I met Rachel Patterson through Moon Books. From my perspective she came out of nowhere and set people’s imaginations on fire with her books on kitchen witchcraft. Her friendly accessible style has won her a lot of fans (me amongst them). Down to earth, can do, user friendly writing is something that I really value. For me, kitchen witchcraft is part of folk magic, part of the kind of thing quietly pagan people have always done. If high magic and very ceremonial rituals don’t call to you, then this probably will.
Nimue: Your sixth book comes out in June 2015. What was your first title and what prompted you to start writing books?
Rachel: I never had a desire to write books and it was not something on my to-do or bucket list, it all happened totally be accident. I saw a request on the Moon Books Facebook page asking for suggestions for their Pagan Portals series and as I run an online school based on Kitchen Witchcraft, I suggested that as the subject. The editor contacted me and said he liked the idea and asked if I would be interested in submitting a proposal. Eeek! I was totally petrified but as I had experience with writing lessons for the school and a few magazine articles I gave it a shot. Pagan Portals – Kitchen Witchcraftwas born and I am extremely happy to say that even two years later it continues to sell and be received very well. It was the start of an avalanche really.
Nimue: Is all of your magic / ritual about indoors spaces or do you leave the kitchen as well?
Rachel: I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, but that’s because I love to bake, cook and eat! But I also have a lovely little garden stuffed full of plants and herbs that I like to spend time in and I usually take a walk outside in my local area every day. We also hold regular open rituals in a local country park where we have the use of beautiful beech and yew tree groves. Nature is a huge part of my witchcraft.
Nimue: What makes Kitchen Witchcraft different from other approaches?
Rachel: When I first started on the witchcraft pathway a gazillion years ago the only structure of training at the time was Wicca, so that’s what I started to learn, but fairly early on in my training I struggled as it didn’t feel like quite the right fit for me personally. I went on to complete my Wiccan training but I also started to ‘get out there’ and be a part of rituals, moots and working alongside other Wtches, Pagans and Druids and I studied anything I could get my hands on from Druidry to Shamanic practices to Hoodoo. Along with my life-long love of cooking and food my journey as a Kitchen Witch began to make more sense to me. I started to use bits and pieces from one tradition and work them into my own and then take something from another pathway and fit that into my way of working as well. Kitchen Witchcraft is about using whatever is to hand, no fancy tools or specific rule book ways of doing things; I work with my intuition and instinct all of the time. I work a lot with herbs, plants and flowers and of course the magic of food is at the core. There is also a lot of Hedge Witchcraft in with it as well, foraging and walking between the worlds and Green Witchcraft for the natural items, recycling and eco-warrior add in a bit of folk magic and traditional witchcraft and there you have it.
Nimue: Who / what inspires you?
Rachel: Nature and life itself are my biggest inspirations but also people; some of our students come up with the most amazing insights.
Nimue: What would you most like to achieve through your writing and teaching?
Rachel: I feel extremely blessed that I am able to share my own experiences and knowledge that I have learnt along the way with others, but I do believe it is a two way thing; I learn from the feedback with my books and sharing with students. I don’t know everything, not by a long shot and I never will. Continuing to learn alongside others is all part of the journey. If I can help give one person clarity with something then that is an achievement I am more than happy with.
Nimue: What comes next for you?
Rachel: There is another Pagan Portals title with the publisher at the moment this time on Meditation and a new book that I am just starting to write about called The Art of Ritual, alongside new courses being run with Kitchen Witch and the day to day lessons life is always busy.
Crystal Blanton is a great many things, a High Priestess, a board member of the Solar Cross Temple, a clinical counselor, social worker, and a graduate worker in a social work program. Crystal writes and coordinates the Patheos blog, Daughters of Eve, is a writer for Sage Woman and a monthly columnist for The Wild Hunt.
Besides raising a multicultural family of four children with her husband, she has passion for social justice and is an advocate for expanding the common understanding of privilege, race relations, the use of restorative justice practices and cultural empathy; furthering constructive discussions that are often taboo and misunderstood in society. She is both a thinker and dedicated to creating that better society that we all claim to want. She was also kind enough to accept my request for an interview.
Christopher: What kind of background did you grow up in?
Crystal: I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and raised by a single mother who was self employed. Growing up 5 minutes away from Berkeley, I have always been around a lot of different types of people and different kinds of diversity.
Christopher: You describe yourself as a woman and a person of color. What does that mean to you? How does that affect you?
Crystal: The inter-sectional position of being a woman of color gives me a lot to contemplate about who I am in the world, and what success looks like. My mother raised me to be a strong black woman, despite the challenges and messages I might get from society saying that I am not strong enough, pretty enough, or presentable enough to fill the expectations that greater society might have. To be successful has always meant the ability to embrace who I am and what I am as a black woman. From there all things are possible.
So finding ways to grow within my understanding of where I stand as a marginalized person, and learning how to use the social and cultural capital I have in my intersecting communities has taught me how to be fierce within any environment. From writing books, to raising my children, to social work in the inner city, embracing the strength of who I am has been a life-long lesson.
Christopher: What drives you? How does that affect your choices in education and your career choice?
Crystal: Passion drives me. I have always felt a strong commitment to justice and equity work, and worked in clinical services before I became a part of the Pagan community. Being a part of a marginalized ethnic community has given me first hand knowledge of what it means to work within systems that are designed without a sense of equality for all people. It has always been important to me that everyone has a choice to thrive, and becoming a social worker was the best path I could work in to be a part of manifesting this change.
Christopher: How did you become Pagan and what path do you follow?
Crystal: I came to this path in 2002 when I was prompted to do some research after meeting someone who was also interested in the path. I joined my first coven in 2003, and have continued to work in covens since that time. I trained with several traditions and became initiated with Family Wiccan Tradition International, which is no longer around.
I am a very eclectic Witch and incorporate several different aspects of my culture and my spirituality together. For the most part I still work within a Wiccan framework but have expanded that in many ways to accommodate some of my ethnic culture and ancestral culture.
Christopher: You are a high priestess in your tradition. Do you have a coven?
Crystal: I do not run a coven but I am a part of a small local coven. I have chosen not to have a coven that was specifically under my leadership because I am putting my energy towards completing my graduate degree and my social justice work.
Crystal: Solar Cross Temple is a pan-magical temple that works with people from many different magical paths. The temple offers monthly devotionals, educational classes, outreach, interfaith and numerous social justice related projects. Some of our most recent justice projects have included contributing to the Pagans Against Racism website, facilitating justice programming at PantheaCon and collaborating with other organizations to support local actions.
Solar Cross is also kick-starting their new project called Turning the Wheel. Turning the Wheel is a project that will support collaboration and networking for young leaders and emerging leaders.
I have been a Board Member for Solar Cross since 2012, working alongside T. Thorn Coyle, Jason Thomas Pitzl, Jonathan Korman, Robert Russell and Elena Rose. I enjoy the work that we do as an organization and focusing a lot on using our magic, education and resources to fight for equity in our communities.
Christopher: How does all the above affect your chosen purpose and responsibility in the Pagan community?
Crystal: Being a part of the Solar Cross team just solidifies the intersection that exists between my spiritual and social work worlds. Priestessing often looks like social action for me, and this is an important marriage of principles that I embrace as a part of who I am today. I engage in activism within the Pagan community, as well as in larger society, as a commitment to justice and equity. One of the vows I made to Yemaya encompasses this work, and the fight for the protection of all her children.
Christopher: You often mention bringing up taboo and uncomfortable subjects in the Pagan community? Why are those subjects important? What must happen once the problems are identified?
Crystal: I often talk about topics around issues of race, privilege and other concerns of social justice. As a social worker, these topics are very normal conversation for me and yet they are not often the conversations that are comfortable to have in general society. We are taught not to talk about things that make us uncomfortable or that are challenging topics in public environments. Race, privilege and other justice related issues often fall into that categorization.
Yet these subjects are important in our society as a whole and within the Pagan community. In order for us to change some of the dynamics that traditionally keep marginalized people out of our circles, we have to be willing to delve into the issues that are existing around us.
So part of what I think is important for us all to do is to talk about these things, engage with one another on the challenging topics and find collective community minded solutions that support healing and growth.
Christopher: How do you explain something that your audience has no personal experience with? How do you get past ignorance denial, defensiveness to start working on the problem and encourage cooperation? Do you suggest possible solutions?
Crystal: All that I can do is tell my personal truth to others and share the information that I have from my studies and professional work. I do my best to be open and genuine in my communication, sharing in a way that allows people to hear and experience some of the true reflections of emotions. There is no way to make someone understand, I can only be present in the moment.
I do not also think it is my job to help someone get past the ignorance, denial or resistance. I think I get the option to engage with people who I feel are wanting to work towards understanding and true equity. If someone wants to live in their denial, it is not my obligation to change them. Instead I feel it is important to give resources, options and opportunities to those who are truly present in this struggle and want to learn and grow. I need that in my own process of growth and I find this is often a reciprocal process.
The best solution for addressing denial and resistance is education and engagement with others. Learning to understand topics of oppression is a responsibility that each of us has to own and learn about. Do the research, speak to those who do this work, talk to marginalized people and build meaningful relationships, be present and stay engaged. There is no crash course, it is about the willingness to learn and challenge one’s personal biases and conditioning.
Christopher: What are some of the uncomfortable subjects that you have written about and given workshops on? What about books you have written and anthologies that you have edited and co-edited?
Crystal: I have been on numerous panels at PantheaCon that discuss the topics of race, cultural appropriation, privilege and sacrifice. I have also done workshops at other festivals and conventions around cultural empathy, restorative justice and the use of cultural archetypes. These are all incredibly important topics within our community that I enjoy sharing.
Christopher: How can people learn more about what we have talked about?
Crystal: There are always great resources to read that can support people with a better understanding of any topic that they want to learn about. Some of the resources we are putting together currently include the Pagans Against Racism website. This site has a host of links and information about several of the topics I have mentioned. I also have a lot of information and resources listed in the archives for the 30 Day Real Black History Challenge that are currently on the Daughters of Eve blog, hosted by Patheos. This year the 30 Day Real Black History Challenge will have it’s own website and there will be a lot of upcoming announcements to stay tuned for.
For those of you who have not encountered Paul Mitchell, you could start by imagining what Billy Bragg would sound like if he took up Druidry. Well known on the U.K. Druid scene as both a solo performer and part of the folk-rock band Mad Magdalen, Paul is about as far from gentle, tinkly new age music as a person can get without needing amplification.
Nimue: When I saw you at the Druid Network conference in 2012, you commented that folk is as much a part of our heritage as Stonehenge. What is it about folk music you think Pagans should be paying attention to?
Paul: I experience our evolving folk tradition in a way that was well described by Chris Wood (an exceptional performer and writer). He described a sense, when singing a folk song or playing an old tune, of the ghosts of generations of performers standing behind him, checking that he was honouring the song or tune (rather than having the song or tune honour his performance). It is this honest connection with the past that is offered through our engagement with our folk traditions. It’s so very available to us all, be it through attending folk clubs or just checking out a few songs here and there. So if it is the heritage of your people and your land that you seek to explore, connect with and honour then our folk tradition offers a simple and fun way to do so.
Nimue: Ah, Chris Wood is a splendid chap. You perform a mix of your own stuff and other material, folk and otherwise. Whose work are you drawn to?
Paul: The roots of my stuff cover a lot of areas. However I think it’s important to mention Chris Gosling’s work. He was the first satirical pagan act I heard, and clearly was a master wordsmith. Well worth checking out if you get a chance to hear recordings of his material. In terms of folk music I like anything with passion in it. Mabon, for example, offer modern Celtic tunes. I’m a great fan of Martin Carthy. My musical tastes are wider than some might expect. For example, Damh the Bard expressed surprise to find me at a heavy rock festival a couple of years back. As a young man brought up on a rough council estate through the 70′s and 80′s I am also influenced by bands like The Clash and The Jam. It’s a heady mix that’s not to everyone’s taste. For example the only place I can get away with playing the Marilyn Manson CD’s is in the car on my own. I’m also a Capt. Beefheart fan, which takes some doing.
Nimue: With lines like “just what the world needs, another bloody druid” and “I’m a much better pagan when I am pissed”, that satirical theme is easily spotted in your work. Is that underpinned by a desire to make changes, elicit laughs, combinations thereof, other things that have not occurred to me?
Paul: I have no great message and on the whole (but not always) I’m not trying to do anything more than express some of my thoughts and feelings. I would hope that I’m more than a comedy musician (although that’s a great skill if you have it). So I guess I’m engaging in some satire and some people like to hear it. I’d write and play this stuff even if there was no audience. Indeed, I write and play lots of other stuff that people never hear. However when there are people interested in your art and are willing to listen, or to turn up to things because you’re playing, then I think there is an opportunity to use that interest; hence bringing the Pagan Folk Against Facsism thing together a few years back. I had people listening and turning up to see me so, with the band Mad Magdalen, I used that momentum for what I thought was an important cause. I also hope that my songs capture some of the story of the modern Pagan movement here in the U.K. as capturing stories is part of what the folk tradition is about.
Nimue: Not everyone (especially readers from beyond the U.K.) will have heard of Folk Against Fascism at a guess, so, can you say a bit more about what happened there and the role you played in all of that?
Paul: A few years ago it became apparent that the far right party, British National Party (BNP), were advising members to purposely infiltrate folk clubs, morris sides and the like with a view to convincing people that their love of English traditions was the starting point to their joining the BNP. The folk community got wind of this and formed Folk Against Fascism to raise awareness. The band I’m part of, Mad Magdalen, has a bit of an activist bent at times. I asked the band for support in bringing about a CD of music performed by modern Pagans, and a couple of poems as well, to help raise awareness in the Pagan community. We got lots of support and even financial backing from the community and released the Pagan Folk Against Facsism CD, some T-shirts and hoodies. It worked really well to publicise the musicians and worked as a great way of engaging people in discussion about folk music and the potential it holds for exploring our heritage.
Nimue: What other activist stuff do Mad Magdalen get up to?
Paul: No other non-music activity for a while. Demands of life have been getting in the way and we’ve managed to line a few gigs up that might not actually cost us anything play
Nimue: Now, I’ve seen Mad Magdalen (you’re awesome), and if I was booking you with my former folk club organiser hat on, I’d expect you’d have been at the edges of what I could have afforded (there being four of you) and only then if you happened to be in area anyway. It seems crazy to me that you should have to consider gigs in terms of not losing money. I’m guessing things are tough for musicians at the moment?
Paul: I think it’s always been the same. But it’s not just the band, I am so frequently asked, or to be frank, expected to play for little or nothing that I’ve simply stopped trying to be polite about it. The problems really arise when event organisers seem to take affront at being asked to make a reasonable payment, if only to cover costs. I had one Rainbow named person exclaim “But we’re a new company! We can’t afford to pay!” and even some well-known organisers are happy to pay speakers a fee (or at least expenses) but unwilling to shove things around to pay a solo musician for his train fare, a meal and a pint. Interestingly, since I’ve simply said “If you’re not going to pay me I’m not even going to consider your event” there have materialised paying gigs. Nothing much more than expenses, but it’s a start. It reflects where the Pagan community actually is, I suppose, with people singing and playing to pre-recorded music rather than keeping music live, over running support slots; meaning the live musicians have to play shorter sets and thus have less time to promote their CDs and maybe, just maybe, make £10 on an evening’s work. It’s happened several times and the combination of little or no money plus an emergence of pre-recorded acts tells me the community isn’t valuing its musical artists. Of course I’ll play events that I support without payment, or for the passing of a hat. But why on earth would you think that this applies to your event when we’ve never done anything more than become “friends” on Facebook?
Nimue: I feel much the same way about going out as an author. If it’s local, i.e. cheap to get to or something I want to do anyway, that’s one thing, but many events (not Pagan) seem keen that authors should pay for the privilege of being there, not the other way round!
So (because this is usually a more book orientated sot of blog) who gets space on your bookshelves?
Paul: I’m involved in proof reading a book by one of my favourite authors, Paul Read (AKA the Tea Pot Monk). Paul writes on the subject of Tai-Chi, one of my greater passions. I have several of his books already and these have been a great help in my articulation of my aims around teaching Tai-Chi and related practices. I also have a couple of books by a guy called Rory Miller. Rory is a leading expert in the area of self defence and violence. A great read and I was blessed with the opportunity to train with him over a rather bruising weekend recently. A book that is frequently in my hands at the moment is by Dr. Sun, it relates to the use of wind and fire wheels, a rather odd weapon that he resurrected for use in Tai-Chi training. Other than the whole Tai-Chi / martial arts thing I also tend to read, from time to time, books about economics and green issues. If I’m feeling up to it I’ll read a book that presents an ideology really opposed to mine; this helps me to test and understand my thoughts better. I haven’t read any fiction for ages! My wife is an avid reader, she belongs to a book club so I guess I should try a couple of her books out. The book club is an interesting thing; ladies spend a month reading a book then get together, get drunk as can be, and talk about the book. I’m in a home brew club. We brew beer then get together and get drunk on each others’ beer. I think it’s a far more honest process.
March Against Monsanto is a grassroots movement founded by Tami Monroe Canal in 2013. Every year, millions of people take to the streets in a worldwide peaceful protest united against Monsanto’s attempted monopoly and corporate control over the worlds’ seeds and food webs.
We are concerned parents and citizens from all walks of life. We aim to raise awareness of the destructive impact of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) and their toxic pesticides on our communities, our health, our environment, our economy and all living beings. Ordinary people are outraged that these experimental products have been forced on us without our knowledge or our consent. As conscious and responsible consumers, we have a Right to Know what’s in our food and a Right To Choose 100% gm-free, uncontaminated, organic and nutritious foods.
Monsanto is a U.S. chemical company notorious for its toxic products including Agent Orange, dioxin, DDT, PCBs and rBGH. They have a history of environmental destruction, pollution and cover-ups. For decades, Monsanto has contaminated, leaked and dumped hazardous and toxic substances into our air, water, soils and oceans, even the cells in our bodies! Monsanto is associated with many of the 114 toxic super-fund sites in USA.
They occupy governmental positions, lobby politicians to influence policies favourable to their products, and contribute enormous sums of money to governments, universities and agricultural groups to promote the gmo agenda. They have been caught falsifying and manipulating data, and have faced numerous lawsuits for unsubstantiated advertising, contamination and bribery. Including in our very own South Africa.
Monsanto is the leading producer of genetically modified seeds and Roundup, the most widely sold weedkiller in the world.
What is a GMO?
In traditional seed breeding techniques, peasants and farmers have carefully selected, crossed and propagated plants of the same species for desirable characteristics and complex traits like flavour, size, yield, adaption to micro-climates, disease resistance and resilience to cope with stresses like salty water or soil, drought and flooding.
A Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is the result of an unnatural laboratory process taking genes from one species and inserting them into another across the species barrier to try to obtain a desired characteristic. Genetic engineers force DNA from one organism to another using bacteria or viruses to “infect” plant or animal cells with the new DNA, firing DNA into cells with a gene gun, injecting new DNA into a fertilized egg, or electrocuting the sperm membrane to force the new DNA into the sperm. These processes do not occur in nature. Uncontrolled mutations and complex interactions occur at multiple levels within the organism when even a single new gene is inserted.
These imprecise techniques result in unintended and unpredictable effects including changes in the nutritional content of food, toxic and allergenic effects and poor crop performance. Co-existence is not possible as they contaminate non-GM crops and wild relatives through horizontal gene transfer.
GMOs are living organisms – once released into ecosystems, they cannot be recalled. The impacts are irreversible. They continue to multiply in the environment and GM genes are passed on to future generations. These risky experiments should be strictly quarantined in laboratories.
Most GMOs are genetically engineered for two traits: To tolerate heavy doses of weedkillers and to resist a particular insect. The toxin is engineered into the plant so that every cell of the plant constantly expresses that insecticide. The result is now widespread weed and insect resistance to these two traits. Farmers must use more agrochemicals like 2,4-D and Dicamba, and harmful chemical cocktails to combat them.
GMO’s are patented and farmers may not save seeds for the following crop. The companies who profit from GMO’s should be held liable for contamination of non-gm crops. Instead, Monsanto has sued farmers whose organic crops have been contaminated. The Current GMO’s on the market, are a highly profitable scam perpetrated by unscrupulous chemical companies with criminal histories to sell their war chemicals and patent seeds.
Chemicals pollute the air, soil, water and oceans and contribute massively to collapse of ecosystems and climate disruption. They strip the soil of nutrients and kill beneficial bacteria, microbes, pollinating insects, birds and other non-target organisms. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup products, is classified by WHO (World Health Organisation) as a Category 2A “Probable Human Carcinogen”. (as well as countless other scientists who have found various other side effects)
While the impacts of GMO’s and agri-chemicals on humans is not being monitored, studies show that they cause cancer, diabetes, birth defects, infertility, obesity, cholesterol, heart disease, immune-deficiency diseases, damage to kidneys, liver, hormonal disruption, allergies, learning disorders etc. Developing infants and children are especially vulnerable. Thousands of scientists have stated that there is no scientific consensus on GMO safety.
The South African regulators do not conduct safety tests on GMO’s and pesticides and they lack the capacity to monitor them. They rely on data from the biotech companies which is not published and peer reviewed and is heavily edited under Confidential Business Information.
South Africa is the only country in the world where the staple food (Maize Meal) is genetically modified! The majority doesn’t even know what a GMO is! 86% of the maize and almost all Soya and Cotton grown in South Africa is GM. Most processed products like bread, baby formula, fast foods and snacks contain GM ingredients. Cottonseed oil is used in tinned sea foods and vegetable oils. Check your labels for GM ingredients like High Fructose Corn Syrup, maltodextrins, soy milk, protein or lecithin, Aspartame, MSG, Flavour Enhancers, Colouring and E-numbers etc.
The EU, USAID and mega-wealthy philanthro-capitalists like Bill Gates have embarked on a wave of neo-colonialism disguised under the philanthropic mantra of “feeding the world”. They force developing nations into trade agreements and policy reforms to facilitate the interests of multinational monopolies like Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Cargill, Nestle and Pepsico (which Gates also invests in.) These draconian policies result in biopiracy, land-grabs, loss of livelihoods, loss of our diverse agricultural heritage, poverty and hunger.
Studies show that peasants feed 70% of the world population using 30% of the world’s resources. The industrial food chain feeds 30% of the world’s population using 70% of the resources. Leaders should promote food security through sound agro-ecological practices and support small farmers instead of this industrial, petro-dependent, chemically intensive agricultural model. Global control of commercial seeds, agro-chemicals, fertilizers and genetics is now in the hands of just four corporations. Family farmers cannot afford the inputs. Control the food and you control the world.
The world produces enough food for 14 million people. About 50% is wasted, including the resources used to produce it. GM monocrops are used mostly for biofuels & livestock feed, not food.
GMOs have been grown in USA for two decades, yet 17 million children struggle with food insecurity. One in four children lives without consistent access to enough nutritious food to live a healthy life. In South Africa, where GM crops have been grown since 1998, one in four people regularly suffers hunger and more than half of the population are at risk of going hungry, despite the fact that we produce more than enough food. Africa has been transformed from a net exporter to a net importer of food.
What can we do?
Support local organic farmers who grow food sustainably, eat local grown, organic, whole, nutritious foods, grow your own, get your neighbours involved in community gardens, plant a food forest, save your seeds, teach children to grow food, raise awareness with family, friends and colleagues about the harmful impacts of GMOs on our health, the environment, ecology & biodiversity, take to the streets and join peaceful protests like March against Monsanto, share & like anti-gmo pages, get a NO GMO bumper sticker or t-shirt, hand out pamphlets, stick info in public places, demand labelling, boycott gmo products, demand strict labelling and gmo-free food at your local supermarket, sign petitions, tell your governments and newspapers to ban GMO imports, testing and cultivation in South Africa. Let’s take back our food!
This is only the tip of the iceberg, if you want more, please visit these pages on Facebook:
The question that serious scientists are asking is: If we (or bees, or birds, or deer) consume the dsRNA in the apple or potato, can it influence how our genes work? Will these genetically modified organisms (GMOs), eaten as apple pies, french fries, or whatever, change our development, physiology, and behavior?
To ask food companies to reject the use of these GMOs, please sign the petition HERE.
When Brazilian research scientists fed tiny pieces of RNA to young honey bees, they expected little to happen—certainly nothing earth-shaking. The RNA used is not naturally found in bees. It was taken from jellyfish, chosen because it was supposed to have an insignificant impact. The RNA didn’t cooperate. After mixing just a single meal of RNA into the natural diet of the worker bee larvae, as the bees grew older, scientists discovered that a staggering 1461 genes showed significant changes compared to controls. In other words, about 10% of all the bees’ genes, including those vital to health, were either turned up in volume, or more often than not, turned down. The authors of the study concluded that such a massive change “undoubtedly” triggered changes in the bees’ development, physiology, and behavior.
Perhaps the scientists from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) missed this 2013 study when they recently approved potatoes and apples genetically engineered not to brown. “Arctic” apple slices (nicknamed the “Botox apple”) can supposedly sit on the shelf for 15-18 days without discoloring to reveal their age. Sliced up “Innate” potatoes will similarly not show any darkening day after day until they eventually dry up.
To accomplish this effect, scientists at Okanagan Specialty Fruits and J. R. Simplot introduced genetically engineered genes that make their apples and potatoes produce double stranded RNA (dsRNA) to shut off the browning genes. dsRNA is the same type of RNA that was fed to bees.
The question that serious scientists are asking is: If we (or bees, or birds, or deer) consume the dsRNA in the apple or potato, can it influence how our genes work? Will these genetically modified organisms (GMOs), eaten as apple pies, french fries, or whatever, change our development, physiology, and behavior?
One of those serious scientists is Dr. Jack Heinemann, a professor of genetics and molecular biology, and director of the Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. For more than a decade, he has been warning the agencies that approve GMOs about the need to test new dsRNAs for safety.
RNA as Gene Controller
RNA is the way-station molecule between genes (made of DNA) and the proteins that they specify. Years ago, scientists were sure that the influence went only in one direction: DNA would pass on a code to RNA, which would then design proteins on that basis. Now it is understood that types of RNA such as dsRNA exert a significant influence in the opposite direction. “These small dsRNA molecules control genes,” says Heinemann. “They turn them on or turn them off.”
Genetic engineering can introduce new dsRNAs into our food. This can be done intentionally, as in the case of the apple and potato, or totally by accident. In either case, these may be “new patterns that we’ve never seen before,” says Heinemann. “We can be exposed to these and potentially have genes regulated by those dsRNA molecules.”
“We have to be able to assess, before we use these foods,” asserts Heinemann, “whether they can have an adverse effect on people or on other organisms in the environment.” When he expressed his concerns to the governments’ GMO regulators in Australia and New Zealand, they dismissed them.
Government Safety Assurances are a Sham
RNA, according to the regulators, is too unstable. It would be destroyed long before it could enter the blood supply. And even if it were to get into the blood, they claim it wouldn’t have any effect whatsoever.
While it’s true that most RNA are not stable, Heinemann points out that “surprisingly, the form of RNA called dsRNA is very very stable. . . . And it’s now been shown that they can be taken up after digestion of the food into our blood supply.” More importantly, in a groundbreaking study conducted in China in 2012, dsRNA fed to mice “transferred to the liver and down-regulated an important liver enzyme.”
This study provided early evidence that the excuses used by the regulators were just that, and not backed by science. So when Heinemann read the governments’ evaluation of a GMO wheat variety that used dsRNA to alter its starch production, he was alarmed to find that all the new published research about dsRNA was totally ignored.
“When we looked at the regulator’s risk assessment, we found that they never considered the potential adverse effect of the intended dsRNA either on people—and this was an approval to test it on people—or on unintended targets in the environment.” They simply assumed “that RNA cannot be toxic.”
In addition to regurgitating the same outdated arguments of dsRNA instability and lack of influence, they added three more.
According Heinemann, the regulators claimed, that dsRNA “would never accumulate to levels that would have a biological effect.” But he points out, “There are zero experiments testing how much dietary dsRNA is necessary for a biological effect.” It was a baseless argument.
Then, using rather strained logic, they flatly claimed, according to Heinemann, “because RNA is everywhere, it must be safe. It is our background baseline of safety.” While Heinemann acknowledges that “The chemical properties of RNA molecules are generally the same,” it’s not their chemical composition—the nucleic acids—that is critical. “They miss the most important thing about nucleic acids,” he says. “The activity of nucleic acids is the specific sequence of nucleotides along the backbone of the molecule.” And it’s that specific sequence that determines if and how the dsRNA influences gene expression. So some dsRNA will be safe and some will not.
The point becomes obvious when you realize that GMO companies like Monsanto are hoping to get approval for crops they engineered with dsRNA to kill insects. “Every RNA molecule eaten by insects does not kill them,” says Heinemann. “But certain dsRNA molecules do, because of the order of their nucleotides.”
In their final argument, the regulators contradict themselves by acknowledging that the order of the dsRNA may be important. But the dsRNA used in the GMO wheat, they contend, must be safe. Why? Because the dsRNA sequence comes from wheat itself. And since humans are so far away from wheat in the biological order of things, there couldn’t possibly be a sequence match between wheat RNA and human DNA.
Finding Hundreds of Sequence Matches in the Human Genome
Not only does this betray a certain arrogance, from a mathematical perspective it’s preposterous. The active portions of the dsRNA are typically very small—between 7 and 21 nucleotides in length. And there are just 4 types of nucleotides that make up the code. So what is the probability that a sequence of just 7- 21 nucleotides will match up with a corresponding section of the human DNA, which stretches 3 billion nucleotides in length? We don’t have to guess. Using the sequence of dsRNA that was likely produced in the GMO wheat, Heinemann and his team used “bioinformatics” to confirm not just one match, but hundreds of them.
Heinemann is quick to point out that just because there’s a sequence match does not mean that any particular dsRNA will have an effect on gene regulation. It’s a potential threat, but one that has to be taken very seriously.
Feeding Studies Required
In order to evaluate the real risk, you can’t rely on computer models alone. Heinemann insists there must be at least feeding studies using those organisms that will be exposed to the dsRNA if the GMO is released outdoors or commercialized.
The bee study demonstrates why. While computer analysis identified several sequence matches, only by actually feeding the jelly fish derived dsRNA to the bees were scientists able to confirm which of those matches resulted in “misregulated” genes. In addition to these “direct” effects, many of the changes in the 1461 genes were, according to the authors, attributed to “indirect downstream secondary effects” of the dsRNA. That is, the genes that were altered directly due to the matched sequences produced altered amounts of RNA or proteins. These altered amounts in turn influenced the activity of yet more genes, which in turn, affected yet more.
To make things even more complicated, the single dsRNA meal affected hundreds of genes when the bees were quite small, but they influenced a whole different set of genes when the bees were older—with little overlap. Because different genes activate at different stages of development and in different types of cells, feeding studies must be conducted at different ages and evaluate different tissues and organs.
USDA and EPA Cautions About Unpredicted Side Effects
In 2013, Heinemann and colleagues published a full protocol for assessing the risk of dsRNAs in a highly respected risk assessment journal Environment International. Not long after, USDA scientists published a similar analysis and cited Heinemann’s work. In early 2014, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also published a white paper that verified Heinemann’s concerns about risk assessment, as did a subsequent analysis by the EPA’s Science Advisory Panel.
The USDA scientists’ paper, for example, called for “sequencing genomes for species” that will be exposed to the dsRNA to “understand those that may be affected.” All the papers acknowledged the need for comprehensive testing conducted under a variety of conditions. And they admitted that the current assessment protocols for evaluating the impact of GMOs or chemical pesticides are not sufficient to evaluate all the risks associated with dsRNA. The EPA paper stated, for example: “The knowledge gaps make it difficult to predict with any certainty whether unintended effects will occur in non-target species as a result of exposure to dsRNA.”
Political Science Posing as Science
Knowing that USDA and EPA scientists and advisors warned about unpredictable unintended effects that could escape detection by current risk assessments, one might think that the approval of the apple and the potato should have at least waited until those assessments were thoroughly updated. But that would require those in charge of the USDA to make decisions based on science. Even a cursory review of the history of US GMO regulations demonstrates just the opposite.
In the 1990s, for example, FDA scientists repeatedly warned their superiors about inherent dangers of genetically engineering crops for human consumption. They wrote of possible toxins, allergens, new diseases, and nutritional problems that would be hard to detect in the gene-spliced foods. But the person in charge of GMO policy at the agency was Michael Taylor, a political appointee, not a scientist. In fact, he was the former attorney for Monsanto. The policy he oversaw falsely claimed that the agency was not aware of information showing that GMOs were significantly different, and therefore no safety testing would be required. Companies like Monsanto, who told us that DDT, Agent Orange, and PCBs were safe, would determine on their own if their GMOs were safe.
As a result of Taylor’s policy, companies don’t even have to inform the FDA before putting a GMO onto the market. While many do participate in the FDA’s “voluntary consultation,” it is pure theater. At the end of this meaningless exercise, the FDA issues a letter that simply reminds the GMO producer that it’s their job to determine if their GMO is safe. In the case of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready herbicide-tolerant soybeans, for example, the FDA letter to the company stated:
“… it is our understanding that, based on the safety and nutritional assessment you have conducted, you have concluded that the new soybean variety is not materially different in composition, safety, or any other relevant parameter from soybean varieties currently on the market and that it does not raise issues that would require premarket review or approval.” [emphasis added]
Note that these official FDA letters never state that the agency approves the GMO or deems it safe. In the case of the new potato, for example, that determination is entirely in the hands of its maker, J. R. Simplot.
In an interview with Simplot’s Vice President of Plant Sciences, Haven Baker, he assures us that their potato is just fine. How does he know? He says the USDA’s outdoor “field trials demonstrate that their Innate™ potatoes were found to pose no health or environmental risks, [and] create no harm to other species.” The USDA did not, however, conduct any sequence matching analyses or feeding trials; and there’s no evidence that J. R. Simplot did either.
But to make sure we’re completely put at ease, Baker adds, “The FDA’s parallel review of Innate™ potatoes, which is also underway, will ensure that they are safe for consumption.”
Simplot also claims, without releasing their data, that the Innate potato will have lowered amounts of a possible carcinogen that’s activated during frying. But even though Simplot supplies McDonalds with roughly half of all its french fries, the fast-food chain stated that they have no plans to use genetically modified potatoes.
The question is, will you?
The Innate potato and Artic apple may be available for consumption as early as 2016.
To ask food companies to reject the use of these GMOs, please sign the petition HERE.
Watch this IRT video to learn more:
Judy Carman, Jack Heinemann, and Sarah Agapito-Tenfen, New paper on dsRNA risks – briefing for non-specialists, 21 March 2013 http://www.gmwatch.org/index.php/news/rss/14698-new-paper-on-dsrna-risks-briefing-for-non-specialists
Recent papers providing more evidence that dietary dsRNA survives in humans/mammals and may alter gene expression:
Mlotshwa, S., Pruss, G. J., MacArthur, J. L., Endres, M. W., Davis, C., Hofseth, L. J., Pena, M. M. & Vance, V. A novel chemopreventive strategy based on therapeutic microRNAs produced in plants. Cell Res, doi:10.1038/cr.2015.25 (2015). http://www.nature.com/cr/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/cr201525a.html
Baier, S. R., Nguyen, C., Xie, F., Wood, J. R. & Zempleni, J. MicroRNAs are absorbed in biologically meaningful amounts from nutritionally relevant doses of cow milk and affect gene expression in peripheral blood mononuclear cells, HEK-293 kidney cell cultures, and mouse livers. J. Nutr. 144, 1495-1500, doi:10.3945/jn.114.196436 (2014). http://www.ralf-kollinger.de/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Milch-micro-RNAs-Are-Absorbed-in-Biologically-Meaningful-Amounts-from…-.pdf
“We conclude that miRNAs in milk are bioactive food compounds that regulate human genes.”
Lukaski, A. & Zielenkiewicz, P. In silico identification of plant miRNAs in mammalian breast milk exosomes – a small step forward? PLoS ONE 9, e99963 (2014). open access http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0099963
 F.M.F. Nunes, et al, Non-Target Effects of Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP)-Derived Double-Stranded RNA (dsRNA-GFP) Used in Honey Bee RNA Interference (RNAi) Assays, Insects 2013, 4(1), 90-103; http://www.mdpi.com/2075-4450/4/1/90
 Because of the limitations of the equipment used, this may be an underestimate of the number of genes affected.
 Quotes taken from authors interview with Dr. Jack Heinemann, conducted in person in China, July 2013.
 Jack Heinemann, Evaluation of risks from creation of novel RNA molecules in genetically engineered wheat plants and recommendations for risk assessment, An Expert Opinion by Jack Heinemann, August 28, 2012. Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand
Update on submission: March 21, 2013 http://safefoodfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/opinion-on-possible-dsrna-mediated-adverse-effects_update-1.pdf
 Heinemann, J. A., Agapito-Tenfen, S. Z. & Carman, J. A. A comparative evaluation of the regulation of GM crops or products containing dsRNA and suggested improvements to risk assessments. Environ Int 55, 43-55, doi:10.1016/j.envint.2013.02.010 (2013). http://gmojudycarman.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/comparative-evaluation-of-the-regulation-of-GM-crops-or-products-containing-dsRNA-and-suggested-improvements-to-risk-assessments.pdf
 Lundgren, J. G. & Duan, J. J. RNAi-based insecticidal crops: potential effects on nontarget species. Biosci. 63, 657-665 (2013). http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/63/8/657
 FIFRA. RNAi Technology as a Pesticide: Program Formulation for Human Health and Ecological Risk Assessment. (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2014). http://www.epa.gov/oppfead1/cb/csb_page/updates/2014/rnai-whitepaper.html
 Environmental Protection Agency, Transmittal of Meeting Minutes of FIFRA Science Advisory Panel, January 28, 2014. http://www.epa.gov/scipoly/sap/meetings/2014/january/012814minutes.pdf