Is it a democracy if they refuse
to tell us what we’re eating?
BY AUBE GIROUX
Photo by S. R. Truax
While I was in California last fall doing research on genetically modified (GM or GMO) foods, everyone I met kept asking if I had spoken to Rachel yet. “Oh, you’re from Toronto? You’ve got to meet Rachel! She’s one of the most talked-about anti-GMO activists in Canada right now.”
Soon after I returned to Toronto, I contacted the famous Rachel Parent and asked her if we could do an interview at her home and cook a GMO-free recipe together to share with Edible Toronto readers. She promptly replied to my request and told me that she would love to, but would first need to check with her mom. Rachel, you see, is 13 years old, an age when many of us were too busy grappling with the awkwardness of adolescence to do much about our ailing planet. As a shy and gawky teenager, I certainly did not have the courage to publicly and coherently verbalize my opinions on issues that mattered to me. That’s why I’m especially awed by Rachel’s poise and assuredness. For her young age, Rachel is more well-spoken than most adults I know. More importantly, her activism comes straight from the heart, which makes people perk up and listen to what she has to say.
Rachel’s GMO activism began in grade 6, when she chose the topic for a speech she had to give at school. Having travelled to parts of South America that have been devastated by GM soy monoculture, Rachel had witnessed firsthand some of the detrimental effects of GMOs. Her interest in the issue was sparked and she won a medal for her speech. Since then, Rachel has been interviewed on television and radio and has received invitations to speak at local schools and at public events throughout the Toronto area, inspiring not only kids, but people of all ages, to take action on GMOs. Rachel now has her own website and Facebook page and is an active Tweeter with over a thousand followers. While fighting for GMO labelling is her primary interest, Rachel is also an animal lover. In fact, throughout our interview, her dog Elly calmly sat on her lap and Rachel’s eyes lit up when she informed me that Elly was pregnant and due to give birth any day.
Last year, Rachel founded an organization called Kids Right To Know. The group had its inaugural Kids Right to Know Walk last November in downtown Toronto, in part to show support for Proposition 37 in California, a bill which would have made GMO labelling mandatory in that state. About two hundred kids and adults took part in the walk, marching from Dundas Square to St. Lawrence Market. “The goal of our walk,” Rachel explains, “[was] to create awareness about GMOs because if nobody knows what GMOs are, how can they fight it? It’s important for kids to know about GMOs and it’s important for them to take a stand because it’s our future, right?”
Rachel has certainly done her research when it comes to GMOs. She has read the books, watched the documentaries. The girl knows her stuff, not an easy feat when it comes to the complicated and confusing world of genetic engineering. After years of my own research, I still find myself scratching my head while trying to make sense of vastly conflicting information on the topic. I have heard politicians, scientists and teachers get their facts all jumbled up, and I’ve listened to passionate speeches about how we’re all eating GM wheat, bananas or strawberries, when in fact none of these actually exists as yet on the market.
And really, who can blame us for getting confused? It should come as no surprise that we, the general public who are being fed the stuff, are a pretty bewildered bunch given that the biotech industry and our government have purposefully kept us in the dark ever since GM foods were introduced in the mid 1990s. They have even gone so far as to try to convince us that genetic engineering is the same thing as conventional breeding in agriculture, a claim that any farmer, whether they choose to grow GMOs or not, will tell you is blatantly false.
Rachel lays it on the line when I ask her about it. “Well, our government says it’s a democracy,” she explains, “so we all have the freedom of speech, the freedom of what we eat, freedom of everything. But we don’t really have the freedom because they’re not telling us what we’re eating. So I feel that it’s important that we fight for this because it’s our human right to have the food that we want.”
Indeed, while fifty countries around the world label GMOs, Canada and the U.S. remain the only two industrialized nations that don’t give their citizens the choice of whether to eat them or not. This, despite the fact that every poll conducted has shown that the overwhelming majority of Canadians and Americans want GM foods to be labelled.
There are many reasons we should have the right to choose. Aside from numerous scientific studies showing health and environmental risks, much of the original information fed to us regarding the purported benefits of GMOs is now under fire. For instance, the claim that GMOs create higher-yielding crops was recently challenged by USDA-funded research. And the popular myth that GMOs reduce pesticide use has been blasted by research from Washington State University which shows an increase in overall pesticide use of 404 million pounds since GMOs were introduced.
Photo by S. R. Truax
It’s a snowy winter day when I show up on Rachel’s doorstep with ingredients in hand for us to bake a honey lemon polenta cake, GMO-free bien sûr. This means I have to ensure that not only the cornmeal is certified organic, but also the butter, eggs and honey (since in conventional agriculture most cows, chickens and yes, even bees, eat a GM diet). I also opt for cane sugar because conventional granulated white sugar is generally made from genetically modified sugar beets. And I even manage to find certified GMO-free baking powder. Does all this seem annoyingly complicated and obsessive? Well, yes it is. It’s challenging and costly to avoid GMOs in Canada. And while it’s a noble goal to buy organic and certified non-GMO all the time, the reality is that not everyone can afford it, let alone access it. Moreover, you have to become a very determined detective to keep up with which foods do or do not contain GMOs since new ones are stealthily introduced on a regular basis.
Rachel and I get right to work on our cake and while it’s in the oven, infusing the whole house with the sweet fragrance of corn, butter and honey, we sit down in the living room and chat some more about all this GMO stuff. I confide in her that coming back from California after witnessing the defeat of Proposition 37, I feel quite discouraged and hopeless that we will ever have GMO labelling. I sometimes feel like the battle is just too hard and that the institutions forcing GMOs down our throats are simply too powerful. I ask Rachel if she ever feels hopeless. Her youthful optimism and calm confidence are just what I need to hear: “I don’t feel hopeless at all about this whole GMO thing... I think we will have labelling on GMOs, it’s just [that] we all have to fight for it.”
Yet that’s sometimes precisely why I worry. Unlike Europeans who will fight tooth and nail for their food and as a result have had labelling firmly in place for years, we Canadians and Americans are more passive – dare I say, uninterested – in actually knowing what it is we’re eating. But things are slowly changing and there seems to be a glimmer of hope for GMO labelling.
With California’s influential Proposition 37, the Right To Know movement seems to have solidified. Despite a massive $45 million ad campaign led by Monsanto which swayed the public opinion in the final days before the vote, Proposition 37’s slim defeat has only served to galvanize the movement, with GMO labelling efforts now underway in over twenty U.S. states. And Rachel is on a mission to encourage Canadians to step up to the plate and put this issue on our political agenda, as well.
I certainly hope that Rachel is right and that it’s only a matter of time before we see mandatory labelling for GMOs. One thing for sure is that I can rest more easily knowing there is a smart and savvy generation of young activists who are taking matters into their own hands. As Rachel says, “As long as GMOs are still around, I’ll keep fighting them.” And that, my friends, is sweet music to my ears.
Please support Rachel Parent by attending her second Kids Right To Know Walk in Toronto on June 1, 2013. Visit her website at www.gmo-news.com to find out more.
Aube Giroux is a documentary filmmaker and food writer. Visit her award-winning video food blog at www.kitchenvignettes.blogspot.com.
Photo by Andrew Norton
HONEY LEMON POLENTA CAKE
Adapted by Aube Giruox from a recipe by Nigella Lawson
This cake has a delightful custardy moistness and tangy sweetness that comes from the syrup and a rich flavour from the honey, butter and cornmeal. Bright yellow, it’s a cheerful sunny cake, perfect to herald the arrival of spring. As an added bonus, it is also gluten-free.
If you would like to make a GMO-free cake, all of the cake ingredients need to be either certified organic or certified non-GMO, with the exception of the almonds, lemons and sugar (so long as you use cane sugar). Purchasing organic lemons is advisable when using their zest because of the pesticide residues that can linger on the peel.
Cake2 cups ground blanched almonds
3/4 cup cornmeal
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
Zest of 2 lemons
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated organic sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 cup liquid honey
Juice of 2 lemons
Make the cake: Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform cake pan with parchment paper. Grease the sides of the pan.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the almonds, cornmeal, baking powder and salt. Whisk in the lemon zest; set aside. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until pale, about 3 minutes. Add one-third of the almond mixture and one egg to the butter mixture. Beat until combined well. Repeat with the remainder of the almond mixture and the two eggs, in two additions.
Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Bake in a 350° F oven until the top of the cake is golden, the edges of the cake have begun to shrink away from the sides of the pan, and a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Transfer the cake to a cooling rack. Cool in the pan.
Make the syrup: In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring the honey and lemon to a boil, stirring occasionally.Finish the cake: Prick the top of the cake all over with a toothpick. Pour the warm syrup evenly over the cake in the pan and allow it to soak up the syrup, at least 15 minutes. Remove the cake from the pan and serve