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To The Best Of Our Knowledge
September 23, 2019
Listen to This Week's Show

To GMO or not to GMO — a late-breaking TTBOOK mailbag

Further research is required to determine if the trait can be bred into commercial cultivars of corn, the world’s most productive cereal crop. Jean-Michel Ané (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Hi all — our newsletter is coming to you a little late this week to accomodate a whole pile of emails and comments we received in response to "Who Owns Seeds" and "Music on Your Mind." I asked the whole team to chime in with responses to your messages, which took some time to get together. The result is very long but dives into some interesting questions that came up in response to recent interviews on the show. Let's get into it! 

(some listener comments have been edited for clarity and length)

From Linnaea, a listener in Michigan:

Any radio programs focusing on growing plants and food are of special interest to me. Unfortunately it's all too often the case that these programs are one-sided, usually demonizing farmers who practice modern agriculture. This week's TTBOOK program was a particularly egregious example.

There were too many misleading statements and outright falsehoods that were presented to even respond to -- particularly from the first two segments of the program, with the kamut grower and the segment on the corn mother.

Firstly, the kamut grower claims that modern wheat varieties are causing an increase in gluten intolerance/celiac disease. This is a minority opinion and not supported by most scientific studies. It's humorous that this grower points to Wonder Bread as an example of a product made with modern wheat varieties, when this same wheat can also be used to make artisanal loaves that you couldn't differentiate from those baked hundreds of years ago. It's all in the way you process the wheat and combine it with other ingredients. I daresay you could even process his ancient kamut from Noah's Ark in a way to make a kamut-based "Wonder Bread."

But it was the segment with Robin Wall Kimmerer that had me shouting obscenities at the radio. And it was actually something that Anne said that made me angriest. She compared farmers who practice modern agriculture to slave owners. This is so incredibly offensive that it's hard to even process. Farmers who are producing more food on less land and feeding more people than ever before in history — these hardworking people are like slave owners somehow!

I'd suggest a program for the future to feature plant scientists — those who are creating virus-resistant varieties of papaya, tomatoes that ship well that actually taste good from the supermarket, oranges that are resistant to the devastating citrus greening disease, varieties of rice that contain more nutrients and are addressing nutritional deficiencies in the developing world. These stories are out there, and I challenge you to find them and tell them.

All this said, the story by Seth Jovaag about the corn snot was very interesting and pretty balanced overall. Good job to him!

Hi Linnaea, Anne here. Sorry you found it ("Who Owns Seeds") so infuriating — I know what it’s like to want to yell at the radio. This particular hour elicited a lot of strong reaction: some listeners echoed your points, while others loved the Robin Wall Kimmerer interview but criticized Seth Jovaag’s story. Across the whole hour, we clearly scratched at issues that are worth investigating more deeply in future episodes.

I want to respond specifically to your objection to the mention of slavery in the show, because I’d like to be clear: neither Robin nor I equate modern farming with slaveholding. That would be offensive. Robin was explaining the philosophical and moral implications of a mindset that considers corn to have “personhood” — to be a sacred teacher, and a living relative — in contrast to agr-industrial society’s tendency to relate to plants almost exclusively in terms of their use-value. 

Robin’s thinking is more nuanced than a 9-minute interview can convey, but if you’re interested, you might enjoy this recent essay of hers in Emergence Magazine.

Thanks again for listening and for caring!


From commenter Sarah: 

This is an extremely important program on a subject of vital concern to all humanity. Unfortunately, despite Anne's beautiful, inspiring interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer, the most important piece of the show, reporter Seth's Jovaag's "The Seeds of Tomorrow, only hinted at the devastation now underway in indigenous farming communities around the world. Jovaag's lack of knowledge of the details of what giant corporations are doing to small farmers with their rapacious appropriation of seeds made him an inadequate reporter for this topic. The subject requires a true expert like Vandanna Shiva, who has fought for Indian farmers and against multinationals’s seed policies for decades. Sadly, TTBOOK does not generally go back and do follow-up programs. This is a case where I really wish it did.

Seth's piece spoke to the complexity of the issue of genetically modified foods. On the one hand, we have a hugely important corn variety being studied that could help us address the massive climate impact of modern farming; on the other, we have impoverished farmers at risk to be exploited, rather than rewarded, for their decades of work cultivating corn that could save us all. He took the listener to the Mixe people and gave them a voice. Their critique of the multi-national forces in the lives now was powerful and honest. We hear from experts in his piece, but it was important to give the farmers who did the original work a voice as well.

Many other farming experts have been on our show in the past and will be in the future. Just not this show. 

Given the feedback we've heard and the depth of issues related to farming that we're still interested in learning more about, there's a pretty good chance we'll be revisiting this issue in the near future. So thank you for reaching out with suggestions — it helps inform where we look next.


‎From Facebook user Otilia —

I must say, this latest episode has been such a mess. First literally calling genetic engineering “rape” (not even by the interviewee but the journalist!), then going on about how a new strain in the lab (!!) would provide hope for the environment.

The mass produced foods are not lacking nutrition because they are GMO. They do because they have been bred for other traits than nutrition, and it also applies to mass produced “organic” crops. Spreading misinformation has not been your thing before.

A show asking "Who Owns Seeds?" exists to complicate ideas surrounding plant biodiversity, GMOs, indigenious rights, organic farming, and agribusiness. 

For example, Bob Quinn argues that mass produced food lacks nutrition because modern plants have been bred for traits other than nutrition. Kimmerer argues that GMOs are the problem, a "forcible injection of genes" (that's where the "rape" comment came from). Seth's piece delves into the conflict between scientists seeking new ways to optimize plants for survival and the farmers who originated the adaptations they hope to commercialize, and worry they are being exploited.

In a word, it's a messy issue. So the show is a bit messy, at least in part by design. The hope is the differing opinions and experiences around the facts at hand can help us see the world as a bit bigger, and a bit more complex than we realized. 


From commenter Eve —

Heard this one ("Who Owns Seeds") this morning; it will be assigned listening for my courses right away. Fits perfectly with the topics covered in Ethnobotany and in Plants and Humans. Many many thanks for your work on this program!

Thanks very much for your kind words. Let us know what your students think! Given the complicated (and messy) issues at hand, we'd love to know what kinds of conversations they have about things that come up in the show. Especially if they argue over what they hear. 🙃

Your class sounds fantastic. 


From Steve, a listener in Arkansas: 

I've been listening to this show whenever I get a chance for several years. First, I'd like to thank you for producing it! There are so many good episodes, of course. Last week I really enjoyed the one about the seeds and corn. I especially enjoyed the comment by Robin about how the seeds and kernels of wisdom of the indigenous people will be the very elements that we need to fix some of the issues that western culture has created. I feel a similar sentiment about medicine. 

The combination of capitalistic westernized approach to medicine and over-inflated industry that coincides is such a tragic human tale, in my opinion. I say this as an osteopathic physician who desires to preserve the true essence of natural medicine, and lives on the front lines of what seems like a losing battle in medical education. There are silver linings, but they are just the seeds and kernels that are merely tolerated to linger in the fringes of the lions den.

Anyway, I want to also express gratitude for the recent episode that covered financial strains in our society. I see these issues as being very intertwined, and when I here the programming it makes me feel less isolated, so thank you.

Thanks Steve! Glad you liked the show. We've had similar conversations around shows related to medicine, specifically this hour we produced on depression and chemical treatment of mental illness. It's a tricky balance to give voice to both experts in their field and people who have reservations about the conventional wisdom around medicine, farming or other wide-ranging issues that are both closely studied and broadly experienced by many types of people. But we try to find a balance, and we keep working to bring new voices to the fore when we can. 


From listener Ann in Wisconsin: 

Thank you, Anne Strainchamps, for that last bit on the TTBOOK show Saturday, September 1 ("What's Wrong With Work?"). 

Those last lines, heard as my son (older of two children) was helping his wife in labor with my first grandchild, really resonated. We can choose despair or hope. I must choose hope. We all must. A no-brainer, really. 

It means a lot to hear that our work inspires our listeners like this, so thank you so much for sharing. It's why we do what we do. 


From listener Krissel in Mexico: 

I was very touched by Shannon Henry Kleiber’s piece (August 17) on her mom’s connection with music in the midst of late onset Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, hearing the group singing "Edelweiss," "Five Foot Two," and "You Are My Sunshine," made me imagine a similarly aged cohort in 2104 singing the lyrics of, say, Lizzo’s “I’m Crying Cause I Love You.” Which is, by the way the least cringe-worthy, now-popular, lyric I could come up with on short notice, if you don’t count “Baby Shark.”

Thanks so much for all your wonderful broadcasts.

Thanks so much for your heartfelt note about “Music On Your Mind.” It was a personal and challenging show for me to produce, and it means a lot to hear it has touched people. 

I was just listening to Lizzo too — “Don’t text me, tell it straight to my face” is a great modern lyric! I guess only time will tell if it will hold up to Moon River. 


It's inspiring to hear the questions that linger after each show. That helps us know what questions to chase next, so keep your letters coming!

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10/10: Unpacking Wonder: From Curiosity to Comprehension @ NYAS

How exactly does science define and explain the experience of awe and wonder? Steve will ask a panel of experts — social psychologist Michelle "Lani" Shiota, writer Caspar Henderson, and astrophysicist Alex Filippenko — on October 10 at the New York Academy of Science.

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From the macrocosm of the universe to the microcosm of the human body, our discoveries about ourselves and the natural world continue to spark our experience of awe and wonder. But how exactly does science define and explain the experience of awe and wonder? What has the historical and cultural impact of this emotion been in the development of science and reason? What can be learned from those who have explored the shifting frontier between nature and the supernatural? And does the experience of awe and wonder suggest that the quest for scientific truth and the metaphysical yearning for a deeper understanding of reality share a common root?

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