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Welcome to the 20s. Let’s Roar.

A century ago, the Roaring 20s ushered in an era of innovation, prosperity, cultural and societal change. These movements were not a choreographed affair, heading neatly in one direction. They surged this way and that, pushing against the boundaries of how life had been before the First World War. At the Non-GMO Project, we welcome the new decade with optimism, with the belief that diversity of thought and purpose can shake us loose from an agricultural system born from the Second World War. With that in mind, let’s start with the basics.

Part Two - to read Part One Click here

Earlier this month, we looked at GMO produce engineered for shelf life and portability. These hard-living traits hold a distinct benefit for wholesalers and the foodservice industry, while the consumer sees little, if any, of that value. They may be unaware that their apple, potato, or lettuce was genetically engineered. Some of these products can sustain damage and not show signs of it. Produce engineered for longer shelf life might have been harvested so long ago, leaving its nutritional value severely depleted. We looked at the importance of access to truly fresh food, and the often-overlooked role that farmers, seeds and soil play in our daily lives.

But if we prioritize proximity to food over the durability and shelf life of food, what other strategies become available to fix our food system?

Winston Churchhill displaying a "V" with handsV for Vegetables

Local farmers growing seasonally and regionally appropriate produce are a fantastic source of fresh, healthy food. Growing some things ourselves is also a viable option — there are shallow-rooted leafy greens like spinach and mustards which can even be grown in trays on sunny windowsills. We don’t need to operate our own personal homestead. Still, the practice of growing some of our food — from a few pots of herbs to a dedicated vegetable plot — is not only fun and tasty but also brings knowledge and skills to those who practice it.

I’m a big fan of Green America’s Climate Victory Garden initiative, a campaign to support Americans to grow food using regenerative methods. The original victory gardens were built during both world wars on residential and communally-held land. They were enthusiastically encouraged by the government, both as a useful food source in a war-time economy and as a way to boost public morale. Green America has adapted this idea: the “enemy” is not a foreign army but climate change, and growing food using regenerative methods is one of humanity’s staunchest allies. At scale, regenerative practices can facilitate the drawing down of carbon from the atmosphere, mitigating and even reversing the effects of climate change. Why not utilize the millions of acres that collectively make up our yards and gardens? Already, as many as 1 in 3 American households grow at least some of their food — that’s some serious growing power!

The Washington Post ran an op-ed last summer that was critical of victory gardens as a climate solution. I think they missed the point: Each person growing all their food and sequestering all their carbon, one backyard at a time, isn’t the silver bullet solution to climate change. During the Second World War, victory gardens were one part of a coordinated and far-reaching effort, involving industry and market forces as well as diverse social and economic groups. Victory gardens gave people a tangible way to contribute in the face of an unimaginable hurdle, working towards a goal no one could achieve alone. That is the kind of movement that can shift our agricultural systems towards a healthy and regenerative model, and that can move the needle on climate change. Because there is no single thing that’s going to counteract climate change, adapting and, ultimately, drawing carbon down from the atmosphere will take all the people doing all of the things. 

The Power to Grow

Something magical happens when people move closer to their food sources, and it goes far beyond pastoral hipsterdom. People get outside; they get dirty. They learn about everything that goes into the food they produce: their time and effort, the water, soil and seed. They try stuff, get stuff wrong, and look for answers on how to get it right. They share knowledge, seeds and food with their neighbors (zucchini, anyone?). Hopefully, they think long and hard before they reach for a chemical solution to a biological problem. As Ron Finley says: “Ditch the chemicals….If you don’t want it in your body, don’t put it in your food.” 

At the Non-GMO Project, we believe that collectively we have the power to change our food systems. We believe that learning about food can change our perspective and our actions. That knowledge inspires gratitude to everyone who works to create the reliable bounty at our local grocery store. We believe that calls for change from the bottom up are ultimately answered from the top down. What better places to start than our own cupboards and shopping carts, on our window sills and in our yards?

War Gardens for Victory poster
War gardens for victory--Grow vitamins at your kitchen door / lithographed by the Stecher-Traung Lithograph Corporation, Rochester, New York. United States, None. [Between 1939 and 1945] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Illustration by Melissa Waddle

A century ago, the Roaring 20s ushered in an era of innovation, prosperity, cultural and societal change. These movements were not a choreographed affair, heading neatly in one direction. They surged this way and that, pushing against the boundaries of how life had been before the First World War. At the Non-GMO Project, we welcome the new decade with optimism, with the belief that diversity of thought and purpose can shake us loose from an agricultural system born of the Second World War. With that in mind, let’s start with the basics.

Part One - to read Part Two Click here

Producing GMOs

The vast majority of the GMO crops grown in North America are grown for animal feed or biofuel, with some crops undergoing processing for convenience-ready foods. As such, you’d think the grocery store produce section was relatively safe territory, GMO-wise. But there’s a growing movement to employ new genetic engineering techniques to extend the shelf life and portability of some of the basics, like apples, lettuce and potatoes. Proponents of new GMOs reference problems such as food waste and food deserts — two very real and serious issues  — to justify the modification of staple foods. But are GMOs the best solutions?

At the Non-GMO Project, we say, unsurprisingly, “no.” Does food that is deliberately engineered for longevity really qualify as “fresh” anymore? At best this is one of those “solutions” that appears to address a problem but really swaps out one problem for another. (Variety can be nice, but not so much when it comes to problems, and current wisdom is there are already more than enough of the latter to keep us from getting bored.) 

Crisp, not CRISPR

Last October, I went to my local Fall Fruit Festival. Several hundred of my neighbors and I lined up to sample slivers of the most diverse and delectable apples, pears and grapes imaginable. Before that day, I’d never realized how limited my vocabulary was when it came to apples. I like a nice Gala, and I have some recipes that call for a good lookin’ and sweet cookin’ Granny Smith. The Festival introduced me to more varieties, textures, purposes and flavor profiles than I have adjectives for. And the grapes! The grapes were so delicious, I’d mud-wrestle a yellowjacket for a bunch all to myself. Which is precisely why produce that is genetically engineering for shelf life really gets my goat. There are whole galaxies of tastes out there! The delicacy of a ripe pear is part of what makes it special. And many apple varieties store and travel exceptionally well.

That magic is lost with new GMO creations like the Arctic non-browning apples. Genetic modification favors uniformity over variety, shelf life over taste. The samples at the Fall Fruit Festival were the product of generations of breeding, expert cultivation and devoted soil stewardship. Nature, thankfully, prefers diversity, giving us an apple for every occasion. If slicing an apple ahead of time and not having it brown is a priority for you, go with the Opal apple, bred using traditional methods for that trait. 

It’s Not Easy Being Greens

For most of my life, I was not excited about greens. I blame negative childhood experiences, wading reluctantly through too many iceberg lettuce salads. Not until I started hanging out with farmers did I learn that “greens” weren’t synonymous with lack-luster lettuce — there were brassicas, chards, and spicy mustard greens, sweet spinach and beet greens. How these crops tasted when they were fresh, truly fresh, was worlds away from the glorified tissue-paper-veggies of my youth. I became a devoted fan of one particular farmer’s work, a housemate of mine who grew vegetables in schoolyards. (*Aspirational note: Farmers should have fans. Roadies, even. Their contributions are unique, powerful, and infinitely superior when experienced live). I ordered her wares in advance, picking up a box each week during the summer. One evening in early June, when the days were still long and cool, I received the most tender, colorful, flavorful kale I’d ever seen. This kale had been picked a few hours previously, then washed and bound into an elegant green-and-purple bouquet. I tucked the rest of my bounty into a tote bag and walked home, nibbling on the kale as I went, looking to all the world like a poorly dressed bride who’d gotten a bit peckish on her way up the aisle. 

Learning to appreciate vegetables so late in life made me a little sad for all the wasted years and missed flavors. Learning there’s GMO Romaine lettuce — engineered for longer shelf life — only made that feeling worse. This takes us in entirely the wrong direction! Genetically modifying lettuce for longer shelf life doesn’t make vegetables more accessible, it makes more people hate vegetables. Greens are like bread: they deteriorate from peak perfection by the hour, and tasting the truly fresh can change your whole world view. Travel, storage and delivery times cost dearly in terms of flavor, texture, and nutrient value. Harnessing the ability to deliver limp, lifeless and nutrient-depleted Romaine across space and time benefits no one. 

In Praise of Farmers

Unequal access to fresh produce is a huge problem, as is food waste. Then there’s that uniquely western phenomenon of nutrient deficiency and obesity occurring side-by-side. But what if we took all the time and money that goes into engineering an immortal lettuce leaf and put it towards supporting local food growers? If instead of driving the color out of our apples, we put that expertise toward rebuilding biodiversity?

Applying GMO solutions to systemic problems only addresses the tip of the iceberg lettuce. It doesn’t touch root causes. For that, we need to: grow and buy local; value and compensate the contributions made by our hard-working farmers; and treasure the diversity and brilliance of the seeds they steward for our benefit.

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