Packing Social Concerns in the Lunchbox

Dirt to Dinner is excited to feature Dr. Sarah Evanega’s post on our site. Dr. Evanega earned her PhD in plant biology and science communications from Cornell University, where she now directs the Alliance for Science and serves as Senior Associate Director of International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She resides in Ithaca with her husband and three young children.

The Cornell Alliance for Science works to ensure global access to life-improving agricultural innovations that can shrink farming’s footprint, deliver food security, reduce the drudgery of field work that often falls on women and children, provide rural families with sufficient income to educate their children, and inspire young people to pursue a career in agriculture and science.

As a child, I highly anticipated the return to school, the thrilling day when my siblings and I headed over to campus to pay our fee and look on the bulletin board to see which teacher we were assigned to and which of our friends would join us in class. The hallways had a distinct smell that we barely noticed during the school year and nearly forgot over the summer break, which meant the odor of paper and gymnasium hit us hard as we walked in the front door after months away. Back to school meant buying supplies, the hope of getting a Trapper Keeper with a cool design, and maybe even a new pair of jeans or shoes.

Today, as a mom of three young kids, back to school means shifting from the laid-back rhythm of summer to a tightly tuned schedule of early-to-bed, early-to-rise, the regularity of dinner, bath and bedtime books, and early mornings. After the coffee is on, I pull out three lunch boxes and face the challenge of packing lunches that will both appeal to my kids and my sense of what’s healthy and socially just.

As I pull together sandwich fixings, carrot sticks and fruit, I’m aware that our well-stocked refrigerator and cupboards are a luxury that many families throughout the world do not share: that my choice of what to pack, and what to leave out, is not available to the millions who struggle with the hunger and poverty that accompanies failed crops. I know my children won’t have to skip school to hand-weed the family’s fields or miss class entirely because a miserable harvest left no extra money to pay tuition.

As a plant scientist who works in international programs at Cornell University, I’m fully aware that fussing over the ever-growing list of food items restricted in schools is very much a “first-world” problem, as are the half-eaten apples and the sandwich crusts my kids bring back home at the end of the day. Hunger, the frequent companion of far too many children in developing nations, always trumps the pickiness that leads to food waste.

I know that many other American parents share my concern about hungry children, others and our own, and that they want to see a world that’s just. But because of my job, I know something they may not—that technology exists to solve some of the problems that face us all…

I’m talking about using genetic engineering to improve crops, boost the livelihoods of smallholder farm families, enhance nutrition, reduce climate change impacts, even remove the pesky protein that makes the classic PB&J sandwich an unwelcome allergenic addition to lunch boxes across the country.

Yes, the same technology that can reduce the use of pesticides in crops can also render peanuts hypoallergenic. The same technology that can eliminate the need for nitrogen fertilizers that generate greenhouse gases can keep cut apples from browning. The same technology that can add essential nutrients like vitamin A to staple foods like bananas and rice can silence the gluten proteins that make life miserable for those with celiac disease.

Sadly, this technology has been pushed to the sidelines, dismissed as a dirty three-letter word: GMO. Never has a plant breeding technique been so reviled, so falsely accused of everything from solidifying corporate control over the food supply to making people sick. The demonization of this technology funds numerous NGOs and has even become a cottage industry of sorts. American supermarkets are filled with products that bear the badge of misinformation—the trademark butterfly of the “non-GMO verified” label. This marketing ploy tricks consumers into believing GMOs are somehow bad, and so they should pay more for products without them — even products like salt and water, for which there is no GM equivalent. Sorry—those tricks don’t work on scientist moms like me. And they shouldn’t work on you.

As Americans, our ideologies and shopping habits reverberate around the world. And when we say no to GMO, we’re simultaneously depriving smallholder farmers and consumers in developing nations from exercising choice about what to grow, what to eat. Or in too many cases, about whether they will eat.

Would you say no to GMO if you knew it could save orange trees from the devastation of citrus greening disease, bananas from the scourge of wilt, crops from succumbing to drought or cattle to heat? Would you push it away if you knew this technology could help keep cacao, the primary ingredient in chocolate, from going extinct?  Would you get on board if you knew it meant that kids could safely munch a bag of peanuts without risking anaphylactic shock, be spared the blindness of vitamin A deficiency? Would you have a change of heart if you knew that biotechnology could increase the income of a smallholder farmer in Bangladesh six-fold — enough to send his children to school, buy a propane stove so his wife didn’t have to prepare food over a cow dung or charcoal fire?

Or to bring it back home, would you embrace this technology if you knew it meant the daily challenge of packing a school lunch could be immensely simplified with hypoallergenic peanut butter spread on gluten-free wheat bread and accompanied by an apple that retained its fresh, white flesh, even hours after slicing?

Some of these products, like the Arctic Apple, are already available. Others are moving forward and many more are in the works, ready and able to do their part to end hunger, shrink agriculture’s outsized environmental footprint, increase crop yields, reduce pesticide use, withstand the temperamental and often extreme growing conditions that characterize climate change, and curb food waste. Even more products are likely now that the science has advanced through the precise, predictable use of gene editing tools like CRISPR.

But these new plant varieties, created by scientists working in public institutions like me, won’t advance without our support, our recognition that they have a role, just like organics and conventional and natural, in keeping our planet healthy and our kids fed. They aren’t backed by the multinational corporations that can pay $100 million to move a genetically-engineered crop through an unreasonably onerous regulatory process. They need consumers, people like you and me, to say that we want scientific evidence, not ideology, to determine what enters the food supply.

These are the thoughts that enter my mind as I sip coffee, pack lunches, prepare my children for another day in the school environment that I loved. I want them to have the same opportunities that I enjoyed, and I want those opportunities extended to kids across the globe. And from where I sit, access to the healthy, affordable food that genetic engineering can provide is a huge part of that.

As we bid farewell to the unstructured days of summer and re-enter the school year routine, let’s remember that the decisions we make each day in the grocery store reverberate not only in our children’s lunch boxes, but all around the world.  

What Really Drives the Price of Our Food?

Commodity markets wrestle with that question every day. And the job isn’t getting any easier.

Crop production reports. Weather. Stock levels. Economic outlook and currency trends. Producer confidence. Politics. Disease. Shifting trade flows. International conflict. And all of them are important on both a local and global scale. This highlights just how many things go into establishing the prices received by farmers and ultimately paid by consumers everywhere. Dirt-to-Dinner takes a look at just some of the things that go into determining the price of our food – and why consumers might want to pay attention.

Pity the poor commodities trader watching the Chicago markets last week.

Many traders expected the USDA to forecast a low corn crop harvest due to all the flooding in the Midwest. But instead, it forecast a relatively strong yield at 169 bushels per acre. As a result, futures prices for almost every major commodity plummeted. Analysts issued dire warnings of possible further price declines in the days and weeks remaining in the growing season.

This turbulent environment is a case study in just how complex the mix of factors shaping commodity prices – and ultimately the prices paid by consumers for food – can be. It also illustrates why these considerations are so important to the global food system – from the farmers trying to make a living off of these price fluctuations to the consumers who depend upon it for a steady supply of wholesome, affordable food.

Just another day in the dynamic world of buying and selling the world’s wheat, corn, and soybeans? Well, sort of, but the turbulent environment from early August is a case study in just how complex the mix of factors that go into the price of food in your grocery cart. 

Traders start their market assessment with some simple supply and demand: high supply equals low prices and low supply equals high prices. Take the number of acres planted to a particular crop and multiply it by the yield per acre – the result is the total amount of that crop for that year. It’s the bedrock on which traders evaluate the likely available supply.

The Department of Agriculture (USDA) issues regular crop production estimates based on information gathered from across the country. Traders and analysts watched the August crop report very closely, looking for signs of just how much the unprecedented weather conditions in the spring affected the crop supply.

To much surprise, the August report painted a picture of another year of robust production – down a bit from last year’s exceptional crops, but still an ample supply of the building blocks of the modern food system – corn, soybeans, and wheat. The market’s response: a sharp downturn in commodity prices.

Why did the market respond the way it did?

Accurate predictions of final crop size are simply tough to make. For this year, in particular, there was the inclement weather. This spring’s heavy rains and flooding across many important agricultural areas meant that farmers couldn’t get into the fields to plant when they normally would do so. In some locales, dry conditions hindered crop development. Poor conditions also mean lower yields per acre. Unlike last year, when generally favorable conditions led to a more uniformly strong production pattern, this year seems to show a picture of spotty production – some areas very robust, others less so.

Nonetheless, USDA forecast overall wheat production to be holding steady from last year. The corn crop is projected to be down about 4% from last year (13.9 billion bushels), based on about the same acreage but lower per-acre yields. Soybean production, however, is seen as declining by almost 20%, to 3.7 billion bushels.

To further complicate the situation, this year’s production will add to the existing stocks of commodities. Stocks are those crops held over from the previous year – crops ‘in the bank’ so to speak.

For example, soybean stocks already stand at 1.8 billion bushels – up by almost half again the previous record high. By the end of the marketing year, some analysts predict the stocks overhanging the market will still total a record 1 billion bushels.

Did the USDA’s numbers alone justify the drop in prices? To better answer that question, traders had to turn to the demand side of the price equation.

A grim trade picture

Soybean markets highlight the importance of trade to the prices paid to farmers and the prices paid by consumers – and provide a case study of how so many diverse factors play into price. Soybeans provide the high protein meal and oil critical to growing herds of animals around the world – nowhere more so than China, and its increasingly large, commercial-style pork production industry.

U.S. soybean production is down and stocks have surged because exports have declined, largely in response to the continuing trade dispute between the United States and China. All in all, U.S. soybean exports this year are down almost a quarter from last year’s levels to about 35.6 million tons.

China is the largest importer of soybeans in the world, and the United States traditionally is the largest exporter of the crop. At its peak, the China market represented 60% of all U.S. soybean exports. But exports of U.S. soybeans and soybean products to China are down by half – and for now, likely to stay at that level, given that China announced they have suspended purchases of all U.S. agricultural products.

China still needs soybeans to feed its expanding demand for animal protein, so they turned to the other major supplier in world markets – Brazil. A surge in demand adds incentive to expand production, and Brazil has faced increasing concern from the environmental community for its renewed efforts to clear more land for crop production. In fact, President Bolsonaro has encouraged deforestation – an unintended consequence of soybean tariffs from the U.S. and China. At the same time, the shift in global trade flows means a shift in transportation and logistical costs, complicating the pricing process still more.

To muddy the waters still more, Chinese pork production has taken a significant hit due to the emergence of African swine fever. The African swine fever has thus far reduced their pork production by about 21%  thus reducing the need for as many soybeans.

However, the need to manage imports carefully as an element of their trade strategy, this development has further clouded the outlook not only for Chinese demand for soybeans but for other basic crops and farm products, as well.

On an even higher level, the pricing process must consider macro-economic conditions and currency rates. The Chinese, for example, lowered the value of the yuan to its lowest level in more than a decade. This makes Chinese goods less expensive for foreign buyers, thus helping offset newly imposed import tariffs.

Meanwhile, back on the farm…

All this uncertainty has another important effect – on the farmer. Farm income has seen a steady decline in the past five years, with more and more people across agriculture warning of a real income crisis on our doorstep. USDA’s Market Facilitation program authorized $14.5 billion this year in direct payments for grain, oilseed and other farmers adversely affected by the trade dispute. This is on top of $12 billion authorized for assistance last year, of which about $8.5 billion was actually paid out, largely to soybean producers.

More and more farmers are willing to openly question what the future holds for them. It creates an additional layer of uncertainty that must be factored into the price decisions traders are forced to make every day. “What will farmers plant?” is no longer the primary question. Increasingly, more and more people across the agricultural sector ask, “Will they plant at all?”

Why should consumers care?

The average consumer never has to contemplate the dizzying array of factors that go into finding the price for the basic commodities on which our food system is built. After all, we all enjoy an incredible selection of food products, at a fraction of the cost when compared to the rest of the world.

USDA forecasts food price increases of 1-2% in 2019, driven largely by higher costs for dairy products, vegetables, and fresh fruit. Current grain and oilseed prices are expected to help hold the line on prices paid for poultry, beef and veal (rising an estimated 1-2%) while pork prices may actually decline a bit as soybeans and soybean products previously going into export channels overhang the market.

The Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (and the National Farmers Union) estimate that the farmer’s share of the food dollar continues to decline. In 2019, the farmer’s share is just 14.6 cents, down 17% from 2011 and at the lowest level since such analysis began.

All that is the good news.

But the more important consideration may be the long-term implications – the effect of uncertainty and potential price volatility that can be created by factors far more complex than crop size. Take a look at the 2008 global economic crisis as an example. We saw commodity prices rise when supply and demand tightened. Food prices spiked that year by 6.4%, followed by another increase in 2011-12 of more than 5%, following drought and various environmental problems in key production areas. We’re always one weather calamity, or one political dispute, or one economic crisis from a completely changed price picture.

Can I Get Sick from Animals Fed GMOs?


Many believe that consuming animals fed GMOs will adversely affect our health. For instance, we may think our DNA changes or immune systems weaken when we eat dairy or meat from animals eating GMO feed. These misconceptions create conclusions like “GMO feed must be harmful to both humans and animals alike.” But fear not because, as science shows us, these conclusions are not possible.

Scare Tactics Manipulate Consumers

Some organizations and major consumer product companies are spearheading fear-based marketing tactics that cause concern about GMO-fed meat, poultry, and dairy we put into our grocery carts.

  • A coalition called Green America asks companies like Chobani to stop using GMO feed for their dairy cows, as it is not ‘real’ and ‘natural’. Tell Chobani to shift to non-GMO feed for their cows, to help accelerate the shift to a non-GMO food system! We and the cows thank you.

  • Given their stance on genetic engineering, it is no surprise that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream doesn’t contain milk from cows fed with GMOs.

  • The Institute of Responsible Technology, an anti-GMO blog, posted about a woman who fell down on the floor, terribly sick immediately after eating pork that was fed genetically-modified corn.

Messages like these only gives room for more confusion. We have written about how GMOs are proven safe for humans; however consumer concerns span beyond just choosing to eat GMO or non-GMO foods.

Animal Research into GMO Feed

There is a tremendous amount of animal research that looks specifically at animals fed genetically modified foods, like corn or soybeans. Conclusions illustrate that it is not possible to find any of the genetically modified proteins in the animals’ meat. The beef, pork, poultry, or dairy is not statistically different between animals fed GMO feed and those who have not. Furthermore, the animals and poultry reproduce and mature in exactly the same manner, regardless of whether there are GMO crops in their feed or not.

Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam of the University of California, Davis published the results of her study on animal health in the Journal of Animal Science, August 2017. Dr. Van Eenennaam led a study that examined 29 years of livestock productivity and health before and after the introduction of genetically modified crops. This was a study that looked at trillions of pounds of GM feed and over 100 billion animals. This was no easy feat! Her team concluded the following:

“DNA from GE crops is chemically equivalent to DNA from non-GE crops and both are broken down the same way during digestion.…. there is no evidence suggesting DNA or rDNA transfer from plants to animals.”

When looking at the actual meat, milk and eggs from animals and poultry fed genetically modified feed the study found that…

“Neither recombinant DNA (rDNA) nor protein from GE feed crops are reliably detected in the milk, meat and eggs from livestock that have been fed GE feed.”

Another study from University of Nottingham and AgroParisTech also proved that the meat from animals fed non-GMO grain vs. animals fed GMO grain is genetically identical. Researchers performed substantial equivalent experiments on the effect of diets on GM corn, potato, soybeans, rice, or wheat on animal health.

These tests look at all the metabolites, like amino acids and lactic acids, that are produced by a GMO-fed animal and compared it to its non-GMO fed counterpart. What scientists have found is that GMO- and non-GMO-fed meat are identical. They determined that the GMO corn is “substantially equivalent” to non-GMO corn in order to ensure that it is not present in the animal after it has eaten and digested the crop.

Marketing Misrepresentation

Don’t fall for the food fear misrepresentation. For companies to claim their food is healthier or safer because their animals do not eat GMO feed is not only scientifically untrue, it perpetuates consumer confusion and fear. Each year, millions of animals are grown on GMO feed – none of them have documented evidence that they have had ill health due to GMOs. What we do have is researched evidence that meat is identical from GMO vs non-GMO-fed animals.

Finally, let’s look at this practically. Your meat and eggs are cooked and your milk is pasteurized. The GMO proteins in the animal feed become inactive after heating. If, by chance, there are any small GMO proteins left, they are attacked by the animal’s digestive enzymes. They are then converted into amino acids, where it can either be used to build its own proteins, for energy, or break down and exit the body. By the time you eat the meat or dairy, all of these scenarios would never adversely affect your body, digestive process, or even change your own genes. 

Manuka Honey: Life Changer or Money Waster?

I don’t know about you, but I am always a sucker for the latest superfood, cure-all, next-best-thing! I love to try products out for myself, but always wonder if it will actually work. And can I do any harm in the process of my personal exploration?

What’s the 411 on Manuka Honey?

Manuka honey, different from regular honey, is being hailed as liquid gold because of the supposed healing and antimicrobial powers of this superfood. The emergence of Manuka popularity comes on the heels of new superbug discoveries claiming that antibiotic-resistant pathogens can be treated with Manuka honey. The medical field has started dealing with these pathogens in alternative ways, thus Manuka honey’s gain in recent popularity due to its ability to slow down or prevent bacterial growth.

However, what comes from a spark? A fire. And the claims of Manuka honey began to spread. Instead of an accurate portrayal of an alternative antimicrobial substance that is under scientific investigation, thanks to social media, we have gone from zero to a hundred in less than 5 seconds.

What are the supposed health claims?

Manuka honey has carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, and phenolic and flavonoid compounds. However, what makes Manuka particularly unique are three special ingredients: methylglyoxal, dihydroxyacetone, and leptosperin. MGO is said to fight off several bacteria-related infections. Dihydroxyacetone, a precursor chemical of MGO, is found in the nectar. Leptosperin is a natural chemical from manuka nectar that makes the product shelf-stable. When these ingredients work together, they enable this particular honey to potentially fight off several bacteria-related infections.

The combination of these ingredients is touted to reduce allergies, boost immune function, enhance skin, improve sleep, combat staph infections, reduce IBS, prevent tooth and gum decay, treat infected wounds, burns and ulcers. Sounds like another Celery Juice cure-all!

Is there a scientific foundation for these claims?

To be frank, scientific studies do not exist to support every health claim out there. Investigations into some of the supposed benefits are in the works, but here is what we found on its efficacy…

Evidence for treating all these ailments remains largely anecdotal. However, a few small studies have concluded that Manuka honey can aid in treating gingivitis. By chewing what they refer to as “Manuka honey leather”, plaque was reduced, and ultimately was proven to be a positive treatment for oral health.

The most compelling studies show that Manuka honey can help to inhibit or stop the growth of certain topical bacteria – especially compared to other types of honey. This study showed that when Manuka is used in wound protection, it elicits antibacterial results. Continued study is critical as chronic wounds resistant to antibiotics are a global health issue around the world.

For instance, a friend of mine had a terrible bacteria infection on her face and antibiotic cream didn’t work. She tried Manuka honey – and it disappeared with a week. However, it has been determined that replications to these clinical studies are needed before claims like this can be truly confirmed.

Ultimately, there is little evidence to support the purported benefits. However, it is safe to consume, can be a natural and safe topical antibiotic, and there is likely little harm in trying it. Western medicine often refers to it as a ‘worthless but harmless substance‘. Unless you have a bee allergy, of course – then take caution!

So what exactly is Manuka Honey?

Manuka honey comes from the manuka bush, which is indigenous to New Zealand and Australia. Some argue that only the “real” manuka comes from New Zealand. In fact, the two countries are actually in a dispute for the trademark over the health product.

The honey itself comes from the flower nectar on the manuka bush. But both the nectar and the bees together are what give manuka its unique properties. It is thicker in texture than other types of honey. It tastes less sweet, though it can still be used in drinks, as a spread, and for baking.

The UMF Honey Association developed the term UMF, or Unique Manuka Factor, that grades the honey as to whether it meets the UMF Honey Association standards. The ideal score is between 10 and 18, and is based on certain chemical markers unique to the manuka plant. However, more research needs to be done to determine whether this rating has any significance. Brands that use the rating system include Manukora, Comvita, and Happy Valley.


Where can I buy Manuka Honey?

It’s widely available now – even at Walgreens and CVS. In fact, I just bought some at Whole Foods to see if it’ll help my mosquito bites heal. While I could not determine if it was time or the honey that helped heal the bites, it was worth a shot on such a mild affliction.

With its uses spanning from topical application, to cooking, and now in the healthcare spectrum, Manuka is a well-known product to specialty grocery store shelves, as well as many eCommerce sites. It comes in its raw form, in a supplement, and in a variety of products where Manuka honey is the primary or active ingredient. This includes beauty products, throat lozenges, face washes, hair masks and acne treatments.

How can I be sure it’s the real stuff?

For starters, don’t forget that Manuka is currently only made in Australia and New Zealand, so if a label says any other origin, it is likely not real Manuka. Another thing to note is that many labels state that their honey is “natural” or “organic”. These two labels do not mean that the honey is Manuka; you must look for the word “Manuka” in the ingredients list. Another good sign is the cost: Manuka is currently averaging about $30 a jar, or between $50 and $150 for supplements, so if the price you see is less than this average cost, be sure to confirm.