Friday, March 2, 2012

Dark Days Challenge-Comfort Food, Greenwashing and GMO's

My Dark days meal for this week is not exactly glamorous, but it was the end of February, and it's been a gray, bleak winter even without the cold and snow we normally have. I was in the mood for some comfort food and what's more comforting than Shepherd's pie?

I started by browning some lovely grass fed ground beef from the nearby Niagara region, added some chopped onion and garlic (both local), and frozen yellow peppers (from last fall). I had planned on adding some of the corn I also froze last fall but I completely forgot to include it, and didn't even notice until I started writing this post so I guess we didn't miss it! For the topping, I made some mashed potatoes (Ontario) with leftover whey - I still have over 3 litres of the stuff and am running out of things to use it in. This is a by product of home cheesemaking that hadn't occurred to me.

I layered the meat veggies and potatoes in a baking dish and topped it with some of the mozzarella cheese I made recently. As I was about to pop it in the oven to bake the Chef roommate asked if I wanted to add some crushed potato chips as a topping and I agreed without thinking. Only after I stuck it in the oven did it occur to me that the chips aren't really SOLE.

Or are they? This particular bag of chips was made by Lay's and like many large corporations, Frito- Lay is attempting to reach out to the local food market. Recently I've seen a number of tv ads for Lays promoting local potato farmers. So I went to their website and there I learned that I could use the product number on the bag to find out more about where this bag of chips came from. It seems our chips were made in the plant in Cambridge, about an hour from here. From that I was give a list of 3 potential potato farms which may have grown the chips: two were near Alliston,just north of Toronto and in the area of the proposed megaquarry), and one was Brant county (near Brantford, about an hour south west). Lays wouldn't tell me which variety of potato they use, only that it's specifically grown for them and it's a starch potato that does well in Ontario. So far so good on the local aspect!

But what about the other ingredients? According to the ingredient list of these chips (plain, wavy cut), they contain only potatoes, vegetable oil and salt. That didn't sound too bad but still rather vague so I called the customer info line to see what else I could find out. According to the website, the oil used for frying the potatoes into the lovely crispy chips is 100% sunflower oil but when speaking with the customer service rep, it seems they also use canola oil occasionally and she couldn't tell me which, nor where it was made, only that they purchase Canadian when possible but also use products from the US. Her answer was similar for salt which is abundantly mined both here in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada so I can live with that.

In the case of canola oil, it would seem likely that it's a Canadian source since we grow most of the canola in North America. However that's not exactly reassuring since most of the canola we grow is GMO. From the Canola Council of Canada Website:

Canola was developed using traditional plant breeding techniques, so it was not developed using biotechnology. However, about 80% of the canola grown in Canada has now been modified using biotechnology to make it tolerant to some herbicides. Using these specific herbicides has reduced the amount of chemical needed for weed control in the fields.

Remember - the canola plant has been modified, not the oil. So canola oil from the herbicide tolerant plant is exactly the same safe and healthy oil as canola oil from conventional plants. The modification has been made to only one canola gene and it is a protein. Processing removes all proteins from canola oil. That means canola oil made from GM seed is conventional canola oil.

I'm certain that is meant to be reassuring but frankly it raise more questions than it answers for me, especially since I recently went to see SEEDS, a wonderful documentary theatre piece currently running in Toronto until March 10. SEEDS takes on the case of Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian farmer who was sued by Monsanto over suspected patent theft when his fields were found to contain GMO modified canola. Monsanto's canola seed contains a gene that makes the plants immune to Round Up weed killer, another Monsanto product; Percy claimed it got into his fields unintentionally. If like me, you were already familiar with this story, you will be mesmerized by the use of actual court transcripts as well as verbatim conversation with the various experts involved. You may also be surprised by some of the information that didn't make the news and the play does an excellent job of offering a balanced look at both the science and the personalities involved, without offering an definitive opinion of who was in the right (don't worry, I still think Monsanto is the devil!) If you are in Toronto you should check it out for yourself at the Young Centre for Performing Arts (in the Distillary District)- for more info and to buy tickets go here To make it even better, Joel and Dana of Well Preserved have arranged for a 25% discount on tickets by using the code "Food" !

But back to the chips- the information on sunflower oil is less readily available. I was able to find out that the majority of sunflower crops in Canada are grown for 'confectionary" (eaten as a snack food I guess) or for birdseed. Which means the sunflower oil used at Lay's likely came from the US so not very local, but also not GMO, at least not yet!

So where does that leave my chip crumbs on the SOLE scale? Well they may or may not qualify as Local, I have my doubts about Sustainable at least in terms of manufacturing, Organic is not even a question and Ethically, who knows?

So I guess I still won't be buying Lays- but they sure tasted good...

Tomorrow in Toronto there's a Seedy Saturday, the first of 5!! Seedy Events in the GTA. I'll be manning the FoodShare table at Scadding Court Rec Centre, (707 Dundas St w at Bathurst) from 12 - 5 pm - come say hi!


  1. Have fun at the Seedy Saturday! I went to my first one this year - it was great :)

    As much as I do not like Monsanto, I have no issues with the technology behind GMOs. I haven't seen one reliable bit of information proving GMOs are worse for us or the environment than traditionally bred crops. Of course, certain traits (like herbicide resistance) are not ones I agree with, but the technology itself is not, IMO, inherently dangerous.

  2. I'm not so sure. Many scientists believe that we don't have a complete grasp on how DNA really works and I'm not comfortable being a guinea pig. The quote I posted sums up my worst fears- the latter part of the comment where it defends the use of substituting a foreign gene by suggesting that a protein doesn't affect how the plant produces oil- that's ridiculous! No one knows exactly how each sequence of the protein code interacts and removing one small portion to substitute another may be creating or destroying things in ways we aren't yet capable of seeing. I'm not suggesting we should abandon gene splicing altogether; I believe it has the potential to be a valuable tool but I think we need a lot more research before we unleash things like oil from modified canola which is in damn near everything.

  3. On a completely non-serious note, I'd like to say that many people feel that technically, your dinner-of-choice is not a "shepherd's pie". Because it is made with beef, and not lamb, it is properly a "cottage pie". ;-)

  4. The Chef roommate corrected me on that as well- he also suggested that it shouldn't have had corn in it either! Lamb makes total sense of course but I grew up with Shepherd's pie made with minced beef. I'll have to remember to call it cottage pie from now on!