RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Going Without Frankenfoods

One day in April, my KOPN 89.5 fm radio co-host, Dan, suggested that we spend the merry month of May in pursuit of existence without biotech. We would challenge our listeners to join us in avoiding all things genetically engineered, from corn to canola and from soybeans to sugar beets. After all, we both give lip service — lots of it — to our objections. We don’t like the fact that industry refuses to label GMOs or to test them for safety. We don’t like the fact that weeds are now resistant to GMOs and that the industry encourages farmers to use stronger herbicides. After all, we live in this environment! And we, and our sustainable ag listeners, raise food that aren’t immune to the herbicides like 2, 4D and glyphosate that industry wants to sell. And we had interviewed April Davila, founder of the earliest “nonsanto” effort.

Her digging deep campaign enlisted a bunch of bloggers to help out.

You can still find their discoveries on the world-wide web. So, in the spirit of inquiry, I agreed. A month without biotech. Dan put up a facebook events page and we quickly had a bunch of followers.

I was not too worried about my own ability to make thirty-one days. Much of biotech is consumed as ingredients in processed foods.

As a locavore, I don’t eat much processed food and, besides, May is particularly rich in local foods — lettuces, eggs, meats, root vegetables all are plentiful. Melinda Hemmelgarn, the food sleuth, told us that as long as we ate organic we’d be fine, but USDA organic doesn’t satisfy me. The food comes from far away, made by people I don’t know. I wanted to patronize my local yokels and, besides, organic standards don’t completely eliminate the use of confined animal feeding operations in, say, dairy. And CAFOs use GMO feed, so you’re getting the GMOs second-hand.

Since I have a network of bakers, friends that have indulged my special orders for years, all I had to do was ask them to use cane sugar or honey instead of beet sugar in my cookies and olive oil instead of butter in my bread…and if all else failed, I’d do my own baking. I woke up on May 1 without bread or butter and decided on a breakfast of rice, veggies and eggs. So far so good. Dan reported that he woke up craving chocolate and before he remembered the date had popped a chip in his mouth.

Dang. Done in by the soy lecithin. And, as for clothing, I figured it would be way easier for me than Dan. I have a dozen t-shirts dated before 1997 when GE cotton came on the market.

Today, biotech cotton is in virtually all the summer clothes you buy unless you seek out the organics. In fact, I came out of the month with a new appreciation for linen while Dan haunted the vintage shops and ended up in button downs with pointy collars, looking like a young Dick van Dyke. So, life at home was pretty easy. My husband reported every day, “It’s May --. -- days to go.” And reminded me, for example, that ice cream was off-limits.

When I went to Columbia, a college town, I could easily find food because all the independent restaurants are accustomed to answering questions. We have vegans, vegetarians, folks following kosher diets and folks with every kind of allergy, so the staff routinely goes back to the kitchen and emerges with recipe cards to read.

The problems came when I was in my small-town county seat or traveling. When my daughter and I had to make a quick car trip to Chicago in the middle of the month, we found ourselves passing through miles of food desert on I-55 — the only choices were fast food. We ordered salad, but we couldn’t pass up the fries and fishburgers, so I know I sullied my digestive system, which by that time was fairly GMO-free. Then, on the way home, my last silk shirt was too filthy for even me to stand, so I bought a new cotton T at the truck stop. With “Historic Route 66” on my back, I had a complete meltdown and ate fast food with abandon.

Fortunately, it was terrible and left me thinking, “Never again!”

By the time I got home, good judgment had returned. There was an evening, I admit it, when I couldn’t resist the potato chips my husband was chomping down. Knowing the potato chip folks, I knew they used corn oil in their cookers and it had to be GMO.

What were the surprises? For one, I had no idea there’s a non-GMO label that some food manufacturers are using. And I also had no idea I would find ethanol-free gasoline. I discovered it, premium grade with a big sign by the pump, just a few miles from home. What a delight to see that it gave me 2 more miles to the gallon.

So even though they resist labeling, and even though they’re narrowing the choices, we can still resist. Give it a try — a week, a day, a meal. You’ll see how much these corporate fingers have crept into your life.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2012

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