Monday, October 27, 2014

Jerusalem Artichoke

Helianthus Tuberosus

I am cooking with Jerusalem artichoke for the first time. One of my family members has high cholesterol and was told he shouldn't eat potatoes. Jerusalem artichoke is a possible substitute, since potatoes form a major part of our diet.

The Jerusalem artichoke is not an artichoke, nor does it have any connection to Jerusalem. It's actually a variety of sunflower (which makes me wonder about the roots of the sunflowers growing in our yard). Since it has an invasive habit, I planted it in a container. That's probably why I didn't get as large a crop as I expected. The information I found indicated that the tubers could be harvested throughout the season, but each time I dug down around the plant I found (at best) a few rhizomes approximately the thickness of my smallest finger. When I dug it up this morning, all the tubers were directly under the main plant. We got a couple of pounds of small tubers, most of them between an inch and an inch and a half in diameter. Again, I think that was because it was in a small, isolated space and couldn't spread out.

In herbalism, Jerusalem artichokes are used as a supplementary pre-biotic, helping to balance the bacteria levels in the intestines. Instead of traditional starches, they have a starch called inulin (not to be confused with insulin) which doesn't break down readily and is not passed through into the bloodstream. They have very little effect on blood sugar, unlike traditional potatoes, and can be used to partially regulate blood sugar levels in diabetics.

According to hearsay, they can be used in anything that requires potatoes. I found that they slice easily, in perfect thin slices, where potatoes would tend to break or shear. One source said they can be used raw (rather like water chestnuts) in salads. Whether or not they should be peeled is a matter of choice, but their skins are thin and barely visible. The tubers are wrinkled and bubbled, making removal of the skins into more of a chore than I'm willing to take on.

I made hash-browns with them as a test. They have a nutty, sweet taste and a texture similar to potatoes but slightly more crunchy. They also stuck to my teeth like glue and I spent the next half hour prying them loose.

I got ambivalent reactions from family members. The taste would certainly take some getting used to. Not sure yet whether they would be worthwhile as a crop in the future. I'm guessing not, but I'll leave it open for discussion.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

GMO's (Part 3--Environment)

One of the larger documented problems with GMO's (Genetically Modified foods) is pollen drift. Time after time, conventional crops have been found to be contaminated with patented gene complexes. A number of times to my knowledge, the farmers in question have been slapped with lawsuits because they didn't "rent" the rights to grow the genetically modified versions, even though they had no idea that what they were growing was a patented version.

Time after time, it has been proven that the genetically modified plants happened because of pollen drift--the pollen from genetically modified fields drifting over to a traditional crop. If this happens in an area where seed crops are being planted, the seeds will include the patented gene modifications. If the farmer keeps part of his crop to replant (which was traditional in the early 20th century) then he's keeping genetically modified seeds.

A number of times, a gene modification has been traced back to a farmer who had no idea he was planting something he shouldn't--and the gene modifications in question were never cleared by the FDA. The seed stocks were supposed to be destroyed. And yet, somehow the genes ended up being in some farmer's crop in the middle of nowhere.

Coincidence? Genetic drift?

So let's take this a step further. Many common food crops have wild relatives. Like the beefalo (a buffalo/beef mix), even if the genetic material doesn't result in a true cross the genes are still there.

When you look at any wild environment, it's built on an extremely delicate balance. Let once piece of that environment disappear, the whole thing might collapse.

So let's set up a scenario. A wheat field planted with a genetically modified variety has a prevailing wind toward a wild area with various native grasses closely related to wheat. The wheat includes a terminator gene which doesn't allow for viable seeds. This is so that the seed provider doesn't need to worry about seed "piracy," or the farmer keeping seed without permission.

The wheat blooms and the pollen blows toward the grasslands. It pollinates several close relatives of the wheat. Because of the differences the genes are not fully integrated--the grass is visibly the same as before.

But now it carries the terminator gene. A few generations down the road (plant generations) the terminator gene activates and all the grass dies. The animals and birds that usually eat the seeds have nothing to eat and either leave or die. The animals that usually eat those animals also leave or die. The process of grass mutation continues until all the grass is dead. Meanwhile, the gene complexes have migrated even further and are now working on a wetland preserve about half a mile away.

The toxins built into the altered wheat have also migrated to the wild grass. The insects the toxins are designed to defend against have gained a level of immunity, increasing risk to the traditional crops in the area.

Five or ten or twenty years down the road, people are scratching their heads and demanding to know who should be held responsible. The FDA that approved the strains? The companies that made and marketed the gene complexes? The farmers? The EPA? Everyone who made the decision is now safely retired or dead.

A far-fetched scenario, perhaps, but definitely possible. So do we allow the risk for a possible immediate gain? Or do we remove the risk and never know if it would have happened?

Personally I'd prefer the latter.

Part 4