Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

By Jean English
Editor, The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener

Contrary to such expressions as "dumb animal" and "dumb as an ox," animals may tell us a lot when they exhibit certain behaviors. If your animals are off their feed, for example, check to see whether their grain is moldy. That was one bit of advice from toxicologist LeBelle Hicks, who spoke about mycotoxins (toxins produced by fungi and sometimes present in grains) at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show in January.

What if the grain isn't contaminated by mycotoxins? What else might make animals turn up their noses at particular foods? How about the products of genetic engineering (GE)?

Such anecdotes exist. Cows who got loose are said to have walked straight through fields of GE corn until they came to fields of non-GE corn, which they devoured. A Dutch farmer reportedly set two piles of corn in his mice-infested barn: a GE pile and a non-GE pile. One was untouched, the other disappeared. Guess which was which!

A young Dutch undergraduate, Hinze Hogendoorn wondered about the mouse story and looked for studies documenting preferences for GE vs. non-GE feed in animals. Finding no such studies, he did his own. He got 30 mice and gave them a staple rodent food as well as four bowls of other feed, each containing either GE or non-GE corn or soy. The corn had been engineered to express the BT toxin, a pesticide. Hogendoorn observed that the mice ate the corn almost exclusively, and showed a significant preference for the non-GE variety.

He then divided the mice into two groups, one receiving the staple food and GE corn and soy, the other receiving the staple plus organic or natural corn and soy. "The average masses of the mice fed on natural food seem to approximate a natural growth curve," he reports. "In contrast, after about a week of feeding, the mice fed on GM [genetically modified] food started losing weight." Also, those with GE food "seemed less active while in their cages mice in the Non-GM cage were in the exercise wheel more often than the GM cage. Also, each time I came in the room there were usually more mice in the Non-GM cage walking or climbing around than in the GM cage." The most "disconcerting" observation he made, however, was that the mice receiving GE food "were clearly more nervous than the mice from the other cage" when Hogendoorn weighed them. He describes their frantic behavior as "neurotic."

Hogendoorn does an excellent job of discussing the possible' meanings and the limitations of his study. Unlike many more "scientific" reports, his is a pleasure* to read for its insight and humility.

Humility seems to be a good trait to nurture as we increase our ability to tinker with a planet that is so complex and, at the same time, so orderly that it is beyond our complete comprehension. Photons strike a plant, which produces a chemical and exudes it through its roots, which promotes the growth of a fungus, which takes up just the nutrient that the plant requires and translocates it to the plant. Meanwhile, a nematode attacks a bacterium that was about to attack the plant. The nutrients from the bacterium are released into the soil around the nematode and are taken up by the fungus and moved to the plant … and so on. We disturb these remarkable lifewebs when we raise our crops, but we can do our best to disturb them as little as possible. That was the subject of Steve Gilman's talk at the Farmer to Farmer Conference last November, and you can learn in these pages how he encourages "starter cultures" of mycorrhizal fungi and other beneficial organisms on his farm.

People are appreciating these lifewebs increasingly. A national poll by the Pew Charitable Trust last July found that 62% of born-again Evangelicals, 57% of Protestants and 55% of Catholics opposed allowing the biotech industry to "play God." In all denominations surveyed, women opposed GE foods more than men. These numbers were greater than those of similar polls taken several years ago. (In the Jewish community, 55% supported the technology.) Whether your god is the white bearded guy in the sky, or Gaia, or Allah, or the Spirit who inhabits the oak and rock, the multidimensionality of the Earth seems sacred and well worth preserving.

I sign off now as my cat tries to scratch up the floor to bury his 33-cent-a-can food. How can he be so dumb?

MOF&G Cover Spring 2002