Look for the Non-GMO Seal of Approval on the Package; it’s Your Sign of Assurance That You are Getting Lower Nutrition at a Higher Price.

Many [people, even those with digital watches,] were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake coming down from the trees in the first place, and some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no-one should ever have left the oceans.
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Twitter is a continuous cocktail party that I can attend without getting dressed. I listen to knowledgeable people talk about interesting things and I can pop in and out of conversations as I please (and I can avoid the nutters too as a rule). That was how I learned I knew more about the cost of the Non GMO Project (or GMO-Free) labels than a reporter for the New York Times.

Back in December 2015, Stephanie Strom, a New York Times reporter, wrote a story about Tropicana’s (and other PepsiCo products) decision to remove any genetically-engineered sourced ingredients (“Some Tropicana and Other PepsiCo Products to Carry Non-GMO Project Seal“) from a portion of their product line and they would have the third-party Non-GMO Project certify that they had.

I saw the headline as a tweet in my Twitter feed and commented that it would be interesting to see if Tropicana orange juice, once free of transgenically produced ingredients, would cost more per serving with less nutrition as a result. Such changes had coincided with other Non-GMO labels when compared with prior formulations. (Sidenote: This pledge by Tropicana to be GMO free is going to become increasingly hard to keep due to citrus regreening that very likely will wipe out all of the citrus production in the United States, where GE looks to be the only way to combat the disease.)

She challenged me for proof.

There was quite a bit evidence actually (go here for more examples).

She said she would contact the companies and investigate.

I commented that the higher price per serving must have something to do with the label. The placement of the Non-GMO seal had so far coincided with higher cost per serving and lower nutritional value per serving. While correlation does not necessarily mean causation, I thought to not even investigate that issue was to be, at best, incurious–not a good quality for a fact-finding journalist wanting to tell a complete story.

Still, I thought that was pretty much the end of our discussion. After all, National Public Radio had already run a story earlier on the topic: “Why Did Vitamins Disappear From Non-GMO Breakfast Cereal?”

However she contacted me in early January 2016 through my beer blog, Batch-22. She told me had contacted the cereal companies and they had said there were no suppliers of non-GMO vitamins, as for the higher cost, one of the companies that answered claimed it had nothing to do with the higher cost of ingredients or the cost of the voluntary label but was due to other things (that bit of PR obfuscation does not pass my sniff test). She had several questions for me, would I be interested in an interview? Her questions and my answers are below. This is the email I sent to her on January 5, 2015 (I am indebted to journalist Robert Bryce–when he was speaking about energy, not GMOs–for the crazy people comment):


Contrary to the meme that nature provides us with healthy food, and all our species need do is pluck it and eat it, we have been struggling for 10,000 years using agricultural technology to make food that is healthy and plentiful. Now, in genetic engineering (GE), we have the ability to do so and we are refusing to use it for the worry that it is ‘unnatural’. This boggles my mind. I’d call it insane but that would be an insult to crazy people.

What do you think about the company’s explanations?

It sounds plausible. I understand the deficiency in vitamins is due to their means of manufacture. In a similar way that companies use modified bacteria or yeast to produce fermentation-produced chymosin for cheese or human insulin, vitamins are manufactured.(1)

Do you think they should have stayed GMO until non-GMO supplies of the vitamins and minerals they add for fortification of the products were available?

I don’t think they should have changed. I believe the movement for non-GE food is based on fear rather than science. GE is a tool used to provide a benefit and poses no health threat to consumers. This change to Non-GE sourced ingredients resulted from a calculated marketing campaign by the organic industry in order to drive market share to their products.(2)

The backstory no one knows is that the nutritional value of non-GMO food is lower, package sizes decreased, and prices raised. That’s not a win-win; it’s a lose-lose for us. So far, mainstream companies that have tried to placate the call for “transparency” have not heard shouts of joy but something closer to the boos that accompanied the introduction of New Coke. Consumers have been underwhelmed.

Are you a consumer of these cereal products?

Yes but this isn’t about whether I eat them or not. This is about informing people about the downside to going GMO-free. The bottom line is most folks don’t know that common ingredients like vitamins, nutrients and even cheese coagulants are genetically engineered. We have been eating them for decades with no ill effects.

If so, did you stop buying them when you realized they had lower Vitamin A and riboflavin?

Again, this isn’t about my personal shopping habits. This is about full disclosure to the consumer. It’s about the label. These companies are compromising people’s health for an ideology and, an unlikely, short-term marketing gain.

Why does what some might consider a minor change make a difference to you?

This “minor change,” as you put it, is a step backwards. Any time I see a company voluntarily taking a step backward into the past rather than forward into the future, I look more closely to see if there is science behind their decision, or if it is just an attempt to pander to those consumers who believe that ‘natural’ equates to ‘better’. In this case, the step backward is simply to appeal to that segment of the market.

Technology makes our lives better; if it didn’t we wouldn’t buy it. Furthermore, this is a time when our country is facing health issues like obesity and inadequate nutrition. Removing any amount of nutritional fortification – particularly in foods like cereal consumed by kids and the elderly – is exactly what we don’t need right now. So even though the amount may seem inconsequential, the point is that there is no justification for removing nutrients. You are trading out something with real value – vitamins and nutrients – for something of no value. Lose-lose.

Technology, contra foodie agony aunts, has improved human lives over the past 100 years.

Between 1933 and 1935, more than 5,000 children in the United States alone died from diarrhea and enteritis, due primarily caused by food-borne pathogens. Today, the rate is 1/2 of 1% of that for Americans of all ages.

Due to pasteurization, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, and diphtheria are no longer regularly transmitted through milk.

Goiters were common in the U.S. and in serious cases, mental disability, before iodine fortification of salt.

As for B-12 , according to the National Institutes for Health, “Periconceptional intake of folic acid is known to reduce a woman’s risk of having an infant affected by a neural tube birth defect (NTD)…fortification of wheat flour with folic acid” has “shown decreases of 19%–32% in the prevalence of NTDs overall since the implementation of folic acid fortification in 1998.” I have a little granddaughter whose life might have been marred had it not been for B-12 fortification. [Editor’s Note: a correction was sent to Ms. Strom on February 7, 2016: “Folic acid is actually vitamin B-9 not B-12. Folic acid vanished in non-GMO Kashi Heart to Heart and significantly was reduced in non-GMO Post Great Grain.”]

Lastly the removal of Vitamin A: In 2013, a blind girl lurched toward me across the parking lot at Tirta Empul temple in Bali, mewling. I guessed she was ten to thirteen years of age, and shorter than she should have been. A whitish haze coated her eyes, each looking upward in a different direction. She moved herky-jerky due to poorly formed bones. I did not speak Indonesian; she did not speak English, yet there was no doubt what she wanted. Money. I gave her what I had in my pocket: a 5000 Rupiah note, about 42 cents. According to the World Health Organization, “Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and increases the risk of disease and death from severe infections.”

For those of us the sidelines, it’s no surprise the anti-GMO movement and Team Organic are trying to downplay the loss of vitamins like Vitamin A in children’s cereal. They have worked for years to stop Golden Rice, biofortified rice that could prevent VAD in millions of malnourished children around the world, such as the blind girl I met in Bali. If they don’t care about hungry, malnourished children in the developing world, why would they care about a few vitamins here or there for American kids? At least they are consistent in their fear of fear itself.

These are hardly small things.

Do you rely on cereal products like these to get the recommended daily intake of Vitamin A and riboflavin?

Cereal has long been a source of daily fiber, vitamins and nutrients for lots of people, particularly children and the elderly. It’s hard to find another food that’s quick to eat that has traditionally offered the kind of health benefits that most cereals do. And cereals like Cheerios and Grape Nuts have long been viewed as healthy choices. Now, they are not as healthy as they used to be. I have difficulty understanding how this is a benefit to consumers to lose vitamins, while paying more for less product.

The pro-labeling groups claim GMO labels are needed because consumers “have a right to know.” Then they also have a right to know that these new non-GMO varieties are lower in vitamins and nutrients. It should accompany the label so consumers are able to make fully informed decisions when purchasing.

Are you paid in any way by anyone or any company, trade or advocacy group to speak about GMO labeling and its consequences?

No one pays me to write, speak, or advocate for or against GE labeling. For me, it is a passion.

When I worked for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection I was trained to be a peace officer. The training is certified by the California Peace Officers’ Standards Training (POST); it is the same training all police officers receive throughout the state. We were taught not to accept free donuts or meals, and if the shop would not take our money then we would tip the server the amount of the meal. Once, when I was part of the Cal Fire Academy, the president of the firefighters’ union offered to buy all our meals. I was the only one to refuse. I am now a retired forester who receives a government pension.

I am now and always have been interested in the environment. So I began to write about forests, which expanded to writing about issues affecting the environment. Given that agriculture uses nearly 40% of earths’ 13 billion ha of land, anything that lowers that amount means more room for nature (I won’t try to define that anymore than simply less affected by humans than farming).

In order to provide full disclosure, after five years of writing (see footnotes (3), (4), (5), (6) for examples), Monsanto invited me to see their Davis facility, which is about two hours drive from my home; I jumped at the chance. As part of their welcome they provided attendees with a $100 gift card, hats, coffee, fruit, and pastries. They also bought our lunches. You cannot buy off someone who is already in agreement with the goals of lowering the footprint of agriculture by making farmers more productive. I also have taken home brewing swag given away at the National Homebrewers’ Conference which included beer, tote bags, and malted barley. Would this mean I am a shill for Big Malt?

    Where do I think we should be putting our efforts?

I find the GE food wars to be a distraction from making our world a better place for people and nature. That being said, it doesn’t appear there will be a ceasefire anytime soon. So it’s incumbent upon people like me to make sure the full story about genetically enhanced food is being told. This technology has the potential to address some of the problems in the world’s food system, from easing food waste to the promoting the humane treatment of animals to reducing pesticide use to eliminating dangerous crop diseases. It’s really disheartening to see the same people who advocate these goals object to the use of any modern technology to achieve success.

Here’s where our time and energy ought to be going:

1. Micronutrient supplements for children (vitamin A and zinc) to combat malnutrition
2. Enact the Doha development agenda to promote free trade
3. Micronutrient fortification (iron and salt iodization) to combat malnutrition
4. Expand immunization coverage for children
5. Biofortification to combat malnutrition
6. Deworming and other nutrition programs at school to combat malnutrition and improve education
7. Lowering the price of schooling
8. Increase and improve girls’ schooling
9. Community-based nutrition promotion to combat malnutrition
10. Provide support for women’s reproductive role
(source: Copenhagen Consensus Center)



  1. According to an NPR article, “Some companies are most likely making vitamin B-12 and riboflavin using genetically modified microbes; they have, at least, published scientific papers showing how this can be done.”
  2. “The burning question for us all then becomes how – and how quickly – can we move healthy, organic products from a 4.2% market niche, to the dominant force in American food and farming? The first step is to change our labeling laws.” – Ronnie Cummings
  3. http://normbenson.com/timberati/2014/03/10/golden-rice-golden-opportunity/
  4. http://normbenson.com/timberati/2014/04/06/golden-rice-now-everything-else-is-noise/
  5. http://normbenson.com/timberati/2012/08/28/proposition-37…-go-far-enough/
  6. http://normbenson.com/timberati/2010/12/02/are-you-eating-genetically-modified-foods-relax-weve-been-eating-gmos-for-many-many-years/

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Me, Microbes, and I


It has been said that “No man is an island.” While you may quibble that it should be “No one is an island,” we know what it means: We human beings depend on one another. We depend on each other, and we also depend on ecosystems to provide us with water and clean air—among other things. Yet there are other important ecosystems within us and on us.

You are no island: no, you are more of a continent complete with colonists, invaders, battles for resources, and turf wars. And there are a lot more of “them” than there are of “you,” about one hundred trillion of them. As one article in the Economist put the idea, “…humans are not single organisms, but superorganisms made up of lots of smaller organisms working together.”

Microbes can be used in soil cleanup

Microbes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have known for a long time that our guts harbor “good” bacteria (yogurt companies advertise about probiotics) and health officials caution against unnecessarily taking antibiotics which could harm good bacteria. These bacteria, it turns out, have evolved along with us (Homo sapiens) and are part of our being. And, in turn, our bacteria evolve within us, having numerous generations during a person’s lifespan, and adapting to changing conditions.

What is now coming out of research is how essential those bacteria are to our physical and mental health. For instance, on our skin, “Staphylococcus epidermidis fends off skin infection and enhances immunity,” the Economist article says. Maybe that antibacterial soap isn’t your best choice for healthy skin.

Researchers call the symbiotic relationship that microbes have with particular animals or plants a microbiome. The sheer magnitude and diversity of your microbiome is staggering. “The typical human is home to a vast array of microbes,” evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson wrote in the New York Times. “If you were to count them, you’d find that microbial cells outnumber your own by a factor of 10. On a cell-by-cell basis, then, you are only 10 percent human. For the rest, you are microbial.” A human being has 23,000 different genes. Our microbiome has almost 150 times that number, about three million genes.

In their proper places, microbiomes are truly symbiotic, a collaboration of human and micro-critter. We provide hospitable living conditions, and the microbes help break down foods for digestion, synthesize vitamins, and help our immune system. Inoculation with microbiota begins when we travel through the birth canal. Among other things, our new gut bacteria will “affect the wiring of nerves in the stress system, influencing how the body reacts to stress for the rest of its life,” writes Tom Siegfried in Science News. Our mothers’ influence, then, goes even further than we knew.

When they are not in their proper place or when unwanted bacteria come in, the results can be distressing, painful, or even deadly for the host. Researchers have linked off-kilter microbiomes to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, autism, and some autoimmune diseases.

Rejiggering some microbiomes apparently cures some diseases. “The past few years have shown that having good relations with the 100 trillion bacteria which inhabit the gut is essential to human health,” reports an Economist article. “If relations break down, hostile bacteria may invade and previously friendly ones may turn hostile. When things do go wrong, though, doses of corrective bacteria can make a difference.”

The method of delivery for healthy bacteria to the intestine is rather yucky. Yes, eating yogurt with probiotics can help people with irritable bowel syndrome, but pretty much everything else requires a fecal transplant—a “trans-poo-sion,” if you will. Gastroenterologist Thomas Borody says, “By implanting another person’s stool, that other person may contain bacteria which manufacture antibiotics. And this is the key: bacteria make molecules that kill other bacteria. In fact, most antibiotics come from bacteria.” Fecal transplants can change the gut’s microbiome, and this changes our health.

Scientists have just begun to understand our microbiome’s interaction with us. For one thing, there is much to learn simply due to the number of these critters. “The adult human intestine contains trillions of bacteria, representing hundreds of species and thousands of subspecies,” one scientific abstract says. We are also at the beginning of this scientific process; a time that is analogous to when people knew willow tree bark relieved headaches but had not yet identified acetylsalicylic acid (the active ingredient in aspirin) as the reason.

Our microbiomes and earth’s biomes (plants and animals found in particular habitats) have evolved and continue to evolve as conditions change. Understanding their complexities will help improve our lives. And, as always, more research is needed.

Updated: Now with 100% more Steve Martin.

You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just fifty years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter’s was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach.



References/Further Reading

Dubner, S. (2011, March 4). Freakonomics. Retrieved June 6, 2013, from The Power of Poop: http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/03/04/freakonomics-radio-the-power-of-poop/

Flam, F. (2012, June 9). Philly.com. Retrieved June 7, 2013, from We and Our Microbes are in This Together: http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/evolution/We-and-Our-Microbes-are-In-This-Together.html

Jane A. Foster, K.-A. M. (2013, May). Gut–brain axis: how the microbiome influences anxiety and depression . Retrieved June 4, 2013, from ScienceDirect: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166223613000088

Gavura, Scott. I’ve been prescribed an antibiotic. Should I take a probiotic? http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/ive-been-prescribed-an-antibiotic-should-i-take-a-probiotic/

Judson, O. (2009, July 21). Microbes ‘R’ Us. Retrieved June 7, 2013, from New York Times: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/21/microbes-r-us/

Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. (2012, March 15). Genetic Variation in Human Gut Viruses Could be Raw Material for Inner Evolution, Perelman School of Medicine Study Finds. Retrieved June 13, 2013, from Penn Medicine: http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/news/News_Releases/2012/03/bushman/

Perry, W. (2012, July 6). Protective Skin Microbes Help Fight Off Disease,. Retrieved June 5, 2013, from LiveScience: http://www.livescience.com/21871-skin-microbes-immune-response.html

PsMag. Our Destiny Lies Not in Our Stars, But in Our Bacteria. http://www.psmag.com/environment/our-destiny-lies-not-in-our-stars-but-in-our-bacteria-62968

Siegfried, T. (2013, May 28). Microbes at home in your gut may also be influencing your brain. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from Science News: http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/350674/description/Microbes_at_home_in_your_gut_may_also_be_influencing_your_brain

The Economist. (2013, February 21). Evolution: History Repeating. Retrieved June 7, 2013, from The Economist: http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2013/02/evolution

The Economist. (2013, April 11). Microbes and men: Consumer microbiomics . Retrieved June 6, 2013, from The Economist: http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2013/04/microbes-and-men

The Economist. (2012, August 18). The human microbiome: Me, myself, us. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from The Economist: http://www.economist.com/node/21560523

The Economist. (2012, November 3). Treating disease with microbes: Bugs in the system. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from The Economist: http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21565586-bacterial-medicine-starting-emerge-bugs-system

Virginia Tech. (2013, February 8). Villain stomach bug may have a sweet side. Retrieved June 6, 2013, from EurekaAlert!: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-02/vt-vsb020813.php

Xu J, M. M. (2007, July 5). Evolution of symbiotic bacteria in the distal human intestine. Retrieved June 6, 2013, from PubMed.gov: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17579514

Zimmer, C. (2006, January 3). From Bacteria to Us: What Went Right When Humans Started to Evolve? Retrieved June 4, 2013, from New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/03/science/03zimm.html?_r=0

Zimmer, C. (2013, May 22). Meet Your New Symbionts: Trillions of Viruses . Retrieved June 4, 2013, from National Geographic: http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/05/20/meet-your-new-symbionts-several-trillion-viruses/



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No One Expects the Organics Inquisition

No expects the Organics Inquisition.

Here is this month’s Green Chain column for the Lake County Record-Bee:

In 312, Roman Emperor Constantine was told in a dream to paint a cross on his army’s shields. Based on that dream, he commanded his generals to have crosses put on pretty much everything. If it went into battle, it had a cross on it. And lo, when his guys faced an army twice the size of his, his army smote them real bad and got pre-medieval on their butts; and Constantine did declare, “Hot Damascus, it worked!” (Obviously, I am paraphrasing; I don’t speak Latin.)

So, Constantine became a Christian, sort of.

In 325, he, being the ruler of the Roman Empire and all, thought he should nail down what it was he believed. So he rounded up a passel of leaders of the early Christian movement and sat them down in the city of Nicaea. The Council of Nicaea, as it came to be known, palavered about a month, wrote down a statement of what they all agreed on (the Nicene Creed), approved some texts for use and disallowed others. All of this pleased some and displeased others. But at the end they all shook hands, said, “Well, that’s that,” and called it “good.”

This consensus resulted in “winners” and “losers” throughout the known world. Schisms, splinters and fractures appeared before the ink had dried on the papyrus. Subsequent Councils worked on those, and patched some, broke others, and created more. Today the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and other Christian denominations still do not agree on many articles and practices of their faith, each one claiming to hold to the true faith.

The point is (lest you think Green Chain should have been placed in the Religion section of the paper) that just as the government tried to get everyone to agree on beliefs in the fourth century, today the green faith roils with dissension regarding its Organic doctrine’s beliefs and practices.

The New York Times published an article titled, “Organic Food Purists Worry About Big Companies’ Influence” on July 7 profiling the founder of Eden Foods, Michael J. Potter, and his quixotic battle against people who do not believe in Organic as he does. According to Potter, heretics have infiltrated the Ecumenical Council—strike that, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).

A little history is in order. In 1990, George H. W. Bush signed the Organic Foods Production Act creating the National Organic Program (NOP). This act placed the Department of Agriculture in charge of administrating the program and naming the 15 members of the NOSB, who were to “assist in the development of standards for substances to be used in organic production” and advise the Secretary of Agriculture on implementing the program.

Harry Potter

No, sorry, not Harry Potter, Michael Potter.

As a result, the NOSB passes judgment on what is or is not kosher—I mean, what can or cannot be used to produce organic food. In fact, the NOSB has approved a number of non-organic items such as baking soda used in the baking of organic bread.

According to the NY Times’ article, the thrust of Michael Potter’s complaint is that many on the board have connections with, gasp, non-believing big companies. (Yep, Kellogg, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Dole, General-Mills, Kraft, M&M Mars, all make organic foods.) And, he accuses these interlopers of voting to allow blasphemous ingredients, such as carrageenan, a substance derived from seaweed used in cooking, to pass as organic. So incensed is he that he refuses to put the certified-organic label on his own company’s products, which are so much purer, more authentic, and more truly organic than the so-called certified-organic products being passed off as the real deal to an unwitting public.

(Well, I, for one, am shocked, shocked to find that big, profit-motivated companies have jumped into the market. Simply put, organic products fetch a premium price.)

This kerfuffle is not about efficacy but ideological purity. As blogger, Andrew Potter notes, “….[T]he question of whether these various ‘synthetics’ should be allowed or not is entirely political.” And not whether any of the items “are healthy, or good for the environment, or contribute to the taste of the product.”

In the world of ideological purity, nothing matters as much as remaining true to the ideal of the ethos, and only those pure of heart, such as Michael Potter, can divine such things.

It is soon time for the Organics Inquisition.


“According to Lactantius, Constantine was visited by a dream the night before the battle, wherein he was advised ‘to mark the heavenly sign of God on the shields of his soldiers…by means of a slanted letter X with the top of its head bent round, he marked Christ on their shields.’” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_I#Constantine.27s_army_adopts_the_Christian_cross (accessed July 14, 2012)

“In 325 CE Constantine called the Council of Nicaea, the first so-called Ecumenical Council of the church, that is the first council at which bishops from around the world were brought together in order to establish a consensus on major points of faith and practice.” – Ehrman, Bart. “Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and Faiths We Never Knew.” Oxford University Press. New York, NY. 2003.

Strom, Stephanie. “Organic Food Purists Worry About Big Companies’ Influence.” New York Times. July 7, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/08/business/organic-food-purists-worry-about-big-companies-influence.html (accessed July 14, 2012)

“What is interesting about the debate as it plays out in this article is that the question of whether these various ‘synthetics’ should be allowed or not is entirely political. That is, Strom goes the entire article without ever confronting what should be the central issue, which is whether any of the controversial ingredients or inputs are healthy, or good for the environment, or contribute to the taste of the product.” Potter, Andrew. “The church of organic.” The Authenticity Hoax – Blog. July 9, 2012. http://authenticityhoax.squarespace.com/blog/2012/7/9/the-church-of-organic.html (accessed July 12, 2012)

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