Real Talk: theSkimm on GMOs

Several months ago, a friend introduced me to theSkimm. It’s quickly become one of my favorite daily e-mails; a quick roundup of the day’s happenings, plus a few fun pop culture stories. It’s especially great for me because I have become pretty lax about reading the news — if it isn’t Roll Call or Politico’s Morning Ag, I might not get around to reading it.

This morning, I was dismayed to open today’s Skimm and see the following near the bottom of the e-mail.

Thing To Know -- This is not accurate information

Thing To Know — This is not accurate information

This was extremely upsetting for me to see. As a Millennial with a background in agriculture — and one who still works to promote the industry as my career — this sort of misinformation is seen all too often in the argument against GMOs. I’ve had lots of conversations with both family and strangers (both can get pretty heated) about the safety and benefits of GMOs, and why they’re beneficial for consumers.

My friend Michelle — also a Skimm’r — wrote in to the editorial staff about this issue. With her permission, I’m posting her letter below.

Dear Skimm,

I recently signed up for your email and have been a huge fan thus far. I liked your Facebook page after watching your cable tv interview and have encouraged my girlfriends and husband to sign up. I was very upset to see your ‘thing to know’ article today. It makes me question if your newsletter is truly an unbiased publication.

I am writing in because I believe that creating doubt as to whether or not GMOs are safe for the average consumer by providing false information is hurting consumers, the environment, farmers, and the people living in poverty. Hundreds of studies have been conducted to test whether GMOs are safe. To date, not a single study indicates that GMOs cause new allergies or cancers, infertility, ADHD, or any other diseases. The article linked to in your newsletter brings up the Seralini study. Seralini was a French scientist that published a paper stating that GMOs are unsafe. Since then, the international science community has showed that he manipulated data to get those results and the findings cannot be replicated. His PhD has actually been revoked, which is pretty much unprecedented.

Now to the benefits- a report came out this week from the The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. The paper was dedicated to Norman Bourlog who was a founder of the organization, a Nobel Peace Laureate, and his advances with wheat (which there is no GMO variety to date) is credited with saving more lives in human history than anyone else. Here are a few of the highlights-

• Millions of risk-averse farmers, both large and small, world-wide, have determined that the returns from planting biotech crops are high, hence repeat planting is virtually 100%
• Good returns on their investment is the critical test applied by demanding farmers when judging the performance of any technology
• 18 million farmers benefit from biotech crops – 90% were small resource-poor farmers.
• On average GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%,increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%.

I believe that everyone should have the choice to decide what they are eating and they need the facts to make those decisions. In your newsletter you say “you know those strawberries that are freakishly red and big in February? GMOs” There are no genetically modified strawberries anywhere in the world. Currently there are eight genetically modified species that are legal to grow in the United States: corn (field and sweet), soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya, and squash. Potatoes will be on that list soon.

Also, while plant breeding is incredibly advanced and impressive, mother nature still holds the trump card. No amount of technological advances can help plants that are adapted for warm weather grow in the winter. Mostly likely, those winter strawberries come from Florida, California, Mexico, or South America. According to Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Plant City, Florida, is the winter strawberry capital of the nation. They produce more than 15% of the strawberries purchased in U.S. grocery stores every winter.

I would encourage you to send your readers to sites that provide peer reviewed research and facts on GMOs. GMOanswers is an informative resource. It’s fact sheets – like this one from Ohio State University provide a great introduction.

The technology is complicated, confusing, and potentially scary. And I don’t think that scientists should get a free pass, but decades of research have proven that GMOs are safe, they let us grow more food on less land, we use less chemicals, which lowers food prices and could even provide more nutritious food (check out Golden Rice).

Please consider the benefits of GMOs when you publish future newsletters.

Thank you,

Digging even deeper: lately, I’ve become a huge fan of Dr. Kevin Folta, chairman of the Horticulture Sciences department at the University of Florida (I’ll forgive him that one tiny sin…). I began to read his blog and follow him on Twitter, and after meeting him and hearing him speak in person, that fandom is firmly cemented.

In an interview done with a science and food website, he was asked about genetically modifying a strawberry. (And here is where I hope theSkimm takes note). His answer was:

Can you make GMO strawberries?

Yes we can, and we do. They are created in the lab for research purposes ONLY. If we add or take out a strawberry gene in strawberry, we can understand what it does and how it affects traits we care about. Then once we’ve linked a gene to a process, we can then use traditional non-GMO methods to breed that gene into elite lines. In the lab, we also use a very different strawberry (Fragaria vesca) a simpler cousin to the commercial strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa). Even if we had a transgenic plant that could solve a problem or make money for farmers we could never afford the time and money it would take to approve it. Right now such plants are only tools to understand biology better.

If you’re interested in learning more about his work or plant biology in general, he did an AMA on Reddit last summer!

Other agriculural Skimmr’s have taken notice. Katie Pinke has a great post on her blog that I encourage y’all to check out — Strawberries Are Not GMO, and How theSkimm Got It Wrong.

Articles like today’s Skimm newsletter only help make the water even more murky. The issue of GMOs is a touchy one that inspires a lot of passion from anti-GMO activists, and it’s easy to lose sight of the science in the face of harsh rhetoric. Hopefully, both theSkimm’s editorial staff and their readers will learn from this!


Road Trip: Pork producers pay it forward

As everyone knows (as has been mentioned here), Hurricane Sandy was devastating for the East Coast. Here in DC, we escaped the brunt of the damage — a few trees and power poles fell, but we were fine. Our neighbors to the north in New Jersey and New York, however, weren’t so lucky.

This past weekend, I, along with a few coworkers and pork producers from across the country joined the National Pork Board‘s Pork Trailer in Brick, New Jersey.

Through donations from Smithfield, Hatfield, and Johnsonville, we cooked and served approximately 5,000 servings of pork loins and pork sandwiches to those people affected by the storm on the Jersey Shore.

Meghan (@CityGirl4Ag) and I, ready to go!

It was a really fantastic experience. We had producers come from South Dakota, Indiana, New York, and Pennsylvania to cook and serve!

James and Sam seasoning pork loins

Meghan working that grill like a pro 😀

Friday, I helped prepare bratwurst sandwiches (which were delicious, by the way, and I’m not usually a fan!) inside the trailer. But on Saturday and Sunday, I honed my knife skills and spent the day slicing piping-hot pork loins.

Fresh from the grill. My fingers were only slightly burnt at the end…

Not my most attractive angle, but check out that knife!

The outpouring of love from the community was overwhelming. Hearing the stories of loss really emphasized just how blessed I am. My worries are trivial compared to those who have lost everything. I didn’t get out to the shore to see the brunt of the devastation, but the Brick Patch has some before and after photos. You can find them here.

Another great picture — these pork sandwiches went out to the National Guard and first responders.

We met some awesome people as part of Operation Barbecue Relief!

It was great meeting so many people from Brick. Before this trip, my only experience with New Jersey was the Newark Airport (enough said). But the people were so friendly and welcoming, and I hope I can get back someday!

Angels with coffee.

And of COURSE, how could I forget our great helpers? Throughout the weekend, it was awesome having some of the local kids help out at the Pork Trailer. Anthony, Christian, and Kyle, you three were so great! I had a fantastic time, and I’m happy to have met you. Wear your pork swag with pride! 😉

With Christian and Kyle — these guys were great!

If you want to get involved, there are a ton of places looking for different things. You can donate blood, donate money, send food and/or clothing — or you can even head up there and volunteer your time.

FEMA has a great list of ways you can get involved. Remember to check the legitimacy of each organization before donating — it’s sad, but shady organizations use natural disasters like this to scam people from their money. 😦

I hope you’ll get involved! After this weekend, I’m going to make a concerted effort to donate more of my time to help those less fortunate than myself. It was a great reminder of how thankful I am for my life — and right before Thanksgiving to boot!

Promoting Tennessee beef — it’s in the family!

By now, my love of Ole Miss football is well documented. In fact, I even had the opportunity to attend my first game since the 2008 season last weekend — but more on that later.

But I haven’t always been a Rebel girl. In fact, I grew up bleeding orange.

Tennessee orange.

You’ll never see another 21 year-old get so excited about meeting a mascot

Don’t get me wrong — I still love the Vols, and I happily cheer them on to victory… just as long as they aren’t playing the Rebels. Sorry, Tennessee friends, but then my heart beats for Dixie.

ANYWAY. Let’s move on to an entirely unrelated subject (that I promise will return full circle).

As has also been proven, I’m a passion agvocate. I grew up on a farm, and I love to help promote animal agriculture in every way that I can. But did you know that I come by this passion naturally?

Bet you can’t guess which one I’m related to… and no, it’s not Governor Haslam.

My mom, Jennifer Houston, is currently the chairwoman of the Tennessee Beef Industry Council. She’s been active in agriculture leadership since before I was born — and honestly, they don’t call her The General for nothing (sorry Mom, couldn’t resist). In addition to serving in leadership capacities with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, she’s a very active promoter of Tennessee beef on the state and local levels.

How does this go full circle to Tennessee football?

Well, y’all didn’t think the embarrassment of a family member was limited to little brothers, did you?

Tomorrow is Beef Day at the University of Tennessee football game! The Tennessee Beef Industry Council will be at the game, providing free samples and promoting beef — which is awesome! And, just like last year, Mom will join Bob Kesling and company on the Kickoff Call-In Show!

Last year’s Beef Day

If you’re going to the game, you can see the action at Gate 21 of Neyland Stadium — she’ll be on at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time. If you’re listening via radio or Internet, you can find her on the Vol Radio Network.

Awesome, isn’t it?

Single in the City: Let’s Eat!

A few months ago, I saw a tweet about a study. Granted, I follow several Hill newspapers who are always tweeting about studies and polling numbers, but this was different. This study, conducted by and, was about dating and eating habits.

I thought it was very interesting that they found thirty-percent of respondents said they would not date a vegetarian/vegan.

Then again, I’m not sure why I found that interesting. I know that being a vegetarian/vegan would be a dealbreaker for me.


Why won’t I date a vegetarian/vegan? Let’s break down my points.

♥ I grew up on a farm. We raise beef cattle. It’s so much a part of who I am today. Choosing to forsake meat and other animal products is completely alien to me.

♥ Like the story says (link below), sharing meals is a communal thing. It’s a way of bonding – humans have been bonding over food for thousands of years. Part of what makes the bonding experience so fun is enjoying your food with someone else. I fully admit, I’m guilty on more than one occasion (of course, so are most of my dining partners) of stealing a tasty morsel off someone else’s plate.

♥ I have never met a vegan who was not preachy about their diet. This one doesn’t really apply to vegetarians; I know several very nice vegetarians who couldn’t care less that I enjoy a medium rare steak. But the (few) vegans I have encountered acted like I was somewhere between Joseph Stalin and Nero on the morality scale because of my dietary habits.

♥ I like meat. Sorry I’m not sorry.

You can read the story in its entirety here. I think it’s amazing that less than five percent of the U.S. population is vegetarian or vegan, but they’re so vocal you would think there are more of them.

But that’s okay. More bacon for me!

Would you date a vegetarian or vegan? Or, consequently, if you are a vegetarian or vegan, would you date a meat-lover? Or do dietary choices play no factor in who you date?

Celebrating 50 years!

It’s no secret that I’m a proud rural girl. I grew up in an agricultural family, was invovled in agricultural activities, and I currently work to promote animal agriculture in Washington D.C.

But I’m also the daughter of small business owners. And that’s what I want to talk about today.

Our family business

My family owns East Tennessee Livestock Center in Sweetwater, Tennessee. For those unfamiliar with livestock auction markets, we serve as intermediaries between buyers and sellers. To put it in economic terms (or as economic as I get, which isn’t very), we offer a competitive marketplace for sellers to get the highest price possible for their commodities — in this case, live animals. Specifically cattle, though we have a few goats and sheep pass through each week. I also remember seeing a buffalo and an emu come through, but those are few and far between.

The market was founded in 1962 by my grandfather, Joseph Houston, and his four business partners. Over time, he bought out his partners until our family was the sole owners of ETLC. My grandmother worked in the front office, and by the time my Daddy joined the market after college, the business was 100-percent family owned.

Granddaddy Joe -- founder of East Tennessee Livestock Center

Today, my Daddy is the head of the business with my mother working as his business partner and office manager. And on Wednesday, East Tennessee Livestock Center will celebrate 50 years as the Southeast’s strongest and most innovative livestock auction market.

Yes, I know that sounds hyperbolic, and I know that I’m just the teensiest bit biased. But it’s really true. We were the first market in Tennesee to:

• Hold graded feeder calf sales

• Hold graded Holstein steer sales (a much-needed niche in a strong dairy part of the country)

• Hold video sales of cattle lots

In addition, we were the first livestock auction market east of the Mississippi River to hold electronic ID sales.

It hasn’t been easy. In 1987, my grandmother was shot and killed in an armed robbery attempt. We lost my grandfather — founder of our business — last year. And anyone working in agriculture knows how live prices fluctuate depending on market conditions. After the lone case of BSE was found in 2003, prices dropped and suffered for quite a while. Up until the whole snafu with LFTB earlier this year, prices were wonderfully high.

But despite personal tragedy, market setbacks, and competitors moving in and trying to woo away our customers through whatever means necessary, East Tennessee Livestock is still the most trusted livestock auction market in Tennessee.

Having moved away to the big city, I think I’ve developed a new appreciation for the work my parents do. As a child, no one really appreciates their parents — a sad notion, yes, but I think it’s true. You take them for granted. And I’ve definitely taken mine for granted. But living in Washington has reemphasized my rural (and, dare I say, Southern) sensibilities. While there are a lot of things I like about life in the city (Thai food, public transportation, walkability), it’s just not the same as home.

The Houston family

But on the same side of things, it’s amazing to relearn how little experience the average urbanite has with agriculture. All I could really do was blink in shock when someone told me that all farmers tortured their animals — an outright lie if I’ve ever heard one.

While my parents will say that the amount of actual work I ever did at the market was very small, I think I gained a lot more out of my upbringing than mere work experience. Our family business is just that — ours. I’m very protective of it, of my parents, and our way of life.

So if you’re anywhere in southeast Tennessee on Wednesday, stop by and say hello. There’ll be a big anniversary celebration at the market, complete with a luncheon on the grounds and door prizes. I’m pretty sad I won’t be able to attend, but I’ll be there in spirit. There are a lot more that I could say about it, but I’ll just say this:

To my wonderful parents, thank you. You have no idea how much I admire and love you both. Congratulations on 50 years, and here’s to the next 50 being just as groundbreaking and wonderful!