Dear Gwyneth, Knowing Tony Stark Doesn’t Make You a Science Expert

Call me crazy, but I’m getting kind of tired of celebrities being treated like scientists.  Or experts.  Or important sources of information for anything other than movies/sports/music.

If Gwyneth Paltrow didn’t already learn from the food stamp debacle that American moms do not relate to her, she’s gone and done it again.  She (and many other celebrity moms) have been speaking out against GMOs and the Food Labeling Act.

Because Pepper Potts does science?


And not even that because Pepper is actually running the company, Tony does the science.

So her fictional character knows another fictional character (although can Thor please be real?!) that does science.  Ergo, real-life celebrity, millionaire mom has the credentials to speak out on bioengineering.

Got it.

If Washington listens to this grandstanding I’ll think even less of our politicians than I do now.

Here’s my crazy idea.

What if, instead of listening to famous people we listened to people who actually know.  People with degrees in science, agriculture, biology, that sort of thing.  People who have families too.  Moms and dads who grow food by day and feed it to their kids each night.  Parents who don white lab coats at work that wouldn’t stay white for three seconds at home.  People who need safe, affordable food for their children.

There is a group of such people who are speaking out.  They are scientists and farmers, nurses and med students, moms and dads uniting collective voices to be heard over the babble of Hollywood.   They are #Moms4GMOs.


Right now you can go to their webpage and sign an open letter to Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ginnifer Goodwin, Sarah Gilbert, Jillian Michaels, Jordana Brewster, and all the other celebrity moms who love their children but have no understanding of what it takes to grow food for a growing nation.  Type in your name, email, town and a signature stating who you are and why you care.

You can also use the hashtag #Moms4GMOs on social media.  Tweet Gwyneth Paltrow (@GwynethPaltrow), Sarah Michelle Gellar (@sarahMGellar), Jordana Brewster (@JordanaBrewster), and Jillian Michaels (@JillianMichaels) with a link to the letter.  Post the letter to their Facebook pages too, politely asking them to read it. Kavin Senapathy at has a post with other ideas you can help with. also has #Moms4GMOs and #Dads4GMOs buttons you can download for your Facebook page.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a huge fan of Pepper and Tony and Thor (did I mention Thor?).

But when it comes to bioengineering?  I’ll go with science thank you.

Categories: Science | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Are GMOs 100% Safe?

I’m so excited to bring you this post!  Guesting today is Mommy PhD, a mom and scientist who has thoroughly studied the food she feeds her family.  I met her via Facebook a few months ago and it seems only fitting that Mommy PhD and Daddy’s Tractor would teaming up to help your family make informed decisions! 😉

While the scientific consensus about the safety genetically engineered crops (GMOs) is very well established, many people remain unconvinced, largely based on misinformation spread by activists and organizations funded by the organic industry. Anti-GMO activists often ask scientists to prove that GMOs are 100% safe.

However, this is the wrong question.

It is impossible to prove anything is 100% safe and, in reality, nothing is 100% safe. Everything comes with a risk and safety is always relative. The real measure of risk regarding GMOs is the relative risk compared to non-GMO food. The question that should be asked is:

Are there increased risks associated with each GMO product compared to its non-GMO counterpart?

Science has told us the answer – GMOs are at least as safe as non-GMOs. There is essentially no difference between the two in terms of risk.

Let’s take a step back from the details of the science and talk a bit about general concepts of risk and risk assessment to understand what this means in terms of GMOs.

The basics of risk assessment

Humans, on the whole, are intuitively terrible at assessing risk in our own lives (even those who are trained in statistics). Just look at the popularity of casinos!  We make bad assumptions and make the wrong comparisons when we consider risk in our own lives.

Emotions cloud our assessment of risk.

We are bad at assigning value to long-term risks and benefits; we have an innate tendency to focus on the short-term. We also think in very small sample sizes (after all, what happens to me and my family must be most important, right?) and not in terms of populations (which is how epidemiological statistics are calculated). We overestimate the risk of the unfamiliar and what we don’t understand. A familiar example of our innate misapplication of risk is that we tend to be less apprehensive about getting in the car every morning than we do about getting on a plane. In reality, the risk of injury or death from a car accident is much higher than the risk from flying on a plane, which is the safest mode of transportation in the US.

Let’s consider the example of heart disease and smoking (with some made up numbers) to understand the essentials of risk assessment in health and safety. Our natural tendency is to look at the risk of heart disease in smokers and attribute the entire risk in that population to smoking. However, the risk due to smoking is only the risk that occurs in excess of the rate of heart disease in the general population.

Looking at the graphic, let’s pretend the top group is non-smokers (or the general population) and the bottom group is smokers (or people in some other at risk group). The people in yellow do not have heart disease and the people in red have heart disease. The base rate is 2 in 100 or 2% in the general population. The absolute risk in smokers is 8 in 100 or 8%. The relative risk is 4 because we divide 8% by 2%. In this example, smoking increases the risk of heart disease by 4. This relative risk is the magic number that tells us how much additional risk of heart disease is attributable to smoking.

Risk assessments in health

This gets more complicated when you consider that most behaviors, medications, and other choices we make have both risks and benefits. Some treatments have side effects. Some behaviors that are good for you might also have risks (for example, you might have a greater risk of injury if you exercise). So now we have to consider many more variables. We also have to weigh how much risk is tolerable to gain a benefit and the risks and benefits of doing nothing.

What does this all have to do with GMOs?

What all that risk assessment stuff above means for consumers and is that safety is relative to whatever you would do otherwise.

So the relevant question is not: “Is this GMO crop safe?” It is: “Is this GMO crop at least as safe as its non-GMO counterpart?”

Or, in science-speak, “Are there increased risks associated with this GMO crop compared to those associated with its non-GMO counterpart?” We ask what the base level of risk is and assess whether any particular GMO poses any risks in excess of that base level.

This question has been answered for all currently available GMOs.

The risks are assessed compared to the alternative. GMOs are the most well studied and tested food in our food supply. Layla Katiraee at Biofortified wrote a great description of how these studies are designed and carried out earlier this year. GMOs undergo intense scrutiny by the EPA, USDA and EPA prior to deregulation (meaning before they can be sold to consumers). In contrast, non-GMO crops require no approval no matter what genetic modification techniques were used to create them, even if genetic engineering techniques change far fewer genes than other techniques (this actually represents a higher risk from non-GMOs compared to GMOs, although still very small). We also do not screen these non-GMOs for allergens, even when a large number of genes are changed. In contrast, allergen screening for GMOs is extensive.  For non-GMOs, we recognize that even if we change a large number of genes, an apple is still an apple and these do not require any testing. However, for GMOs, even if we change one base in one gene, we subject this crop to years (sometimes decades) and millions of dollars worth of testing.

This stringent scrutiny of GMOs is unscientific and arbitrary. However, it does provide us with an awful lot of data about GMOs. What all this data shows us is that there is no increased risk associated with any current GMOs – for allergies, for food safety, for nutritional content, for environmental impact – compared to their non-GMO counterparts. In fact, for some nutritionally enhanced crops (like Golden Rice), they can actually be healthier. This is why every major scientific and regulatory agency that has reviewed the data on GMOs has found that all currently available GMOs are at least as safe their non-GMO counterparts. This information isn’t hidden or secret. GENERA (Genetic Risk Engineering Atlas) is a public database of over 1,000 studies of GMOs assembled by Biofortified, an independent non-profit.

Let’s revisit our question: Are GMOs at least as safe as their non-GMO counterparts?
Yes. As I explained above, the evidence shows, over and over and over, that there is no increased risk associated with growing or eating GMOs.

Categories: Food, Science | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

Horsing Around

I’m in Springfield today, at Missouri State (go Bears!) with my ALOT class. I’ve posted pictures of our D.C. advocating experience, showed our Monsanto tour, and told you about ethanol. In out quest to learn about all aspects of ag I’m currently sitting on bleachers watching students demonstrate horse techniques!   

Missouri State is doing interesting work because many people, not just those in agriculture, love horses. Being around these amazing animals is a great way to bridge the gap for college students- teaching them the hard work involved in the care of any animal. 

But being here is giving me ideas. I wonder if a horse would be happy in my goat pen…

Categories: Science | 1 Comment

My Tour of An Ethanol Plant

My tour of an ethanol plant

I’m about to leave again for my third ALOT trip of the summer and I haven’t posted anything about our second trip!  We did So Many Things on our trip across Northeast Missouri.  I’ve lived in this state my whole life and I’d never experienced anything like these tours.  We saw a dairy/addiction rehab operation, watched ham and bacon from start to finish, learned how to capture cow manure for methane gas, and even visited an Amish sawmill.  And then there was this tour.

My tour of an ethanol plant

This is an ethanol plant– a place where corn is turned into fuel for your car.

My tour of an ethanol plant

The plant manager explained all about the process and the product and then showed us around the facility.  Not sure I’d ever thought about it, but the ethanol in your gasoline is almost 200 proof alcohol.

My tour of an ethanol plant

Wouldn’t have guessed that.

My tour of an ethanol plant

Actually, an ethanol plant is pretty much a brewery.  The corn is ground up and separated into parts.  Dry flakes can be feed to cattle, the liquid is boiled, yeast is added, and the water is evaporated off.  In the pic above you can see the bubbles from the yeast.  And watch out.  This stuff gets HOT!

My tour of an ethanol plant

After it comes out of the evaporation process they add something to the alcohol to make it unfit for human consumption.  If they didn’t all this product would be under the same regulations as regular alcohol– and the same taxes!

My tour of an ethanol plant

I thought the most interesting part of the tour was seeing how they manage the plant.  The entire facility brought 40 jobs to a small town, but only five or so are needed to oversee the process of making the ethanol because everything is done from the (blessedly air conditioned) office.

My tour of an ethanol plant

Two guys watch the monitors, checking for changes and using a radio system to call for someone to look at tank four or whatever.

Next time you pull up to a gas pump, check the ethanol content in your fuel and think of farmers. American corn, processed in American plants, made by American workers is being used to move your car down the road.

I like the sound of that.

Categories: Science | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Why Do We Need GMOs?

Yesterday I listened to an interview of a farmer in Indiana who currently grows non-GMO soybeans on his farm because consumers are willing to pay more for this premium product.  Next year he doesn’t plan to grow them anymore.

Why?  What’s wrong with regular ol’ beans and why would a farmer choose GMOs, even if the others pay better?

Well, I can answer that will a little more from my tour of Monsanto.  If you missed it, be sure to catch the first two posts, What is A GMO? and Can You Eat Like Your Ancestors!  If you’re up to date, please continue. 🙂

Why do farmers use GMO crops?

This particular farmer (as do all farmers) was having trouble with weeds in his fields.  Weeds are a problem because they use resources, like nutrients from the soil, water, and sunlight you wanted for your crop.  The competition can cause crops to produce less food.

Famers of the past, and those that grow non-GMO products, used a combination of products to kill the weeds, often applying them two or three times to kill those weeds.  That costs in time, money, and harm to the environment.

GMOs were created so farmers could spray a product one time and kill weeds more efficiently.  Scientists had the idea to make a spray that interferes with a protein in photosynthesis.  Then they created a seed that was protected from the spray.  Dead weeds, less chemical.  All around win.

Another problem solved by GMOs is the damage from pests.

Why do farmers use GMO crops?

This works a little like a vaccination.  Scientists take DNA that protects from certain insects and put it into the seed, “turning it on” like we discussed in Monday’s post in the roots or leaves, and keeping safe from bugs.  In the above photo three healthy soybean plants were infected with disgusting caterpillar things (scientific term) on June 11th.  (And moved into that case on the 16th, if you’re wondering about the bottom date.)  I took this picture on June 18th.  You can see the damage done in just seven days.

Why do farmers use GMO crops?

I wish I’d gotten clearer pictures of the labels under each plant so I could show you better, but I’m sure you can guess the nice looking plant on the bottom right is the GMO designed to taste nasty to the pests.  Our guide said the caterpillars figure it out and after a quick bite, never go near the GMO plant again.

It works with corn as well:

Why do farmers use GMO crops?

Hopefully you can read those signs a little better.

In addition to killing pests and weeds so the plants can grow and produce well, GMOs also keep those two little problems out of the combine and away from the food that is trucked into town.  Since a combine can’t tell the difference between Johnson grass and corn, anything growing in the field gets pulled into the equipment– even nasty caterpillars.

So the farmer I heard interviewed was going back to GMOs.  It means less spraying for weeds, less damage to plants, less loss of income, and better for the everyone.

Categories: Food, Science | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

Can You Eat Like Your Ancestors?

eating like your ancestors

I’m excited to see you’re back for more of my tour of Monsanto this week! If you missed the first installment you might want to check it out before going any farther. You will also have to promise to over look typos and ridiculous sentences; I’ve been transcribing interviews for the blog that pays! 🙂

Hopefully you have an understanding of GMOs; let’s look at another term– GM.  You’ll see/hear people using the acronym, partly because two letters are easier, partly because we’re tired of the GMO backlash, and partly because it is trendy and we must keep up!  “Genetically modified” is sometimes used to show the difference between a seed whose genetic information is altered in a lab (GMO) and a seed whose genetic information has been altered by selective breeding, but in the U.S. you may correctly use it for both. Since plants no longer look like their ancestors, you can scientifically say that all plants are “GM.”

corn evolution3

Here’s a poster from a greenhouse at Monsanto.  It shows what the ancestor of modern corn looked like.  Teosinte grain (red circle) resembles a stalk a wheat more than an ear of corn.  We don’t have a name or university to credit with the discovery, but they did find plants with fewer stalks used their energy to grow bigger grains and eventually the corn plant changed. corn collage

These are also from the Monsanto greenhouse.  The one on the left is teosinte, on the right -corn.

corn ansestor2

Genetic engineering today is the same- we’re just better and faster at it.  On our tour we saw pictures of college interns trudging through corn fields with a (highly scientific) hole punch.  The interns punched holes in the plant’s leaf tagged the plant.  The punched samples were analyzed to see which genetic traits the plant carried.  Scientists chose the plants with the best combination of traits to continue growing; the interns went back to the fields and pulled up the other 90%.  The remaining 10% were grown to be parents of a variety of seed that was more drought tolerant, or had stronger stalks, or yielded better etc..

A look inside Monsanto to see what a GMO really is

Then somebody had a brilliant idea.  Since our DNA is present in all our cells, including the seed, the plant didn’t have to grow to torture students in a hot field. A piece of the seed could give all the same information.  As long as the chip doesn’t come from the part of the seed that is the embryo, the plant will grow, making more seeds of its own.

A look inside Monsanto to see what a GMO really is

And since chipping seeds makes your hand cramp, somebody else thought up this contraption. If you take a soybean seed and shake it up, it will always settle with its black line (the embryo) parallel to the ground.  If you slice along the top or bottom, the seed will still grow.  There’s another machine for corn that takes a picture of the seed and a little robotic arm adjusts accordingly.  Seed chipping took two years off the time it used to take to create a variety with  a new trait.  So brilliant!

Plants created with this method are “genetically modified” without being GMO.  If the seeds are grown according to USDA guidelines the food they produce may even be “organic.”

So none of the food you eat is Paleo.  Those foods don’t even exist anymore.

And I bet early man would think we’re crazy for even wanting it.

Categories: Science | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

What is a GMO? My Tour of Monsanto

A look inside Monsanto to see what a GMO really is

Most consumers can’t explain what a GMO is, how it is made, or even what the letters stand for.  Even for people with strong opinions on the topic there is a lot of confusion.

Since understanding agriculture is the goal of my Ag Leadership of Tomorrow class, we toured the Monsanto Research facility near St. Louis a few weeks ago.  I was able to take a fair number of photographs and I’ll be writing three posts this week to share what we saw.  Since there’s a lot of confusion let’s start with the basics.  What is a GMO?

GMO stands for genetically modified organism.  A GMO starts as a seed whose DNA has been mapped and whose traits have been carefully chosen in a laboratory.

A look inside Monsanto to see what a GMO really is

You might remember that double helix DNA strand (on the table behind the guide).  DNA is made of four nucleotides, A, T, C, and G.  Each letter may only pair with one partner and the order of the pairs determines what protein is made.

The idea of a GMO is that proteins do all the jobs that allow us to be living, growing organisms: some make your eyes blue, some give plants the ability to photosynthesize, some are resistant to a specific disease or insect.  In the past we counted on the process of reproduction to randomly select the DNA (importantly- proteins) that would be passed on to the offspring.  Since we can now read the DNA of many plants we can be more specific about putting just the right protein into the offspring.   

A look inside Monsanto to see what a GMO really is

This chart shows the map of a corn plant.  You can see the rows of genetic information– our guide called them “streets.”  Each street has “houses” which is where the code for one protein lives.  The “address” for that protein is important, as sometimes the code is turned on and sometimes it’s off.  Remember that every cell in your body (or a corn plant) has the DNA for your entire body, but not all of it is being used the same way.  Cells in your fingertips produce nails, cells in your eyes show a different color than cells in your skin, cells internally produce different proteins than cells in your skin.

Through the wonder of science we can now “turn on” proteins that increase yield, or move proteins to new houses to use water more efficently.  There are some kinds of modifications that take proteins from an organism that is attacking a plant and put the DNA code into the plant to make it resistant to the disease.  This tends to worry people, but keep in mind, the genetic modification for root worms is only “turned on” in the roots.  The genetic modification for Round Up is in the leaf.  It changes nothing in the corn kernel or soybean.

Also, despite what you may hear, GMOs are the most tested product available.  They must be approved by the FDA, EPA, and USDA.  (And I didn’t just link to those agencies, each click will take you to the page that describes their role in testing.)  And here’s a quick article linking you to all kinds of long-term studies of GMO safety.

This video What is a GMO? An introduction from GMO Answers is a great start to understanding GMOs.  Actually, the whole website is rather useful.

The awesome thing about proteins is they are responsible for all functions of life.  The same research that leads to plant resistance to glyphosate may also lead us to proteins responsible for Autism and the process for Bt resistant corn may lead us to the process that ends Alzheimer’s.

I, for one, will be cheering that on.

Categories: Science | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

What Do You Want to Know?

I’ve been part of agriculture for eleven years now, and I’m still amazed at all there is to learn!  I’ve been in St.Louis this past weekend,  and in less than 48 hours My ALOT class visited Monsanto’s research facilities, BUNGE’s national headquarters, listened to a Congresswoman, attended media training, and learned about an ag PR company, visited a fertilizer facility, heard from the Army Corp of Engineers, saw an animal feed research center, and visited a winery!  It really is amazing when you think of the chain of events that leads to food on your table!! 

(Isn’t this room beyond cool!)

Anyway, that got me wondering- what questions do you have about agriculture?  What do you want to know?  What good issues have your attention?  

So leave me a comment and let me know.  

I don’t know everything, but I’m betting I can find out a lot.  

I’ll also be working on a few posts about the the places we went.  (Can’t wait to share my pictures of the Monsanto research facility!)  I’d love to know what you’re interested in so I can make sure and get it in!

Categories: Science | 2 Comments

Detox Diets and Monsanto; Why You Should Think for Yourself

I’m pretty big into helping people make choices by giving them correct information.  I spend a lot of time researching topics for people who just want to know their food is healthy and safe.  I’ve invested a lot of personal energy in debunking myths and misconceptions.  Even with all that, sometimes I fall for it too.

Detox Diets and Monsanto: Why We Should Think for Ourselves  {}

This is my juicer, bought for more money than I’d like to admit.  Another thing that’s a little hard to admit?  I purchased it as part of a fad-diet detox plan.  An unscientific, un-researched, unproven detox plan.

Because I’ve done it too.  I wanted something to be true.  I was counting on the idea that eating a special diet of veggies and whole grains could clear my body of all the pizza and pop and mini Twix bars.  I was a tired new mom and I needed this to work.

I bought the book of some guy; not a professor or scientist or nutritionist but the maker of a health food product he wanted you to buy.  I ate tofu, for which my only excuse is that it is made of soybeans.  I spent SO much money on vegetables that I ground up into juice and drank by the gallon.

Then I sugar-crashed.

And the diet I needed didn’t work.

Because I didn’t do the research.

I’m not going to present the research here because this blog isn’t about detox diets, but if you want to know, Fitness Reloaded does a great job laying out the facts.

The point I’m trying to make is that we have all believed the hype–listened to the thousands of voices selling something.  We have all forgotten to think for ourselves.

Yesterday I was on a Facebook thread with a person who stated “Monsanto is evil no matter what you think about GMOs.”  I responded with one word.


She didn’t know.  She had heard a lot of hype, so there must be something.  She just didn’t know what it was.

If you believe organic must be better for you because it just must, well, I get that.  If you want non-GMOs because “genetically modified” is scary, well, I can see that too.  But don’t let it get in the way of thinking for yourself, of finding out the facts, of knowing what you believe and why.  (But for the love of all that is good and decent, check your sources!)

And if you should still decide you want organic, hormone-free, paleo food, then go for it.

I have a juicer I can sell you.

Categories: Food, Science | Tags: , , , , | 20 Comments

What’s the Big Deal with Sustainability?

My farm friends are rolling their eyes right now.  Sustainability.  We hear it every day.  And like me saying “stop that” to my kids, the word rolls off our backs.

It means nothing.

People shout it from the roof-tops, McDonald’s demands it, but only Webster has defined it. “Capable of lasting for a long time.”

What is the Big Deal with Sustainability?  How do we leave our farms to the next generation?  {}

Passing the farm to future generations is a priority for us!

That’s big.

And nebulous.  Sustainability is many things.  To make farms last you’ll need land, soil, energy, labor, infrastructure, and profit.  You’ll need to keep our water clean and air clear.  Let’s add fair treatment of animals too.

The thing is we all look at sustainability from our own viewpoint.

If you focus on energy you might be in favor of smaller farms, more reminiscent of an era when agriculture didn’t depend on massive machinery.  But then you’ll need more labor.  You need people leaving their careers in the city to grow food.

If your concern is soil conservation you may want farmers to use less of the land, disrupting dirt less often.  In this case you’ll sacrifice economics, sending farmers to other jobs to support their families.

If you’d like animals roaming in green pastures you’ll have to deal with streams polluted from their waste.

Are you seeing my point?  To view agriculture through just one or two of these lenses is to not be sustainable at all.

Another way farmers are taking care of the land. {}

Here’s a farmer preventing soil erosion by growing hay for his cattle on the terraces of a corn field. How’s that for sustainable?!

Like beef.  Recently a committee suggested the government remove red meat from its recommendations because it isn’t sustainable.  They believe the land used to grow food for cows could be used to grow food for people instead.

Here’s the thing.  Some of the land my family owns isn’t good for growing plants.  The hills are too steep or the soil isn’t great.  We call this “cow ground.”  Even if we stopped eating beef that land wouldn’t be able to grow broccoli, spinach, or yams.

To make this land grow vegetables you’d need a huge labor force.  You’d need more water and you’d have to add nutrients to the soil, which leads to run-off in our streams.  After all that the spinach would probably cost more than you’d want to pay.

Also, like your grandparents fed scraps to a pig they fattened for fall, animals can make productive use of things that are waste to humans.  For example, animals use straw, which is the stalk from wheat plants.  And the ground that grows only grass can be baled for hay.

What is the Big Deal with Sustainability?  How do we leave our farms to the next generation?  {}

Anna feeds dried-out cornbread muffins to the chickens while wearing her favorite outfit!

Leaving farms for future generations isn’t a simple thing.  I think it will involve more science and technology and hopefully less of that roof-top shouting.

Next time someone tries to sell you something grown “sustainably” find out what that means.  And how true it really is.

Categories: Science | 1 Comment

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