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Making Sure Our Food Is Safe

America's unhealthy truth about GMOs is weighing on the minds of food analysts and caregivers alike

Submitted by: Francesca Rheannon

Posted: Aug 23, 2011 – 09:13 PM EST

Tags: food, sustainability, health, community, gmo, green, local

 
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By Francesca Rheannon

Robyn O’Brien might be the last person you would expect to take on America’s food giants. Raised in a conservative Texas family, O’Brien was a food industry analyst for a Wall Street private investment fund—not the typical background of a critic of a food system driven by profits over the health of its consumers. But now she’s the co-author of The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick - And What We Can Do About It and founder of the AllergyKids Foundation.

It all started when her youngest child had an extreme reaction to a breakfast that included Eggos and milk and had to be rushed to the hospital. Her daughter survived, but the family’s food habits had to undergo a drastic change.

And then Mom started asking questions – like, “Why has there been an 265% increase in the rate of child hospitalizations due to food allergies,” sending some 3 million kids to the hospital in 2007? “Why did allergies to peanuts among kids double between five short years – 1997 and 2002?” And, perhaps most tellingly, why do most other advanced economies ban genetically engineered ingredients such as GMO corn, soy and dairy?

“Is there something wrong with our food supply?” O’Brien asked herself, “and what is it?” That’s when her campaign to make food safe for kids (and the rest of us) began. Now she’s being called the food industry’s “Erin Brockovich.”

As Monsanto and other food industry giants would have it, genetically engineered foods would be key to a new “Green Revolution” that could feed the world’s burgeoning billions in the coming century. They’ve even gotten some major environmental organizations on board, like the World Wildlife Fund.

But, not so fast, says O’Brien. In The Unhealthy Truth, she shows the introduction of new genetically engineered proteins into our food supply is likely the main culprit behind the enormous rise in food allergies. And, unlike drugs, putting proteins that have never before been ingested by human beings into the food supply required no human trials for safety. 

For example, the genetically engineered growth hormone rGBH was introduced into the milk supply by Monsanto in 1994 to increase milk production. Food allergies among children to milk began to increase. 

It’s not just kids who are getting sick. According to O’Brien, the hormone has been linked to breast, colon and prostate cancers. And in a cascade of effects, the hormone causes more mastitis among cows, which has led to more antibiotic use in the U.S. That leads to more antibiotic-resistant pathogens – and the rise in deadly outbreaks of food poisoning we’ve all seen in recent years.

The U.S. is the only developed nation to allow rGBH into the milk consumed by humans. It’s a model of recklessness that extends to other major foods, like corn and soy. Allergies to corn and soy have skyrocketed in the U.S. since the introduction (and dominance) of GMO varieties. Meanwhile, other countries have adopted the “precautionary principle” toward GMO foods, mandating they be proven safe before their use is allowed. 

While O’Brien is raising awareness of what we have to take out of our food to be safe, another group is trying to make it easier for people to choose what is (or more likely to be) safe: locally produced organic food. The Amagansett Food Institute on the East End of Long Island is developing what it calls a “food hub,” connecting farmers, fisherfolk and consumers – families and school kids – in an infrastructure that can support all in producing and eating healthy, locally sourced food. And it wants to make local and organic sustainable for farmers and affordable for residents.

The hub rests on three pillars: education for families and children about healthy, locally sourced food; providing grants to farmers and fishermen to provide organic food for use by local food pantries; and offering commercial kitchen facilities so farmers can create value-added products that can sustain them financially beyond the growing season.

AFI’s director Jennifer Desmond told CSRwire, “We want to educate the community so they only choose local foods and seasonal foods, when possible. We also want to make it possible for our local farmers to stay and thrive in our community. And while we're addressing the issue of food, we have a serious problem here that our food pantry larders are barren in the wintertime and overflowing in the summer. Yet our food pantry users go down in the summer time and up in the winter.”

Desmond says this mirrors the problem farmers face, since their incomes follow the seasons, as well. “That’s because they have no access to certified kitchens where they could make value-added food to, say, process into dilly beans, pesto, chutneys or canned food – or freeze the foods to carry them through the winter.”

Educating kids will raise conscious food consumers, so AFI envisions an active presence in local schools with programs to bring kids into close contact with the farmers. “You want your children to go toward a tomato instead of a bag of Cheetos... it's creating a space so kids can come after school and help the farmers weed a carrot bed or learn how to make bread or pizza dough.”

The AFI understands creating a healthy food system means creating a healthy food community, one that sustains local farmers and fishers while giving sustenance to all the community’s members. It’s a vision we need to make a reality if we are to put “real food” (as Michael Pollan calls it) at the center of our table. The fledgling organization is looking for benefactors to help make the vision a reality – and help spread the model to other communities.

About Francesca Rheannon

Francesca is CSRwire's Talkback Managing Editor. An award-winning journalist, Francesca is co-founder of Sea Change Media. She produces the Sea Change Radio’s series, Back to The Future, and co-produces the Interfaith Center of Corporate Responsibility’s podcast, The Arc of Change. Francesca’s work has appeared at SocialFunds.com, The CRO and E Magazine, and she is a contributing writer for CSRwire. Francesca hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, Writers Voice with Francesca Rheannon.

This commentary is written by a valued member of the CSRwire contributing writers' community and expresses this author's views alone.

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