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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Food for the Table…Food for Thought…

January sunsetBy the time I finish my morning domestic chores and check the inbox, it’s 8:20 a.m. One new message, key stroke conservative and short. I feel my face flush when I read: “How does 8:15 a.m. work for you at my house? Jim.” In a panic I shoot a reply: “Jim, if you receive my message and still have time, give me a call.” 8:15…I should have known that by then Jim Werkhoven would have already put in a half day’s work. I didn’t want to miss this interview. Catching any of the Werkhovens when there’s a lull in the action is almost impossible.

But there was one the other day. I had just made my turn at Sargent Road and was heading home when I heard a vehicle slowing behind and the next thing I know, there’s a red pickup at my elbow and a gruff “How you been, stranger?” from the driver “Any news for The Ripple?” I ask. “No, things have been pretty quiet.” I commend Jim for choosing renewable resources for his Christmas tree this year and recycling last year’s aluminum tree. He laughs, “Oh, that’s the renters.” Renters? It’s then I learn Jim hasn’t lived in the house since last fall. “Yeah, we bought the old Ray place, renovated it and moved in sometime before Thanksgiving.” This was news to me; The Ripple certainly dropped the ball on that story.

Jim had been sorting through priorities of where his energies would be best spent the rest of the day but decided to stop for a chat instead. I’m curious about this year’s silage crop. Jim tells me it was better than expected given the short growing season. Our conversation wanders from there through the farming industry until I stumble upon a topic that strikes a nerve. “You know,” Jim shook his head, “People need to know where their food comes from.”

That’s why I’m now rushing around the house trying to find my misplaced socks. I want to hear what Jim has to say about all that goes into bringing that tall glass of milk to the table to bathe our Oreos in. The phone rings. Jim on the other end. “Come on down,…second house on the left on the dead end road.”

I’m on the back porch of the second house on the left on the dead end road. I can see Jim wandering around inside, phone to his ear (if you know Jim, that configuration is a familiar one). A couple of raps and I’m admitted. Jim quickly finishes his networking. The phone slides back into his pocket and I’m given a brief tour of the new spread which ends in the parlor where I’m motioned to an easy chair and handed a cup of coffee.

We exchange small talk for a while before I remind Jim of why I’m here. That topic that came up the other day alongside the road? Jim smiles and I think I’m about to shadow my glass of milk all the way from that big hay truck hauling Basin hay as it compression brakes (in  front of the house… in the dark…while people are trying to sleep…) on its way to the feed lot at the Werkhoven Dairy to my table where that dry Oreo awaits. But first, it’s down to Northern California and another topic. The Werkhovens visited relatives there over the weekend and one subject that came up during the family banter was genetic engineering (GE): the relatives opposed it, Jim, the farmer, was—is—a strong advocate of applying the latest genetic research to food production.

“We need this science if we’re going to be able to feed the world’s exploding population,” Jim exclaimed, stating he believes some of the current geopolitical unrest stems from not enough food to go around, either because of plain scarcity or prohibitive high costs. “So why are these folks so set against GE? I asked. “I don’t know”Jim replied, “I guess they object to fish genes spliced into other food sources or something….” I told him that could quickly be remedied by serving a few lemon slices with dinner. Jim laughs and then asks me if I know what a rutabaga is? “Sure do, it’s a turnip with a skin condition,” I say. “Do you know where it comes from?” Another easy question; you find them rubbing elbows with turnips and parsnips in the grocery store, the produce section. No… a rutabaga, I’m surprised to learn, shares the genes of a turnip and a cabbage, a genetic cross between two different species.

“Is any genetically modified plant or animal a hybrid, then?” I asked. Jim said it was. If this is the case, nature has been tweaking its biological genome since the first amoeba split in two. The 19th century pea pickin’ friar Gregor Mendel took time from his monastic offices to observe certain characteristics of the peas in his pea patches. His studies gave science the underpinnings for our modern genetics.

Interspecific (the sharing of traits between species) hybridization occurs regularly in the backyard garden. Why else would my environmentally-sensitive friend Nancy L stop by in early summer with her bucket, paintbrush and clippers to snip a few manly blossoms from my zucchini plants and transport them to her lady zucchinis that yearn for some male companionship? In fact if you want to play at Gregor Mendel in your own garden, you needn’t limit your studies to peas. Just plant a row of sweet corn next to a row of Indian corn and you’re in for a colorful surprise when you husk that ear of Golden Jubilee. Or plant your squash, gourds, and pumpkins together in the same corner of the garden, save the seeds, and see what curiosities crop up next summer. In my dahlia garden last season one flower in a hill of salmon-colored blossoms presented as half pink, half peach. There’s a variety of red delicious apple named after my sister, its discoverer, who in her teenage years was paid by the hour to walk through the orchard row by row and look for apples that had a deeper color than others on the tree—thus the patented “Claudia” red delicious variety. One of North America’s most beautiful butterflies, the red-spotted purple (Basilarchia  astyanax), hybridizes with the White Admiral (Basilarchia arthemis) where their two ranges coincide. And so while we plod through our daily routines, Mother Nature, journeyman genetic engineer, in the characteristic way of all women, quietly goes about rearranging her genome, never quite satisfied to leave things just as they are.

Hybridization occurs most frequently between species and subspecies and is rarely found in nature interfamily and never between orders, and it is this fact that gives rise to the criticism of GE. Man, through his science, needs to, as critics would have it, “meddle” in the genetic affairs of plants and animals to achieve whatever kinds of hybridization he desires. In an earlier post (“The Valley of Spiders,” 9/25/11) I mentioned recent experiments with mammal cell culture (cows) and genetic material from spiders (that’s transferring genetic matter from one taxonomic class to another, by the way) to produce thread five times stronger than steel. Just as Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein experimented with the “stuff of life,” to give birth to a monster, critics of GE fear monstrous things will happen to us humans if Man persists on tinkering with plant and animal genetics, fussing with the essence of life itself. “We need to butt out of Nature’s business and leave her alone,” they say. “Stop treading on her painted toenails!”

Jim Werkhoven, I’m sure, would counter with this argument: if science and other technologies have been employed to increase longevity and decrease infant mortality worldwide, both of which contribute to the earth’s rapidly expanding population, why not apply GE to increase food production and bolster the world’s food supply to meet population demand? Now we’re caught up in Dr. Frankenstein’s dilemma—we have a moral obligation to use science to feed what our science has helped create. The critics of GE fear what we all fear, the unknown, and fact of the matter surrounding GE is that our technology, as in pharmacopoeia, has outpaced cause and effect. And in our recent past there is certainly precedent for consequences when Man attempted to manipulate the natural world. Remember DDT? Note, too, it was through biologists’ hybridizing that the “Africanized” honeybee (Apis m. scutella) became the scourge it is.This bellicose strain is not only a threat to humans and livestock, but also to beekeepers because of genetic transfer to less aggressive strains of Apis mellifera queens they purchase from southern states.

Let me remind those stubbornly opposed to GE that the mule, a beast of burden and work (remember “40 acres and a mule?”), very much a part of our pioneer heritage, and still used by the U.S. Army today for transporting supplies through the rugged terrain of Afghanistan, came about through human matchmaking between a donkey and a horse. The critics of GE need to accept change—or raise food for their own consumption—and  good luck sorting through seed catalogs to find non-hybrid stock. One well-documented website The Ripple consulted,, states that the United States leads the world in acreage devoted to GE crops: 68% and further states that 70% of processed foods in our supermarkets contain ingredients derived from GE. Those who really fear GE foods can avoid this risky lifestyle by purchasing only “certified organic” foods which “purport” to exclude anything GE.

Organic foods? Just one of the many other topics that came up during my conversation with Jim, each in itself worthy of a post. My coffee cup was empty, and as I stood to leave, I realized I didn’t know much more about the dairy business than I did when Jim handed me that steaming cup of coffee an hour and a half ago. “I didn’t find out much about that glass of milk, did I?” I chuckled. “A rather random conversation, wasn’t it!” Jim laughed, “Random is pretty much the way I operate.” So for the time being anyway, those Oreos will remain dry, still waiting patiently for that tall glass of milk.

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