Thanksgiving is an odd holiday. Few can argue with the idea of setting aside a day each year for an expression of gratitude, and the agrarian-oriented nature of the celebration is a good occasion to remind ourselves of who and what sustains our lives.
The problem with Thanksgiving lies in its origin myth. Underneath the basic notion of Thanksgiving as a typical autumn harvest celebration is a dismal story. Small groups of people from Europe arrived on the shores of North America in the early part of the 16th Century. Totally ill-prepared to take care of themselves, they relied on the kindness of strangers – the local indigenous communities on whose land the colonists were camping. Those Europeans who survived the winter by eating the strange but nourishing local food repaid the generosity of their hosts by doing their best to annihilate them. Sanitized versions of this story are taught to millions of school children in our country every year.
Curiously, the modern Thanksgiving holiday celebrates the indigenous food but rarely the people and communities who developed the crops over countless generations, and who offered it to hungry strangers.
Biotechnology is now extending this colonization of our continent to a new level. Americans live in a country that serves up genetically engineered food every day, but refuses the labels that would enable us to know what genes have been added to what food. The typical Thanksgiving meal quite faithfully recapitulates a selection of indigenous crops, from roast turkey to cranberry sauce, while other ingredients of our celebratory meal originated elsewhere. For those of us who will be sitting down with friends and family to – among other things – be mindful of what we are eating and where it comes from, let’s explore just what has happened to our meal of thanksgiving in the last few years.
First Course: Soup
Our unwittingly transgenic thanksgiving meal could begin with a hearty winter soup. Assuming we haven’t cheated by using something out of a can, the soup could have a chicken or beef broth base, which could contain GE soy products. Chickens and most cows are not themselves genetically engineered, but they are fed grain mixtures that could be, especially genetically engineered cottonseed and soy by-products. Tomatoes, corn, squashes, potatoes, and rice all have genetically engineered varieties currently on the market. Currently not on the market but in field-testing are beets and more squash varieties.
Second Course: Salad
Some folks serve their salad course next. The tomatoes could be engineered and the oil might well be, unless it is based on olives; oils from cottonseed, canola (rapeseed), soy and sunflowers can all contain engineered ingredients. The rest of the salad will be OK for this year, but enjoy it while you can. Currently in development and in field trials are GE versions of lettuce, plum tomatoes, carrots, grapes, peppers, and onions. A nice fruit salad is a good bet this year as an alternative, as long as you remember that in development and field trials are genetically engineered raspberries, strawberries, bananas, pineapples, watermelons and other melons, apples, grapefruit, and grapes.
Genetically engineered cranberries, a traditional side dish served in a wonderful variety of recipes, are currently in field trials. If we are lucky we might never see genetically engineered wheat to contaminate our rolls and bread, but transgenic wheat is currently in field trials. Even so, many breads on store shelves contain soy and corn syrup that has been engineered. If you bake your own bread, you have to find a way to avoid GE corn in baking powder and in enriched flour. Corn bread, even home baked, can come from genetically engineered corn varieties. The butter you spread on the bread could come from milk tainted with engineered bovine growth hormone, while margarine might have GE corn and/or soy in it. Other traditional side dishes, like sweet potatoes, rice, corn, squash, and potatoes are on the market in genetically engineered form, unlabeled.
Honey, something we might spread on the corn bread or add to the after-dinner tea, can come from bees that have been buzzing over GE pollen. There’s no way to tell by looking, or by reading the honey jar label.
Main Course: Turkey
Still hungry? Let’s get on to the main course. Your turkey could have been fed commercial feed with a variety of engineered ingredients. Because our country conducts no non-industry funded, peer-reviewed safety tests of such feed, we have no way of knowing if antibiotic resistance, viral promoters or unstable variations of transgenes can be carried over from feed to the animals that have eaten them.
If you have room for dessert, all the cautions about GE ingredients in enriched flours and oils would apply here too. The ice cream over your pie might be made from genetically engineered milk, while the pie itself could suffer a number of the hidden GE ingredients we have already seen, such as GE baking powder or corn syrup. Your cup of coffee at the end of the meal is still OK provided you don’t take milk. Engineered sugarcane and GE coffee are in field trials.
Thinking about your GE thanksgiving might make a person feel just a bit less grateful. Yet there are a number of significantly constructive actions we can take. It is quite possible, not even that difficult in most of the US, to have a GE-free thanksgiving dinner, simply by selecting only organic ingredients. It is illegal in almost all of the US to sell genetically engineered food with an organic label. While there are justifiable concerns about contamination of organic crops from wind-blown GE pollen, for now it is still a safe bet to look for the organic label to avoid transgenic food. While at first blush organic food can seem more costly, when we add up the cost of strip mining our soil, farmer, farm worker and consumer health problems from agricultural chemicals, and the almost immeasurable cost of environmental damage, organic food is the great bargain of the 21st Century.
A second thing you can do to keep more genetically engineered food off the market is to insist on labels, and support farmers who are resisting the genetic contamination of their livelihood. Check the Council for Responsible web site listed below or contact CRG for a list of the many groups and organizations addressing these problems. Greenpeace has published a first-rate guide to which foods are non-engineered, called True Food.
And finally, no matter what else you might do, spend just a little bit of your dinner table conversation talking about the food you are eating. A small conversational effort can bring the true nature of thanksgiving back into your meal by including in your feast a recognition of the origins of our lives and livelihoods, by thanking the people, the animals, and the plants that were here long before the Europeans sailed to these shores.
For more information, see the CRG web site at www.gene-watch.org. For information about genetically engineered food, read CRG’s book, now out in an expanded and updated second edition: Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature, by Martin Teitel and Kimberly A. Wilson (Park Street Press, 2001). The True Food book is available from Greenpeace, www. greenpeaceusa.org.
Martin Teitel is CRG’s President. Suzanne Theberge is the editor of GeneWatch.