The Non-GMO Project

14 02 2015

Those who know the Quieter Elephant in the real world would be amongst the first to agree I was a bit of a geek. I love technology. But there are limits. I also espouse “just because you can doesn’t mean you should”. Falling firmly in this category for me are genetically modified organisms. GMOs.

Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a religious position. Far from it. I don’t have a religion, so it would be a little difficult.

I have a lot of respect for Neil deGrasse Tyson but I’m afraid his stance on genetically modified foods was a bit off target for me. The question asked in the video was specifically about transgenic plants. It was in French though, so I’ll give him the benefit. He gave a totally reasonable monologue about how foods are virtually all genetically modified – in the sense that wheat is a selectively bred form of grass, that cows are selectively bred wild bovine, etc. As far as this goes – I’m with him.

But that’s not the point.

To get from wild grasses to productive wheat fields there were a whole series of ever more productive – genetically naturally viable – intermediate steps. Each step was viable in its own right. Seeds were selected, and the next step grown. In a field. With rain. Same thing with cows. Modern cows could never exist in the wild. They produce unnaturally massive quantities of milk. If they were not milked by humans twice a day they’d likely die. However, each step prior to the modern cow was born naturally of a naturally viable earlier form of cow. Stretching right back to a natural wild cow, producing milk, but at a lower volume.

For me, the important point is that this selective breeding – though technically modifying the genetics of the breed – iterates through a series of intermediate steps that are each naturally “validated”. Each step must be viable in the world we all share. It must be born, survive to an age fit to reproduce and then produce viable offspring.

There are a few exceptions in the plant world where cloning is possible. The word is laden with science fiction potential, but in the plant kingdom it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon every time a branch breaks off and re-roots. It has the exact same DNA as the original plant yet now lives a separate existence. This phenomenon was used to save the ancient, spiritually laden Golden Spruce of Haida Gwaii. It was felled by a disgruntled logging employee, and was thought lost forever – it was a male tree and therefore unable to produce seeds. UBC scientists managed to clone it from cuttings though.

Golden spruce clone

Golden spruce clone

This phenomenon can be used to reproduce plants without the more normal form of seeds being used. This is how the seedless watermelons Tyson refers to are produced, and yes, it is true that in a human-free world they would be highly unlikely to reproduce. Same thing with bananas. Their seeds are not viable any more… for human convenience. However, by and large, our “genetic modifications” are bound by the normal processes of seeds/birth and natural reproduction. Forced, guided, evolution, you might say.

It is true that these processes of selective breeding can lead to some abominations. Just look at the French poodle if you need further argument!

Wikipedia: French poodle

However… they are genetically viable in their own right. “Natural” is a subjective word, but the intermediate steps were at least not creations of some Frankenstein process.

And then we get the “oo, I wonder what would happen if…” brigade. To be fair, some of our most exciting leaps forward have come from “blue sky” ideation. Just trying something to see what happens. Unfortunately though, we are all too capable of creating things that really have no place in our world. Like creating an explosive device capable of generating the heat of a small sun for example. And then trying it out on Japan. And then trying out an even “better” one, just to make sure we got the maths right.

So, whilst I can understand the excitement of seeing what might happen if you take a gene from a firefly, capable of making it luminous, and placing it in a plant, I shudder at what might happen next. This is what I refer to as a GMO. An organism that is genetically modified outside of the natural process. It is true that a few cross-species boundaries can be breached in nature (a mule is a sterile result of cross-breeding a donkey and a horse), but there is no possible natural way a firefly gene could naturally find itself inside a plant. There were no shortage of Kickstarter funders though…

Kickstarter: Glowing Plants

These laboratory procedures don’t merely speed up the process that could be done naturally through careful selective breeding. They break the rules. They merge genes that have no business being merged. This is where my problem lies. Natures checks and balances are being subverted. The natural balance that aborts “unfit” organisms, that sterilises incompatible organisms so that they may not breed further, these are all circumvented. Instead we humans are left as the only arbiter of “valid”. We, who have only inherited this finely tuned ecosystem for the blink of an eye. We who are ourselves an experiment in one solitary line of evolution’s grand enterprise. Yet somehow we ended up with the keys to the entire toolkit. The capability to disrupt the very processes that nature itself has relied on for eons.

Life itself will look back on humans and chuckle. Those silly little hairless apes. They gave the Earth luminous plants, four-legged chickens and perhaps some other things from Margaret Atwood’s all too prescient imagination. They have gone now. Long forgotten. The planet spins on. Better for their passing.

In the meantime, people are slowly waking up. Monsanto was met with stiff resistance in the UK and the EU around 20 years ago. People didn’t see the need for genetically modified foods. There was outcry that US food labelling laws meant that soy beans from there might contain  some proportion of GMO content and not declared. It could therefore slip past EU labelling rules. Soy beans and soy extract were in everything. Same with GM canola oil. It was a huge issue.

And then we emigrated to Canada… and food labelling of any kind was rare. Sell by date? Best before date? Why would you need that? Over the years it’s got better and better. And then today, we visited the US and I was delighted to see that there was very prominent shelf labelling for non-GMO products. A real ground swell seems to be starting . It’s taken a while, but it’s arrived.

GMO? Not on my shelf!

GMO? Not on my shelf!

For further reading, check out the Non-GMO Project.

Non-GMO Project

Marketing and what we put in our mouths

13 09 2014

I work in marketing. The Betty Crocker example at the beginning of this video was used by myself only the other day as an example of how “knowing your market” can make a huge difference to a product’s success.

“Kate Cooper” the marketing consultant is in fact an actress, but the information in the talk she gives is real, and the audience had no idea what they were in for. So their reactions and facial expressions are also real.

The third marketing tool – the “killer” secret weapon – is also very real. It’s not true for just food, but food is one product we should all make active choices about to a much higher degree than we do.

If you need more persuasion… read the novel Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. She defines the trilogy not as Science Fiction (“talking squids in outer space”) but Speculative Fiction (“a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth”).

eTalks – The Secrets of Food Marketing – YouTube.

The message isn’t that eating meat is inherently a bad thing. It is that the powerful desire for making money (a totally artificial human construct) coupled with the wilful gullibility of the general population lead to some pretty horrific results. A theme taken up and run with in Atwood’s trilogy.

I use the website to track the books I read and learn of books I might like to read. I have read several books relating to the history of a single narrow subject. For example Salt and Cotton. Goodreads therefore suggested I might like a similar book, related to Twinkies. It seems the author was shocked to read that several of the ingredients (at least the ones the manufacturer is forced to divulge by law on the label) begin life as various mineral rocks or even petrochemicals. I have a natural aversion to highly processed foods for just this reason, though do freely admit the lure of Salt Sugar Fat can be a powerful one. - Twinkie, Deconstructed

As a high school student in the UK, I took an elective course on “pollution”. The first case study was about Alcan (now part of Rio Tinto) and their Aluminium mines in my now adopted country of Canada. No shocking surprise there. Pollution was rife (this is ~1980), with images of huge lurid, toxic tailing ponds. And this was before the Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley disaster! If you doubt the impact of even the most “sensitive” mining operation, try a google search of images of Highland Valley Copper. And they’re one of the best managed operations – particularly with respect to reclamation. Owned by Teck, if you cared. I hadn’t seen fluids that bright since messing with Copper Sulphate in high school!

The second example was colourants and brighteners in frozen peas. Naturally “blanched” frozen peas just “don’t look right”, whereas peas soaked in chemicals look “how people expect”… like they do on the (plastic) packaging. This was an early wake-up call to me as a teenager. It also helped me look at pollution in a different light. Much of it was wilfully accepted as “normal”. The UK and the EU have had reasonably broad food labelling in place for many years now (I’ll pass over how the French managed to get frogs defined as “fish” to allow their farmers to claim fishery subsidies for their odd food tastes.). The regulation of additives is way more stringent than here in Canada (where I am still horrified to find lurid blue sweets and “energy drinks” with dubious substances being consumed by future diabetic kids). But it’s still far from perfect.

We eat 2.5kg of food additives a year, on average. And it’s totally OK, because the manufacturers are now forced to tell us… but we buy it anyway. Wilful ignorance. I was once taught that a market gets the suppliers it deserves… in the same way as a democracy gets the government it deserves. If you want cheap food… you’ll get it. Just don’t expect high quality.

I recently read about a Chipotle fast food restaurant in the US being closed down when the staff all walked out demanding a “fair wage”. The author of the piece pointed out what the food prices would need to be to support those higher wages. And in a job market where the positions could be filled for even LESS than Chipotle were currently paying, the protest seemed ill advised at best. Pointless at worst. The US (and let’s be fair – the West in general) has come to expect easy access to cheap consumer goods – including food. Few, if any, questions asked. If we cared more about working conditions and food quality… we wouldn’t complain about the price necessary to provide that. These things need to be in equilibrium.

The same teacher also took us for Organic Chemistry lessons. When learning about nickel as a catalyst for various chemical reactions, he calmly mentioned that when he was a youngster, it wasn’t uncommon to find bits of the metal in your margarine. It was, after all, a manufactured chemical product. The metals were used to allow the various hydrogenated bonds to form and allow the liquid oils to form more of the fatty consistency we choose to put on our bread. It’s not actually a petro-chemical as some would have you believe, but pretty much any animal or plant oil can be used as a starting point. Again – best not to ask too many questions…

Wikipedia: Margarine

As an adult, I now work for Océ, part of Canon, and involved in digital printing and the graphic arts. Océ though used to make food dye – as long ago as 1865 in fact. Specifically the types of yellow dye you add to the pale creamy white (think: lard) factory-manufactured chemicals formed by metal catalysts, in order to make it look more, er, natural! Like butter substitutes “should” look.

Sleep well tonight, won’t you? And when you pour your cereal in your bowl tomorrow, forget reading the newspaper. Read the box! It really will be educational.

You look good enough to eat

25 11 2012

So I will!

Today was the day. After weeks of patiently watching fungus grow in my garage… I ate it. It tasted wonderful. I have never eaten oyster mushrooms before, so wanted to eat them tout seul to savour the taste. Having said that, I ended up frying them in a little bacon fat, but when all is said and done – I’m a bloke! The alternative would have involved an extra 5 minutes and some washing up liquid. Unconscionable! I went all out and put a sprig of fresh basil as garnish from my kitchen windowsill stash.

Feast your eyes…

Well THAT was a funny old day…

29 07 2012

As I get older I realise that there’s no such thing as “normal” – just varying degrees of “weird”.

Things got off to a bad start due to the normal miscommunication anyone with children will be very familiar with. It doesn’t get any better… get used to it. I’m 48 now, and my parents understand me no better today than when I was a teenager bristling with attitude and bad skin. I’d spoken briefly with my father over in Blighty on Friday and he’d said my mum was very keen to chat via Skype, as we hadn’t spoken for several weeks. (Now well into retirement, they make good use of their abundant free time and travel extensively around the UK and Europe.) This was also father-speak for “I’m uncomfortable speaking to you, male offspring, so I’ll leave that to your mother – and she’s not here right now.”

So anyway, I’d reminded him that BC is -8hrs from Yorkshire (well, 8 hours behind, and a few centuries ahead, all at the same time), and that if she really wanted to call me on Sunday, please make it after 4pm their time, which is 8am in BC. So anyway, at 8:15am the phone rang, and with bleary eyes I answered. My mum said she was surprised I’d wanted her to call so early, and wouldn’t it have been better to call a bit later?

“After 8am” had become “at 8am” somewhere along the way. No matter. I made arrangements to reconvene on Skype – keeping emigrant offspring connected to long-distance parents, the world over – and blundered my way downstairs to be regaled with tales of my sister’s exploits in Spain, and her concern at my nephew travelling to Italy with his girlfriend. (He’s almost 21 now, and she seemed to think he was in imminent danger of getting engaged.)Que Du Vent

Mrs E rescued me from falling asleep by delivering me my morning tea at the PC. Morning tea – a ritual that, should it be missed, can result in near-fatal consequences for those around me. It’s not so much a mug of tea, as a small bucket. Anyway, once my mum had run out of things to tell me, and failed to ask me anything at all about events in BC, we hung up and my day began in earnest. Well, not really. I had some thick sliced toast and marmalade, got washed, shaved, and tried to look human, then watched a film (something I’ve not done in too long).

I had a tasty, but lingering Mexican bean salad for lunch (it’s the raw onion… overdone a little), and generally wasted my limited time on this spinning globe. After lunch, we offloaded half a garage worth of empty bottles and cans at the recycling, and went “barbecue shopping” on the proceeds.

This became quite stressful as Mrs E forgot the first cardinal rule, and considered it the same as normal shopping. Barbecue shopping is the sacred domain of the male of the species. It is when he pretends that he knows all about home economics, and good choices in nutrition. Or not. A wise woman will find her “happy place” and just let the moment pass. Mrs E, on the other hand questioned why I was looking at peppered goat’s cheese. I was merely interested in it as a product, with no particular interest in actually purchasing it, I might add. And then the blue touch-paper was lit: “It’s a bit expensive, isn’t it?” Despite the fact that I had no real interest in purchasing the goat’s cheese in the first place, this was breaking the second cardinal rule “barbecues are not a particularly cost-effective way of feeding a family of four (or five with an absentee student), so ignore all the price tags”.

Knowing that calm is often restored to my fetid mind by taking photos, I took my trusty Canon for a walk. Together we perused the neighbourhood. Its gardens, its shopping centre… and its cricket match. Yup… there was a full on Sunday league match in full swing. Oh – and a beach volley ball game.

Finally it was time to start the barbie, and the womenfolk had figured it was best just to keep out of the way, since sharp objects and flames were involved. Not a bad little spread really. Grilled veggies (red peppers, sliced portabello mushrooms [OK, not technically a vegetable], courgettes, red onion), steamed sweetcorn, burgers, bangers, Maui marinaded steak and chicken. Garlic bread of course, and ciabatta for stopping the meat burning your fingers.

The dog surprised me by asking most politely for a sweetcorn of her own, and I resisted alcohol preferring instead fizzy water with a few squirts of angostura bitters.

So I sit here now drinking “False Creek Raspberry Ale” from Granville Island Brewing Co., (having sworn that beer and fruit should never mix – don’t tell anyone I know… it’s actually quite passable at 4.5%), and listening to “Que de Vent” by “Les Cowboys Fringants” from Quebec.

Now tell me that’s not odd…

… And by golly, it does you good!

24 03 2012

Now I’m more your bacon butty kind of person normally. Especially on a Sunday morning in a tent somewhere with a pretty view close by.

But I am reasonably adventurous food-wise, and have recently taken to eating roasted seaweed, which comes pre-packaged from the local Asian supermarket.

This though, is a more earthy Western alternative, tastes as good, and apparently is good for you. Well – you can’t have EVERYTHING!

Crunchy kale chips recipe (i.e. how to eat a bucket of kale per day)


Hungry in Vancouver?

26 01 2012

Vancouver is not short of places to eat. Especially at lunchtime. Evenings are slightly tougher, with many of the downtown places making so much money from we office drones at lunchtime that they can scoff at the locals and send their staff off home to watch TV in the evenings, instead of making their offerings available. There is even a café by Coal Harbour that closes totally in Winter because they milk the Summer tourists for so much during the season that they can afford to!

Anyway, the other day I found myself in a new-to-me eatery going by the name of Nubile. Well, not really, it was actually Nuba, but I just have that kind of mind. Lebanese food. Bizarrely, the only other time I’d eaten Lebanese food was in Dubai. Also not in Lebanon. Lebanon itself remains on the “to do” list for now. Along with Haida Gwaii. Eclectic is my middle name. Live with it, I have to!

So anyway, I mention all this just to say that if you find yourself in Vancouver and stuck for inspiration of what to eat, you could do a lot worse. AND they open in the evenings. Bonus! The food was excellent. Tasty, promptly delivered by attractive, if “particular” staff, and well priced too. I had the Mjadra Pita bread thingy, which was very scrummy indeed. They let me in obviously, but the other clientèle were most interesting and fun to gaze upon while they munched their way through food and conversation in equal measure. Even the drinks were interesting, with cucumber flavoured water instead of the usual bog-standard fare, and some delicious ginger/apple or carrot/rabbit-dropping (not really, but I forget the actual ingredients) offerings.



Even the location is interesting, being below street level, and having all the pipes and ducting exposed for that “retro” feel. You’ll enjoy it.

I did.


And no – I don’t have shares…

Tim Tam Slams

20 12 2011

A few years ago I was introduced to Tim Tams on a business trip to Australia. Of more interest is why I was NOT introduced to them on the previous trips, but maybe that’s just something I’ll never know. So anyway, I was struck by how similar (like 99%) they were to a favourite biscuit from my days in the UK – The Penguin by Mcvitie’s. Christmas is now upon us and one of my friends was kind enough to give me some Tim Tams as a gift. He also described in detail how to perform the “Tim Tam Slam”, unaware that this too was part of my introduction a few years back.

I have yet to test whether it also works with Penguins, and would welcome anyone’s experience in that regard. Basically, you nibble off two opposite corners of the biscuit. this leaves most of the biscuit sealed airtight in its chocolate cover. You then dunk one nibbled corner in a hot beverage – say tea or coffee, and suck hard on the other opposite corner. The hot liquid moves through the biscuit like a straw and melts the chocolate centre. But this is no trivial undertaking. The two biscuit layers obviously soak up the drink and quickly become soft. If you don’t time it right, the whole thing dissolves into a mushy puddle and can splash hot drink into your lap.

I don’t recommend you try it in front of your elderly aunt. unless she’s Australian.

In researching all this, I discovered that Mr Arnott basically stole the idea from McVitie’s when he made a visit to the UK in 1958. Also that Tim Tam was the name of the winning horse in that year’s Kentucky Derby. Shameless… good biscuits though!

Wikipedia: Tim Tams

Wikipedia: Tim Tams

McVitie's Penguins

McVitie's Penguins


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