Trends in education come and go, like anything else. Letter grades, number grades, no grades, “old” math, “new” math, multi-age classrooms, inclusive classrooms, AP classrooms. It’s hard to keep up, but one trend that has been around for my girls’ generation is the STEM focused curriculum and while I understand it, it does give me some pause.  Mostly because I think that doing anything in a vacuum, for the sake of doing it or jumping on that moving train is not necessarily a good idea.  It seems that the United States has fully embraced the notion that we can all live better lives if we pursue jobs in math or engineering or science fields. We have all drunk the Kool-Aid that tells us that technology is the saviour of the future and those individuals who understand it and shape it will be kings and queens.

Within this push for STEM education, there is a mini-movement that is focused on girls. It is true that women are very poorly represented in the fields that rely heavily on STEM education. These also tend to be the jobs that offer more flexibility and opportunity and higher pay.  And while I am absolutely not opposed to the emphasis on STEM (or, as they put it at Lola’s school, STEAM with an A for the arts), I hope that these students are also learning just as much about the application of this knowledge and the ethics involved as they are about how to build a better robot.  I hope that they aren’t being seduced by the possibilities of this knowledge without considering the ramifications of it. When Albert Einstein helped spur the development of the atomic bomb, he had some inkling of what he might be unleashing, but it wasn’t until many years later that he said, “I have always condemned the use of the atomic bomb against Japan.”  He defended his involvement by noting that the research was available and, if it hadn’t been built and used by the United States, he was certain that the Nazis would have developed the technology, but this is precisely what I think of when I imagine legions of scientifically-literate students graduating from American high schools without any sort of ethical framework for the work they are suddenly capable of doing.

One of the phrases I use with Lola and Eve that drives them batty goes like this, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” I hope that I haven’t said it so many times that they tune it out, but just often enough that it echoes in their heads from time to time and encourages them to ask, “Why? Why am I doing this? Why am I making this decision now? What will come of it?”  I honestly believe that this is the most important question we can ever ask ourselves, and often the most difficult to answer.  I think that as a culture we could save boatloads of money and time and effort if we stopped to inquire about why we choose to do certain things in particular ways.  Technology and science, engineering and math have certainly changed our lives for the better in multitudes of ways, but there are also egregious examples of STEM-gone-wrong, used for exploitation or corporate financial gain, and turning out an entire generation of students who blindly believe that STEM is the way to job security and financial success without any ability to question their own motives or morality is a frightening prospect.

I remember taking a bioethics course in college and wondering why it wasn’t required for pre-med students (I was pre-med, but I took it as credit toward my bachelor’s degree in philosophy, not biology). I was lucky enough to sit on the ethics committee at a local hospital for one term and see how large institutions debate questions of morality when it comes to research and equity for all patients and I was shocked at how many physicians never bothered to ask those questions in their daily practice unless it was required for some study or potential lawsuit. They were content to let the “experts” in ethics decide for them and dictate what they ought to do.  I am not condemning them for that. They were likely never taught to ask those kinds of questions or how to think about them.  They were taught to look critically at things that had “right” and “wrong” answers, how to perform tests to determine which was which, and move forward. If we don’t find ways to give our children a language of ethics, a way to talk about the choices we make and understand the effect those choices have on others, we are sorely mistaken.  If we don’t attempt to focus on the application and consequences of our scientific discoveries, have honest conversations about the reasons for engaging in the work we’re doing (beyond making money or ‘to see if we can,’) we are missing a vital piece of educating our kids.  I am much more interested in my children becoming thoughtful citizens of a community who can envision and work toward some common goal than I am in seeing them get advanced degrees in STEM fields and go on to create the next genetically-modified food product that could wreak havoc on our ecosystems beyond anything we can imagine. And while I do think that some of the responsibility for teaching that lies with parents, to have our educational system acknowledge the necessity and importance of it is vital. I’m not advocating for schools to provide any sort of absolute ethical framework (although some religious schools do that). Rather, I think they would do better to teach students to ask “why” at each important juncture, to flex that ethical muscle, to keep them examining the reasons and ramifications of their actions when it comes to all of their learning.

I learned about Occam’s razor in a college philosophy course and it made a strong impression on me. At the time, I was strictly a science major – biology and chemistry – and the idea appealed to me.

According to Wikipedia, Occam’s razor is

“a principle of parsimony, economy, orsuccinctness used in problem-solving devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347). It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but—in the absence of certainty—the fewer assumptions that are made, the better.”

In other words, the simplest solution is generally the best.  We humans tend to make things more complicated than they need to be and often, when I am feeling particularly perplexed, this bit of wisdom reminds me to step back, breathe deeply, and think about a simpler way to get to the result I am seeking.

Yesterday, when I read a story about some newly genetically modified bananas that are set to be tested on human beings, the full force of this theory slapped me upside the head.  You can read the entire story here, but the gist of it is this:  For the last nine years, researchers in Australia, backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have been attempting to enrich bananas with Vitamin A in an effort to combat the lack of this vital nutrient in the diets of many African children. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness, immune deficiencies, abnormal brain development, and death.  And so, these researchers have spent years and years and untold millions of dollars attempting to engineer a better banana and they think they have finally done it.  They will begin feeding it to human beings soon (the article does not say which human beings where) and hope that by 2020, (a mere six years from now), they can begin planting it in African countries and harvesting it.

Beyond the obvious issues I have with GMO foods and human trials whose effects we cannot possibly predict, I am speechless.  I know that Bill Gates’ life was founded and built on technology, and I know that he has seen it do amazing things. I understand that he is completely besotted with the idea of technological solutions for nearly every problem he sees, and I know that his foundation has long been in bed with the likes of Monsanto, but this entire endeavor is so wasteful and misguided I can barely breathe.  I cannot claim to ever have worked with the man, so I don’t know what his managerial style is, but I can’t imagine being a part of his organization and not pointing out the fact that a potential solution to Vitamin A deficiency and malnutrition ALREADY EXISTS. 

Those of us humans who know a little about nutrition and real food call them sweet potatoes.  They grow quite well in many African climates and have boatloads of beta-carotene – the form of Vitamin A that has been engineered into these bananas – and have already been tested on humans for tens of thousands of years.  In the absence of massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, they are quite healthy for people of all ages and easily consumed and digested by infants and toddlers.  And they didn’t require a massive investment of money or time to develop.

Of course, you can’t patent sweet potatoes, so perhaps therein lies the rub. But if a non-profit organization like The Gates Foundation is truly interested in solving the problems of world hunger, they ought to stop wasting millions of dollars on R&D and look to the solutions that already exist.  Helping African communities get access to a healthy, well-balanced diet is surely simpler than they think. There is no reason to engineer food in order to feed people unless you are blinded by your love of technology. Just because you can engineer it doesn’t mean you should, especially if it will cost more in time and money than a solution that is already available and you can’t be sure the outcome will be good for the people you say you’re interested in serving.

While I was working on a new essay for Demeter Press, I took a quick break and found this. It’s long, but worth the time it takes to read it. I found myself nodding my head over and over again as the author lamented the new “culture of shut up” that has permeated social media.  A bit of a twist on my “sea of unknowing,” but more pop-culture friendly for certain.

The essay I’m working on is for an upcoming anthology on Mothers and Food and as I sat down to take my first stab at it in the unseasonable sunshine in the backyard, I was on fire.  Chronicling my years as a child of the PopTart Generation (my name for the 1970s era of “better living through chemistry”) to my early years as a mother trying to do right by my babies when it came to food, and through our gluten allergy diagnoses, I am writing about the challenges of raising healthy children when you don’t know what information is real.  So many of the things I thought I knew about food have been proven wrong – processed foods aren’t healthy, fertilizers do more harm than good, GMOs are horrifically frightening, rice isn’t a healthy alternative to wheat if you’re gluten intolerant thanks to the arsenic levels, alternative grains aren’t always the best, and on and on….  The whole essay now weighs in at 2500 words and it is decidedly defeatist, so I’ll have to work on finding a way to lighten it up and find the silver lining somewhere.  That said, I do often feel a little undone by the latest food news as it comes my way because it seems to create more work for me as I plan meals and shop and cook for my family.  I come from a Ukrainian great-grandmother who loved nothing more than cooking for friends and family and I inherited her inability to cook for anything less than an army.  I absolutely feel like cooking for others is a way to show them I love them and at our dinner table, the more, the merrier. But I struggle with the fact that eating is hard work these days. And don’t tell me to plant a garden in my backyard because I most certainly did NOT inherit that ability from my Gram.  I’ll go out and support the farmer’s markets, thankyouverymuch, but only if they grow organic produce.

Dear President Obama,

I was pleased when you were re-elected President of the United States last fall. I believe that throughout the campaign, you spoke with conviction and courage with regard to things that are truly important to you  and, while I didn’t agree with all of them (our nation’s energy policy being one of the most glaring examples), I happily voted for you. Happily, because I saw a common thread running through many of your positions – the acknowledgment that the easy way out is not generally the best way to do things, the acceptance of diversity, and the willingness to tread lightly and ponder solutions deeply. Those are qualities I admire in a person, especially in a leader.

But I have to admit I am very disappointed right now.  While you have expressed concern for families, both in talking about health care and education, wages and job creation, you have dropped the ball when it comes to food safety by signing HR 933 which contained what has commonly become known as the “Monsanto Protection Act.”  You have proven yourself to be unwilling to protect our farmland, the quality of our food supply, our trade with other countries around the world, and the health of our nation’s citizens by allowing Monsanto and other companies like it to act with impunity when it comes to manipulating both the food that is grown in this country and others as well as the supply chain of seeds themselves.

If we continue to be afraid to hold companies accountable for their actions by making them immune to litigation if their products prove harmful, we are simply substituting corporations for banking institutions in the “too big to fail” world and we will surely reap far worse effects than we did from the recession that began in 2008.

If Monsanto is allowed to continue to plant genetically engineered crops such as alfalfa that are resistant to pesticides, there is absolutely no doubt that the alfalfa will find its way into the food chain in ways that we can’t undo. The genetic material from these seeds will contaminate soils, perhaps rendering it altered forever. These crops will pollinate other, non GE crops and change them forever as well.  The alfalfa can find its way into feed for even those animals that are organically grown, affecting both the livelihood of the organic farmers and the health of the consumers who buy them unknowingly.  That hurts American families.

If we continue in this vein, we will also isolate ourselves from the world economy when it comes to trade in foodstuffs.  Ireland and Japan have adopted laws against growing GMOs, Egypt has placed a ban on import/export of GMOs, the EU has strict labeling laws that have effectively stopped GMOs from being purchased for the most part.  None of these countries will be interested in buying food from the US if we cannot prove that our products are free of genetically engineered components.  That hurts American families.

In Japan, Keisuke Amagasa noted that, despite Japan’s ban on growing GMOs,

because Japan imports GM canola from Canada, GM contamination has already occurred and it is spreading to a much greater degree than one could imagine. Judging by the ominous precedent of Canada, once GM crops are cultivated, segregation between GM and non-GM will become almost impossible, and keeping pure non-GM varieties away from GM contamination will be very hard.”

I don’t know what your motivation was for signing this bill, but I do want to help you understand the wide-reaching effects that this kind of legislation will have on the American people. The people you stood up for during both of your campaigns. The people you continue to say you want to protect and support.  In signing this bill, you turned away from those individuals and chose, instead, to protect and support an enormous corporation that has no such convictions, whose only interest is continuing to make as much money as it can, no matter what the damage may one day prove to be.  There are many families in the United States who will suffer both short-term and long-term consequences of the Monsanto Protection Act and I am disappointed that this will be part of your legacy.  I don’t expect to agree with everything you say and do, but I did hope that I could count on your willingness to fight for those individuals who cannot fight for themselves.  In taking up the mantle of Monsanto, you have turned away from that principle and I hope you find the courage and conviction to turn back before it is too late.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about toxins.  Mostly, it seems that the topic finds its way to me rather than me seeking it out, and that could be a result of the heightened awareness in the US of just how many chemicals we come in contact with every day.  Whatever the reason, I’m doing my best to examine the issues as rationally as I can without freaking out.  The difficulty for me comes when I bump up against cultural or societal standards that don’t jive with what I’m learning – especially in a social setting – and I’m not sure how to proceed.

A few months ago I decided to toss all of my antiperspirant/deodorants and go looking for more ‘natural’ products.  I had been reading about more and more studies investigating links between aluminum and parabens (both present in the majority of antiperspirant/deodorants) and breast cancer. While there is no ‘definitive’ evidence yet, the fact that more than half of all tumors found in breast tissue contain either parabens or aluminum or both was enough to make me hedge my bets and find something else.  I did this quietly (although I also replaced both of my daughters’ old products with more natural ones and explained to them that I felt like it was better to use more natural products than man-made chemicals) and haven’t tried to convince any friends or family to do the same.  I don’t want to be obnoxious or presumptuous.

For years now I have bought mostly organically grown foods and avoided milk that is produced by cows who are treated with growth hormones. I spend the extra money for grass-fed beef and free-range, organic eggs and shop as locally as possible.  Again, this is a lifestyle change I have made personally and I don’t go out evangelizing or pushing these choices on anyone else for the most part.  One notable exception to that is that I will occasionally share my views with like-minded friends on Facebook, either by ‘liking’ something they link to or mention or supporting a particular company.

I do feel as though it is challenging to find evidence that is concrete one way or the other in many instances. It often seems as though choosing sides is the American way and once you’ve decided which team you’re rooting for, you have to believe every single thing they say. More often than not, I try to err on the side of not messing with Mother Nature and eschewing products that contain things I’m unsure about.

Ultimately, I don’t support companies like Montsanto because I think genetically modifying food products is a recipe for disaster. We may think we’ve tested these ideas, but we can’t know what will happen generations down the line. I agree that finding ways to keep the global population healthy is important, but in my experience, shortcuts almost always lead to disaster down the line.  Manipulating the balance of the ecosystem by giving some plants and animals a leg up over others could (and often has) come back to bite us in the butt.

But I don’t like to get in to conversations about these kinds of things.  Especially with people who disagree with me.  Not because I am unsure about the evidence I have for my ideas, but because I am unsure that there is any way to know definitively until it’s all over and done.

I will not get my girls vaccinated for chickenpox or HPV. Won’t. They also don’t get an annual flu shot.  Neither do I. At the risk of sounding like a paranoid consipiracy-theorist, I don’t trust the medical model that tells me to put chemicals I know are toxic (yes, they do still use thimerosal – aka Mercury – as a preservative in vaccines) in to my body or the developing bodies of my kids.  I wish I could say that I am 100% certain that vaccines are responsible for many developmental delays and disorders such as autism. I can’t. But I think the science that points in that direction makes sense – and I do have a degree in biology with a minor in chemistry, so I have some credibility there.  And I do think that the vaccine manufacturers and the AMA as a whole have a vested, non-impartial interest in continuing vaccine practices.  And I’d rather not look back 25 years from now and regret that I didn’t listen to my gut.

Do I want to cite studies and get in to a war of words with someone who is convinced I’m wrong?
Will I continue to make decisions I think are best for myself and my family?
Will I come to the defense of others who want to do the same?

So what about developing countries? What about organizations that are doing their best, in an altogether altruistic fashion, to prevent disease in third world countries? How do I support their mission if I don’t believe in the way they go about it?  I would love to say I fully embrace the Gates Foundation. But they are firmly connected with Montsanto and dedicated to vaccinating practices.  I love the notion of mosquito nets and tried-and-true contraception/family planning methods.  I can’t get behind planting GMO corn and soybeans in a vulnerable country and giving possibly-toxic vaccines to a vulnerable population.  Therein lies the rub.

I do take advantage of many of the conveniences of modern life, many of which I know are not good for the planet (my car, plastic garbage bags, cat litter) or myself (Advil, maxi pads, ice cream). I am not naive enough to believe that I don’t benefit greatly from some of the things chemists have concocted over the years.  But I am doing my best to avoid doing more damage than I ought to, both to myself and the planet at large.

So, as much as possible, I will keep my mouth shut and go about living my life the way I think is best. You may wrinkle your nose as I walk past you on a hot, sunny day because my armpits aren’t fresh-pear scented, and you may get pissed off that my kid shows up to your school without the full complement of shots, but if you disagree, please just acknowledge my right to make my own choices and do your best to avoid vilifying me for it.