Day 174–GMO Grass and Cyanide

Hereford Steer

Many years ago, before I was a mom, I decided one summer that I would read all the classic nineteenth century gothic horror novels. Some were good, some were terrible, but the one that stuck with me was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The novel (unlike the movies) was not focused on violence and gore, but on the implications of man playing God with science and the awful responsibility we take on when we create things that perhaps should not have been created. Yes, Monsanto, I’m talking to you.

There are some days when I think I just really don’t want to know anymore information about food. The whole subject can be so daunting and often very, very frustrating. I thought I had the beef thing figured out–reduce beef consumption and rely on only grass-fed, pasture raised beef. Enter, the Modern Prometheus.

Yesterday I read an article and watched a news report about cattle in Texas dying from eating Tifton 85 Bermuda grass. Tifton 85 has been described as both a GMO and a hybrid of Tifton 65 and an African Bermuda grass that is known to produce cyanide under certain situations. Apparently the grass has started producing cyanide and the cows eating the grass died fairly quickly. Here is the link to the article. While only cows from one farm have died, grass on other nearby Texas farms has also tested positive for cyanide gas. Now, there is some debate about how and why this happened, whether drought in the area affected the grass and/or fertilizer, and whether Tifton 85 is a standard hybrid or GMO. Regardless, it is a powerful lesson in how modifying our food structure, even with the best intentions, can have lasting effects. And sometimes we don’t know what those effects are until years later.

I have to say, at first I thought this was an urban myth because how weird is it that grass would produce a neurotoxin. So now I guess I should be asking our local farmers what kind of grass their cows eat? Could cows eating the grass have meat contaminated with cyanide? I don’t know the answer to that question, but it is a bit worrisome.

And, more importantly, what if this grass is in my neighborhood or school? Could mowing the grass kill you or make you sick? Blech. The whole genetic modification of crops and domestic plants is so insidious and pervasive in American farming that I have to say, I am a bit alarmed. Will keep watching for more information and share it as I find it. In this day of self promotion by big agriculture companies, though, it is hard to know what the truth actually is!

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Day 19–The Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15

English: A sign warning about pesticide exposure.

“Action expresses priorities.”–Mohandas Gandhi

Our intent with our family journey toward a more sustainable, less toxic life, was to put our priorities (healthier lifestyle, support of local farmers, reducing environmental toxins, eating cleaner) into action and document the results. But sometimes there is a tension between intent and reality. Namely, that we can’t go broke buying groceries and we can’t always find what we want from an organic or locally produced source. And sometimes there are unintended consequences (see below) So, what’s a girl to do? Seek information and pick her battles, that’s what.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested the most common produce sold in the U.S. and developed a list of the produce with the highest pesticide levels (The Dirty Dozen) and those with the lowest pesticide levels (The Clean 15). Pesticide levels were measured after washing the produce to simulate a typical home environment. They turned this information into a handy list anyone can use while shopping.

So, what about the unintended consequences?

The EWG developed this list after finding that residual pesticide levels in children have been increasing over time. Interestingly, this increase is seen at higher levels in middle class families with college educated parents. Why? Because those parents, who are responding to the obesity crisis in children and who have more discretionary income to spend on food, are more likely to forego chips and processed snacks for fresh fruit and vegetables. So an unintended consequence of well-meaning parents (like me) getting our children to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables is that their children are showing higher levels of the pesticides used on those crops in their bodies. YIKES!

Realizing that many families don’t have the financial ability to purchase all of their produce organic, the EWG produced a list of the worst and the best, giving parents and other consumers a tool to use when making food choices.  I put this app on my phone so I can refer to it at the farmer’s market when I’m shopping (I know I won’t remember the piece of paper). While the EWG list is not comprehensive, it’s one more tool I can use to express my priorities through actions in a financially efficient way.

So, what’s on the list? You can download the list at http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/ but here it is in summary:

Dirty Dozen

  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Strawberries
  • Peaches
  • Spinach
  • Nectarines (Imported)
  • Grapes
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Blueberries
  • Lettuce
  • Kale

The Clean 15

  • Onions
  • Sweet corn**
  • Pineapples
  • Avocado
  • Asparagus
  • Sweet peas
  • Mangoes
  • Eggplant
  • Cantaloupe (Domestic)
  • Kiwi
  • Cabbage
  • Watermelon
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Grapefruit
  • Mushrooms

**Because sweet corn is often genetically modified and the FDA does not require that GMO corn be labelled as such, the EWG recommends that anyone concerned about GMO products buy organic sweet corn.

What do you think about the list? Is this something you would use? How do you budget for greater health?

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