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My Quest for a Non-GMO Corn Tortilla

Organic Lifestyle Comments (1)

On nights when we don’t have a lot of time to cook, our go-to default dinners are tacos. We look around the fridge for some meat—usually organic chicken I’ve cooked out on the gas grill—plus some tomatillo salsa, onion, tomato, lettuce, cilantro, grated cheese, black beans heated and mashed, a minced jalapeno, and some salsa picante like Melinda’s habanero sauce.

For the tortillas, we’ve been buying Mi Rancho’s organic corn tortillas, but recently I started thinking back to my days in Rockland County, New York, living the hippie life, and how Carlos Pena made wonderful, puffy tortillas on his kitchen stove from scratch.

At that time, the only Mexican grocery store anywhere near us was an hour away, on 14th Street in Manhattan. It offered our only source of masa harina—the nixtamalized corn flour used to make tortilla dough. Carlos had a tortilla press, a simple contraption he used to press out the flat circles of dough he flipped into a pan. As they cooked, they puffed up like pita breads do. We loaded them with whatever we had on hand and fed our multitudes well. So, I thought, why not make my own tortillas from scratch again, like we did at Carlos and Barbara’s house in the late 1960s?

Except now, there’s a problem. About 95 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is Monsanto’s GMO corn. I sure didn’t want to make my tortillas from that crap. Big bags of Manseca masa in Lola’s—my local Mexican supermarket here in Santa Rosa, California–weren’t organic, so no guarantee there that the corn wasn’t GMO. I bought a tortilla press for $12 but not the flour. Over at my local Whole Foods, the only masa harina with a chance of being organic was Golden Masa Harina Corn Flour from Bob’s Red Mill in Oregon; so, with hope in my heart, I bought a one-pound bag.

At home, I went online to Bob’s Red Mill’s website, where I found that Bob’s says the corn is organic, but because it’s soaked in lime before being dried and ground, it can’t be labeled as such. Soaking the corn kernels in lime water is called nixtamalization, and it changes the amino acid profile of the corn, making its lysine and tryptophan amino acids more available, resulting in a greater abundance of niacin—the shortage of which causes a terrible disease called pellagra. Nixtamalization was discovered by Mexico’s native populations thousands of years ago. Pellagra can be common in people who obtain most of their food energy from corn, notably people who live in rural Central and South America, where corn is a staple food. If corn is not nixtamalized, it is a poor source of lysine and tryptophan, thus of niacin. If the national organic rules say that nixtamalization disallows corn that’s grown organically from being labeled organic, than the rules are wrong and need to be changed. There’s nothing un-organic about soaking corn kernels in water that contains wood ashes—as the Native Americans did—or in lime water, which is just naturally occurring calcium carbonate—limestone—that is already allowed as a soil and compost ingredient under the national organic rules.

Back in the day, we’d line our tortilla press with cellophane or plastic bread bags cut open, but I thought I’d be a bit more modern, and slit open and trimmed a one-gallon zip-lock freezer bag that has a little more substance to its plastic. You don‘t put a ball of dough directly on the press, or it will likely stick to the pressing surfaces and make a mess.

Making the dough involved adding about 1 1/8th cup of filtered water and a half or quarter teaspoon of salt to a cup and a three quarters of masa harina. Add the salt to the masa in a large bowl, then add the water a bit at a time, stirring well as you go. When the dough is together, knead it by hand for about five to seven minutes, until the dough is smooth. If the dough is too wet, it will spread out too thinly and stick to the plastic, if it’s too dry it will make a crumbly tortilla. When it’s just right, it makes a smooth paste that easily forms a non-sticky ball in your hands. It may take a little fiddling with the dough until you learn what is right.

Make the dough into balls just a tiny bit larger than a golf ball. The plastic bag is placed so that one half is laid on the bottom of the press. The dough goes on that, then the other half of the plastic is brought over and laid on the dough. Then you place the top plate of the press on top of the top piece of plastic, grab the lever and press it down. Use medium pressure—too much pressure will make a thin tortilla that may stick to the plastic. It’s perfect when the lever just touches the stop on the press, without you exerting hard pressure.

Get a cast iron griddle or skillet and rub the cooking surface with a few drops of canola oil. Get the pan medium hot before putting in the first tortilla. Too hot will burn the tortilla, too cool and it will take forever to cook. Lift the handle and top of the tortilla press and take the plastic “sandwich” with the tortilla in the center, and open the plastic, turning it over so the tortilla itself lies against the palm of one of your hands. Peel off the plastic with your other hand. A nice 5- or 6-inch tortilla should now be free.

Place the tortilla in the pan and cook for 50-60 seconds, then with a spatula, flip it and cook for another 50 or 60 seconds. It should be nice and hot, and fragrant as well, with a smell like roasting corn or popcorn cooking. If your masa harina is ground fine enough, the tortilla may puff up. Unfortunately for me, Bob’s Mill masa is not ground fine enough to puff. It makes a tasty tortilla, but it’s a non-puffer.

The tortillas fresh off the griddle or skillet should be immediately given a simple filling of whatever kind of taco you want. Have all fillings ready to roll as the tortillas come out of the pan. Don’t overload the taco with fillings. A few used with restraint make a better taco than one overloaded and dripping with juices from the salsas and other wet ingredients.

Many people like to make their tacos with two tortillas placed together and then given the fillings. I do that because there’s less chance of the tortillas disintegrating from the wet ingredients and I also get more of the good fresh corn flavor. If you want to use two, buy a tortilla basket and pop the first one in there to keep toasty warm while the second one is cooking. You want fresh hot tortillas for your wonderful, home-made, organic tacos.

Here’s a list of ingredients typically used to make tacos—but of course not all at once. You might set all these out if feeding a lot of guests so people can pick and choose among the ingredients. Make sure all ingredients—especially the tortillas—are organic. If you’re making fish tacos from ocean fish, the fish won’t be organic because wild caught fish are not allowed the organic label by law. But wild caught fish like sole, halibut, or sea bass are always preferable to farmed fish.

Finely chopped Romaine lettuce
Chopped and drained tomatoes
Chopped onions, either raw or cooked until golden
Tomatillo salsa
Black beans drained, heated, and mashed
Carnitas—cubed (1/4 to ½ inch) boneless pork fried in a little oil
Salsa picante
Chopped jalapenos, serranos, or—if you’re crazy—habaneros
Battered and fried fish
Queso cheese, or grated parmesan or feta
Carne asada—grilled and thinly sliced beefsteak
Chicken breast sliced and cooked in a little oil in a pan until done
Chopped cilantro

You can always add anything you like or subtract anything you don’t like, but to learn what you favor the most, patronize those taco trucks you see being thronged at dinnertime by the Latin community. Their tacos are usually excellent and inexpensive, and will give you an idea of the right proportion of filling ingredients to tortillas.

Home-made organic tacos are a great way to feed friends and family really tasty food for not very much money.



Katherine Paul and Alexis Baden-Mayer wrote the following extremely important and enlightening article for the Organic Consumers Association website for September 25, 2013. For related articles and more information, please visit the Association’s “Millions Against Monsanto” page and “Politics and Democracy” page at www.organicconsumers.org.

While consumers battle on for laws mandating the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food products, some lawmakers are taking the GMO labeling debate in a different direction. And it’s a direction that’s anything but consumer friendly.

Last month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) asked the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to finalize its 2001 guidance on voluntary labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The senators advertised their request as a move intended to benefit consumers. But in fact, a federal voluntary labeling plan plays right into the hands of the biotech and big food industries.

How? Worst-case scenario, once the FDA finalizes its GMO labeling guidance, industry uses the FDA guidance to preempt state laws requiring mandatory labeling of GMOs. Currently, states have the right to enact GMO labeling laws precisely because the FDA has not formally ruled on GMO labeling.

Second, the FDA’s guidance on voluntary GMO labeling could be used to put an end to existing, legitimate voluntary non-GMO labeling efforts. By allowing the FDA, which has previously (and controversially) ruled that GMO and non-GMO foods are “substantially equivalent,” the FDA could rule against non-GMO or GMO-free labels on the basis that they mislead consumers by implying that there’s a difference between GMO and non-GMO foods.

On August 22, Sen. Warren and Sen. Udall sent a joint letter to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration urging the agency “. . . to finalize its guidance document on labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) marketed as food or food additives…We encourage the FDA to implement a regulatory framework that will promote transparency for consumers while providing producers with the certainty they need to label their products appropriately.”

Coming from Sen. Warren, whose reputation as a staunch consumer advocate is near-legendary, the letter to the FDA looks like another example of the Massachusetts senator going to bat for consumers – specifically, the 93 percent of Americans who want mandatory GMO labeling laws.

Until you take a closer look.

The 2001 Guidance Document, 00D-1598, that Warren and Udall reference in their letter is intended to provide guidance for voluntary labeling, not the mandatory labeling consumers are fighting for. Yet nowhere in the letter to the FDA, or in the press release issued by Warren’s office, does the word “voluntary” appear.

Oversight? Or did Senators Warren and Udall intentionally omit the word “voluntary” in the hope that consumers wouldn’t notice?

Senators Warren and Udall both refused to support federal legislation that would have required mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs. Both also voted against an amendment to the farm bill that would have protected states’ rights to label GMOs.

Are Senators Warren and Udall simply misinformed on the merits of voluntary labeling versus mandatory labeling? Or have they joined the cast of lawmakers toiling behind the scenes on behalf of Monsanto, not consumers?

Monsanto likes to cry “unfair” when it comes to the issue of state GMO labeling laws. The biotech giant has even threatened to sue states that attempt to pass their own GMO labeling laws, on the basis that state labeling laws violate interstate commerce rules, which makes them illegal.

Despite Monsanto’s yet-untested threats, current law supports states’ rights to enact their own food labeling laws, as long as two conditions are met. First, the state must produce compelling evidence that the law is needed to protect the health or safety of citizens. And second, there must be no pre-existing FDA regulation governing the label in question.

State GMO labeling laws currently meet those conditions. But that could change if the FDA heeds Senators Warren’s and Udall’s call to finalize its 2001 guidance on voluntary GMO labeling. And industry knows it.

Increasingly, retailers see the wisdom (read marketing advantage) of voluntarily labeling products that contain GMOs. Whole Foods Market earlier this year that its stores would label GMOs by 2018. Consumers have no problem with retailers who voluntarily label GMO products in their stores. Nor do they have a problem with manufacturers who subject their products to GMO testing and have them certified by a third party, such as the Non-GMO Project.

But a voluntary labeling scheme written by the biotech industry-friendly FDA? That’s a whole other ball of wax.

Here’s our first clue that FDA guidance on GMO labeling won’t address consumer concerns. The “solution” proposed by Senators Warren and Udall has the support of industry, including the International Dairy Foods Association, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a big funder of campaigns in California and Washington aimed at defeating state GMO labeling laws.

Monsanto itself has publicly endorsed the FDA’s 2001 guidance on voluntary labeling, in a statement published on the company’s website.

And no wonder. The FDA has a history of using food labeling guidance to promote industry’s interests over those of consumers.

Case in point. In 1990, the FDA declared recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), a genetically engineered hormone used to increase milk production in dairy cows, safe. In 1993, the FDA gave Monsanto the green light to use rBGH.

Consumers, influenced by studies citing health risks associated with rBGH, raised a stink. Some milk producers responded to consumer concerns by refusing to use the hormone. They also began marketing their products as rBGH-free.

That didn’t sit well with Monsanto, which saw consumer demand for rBGH-free milk as a threat to its bottom line. The biotech giant complained to the FDA that rBGH-free labels were misleading because, after all, the FDA had ruled that GMO and non-GMO foods were “substantially equivalent.”

The FDA compromised. Under the 1994 Food Labeling Guidance, the FDA said it would allow rBGH-free labels on dairy products, but only on the condition that the label also stated that there was “no significant difference” between milk produced using rBGH and milk produced without the hormone.

Not satisfied with the FDA’s ruling, rBGH-free dairies took Monsanto and the FDA to court. They won by proving that milk produced with rBGH is compositionally different than milk produced without the hormone.

But the courts and consumers could face a much higher climb when it comes to challenging the FDA on “GMO-free” labels. If the FDA heeds the call to finalize its 2001 guidance on voluntary labeling of GMOs, it could spell the end of GMO-free labeling. And that would leave consumers with no mandatory labeling, and no reliable voluntary labeling.

Here’s why. According to the FDA’s yet-to-be finalized 2001 guidance, “genetic modification” means the alteration of the genotype of a plant through the use of any technique, new or traditional. The word ‘modification,” says the FDA, covers a broad range of activities that could result in a change in the composition of food, including adding, deleting or altering hereditary traits.

Under those guidelines, most, if not all, cultivated crops have been genetically modified – though not necessarily through bioengineering technology. So, by the FDA’s reasoning, any label that includes the word “modified” – as in “not genetically modified” or “GMO-free” – is technically inaccurate, unless used clearly in a context that refers to bioengineering technology. Moreover, the term “GMO free” may be misleading on most foods, according to the FDA, because most foods do not contain organisms (seeds and foods like yogurt that contain microorganisms are exceptions). Again, by that reasoning, it would likely be misleading to suggest that a food that ordinarily would not contain entire “organisms” is “organism-free.”

And there’s more. The FDA says that any label suggesting that a food was not bioengineered or does not contain “bioengineered ingredients” could be considered misleading if it implies that the labeled food is superior to foods that are not labeled GMO-free. Again, based on its previous ruling that there GMO and non-GMO foods are “substantially equivalent.”

Bottom line? If the FDA finalizes its guidance on voluntary GMO labeling, where does that leave consumers? Right where they are now. In the dark.

Katherine Paul is director of communications and development for the Organic Consumers Association. Alexis Baden-Mayer is political director for the Organic Consumers Association.



The following article is from our friends at Just Label It (www.justlabelit.org).
An article titled,“What Happens When Weed Killers Stop Killing?” in Science magazine for September 20, 2013, ad this summary: “Farmers in the United States are heading for a crisis. In parts of the country, weeds resistant to the world’s most popular herbicide, glyphosate, now grow in the vast majority of soybean, cotton, and corn fields. Weeds that can shrug off multiple other herbicides are also on the rise. At an American Chemical Society symposium, chemists said they have little to offer: Few new weed killers are near commercialization, and none with a novel molecular mode of action for which there is no resistance.”

More than fifteen years ago, when the first herbicide-tolerant GE crops were planted in U.S. soil, some experts warned that the technology would accelerate the development of superweeds that would be resistant to the herbicides used with the crops. They were right. Superweeds, which evolve to withstand the very chemicals designed to kill them, have now become an epidemic on farmland in many locations across the country.

The most common superweeds are resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s popular herbicide Roundup, but resistance is appearing to herbicides used with other GE crops 
as well. Today, more than 61.2 million acres of U.S. farmland are infested with weeds resistant to Roundup, which has been the world’s best-selling weed killer for 32 years.

As weeds became resistant, growers have applied still more herbicides to try to control them. A recent study found that over the years from 1996 to 2011, the use of GE crops increased herbicide use by 527 million pounds, putting consumers and the environment increasingly at risk.

The emergence of glyphosate-resistant superweeds has led growers to turn to older herbicides such as dicamba and 2,4-D, an ingredient used in Agent Orange, the notorious Vietnam War era defoliant, resulting in the emergence of weed species that are resistant to multiple chemicals. Both dicamba and 2,4-D are volatile chemicals that evaporate and can drift well beyond their targets, especially in warmer weather, posing a significant public health risk to nearby rural communities.
The strategy of combating weeds by engineering crops that can withstand herbicides and then blasting fields with those chemicals is no match for evolutionary adaptation, as demonstrated by the rapid growth of superweeds across the country. This approach leads to a dangerous, toxic dead end, one that will leave the landscape infested ever more varieties of resistant superweeds while and undermining efforts at safe, sustainable farming.

Additionally the superweed epidemic affects each farmer’s bottom line. According to the article in Science, “for cotton grown in the South, the cost of using herbicides has climbed from between $50 and $75 per hectare a few years ago to about $370 per hectare today.” The need to apply more and more herbicides will continue to make farmers’ costs skyrocket, making this practice profoundly unsustainable.

Dow, Bayer CropScience, Syngenta, and Monsanto are all developing new seed varieties resistant to herbicides other than glyphosate, which will make it easier for farmers to use alternative weed killers. However, Science magazine acknowledges a bleak future for farmers that continue to rely heavily on the seed and herbicide combo. “If there is an overreliance on them, they will fail and fail rapidly.”

There is no question that GE technology will continue to drive up the costs of food production, increase the use of harmful chemicals and undermine efforts for a sustainable food system. We as citizens need the right to choose if we want to support this disastrous scenario.