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.

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 Grey Area on Guns – NPR Segment

gun conversation

Do my ears deceive me? Is this an actual conversation on guns….well perhaps not an actual conversation, but at least an acknowledgement within one story that there is more than one point of view that could even be rationally considered, and not all is as black and white as polarized media portrays.

Check out this 17-minute segment from NPR: The host shoots a gun for the first time and describes what it feels like to her, NPR attempts to be impartial toward gun-ownership, and 7 people (owners and non, civilian and ex-military, first or second-hand experience of gun accidents, men and women, all Caucasian and from the same town) share their points of view in sound bite form.

Facebook, FISA, and the End of Privacy

Excellent report by the Corbett Report–full of twists and turns, come-uppins and Alanis Morissette-irony, slugs and snails and puppy dog tails.

But, for serious, watch Mark Zuckerburg get schooled on privacy, and learn about what your government is doing while you’re busy living life, in a holiday frenzy, doing laundry, taking care of your kids, on facebook, reading email…(Hint: you’re not the only one reading your email.)

A New Dawn For the Worlds Oldest Profession–And Some Words on Sex Trafficking in America

Most people are unaware the average age of entry into prostitution is 13. I was shocked to learn.

I recently attended a movie screening of Very Young Girls, hosted by the Philadelphia Anti Trafficking Coalition. It was an eye-opening glimpse into a very overlooked problem of sex trafficking of minors in the United States.

The documentary centered around a prostitution recovery house, GEMS (Girls Education & Mentoring Services) in NYC, the first of its kind, and the struggles of about a half-dozen girls to get out of the Life.  In one heartbreaking scene, Rachel Lloyd, the founder, is counseling a group of girls; one points out that her pimp will always be there for her. “But be there to do what?” It doesn’t matter. The simple security of having someone never leave them is enough to withstand all the abuse.

One of the most compelling aspects of the film is just how hard it is for these girls to escape the profession once they are in. Pimps become their father, boyfriend, drug dealer, and captor all at once. Many fall in love with their pimp, and not knowing another kind of love, fervently hold on to this relationship regardless of all the abuse. As Rachel Lloyd points out in the film, these are extremely difficult bonds to break. Here’s what one victim has to say:

“Most people don’t understand why we stay with a pimp. Many of us have been exploited by our peers, society, and often by the people that we trust. When we’re the most vulnerable, pimps attack, promising us stability, a family life, a future. They reel us in. He becomes our father, and our boyfriend, until we see what he really wants. Then he intimidates us and reminds us constantly about the consequences if we leave. Most tell us that they’ll find and kill us, no matter where we go. We’re afraid of being afraid. Resources are limited and many of us do not see a way out.”

Getting away from the pimp is just the beginning of their journey. These women then have to deal with recreating their identity, both literally and figuratively. One of the techniques used by pimps to keep their girls under control is to confiscate identifying documents–license, birth certificate, green card, etc. Another is getting them hooked on drugs they supply. Further, the girls are homeless debt slaves. Regardless of how much money they earn they don’t own any of it. Basic needs like housing, clothing, and food are arranged as long as they stay with their pimp, which could be more than they were getting at home. And if they are to escape, how can they start over with no money, no ID, and no place to go?

Prostitution is no stranger to the courts. For centuries, those who perform an act sought by paupers and kings alike have been vilified, regardless of their motivation, and despite lenient laws and societal views against those seeking sex.  Shockingly the prostitute is punished far worse and more frequently than the “John” who may get a slap on the wrist if anything. For those that are forced into prostitution as slaves, this is an especially bitter pill to swallow. As pointed out in the documentary  in any other circumstance an underage girl wouldn’t be recognized as able to consent to sex, however, they’re being charged with the adult crime of prostitution. It is unlikely that a John would be charged with statutory rape, if charged at all. With respect to trafficking, there are some legal protections in place for illegal immigrants, but our own most vulnerable end up behind bars and back on the streets. New York recently passed safe harbor legislation for those charged with prostitution that are underaged, but other state and federal law has been slow to follow suit.

But a new dawn is breaking for those who want to get out of “the Life.” The pendulum of Justice is swinging from retribution to rehabilitation in Philadelphia for some sex workers. Instead of fines, jail, or drug rehab, some women have the chance to recover from a dangerous lifestyle, and reenter society.

Philadelphia started the “Project Dawn Initiative” in 2010, the first court of its kind. It consists of a specialized court with a designated judge that places individuals charged with repeat prostitution offenses in a recovery program, with the chance to expunge their records. The aim is recovery and a decrease in recidivism. The program is voluntary and must be applied for. It consists of four phases, two in a recovery house and two at home, intense therapy both for substances and trauma, and monthly updates with the judge. If completed without any relapses the program takes a year to complete. If the woman relapses or otherwise doesn’t comply with the program’s requirements she may be required to complete a task like write an essay or sit in a jury box to watch prostitution cases, and she must start her phase over. At the judge’s discretion a woman can “fail” the program and be sent to jail. If she is successful, their last case is dismissed with prejudice and she “graduates” into society. Read more about the program in a very excellent article here.

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Hear from a participant of Project Dawn

In 2010 Project Dawn accepted 28 women, and claims a 70% success rate. It recently received a $250,000 federal grant. In Philadelphia alone, it’s reported that about 800 women per year (and 200 Johns) are arrested.

The Philadelphia Anti Trafficking Coalition is working to improve legislation for victims. I urge you to contact your representatives to educate them about the extent of the problem of trafficking, and tell them to support this legislation. You can find out who your congress people are here, and contact PATC for more info.

If you or someone you know is struggling as a victim of sex trafficking, or if you have any information about a victim, there is a hotline to call. 1-888-3737-888.

Schools Take a “No Huggin’, No Learnin’ ” Approach

We’re on our way to the place where “all restaurants are Taco Bell.” Schools across the country have been taking a stand against a dangerous activity: Hugs. Gone are the days of the displays of friendly affection and camaraderie. And good riddance.

Justifications seem generally to focus on the slippery slope from hugging to violence or “inappropriate touching,” but at least one school has also cited punctuality to class as a reason for the rule. Personally, I have a bizarre memory of a classmate acting out the SNL Spartan skit, “My name is Craig. I give good hugs. You’re not my friend if you do drugs!” He’d then give you a big hug. I remember him doing this mostly in the school cafeteria during lunch hour… geeze, that was a really disruptive and dangerous time–I’m sure glad my child won’t grow up in a world where that’s okay.

Schools in Connecticut, New Jersey, Florida, New York, Virginia, and North Carolina…the list goes on…have been making our children safer by designating their place of learnin’ as a Hug Free School Zone. And the U.S. is not alone, the folks Down Under are getting in on the action, er…not allowing the action…er…

The kids interviewed in these articles are generally caught by surprise, not realizing their sign of affection is a disciplinary offense. Occasionally they’re indignant that such a behavior would be punished, when so many other activities are allowed. Some have gone so far as protesting via “Hug In,” but to no avail.

One commenter on an article I read summed the issue up well. I’ll leave you with her words:

We live in a world where children feel so friendless and alone they take their own lives, feel ostracized enough to take the lives of others and bullied to the point they feel anguished and depressed at the thought of attending school. No one has found a definitive way to combat these issues, yet there is a ban on an action that instantly boosts moods, reminds you that someone thinks you’re special and let’s you know that someone’s got your back? How shameful. I remember with fondness the hugs I got from friends still near and dear to me to this day, and am thankful for having known I was never in anything alone.

Have we really gone this far America?

DemolitionMan