The Straight Poop on GMO Labeling

During June, two items hit the news involving unsavory (to some) food options.

The first was a letter to the Record-Bee from a local organic grower taking me to task for my column, “Something Fishy This Way Comes.” The grower accused me of being against “choice.” She contended, if genetically modified (GM) food is not labeled, how can people choose not to eat it?

The second was a story about Japanese scientists developing a technique to make food from poop. You can imagine that a number of news outlets, including Fox News, were all over this story like stink on…well…you know what. According to the reports, human excrement is supposedly packed with protein and carbohydrates. All the Japanese scientists need do is combine poop with a “reaction enhancer,” then put it in a “magical machine…and artificial steak comes out the other end.”[i] Okaaaay, that sounds really appetizing.

Even though the second story is actually just a resilient urban legend,[ii] let’s run a thought experiment and pretend it is true. (“Thought experiment” sounds so much brainier than daydreaming, doesn’t it?). Let’s pretend a fast food chain has entered into an agreement with the nearby community sewage treatment plant to harness the culinary potential of its solid waste. Our (of course) fictitious fast food chain uses the magical Japanese machine and voila, s**t sandwiches, turd tacos, s**t burritos and even s**t on a stick.

Should the fast food’s products be labeled to say that they came directly out of someone’s colon? The argument to require labeling says yes. It goes something like this: We do not want to eat that stuff, and we have a representative government, so our government (federal, state, or local) should require such unappetizing food to be labeled for what it is.

You might think you want the source to be labeled, but I don’t think you do.

But, you may be saying, without labeling we might eat s**t! That’s true, but if you do not properly prepare organic produce, you also might eat s**it. According to the conservative think tank Center for Global Food Issues, using 1999 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, while only one percent of the United States food supply is organic, it accounts for eight percent of food related disease in the U.S. primarily due to a deadly new strain of E. coli bacteria (O157:H7)”[iii] found in cow excrement which may be used as organic fertilizer.

At present, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires labeling for specific reasons. If a food is significantly different than its name, the food’s name must be changed to describe the difference. If it has a significantly different nutritional property from its counterpart, its label must reflect the difference.[iv] And, if a food has a potential safety issue, there must be a statement on the label describing the issue; such as if a new food includes an allergen that consumers would not expect to be present based on the name of the food, the presence of that allergen must be disclosed on the label.[v]

The inconvenient truth is that GM products are as safe as any other food products; whether poop meat would be we might never know. The World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and food agencies in the United States and Europe say GM foods currently on the market pose no health risk.

The reasons for a government to require special labeling should be for safety issues, not lifestyle choices. In areas of simple choice, it is not the government’s responsibility to require labeling of the provenance of a food’s origin.

Let’s be clear: the eating of GM food is not a safety issue. GM food falls into the same category as Jewish Kosher or Moslem Sharia law food: that is, that labeling is important to the followers of that ethic. Producers of non-GM, just as producers of Kosher or Sharia food, are free to label their food as such. But, if you really feel that you want to avoid GM, you can eat organic food exclusively.

The call for labeling implies that GM food should be avoided because the food is “unnatural.” This is the “ick” factor that happens with new technology; a 1969 Harris poll found a majority of Americans believed in vitro fertilization (“test tube babies”) was “against God’s will.” In less than a decade, those against had dropped to 28 percent with 60 percent pro-IVF.[vi] Because beliefs evolve, the FDA requires labels on food to safeguard our health, not our beliefs. That is the straight poop.

Here is the bottom line: you are free to follow your beliefs; that is your choice.

 


[i] Japanese Scientists Create Meat From Poop – FoxNews.com. http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2011/06/17/japanese-scientists-create-meat-from-poop/ (accessed July 17, 2011)

[ii] It appears to be one of those urban legends that crop up from time to time that sound crazy and, given our accelerating pace of technological advance, plausible at the same time. See: The mystery of the Japanese “poop burger” story. http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2011/06/23/japan_feces_meat_viral (accessed July 17, 2011)

[v] Guidance for Industry: Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether … (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/food/guidancecomplianceregulatoryinformation/guidancedocuments/foodlabelingnutrition/ucm059098.htm

 

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Ugly Duckling In The Woods By William Keye

This is an op-ed piece that William Wade Keye* submitted to the Sacramento Bee at the beginning of July, in response to two articles (“State to assess Battle Creek logging activity and effect on salmon” and “Troubled waters of Battle Creek“) and an editorial (“Governor needs to keep pledge at Battle Creek”) they published highlighting purported environmental damage in the Battle Creek watershed. It is published here with his permission.

Recent Sacramento Bee articles pitting clearcut logging against salmon recovery efforts in the Battle Creek watershed whittle complex resource management issues down to a false, if convenient, dichotomy. Such eco-populism is understandable, but its assumptions need to be challenged.

To foresters, clearcutting is the dreaded “C word”. If there ever was a candidate to lose a sylvan popularity contest, that would be clearcutting. It’s ugly and widely viewed as environmentally destructive.

Even most loggers don’t like the look of a fresh clearcut, which typically appears as if a bomb just went off.

Clearcuts are disturbing. Hence, the “C word”.

Clearcuts disturb our landscape. (Image from Wikipedia)

Why would any landowner in their right mind choose this apparently abominable practice? Yes, I know the stock answer: greed, short-term profits and all that. Rape the land and leave nothing for the future.

I’m not going to argue that people who own working forests aren’t in it for the money, although I think there’s much more to it than that. But sure, they want to make the land pay.

Farmers don’t farm just for their health, or for somebody else’s aesthetic pleasure. They do it to live, to make the land pay.

Forest landowners are the same. Wood, like corn, soybeans or pork bellies, is a valuable commodity. We use forest products in almost countless ways, everyday. Our wood has to come from somewhere, which leads us to forest management and the pros and cons of various silvicultural practices.

The Bee articles critical of clearcutting contain implicit assumptions driven by aesthetics. Dominant is the view that more aesthetically pleasing practices, such as selection timber harvest, are preferable for fish habitat because they produce less sedimentation.

Evidence-based science does not uniformly back this intuitive belief. The reason is that even-age management (including clearcutting) impacts a given piece of forestland much less frequently than uneven-age systems (such as selection). Impacts are greater (KABOOM!) but less recurrent.

Forestry is a uniquely long term enterprise. If a clearcut is prescribed, the “bomb” goes off, seedlings are planted and the site may not be disturbed again for decades. Access roads and skid trails can be put to bed and remain so until the stand is ready to harvest again – typically in 50-80 years.

It is said that “nature abhors a vacuum”. Tree growth that follows successful (and legally required) reforestation after a clearcut illustrates this principle perfectly. Young trees reach for the sky, drinking up abundant sunlight and soil nutrients.

In contrast, the classic selection harvest requires the forest to be managed on a fairly continual basis. Periodic light harvests are generally spaced 10-15 years apart. During each entry, access roads and trails must be reopened – triggering new potential bursts of sediment delivery to aquatic systems.

Although counter-intuitive, it is possible that if even-age management were prohibited in the Battle Creek watershed, the cumulative effects as far as soil transport and sediment delivery would actually be greater. Uneven-age management would be considered more pleasing to the eye, but could mask impacts potentially more damaging to salmon recovery.

Finally, the Battle Creek articles did a disservice by pitting timber harvest against fish, a zero sum duality that ignores the many factors contributing to our difficulty in restoring anadromous salmonids. Those threats include dams and water diversions, in-stream habitat loss and degradation, polluted runoff, oceanic factors including predation, fishing, poaching – the list goes on.

I believe forestry belongs on that list, along with urbanization, agriculture, industry – all of us. It’s just too easy to single out clearcutting, ugly as it is.

Because nature really does abhor a vacuum, one really should visit a forest plantation a few years, or a few decades, after a clearcut “bomb” has gone off. It’s impossible to deny how impressive a vigorously growing young forest can be, how amazingly regenerative nature really is especially after a clearcut – which in some ways mimics the effect of a wildfire.

These kinds of images don’t seem to show up in the media when the “C Word” comes up.

And remember, regardless of the aesthetics of any given silvicultural system, we get to use the wood fiber that flows off a managed forest, creating homegrown wealth, jobs, tax receipts, energy and valuable products.

*William Wade Keye is a California Registered Professional Forester and former Chair of the Northern California Society of American Foresters

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