By Valerie Foster
Mention GMO and watch the reaction. There might be some eye-rolling. Or maybe a quizzical look that means the person has no idea what you’re talking about. Then there are those who’ve heard of GMOs — genetically modified organisms — but really don’t understand what they are.
Honestly, chances are even if you think you understand GMOs, you might actually be harboring lots of misconceptions. I know I was, and I’m a seeker of organic produce, grass-fed meat and poultry, and wild fish low in mercury.
It’s an involved and complicated subject, so HealthyLife is offering a cheat sheet of sorts to make it easier to absorb. We promise to keep it simple.
What is a GMO?
Many of the foods we eat today are hybrids, the result of grafting or cross-breeding to create a new or improved food. Think about it: You can breed a cow with another cow to get a better cow, but you can’t breed a cow with a banana. Hybrids are not GMOs. The cow/banana combo would necessitate gene mixing and technically would be a GMO. But of course, it’s more complicated than that. In many cases, GMOs translate into plants and seeds that are resistant to certain insects and pesticides and grow in less favorable conditions than they would ordinarily need. Many of the seeds only work with one pesticide, so the manufacturer sells them as a combo package.
According to the Human Genome Project, combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be genetically modified. GMOs do not happen in nature. But they’re found in medicines, vaccines, foods and food ingredients, feeds and fibers, which means it’s getting nearly impossible to know if you have eaten or ingested GMOs.
GMOs in food
Our focus today is on our food supply. Tara Cook Littman of Fairfield founded GMO Free CT, and was instrumental in beginning the Coalition of States for GMO Labeling, an organization of about 30 states committed to full disclosure on food labels. “We do not tell people whether they should eat foods containing GMOs, but we do educate them about GMOs,” she says. “We do think that everyone has the right to know what is in their food. Food labels should say whether the food contains GMOs or not. People can make up their own minds.”
Littman says that 80 percent of the processed foods we eat contain GMOs and that the five main GMOs found in processed foods are corn, canola, soy, sugar beets and cotton seed. Check food labels and you’ll discover how accurate that 80 percent figure is. “Ingredient labels are also confusing,” Littman adds. “For example, lethicin is made from GMO soy.” (Lecithin is an oily substance that occurs naturally in soybean plants and egg yolks. It has emulsification properties that make it a perfect food additive. It’s primarily found in candy, bakery items, tea bags, cough drops, prescription medications and some asthma inhalers.)
Think you’re avoiding GMOs by eating fresh produce? Not necessarily. Some of the produce on your grocer’s shelves is genetically modified, with the most common including corn, soy, Hawaiian papaya, and small amounts of zucchini and crook-neck squash. Alfalfa fed to animals also can be genetically modified.
When it comes to crops, many foreign countries have banned growing GMOs, according to Greenpeace. In the United States, only the California counties of Mendocino, Trinity and Marin have banned growing GMO crops.
GMO pros and cons
The Human Genome Project lists many GMO benefits: enhanced taste and quality; reduced maturation time; increased nutrients; hardiness in animals; better yields of crops, meat, eggs and milk; improved animal health; friendly bioherbicides and bioinsecticides; better natural waste management and more efficient processing. For a complete list, check out ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/gmfood.shtml.
But the HGP also lists concerns, including potential human health impacts, such as allergens and transfer of antibiotic resistance markers. Then there are environmental impacts, including GMO transfer through cross-pollination (for example, a bee pollinating a GMO plant with his next stop an organic field), loss of flora and fauna biodiversity, domination of world food production by a few companies, genetically inserting an animal gene into a plant, and vice versa, and lack of labeling. (The complete list of controversies follows the advantages on the Human Genome Project’s website.)
According to Littman, 61 countries around the world have GMO labeling. So some American food manufacturers have two different labels, she says, one for countries that don’t require labeling, another for countries that do.
In November, Proposition 37 failed in California, which would have required GMO labeling and prohibited the food designation “natural.” The voting was close: 48.5 percent of voters were in favor of labeling; 51.5 percent against. California Watch, an independent nonpartisan initiative of the Center for Investigative Reporting, reported that money poured into California to support both sides of the issue. The “No on Prop 37” campaign received $44 million from companies such as Monsanto and The Hershey Co., while proponents raised $7.3 million.
According to organicconsumer.com, 17 states have bills moving through their legislatures that would require some type of GMO labeling.
In Connecticut, a GMO labeling bill made it out of the environmental committee last year but not to the general House. Littman says the bill will be reintroduced this year, but as of HealthyLife’s deadline, did not have a number. For more information: gmofreect.org or labelgmos.org.
“We only need a few states to pass a GMO labeling bill to make it standard throughout the country,” Littman says. “The food companies will not make different packaging for different states.”
HealthyLife tried — in vain — to get a statement from the FDA regarding GMO labeling. Even the famed Dr. Oz only had a written statement from the FDA when he aired a show on GMOs. It read: “We recognize and appreciate the strong interest that many consumers have in knowing whether a food was produced using bioengineering. FDA supports voluntary labeling that provides consumers with this information and has issued draft guidance to industry regarding such labeling.”
What’s a consumer to do?
The Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit that was started in 2005 by natural-food retailers to provide customers with better information and reliable non-GMO choices. The project created a third-party standard and verification program to test products for GMOs. If deemed GMO-free, the product can display the non-GMO seal.
Currently, the project has 6,100 non-GMO-verified products with another 2,500 in the process of being verified. There are 689 brands enrolled in the verification program.
“Often people feel overwhelmed by the prevalence of GMOs in processed foods,” says Courtney Pineau, assistant director of the project. “It is important to remember that even small changes can be meaningful.” Her tips:
Remember that the most common GMOs are corn, soy and canola. Check the ingredient lists on every non-organic product for this trio.
• Buy organic products as much as possible since they cannot intentionally contain GMOs.
• Start with one meal at a time and find non-GMO alternatives. For example, start with breakfast and kick out the high-GMO-risk breakfast cereal.
• Check out nongmoproject.org for a list of all products that have received the non-GMO seal.
“I want to live in a GMO-free world,” says Littman. “Others might not, and that is their choice. But everyone should have the ability to decide if they want to eat GMOs, and until there is labeling, we have no choice.” She adds that since the commercial sale of GMOs only started in 1994, research on long-term effects on humans is scarce.
Until labeling exists, there is an invaluable website, nongmoshoppingguide.com, which lists non-GMO products, including ones that are GMO-free but have not received the Non-GMO Project’s seal. It also lists the products that are awaiting verification from the project. They even have a free iPhone app that you can take shopping to immediately see if a product is GMO-free.