Kashi GOLEAN cereal is pretty much a staple of my breakfast routine, in large part because it is one of the only cereals available at Costco that doesn’t have a year’s worth of sugar in each serving (although it still has quite a bit). Also, it has protein and is probably the closest thing to a “healthy” breakfast cereal that doesn’t require actual cooking (because I am lazy in the morning and it is all I can do to make coffee). I have never had any illusions that GOLEAN cereal is in any particular way “natural,” since that is a vague enough adjective to be meaningless and it only takes one look at the cereal sitting in a bowl to see that nothing quite like it occurs in nature (absent industrial-scale intervention, I mean).
A photo making its way around Facebook today depicts a sign at a Rhode Island “natural” food grocery explaining why they have removed all Kashi products from their shelves:
You might be wondering where your favorite Kashi cereals have gone.
It has recently come to our attention that 100% of the soy used in Kashi products is Genetically Modified, and that when the USDA tested the grains used there were found to be pesticides that are known carcinogens and hormone disruptors.
Whoa. So, what exactly does that mean? Calling something “Genetically Modified,” or “GM,” particularly when the words are written in title case, is often enough to send many people running for the hills. GM food is scary to many people, because it is so poorly understood and unfamiliar, because it often represents corporate malfeasance and greed, and because we often have little to no idea what the hell is in our food. I would like to learn a bit more about Kashi, and about the whole GM thing, before I set fire to my remaining GOLEAN Crunch.
WTF does “natural” mean in this context?As Vivian Ward might respond, what do you want it to mean? Unlike “organic,” there is no legal standard for use of the word “natural” in food marketing or pretty much anywhere. It tends to evoke a sense of “not overly processed through mass industry,” a process that gives us Twinkies and McDonald’s french fries. To produce anything for public retail distribution requires some industrial processes (unless you buy all of your food at farmers’ markets, in which case you live a life of remarkable privilege and have little in common with most of the rest of America). How much processing is too much? I pick on Twinkies because they are about as far from “natural” as one can get (full disclosure: I love Twinkies), but really, unless you want to consume all of your groceries within two hours of purchasing them, you need some amount of processing just to function in our society.
WTF does GM mean at all? “Genetically Modified” covers a wide range of processes, some innocuous, some insidious, and some downright disquieting.Humans have been genetically modifying food since the dawn of agriculture, so the mere fact of “genetic modification” should not frighten anyone. Corn and bananas are two excellent examples. Corn was derived from a grass native to Mesoamerica called teosinte, which is inedible and bears no physical resemblance to corn at all. Bananas, originally from southeast Asia, developed from giant, inedible seed pods into the fruit we know today, thanks to human intervention. On the animal side, ponder how long a chicken could survive in the wild, and whether it ever would have survived as a species this long if it had evolved to its present form purely “naturally.”
That brings us to modern-day “Genetic Modification.” Again, this covers a wide range of processes, all of which ought to be better-explained to the public, but some of which are no cause for major concern. Since I am not a scientist, I rely on dumbed-down sources to understand this stuff (thank you, Wikipedia, et al). The two major methods of GM’ing food in modern terms is cisgenesis and transgenesis. Cisgenesis involves transferring genes between similar organisms, essentially speeding up a breeding process that could occur “naturally.” Transgenesis involves inserting genes from a different species, creating something akin to a hybrid (or mutant) organism.
The World Health Organization has identified three sources of concern for human health from GM food: allergenicity, or risks of allergenic materials entering GM foods; gene transfer, such as antibiotic-resistant genes, that would adversely impact human health; and outcrossing, in which modified genes contaminate other food products or even wild plants. In addressing the question of GM foods’ safety, it had this to say:
Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.
GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved. Continuous use of risk assessments based on the Codex principles and, where appropriate, including post market monitoring, should form the basis for evaluating the safety of GM foods.
The World Health Organization may turn out to be as big of a joke as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has raised conflicts of interest to an art form, but most scientific studies have not found any serious health risks. If people have a problem with the funding sources of these studies, we ought to be talking about how academic research is financed in the first place.
I still maintain that the burden should be on the food producer to disclose what is in our food, and their failure to do so only feeds paranoia about GM. If they won’t tell us what’s in the food, the line of argument often goes, they must have something to hide. Corporations may slowly poison their customers if it serves the profit margin, but it is likely to be a side effect, not a goal. In reality, organizational inertia (a polite way of saying corporate laziness) probably accounts for a large amount of the lack of disclosure.
Different countries have dealt with GM food in different ways. The African nation of Zambia, facing widespread famine in 2002, barred all food aid shipments that might contain GM food, with the president saying “I’m not prepared to accept that we should use our people as guinea pigs.” This did not go well for the Zambian people who needed food of any type, but we also have no way of knowing for certain what sorts of GM were in that food, or if it was harmful, or if the risks of that food outweighed the seemingly imminent risk of starvation.
Wait, weren’t we talking about Kashi?
Oh yeah. A report from the Cornucopia Institute (PDF copy of report) released last fall claims that numerous cereals labeled “natural” actually contain measurable amounts of both GM ingredients and pesticides. This includes Kashi, as well as Whole Foods products and others.Kashi is actually owned by Kellogg, maker of such healthy mainstays as Frosted Flakes. One of Kellogg’s founders had some interesting ideas about uses for yogurt. That’s all I shall say.
Whole Foods is a multi-billion-dollar company that is no stranger to controversy. See for example, the variety of responses a few years ago when it turned out that the company’s CEO, John Mackie, turned out not to be a hippie at all.
My point being, why are we surprised? Genetically modified food is not going away, because genetic modification is how we were able to create agriculture in the first place. The only change is the technology we use, which of course can be used for ill as well as good. Simply yanking offensive cereals off the shelves, or boycotting them, leads to demand for smaller, more “natural” brands, who would have to increase their production capacity to meet that demand–and guess how they would pretty much have to do that? By becoming the thing we are boycotting.
This isn’t something as obvious as tobacco (i.e. inhaling burning particulate matter directly into the lungs is not necessarily directly comparable to a tomato that stays ripe longer.) Corporations that make GM foods have a profit incentive to produce lots of food efficiently. One could also argue that “natural” food companies have a profit incentive to scare people away from food made by big corporations.
We need to know more about what’s going in our foods from everybody, not just the big corporations.
We also need to know when our supposedly “natural” food actually comes from a big corporation.
We need a Department of Agriculture that actually does something to benefit non-corporate persons.
We also need to remember that “big corporation” is not synonymous with “evil” (i.e. correlation does not equal causation).
We don’t actually need cereal to survive, by the way.
Photo credits: ‘Where’s My Kashi?!’ by Nancy Wilson [Fair use] via Facebook; ’Hostess Twinkies’ by Evan-Amos (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons; ’Inside a wild-type banana’ by Warut Roonguthai (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons; ’Maultier grau’ by WeFt [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons; ’Frosted flakes with milk’ by Larry D. Moore (Nv8200p on en.wikipedia) using a Kodak P880 camera. (© 2009 Larry D. Moore) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons