and wishes, while protecting themselves from liability. The sympathy a hospital has for momma’s rights will vary state to state, county to county, even hospital to hospital. Further, the official policy of a hospital may not accurately reflect the unofficial practices of staff.

And what’s in a name? The way the placenta is classified can have a bearing on it’s disposition–what a staffer will do once they have it in their hands and who then has access to it. It can be trashed as medical waste, frozen as human tissue, or considered human remains to be picked up by a coroner. With each of these classifications, different laws apply. Compare to other things that are removed from a body: stuff like swallowed change or diamond rings and likely handed over, kidney stones or lukemia cells that will likely be discarded, sperm and ova and organs that can be donated, cord blood that can be banked. You can see the power of a label.

So What If You Want To Keep Your Placenta?

The best bet for keeping your placenta is to give birth outside of a hospital, if it is a safe option for you (consult medical professionals–I am not one). However, if you plan on a hospital birth and want to keep your organ, do your homework:

  • Don’t be shy. Talk to your doctor about his or her thoughts, feelings, and policies. Have they ever heard of this? (Surprising how many have not). Have they ever allowed this before?
  • Call the hospital ahead of time to find out their policies and alert them that you want to keep your placenta. Ask to have it put in your medical chart.
  • Is there anything written down that guides the situation? Find out if there are any local laws, regulations or guidance.–state, regulations, hospital policy. This way, you can find a different hospital if need be. All of these things can be legally challenged, with varying degrees of difficulty. Don’t be surprised if there is nothing.
  • You may need to sign a release. Ask the hospital if they have one or if they require one. They’ll likely have to consult with their legal team. You can hire an attorney to write one and guide you through this process.
  • Likely you’ll be asked why you want your placenta. You don’t have to answer, but it may help the process along. If you’re going to answer, be prepared. Some people are upset by the question, thinking, “It’s mine, why do I have to justify my reasons?” If that’s your position, more power to you, but be prepared to perhaps meet some resistance. Some hospitals may not release your placenta without knowing why (that there is a legit use), because they’re thinking about their own liability or even ethics.
  • Be prepared: If the Hospital will let you take it–how is that going to happen? Are you okay with it being frozen or do you need it raw? Is your cooler ready with your hospital to-go bags? Does this need to be released to someone else as a straw man? Have that person in place. Don’t let it get to the point of needing an emergency court order, where you risk the viability of the placenta.
  • Consult an attorney to help you through the process 🙂

In Conclusion

Although you may feel strongly that something that comes from your own body belongs to you (and I agree with you), there are public health concerns and social stigma that you are fighting against. This may not be fair or proper, but it is the way it is right now. The best I can say to you is to be prepared to protect your rights. I hope that you are in a friendly environment, but you may not be.

SOURCES & ADDITIONAL READING

The Atlantic: Why Some Mothers Choose to Eat Their Placentas; March 22, 2013.

Placenta Benefits website

Patheos.com: Placenta Magic

The New DARE–Drug Abuse Reliant Education

With the school system failing them, many children are turning to drugs. Heard this one before, right? Well, how about the part where the pusher is your pediatrician, and the fed is subsidizing?

“I don’t have a whole lot of choice,” said Dr. Anderson, a pediatrician for many poor families in Cherokee County, north of Atlanta. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”

Terrifying.

A recent NYT article spot lighted increasing psych diagnoses in children for the purpose of acquiring “brain boosting” pharma creations to increase academic performance. The purpose is to make a child more competitive on a college application, and increase funding for a school district as test scores rise. Children are being force-fed drugs instead of given the attention they need or the freedom to be creative and learn discipline on their own as pharmaceutical “solutions” are abused as steroids for the brain. Worse yet, the behavior is sanctioned by those in authority, who are supposed to advocate for their well-being–their parents, doctors and the federal government.

LivEmpire2I’m not saying that all parents, doctors and government officials are proponents of this system. Quite the opposite–I’d surmise that physicians and politicians  and parents alike would claim victimization. In fact, Dr. Anderson, quoted above, says just that–he doesn’t have a whole lot of choice. Likewise, those involved with Medicaid and the federal budget may see the unnecessary diagnosis as …oh, i don’t know… fraudulent? Criminal? Child abuse? No matter the reason, we are talking about falsifying a disorder for the sole purpose of having access to a controlled substance.

How about the parents? Can they be blamed for wanting the best education for their children? Abuse of drugs like Adderall has been going on for years in order to boost academic achievement among kids who are simply looking for a better class rank or test score, and it appears this is happening in kids younger and younger. And now instead paying cash to a friend or sibling who has a prescription, they can more easily get their own, with the blessing of parents and physicians while utilizing insurance purse strings.

Education is a highly competitive arena, whether it’s a student vying for a scholarship or admission to their college of choice, or a district teaching to standardized test scores and praying for funding. The Obama administration’s lauded “Race to the Top” initiative even goes so far as making funding an actual competition–schools submit innovative proposals for education reform in an effort to win federal money.

An anonymous California superintendent pontificated that “diagnosis rates of A.D.H.D. have risen as sharply as school funding has declined.” Poor children are being prescribed stimulants at increasing rates, and Medicare is paying the bill. If we are not directly funding public education in this country, we are indirectly doing so in efforts to respond to the problem.

Well I guess that’s one way to “Damn the Man and Save the Empire.” Good luck out there Liberty Lovers.

Hey Doc, You Could Have Just Asked.

Please read this woman’s story of her hospital birth, and how “routine” yet unwanted procedures were done without her consent, and perhaps unnecessarily. Her ability to find the strength to speak out about this is inspirational. She’s handling this exceptionally well, and doing a great job of raising awareness of one aspect of how our health care system is broken.

I’m sure there are people out there that had a fantastic hospital birth experience. However, this doesn’t happen for everyone. This woman’s story also depicts the necessity of asking questions and getting involved in your own health care, especially when planning birth the way you want it. It’s great to talk with your doctor and the hospital staff about their routine practices, and if you want any special arrangements or have certain requests. If you’re most comfortable with a hospital birth, you can also look into having a Doula with you, who will know your birth plan and desires, and advocate for you while you’re busy doing other things…you know, like having a baby.

The delivery of health care in the U.S. is an incredibly complex, frustrating, mind-boggling system. This woman hits the nail on the head when she uses the term “patient consumerism.” While doctors have taken oaths to “do no harm” while treating the patient, in theory they must do so in a vacuum. However, they work in a world that is increasingly detaching them from the patient by use of forms and coding and standardized care protocols and finite increments of time for billing, and insurance, insurance, insurance. This woman feels betrayed by her physicians because they didn’t take a few moments to simply ask her consent, when she was in a position to contemplate the risks and benefits and make her own decision for her own health and the health of her baby.

 

Small Farms Find Affordable Care Act Not So Affordable

“Obamacare,” as it is affectionately called, has been slowly creeping into our lives. While this legislative maneuver was pragmatic–such  sweeping reform could not be implemented overnight–the incremental adoption perhaps bears the imperceptible perk of stealth. While many are dreaming of a world where Americans have access to desperately needed health care, this massive piece of legislation is integrating itself into the fabric of our country in ways that cannot be easily undone, and will slowly reveal itself to add more gunk to the gears.

Easily, the most controversial aspect of Obamacare is the “Mandate.” What is mandated, however, is not simply for the individual, but also for businesses. Businesses with fifty or more employees are required to provide a health care plan for their employees, or pay a fine ($2000 per employee), just as individuals are required to purchase insurance or pay a fine.

The impact on small businesses, especially those that hire seasonal help, such as farms, is enormous.

Farm-Out-of-Business

 “A lot of farmers may think they are immune from the law, but this is the biggest change to health care since the creation of Medicare or Medicaid almost 50 years ago,” said Matt Coffindaffer, regulatory affairs manager for the National Council of Agricultural Employers. The Federal Register notices on the law have run about 14,000 pages and three federal agencies — Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor and the Treasury Department — are responsible for implementing 550 separate provisions in the law.

The devil is in the details, as they say, and these details (a.k.a. regulations) are still being worked out. You can read more about farmer’s fears here.

Story Time with the Affordable Care Act

I am in love. I just read a fascinating analysis of the various cases that challenged the Affordable Care Act. But this was no run of the mill legal analysis; it was an amazing journey through the narratives that propelled the law to the drop of the Supreme gavel. The author, K. Chestek, a professor at Indiana University School of Law, combined two of my loves–language and the law–as he explored twelve trial briefs filed in the mosaic of cases that lead to one of the most influential and important cases our Supreme Court has ever heard. Chestek parsed the Hero’s journey sung by each plaintiff and defensive parry by each defendant, and compared the outcome of the cases, to discern if there was any pattern or correlation in the judge’s decisions based on the type of characters and obstacles chosen to tell the tales. It’s a refreshing look at the ACA, and intriguing glimpse into the power of language in the law.

No spoilers here, you’ll have to check it out for yourself, but here’s a taste:

“Persuasion is like a double helix: one strand of logos wound tightly with a strand of narrative reasoning.”

Oooo, it makes me tingle, it’s so nerdy!

It Came From the Depths…SCOTUS Ruling on Affordable Care Act

Emerging from a stormy sea of changing headlines, is a 193-page opinion from the Supreme Court, which largely upholds the Patient Protection and Affordable Care act, affectionately known to some as “Obamacare.” No doubt you’ve already heard in this lightning fast Age of Information that various news outlets preemptively got it wrong, declaring the mandate struck down. I won’t name names.

It’s no wonder that Court Watchers were befuddled as the Justices took turn reading sections of the opinion from the bench, and thousands of Court Wonks hung on live blogs and coverage of the historic event. The opinion consists of four sections, some subdivided, an additional partially concurring opinion, and two separate dissents, all of which are joined by varying numbers of judges. Confused yet?

The Court issued an opinion on two aspects of the law, a Medicaid expansion and the individual mandate. The expansion is upheld as far as adding more eligible persons to the rolls, but struck down with respect to limiting funds to states that refuse to do so.

The mandate is upheld overall, surviving by being being both a tax and not a tax. Yup….Bear with me.

The mandate is a “Penalty” and not a “Tax” in order to have a ruling on this lawsuit. A dusty old law known as the Anti Injunction Act could have precluded a suit, and a ruling, since the law hasn’t fully gone into effect and no “Penalties” have been collected. The Court determined Congress didn’t intend to preempt suits over this “Penalty”.

So, even though the mandate isn’t a tax for purposes of whether the Court can issue a ruling, the mandate’s “Penalty” is upheld under the power of Congress to “lay and collect taxes.” The opinion sums up this conundrum:

“The Affordable Care Act describes the “[s]hared responsibility payment” as a “penalty,” not a “tax.” That label is fatal to the application of the Anti-Injunction Act. It does not, however, control whether an exaction is within Congress’s power to tax.”

So there you go. As my grandmother used to say, “Clear as mud.”