A GMO Reality Check

by Melissa Diane Smith

Recent news and telling signs that more people are moving away from genetically modified foods

For 20 years, most Americans have been in the dark about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the foods that contain them. But that is changing. Growing numbers of people are learning that we are the first generation to have these untested, unlabeled substances imperceptibly (yet pervasively) hidden in our foods.

Ninety percent of Americans, which includes an almost even split of support among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, want genetically modified foods – foods that contain GMOs – labeled. More than a million people have signed the Just Label It! petition asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods, and a bipartisan group of 55 members of Congress threw its weight behind the petition, saying labeling would “prevent consumer deception.”

In May, nearly a million voter signatures were submitted in California to place a GMO labeling initiative on the ballot in November for a direct vote by the people in the state. It’s largely believed that a GMO labeling law in California could help convince more companies to switch to non-GMO versions of their products nationwide to avoid disclosing information about GMOs on their labels and risk turning off consumers.

Growing Movement

Even without laws in place, more people individually and collectively are turning away from GMOs. The Non-GMO Project Verified label is the fastest growing label claim in the natural foods arena, and sales of Non-GMO verified products increased 219 percent from 2010 to 2011. In addition, the number of local chapters in just one of several non-GMO activist groups – the Institute for Responsible Technology’s Tipping Point Network – has tripled in the past few months.

“The numbers of people who have taken a position against GMOs is greater than ever,” says leading non-GMO advocate Jeffrey Smith who has been regularly crisscrossing the United States speaking about the dangers of GMOs since 2003. “Their commitment to that position is greater than ever, and I would say millions of people, in my judgment, are actively seeking to reduce the amount of GMOs that they eat.”

One telling example of increasing non-GMO activism occurred after a study by the Cornucopia Institute, an organic and agriculture policy group, found that certain brands of cereal contained genetically modified ingredients. Some natural food stores acted on that information, pulling those cereals off their shelves. Consumers responded, too, writing a flurry of angry website and Facebook comments to the companies whose cereals were found to contain GMOs. The public outcry prompted at least one of the cereal companies to pledge that beginning in 2015, all new foods it introduces will be Non-GMO Project Verified and will contain at least 70 percent USDA organic certified ingredients.

Basics about GMOs

Why the protest against GMOs? Unlike food that has been grown from seeds that have been handed down through generations, genetically modified foods are created in a laboratory. Genetic engineers artificially insert genes from bacteria, viruses, animals, or humans into the DNA of a food crop or animal to make a genetically modified organism that would never occur in nature. Biotech companies do this for two main reasons: to make crops that are tolerant to herbicides such as RoundUp that kill other plants, and to make crops that produce their own insecticides.

The FDA’s own scientists actually warned that these never-before-created foods could create new toxins and new allergens and needed to be more thoroughly tested, but their concerns were dismissed. The U.S.’s official position became that genetically modified (GM) foods were “substantially equivalent” to conventional foods and didn’t require safety testing or labeling. This is at odds with 50 other countries that require that genetically modified foods be clearly labeled. Commercial planting of GM seeds began in 1996 and GM foods entered our food supply without most people’s knowledge.

By 2011, 94 percent of all soybeans and 88 percent of all corn grown in the United States were genetically modified. Soy and corn, along with other common GM foods (including sugar from sugar beets, canola oil, and cottonseed oil), are used as ingredients in countless other products, so many Americans, including health food shoppers, likely have been eating GM foods without realizing it.

No Benefits, Just Risks

What we didn’t know about what we were eating may already be harming us. Based on animal research with GM foods, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM), an international organization of physicians, says that there are serious health risks associated with eating GM foods, including infertility, immune system problems, accelerated aging, disruption of insulin and cholesterol regulation, gastrointestinal problems, and changes in organs. In 2009, the AAEM urged doctors to prescribe non-GMO diets for all patients, saying that doctors are probably seeing negative health effects in their patients right now from GM foods but not realizing that GM foods are major contributors to various health conditions.

Genetically modified crops pose risks to the environment, too, including the serious threat of GM seeds spreading to and contaminating both organic and conventional non-GMO crop fields. Plus, the biotech industry claims that genetic engineering reduces the use of pesticides, but research shows otherwise. According to a 2009 report by the Organic Center, overall pesticide use dramatically increased – about 318 million pounds – in the first thirteen years after GM crops were introduced.

Herbicides sprayed in high amounts on GM herbicide-resistant crops have led to the development and spread of so-called “superweeds” – weeds that adapt to, withstand, and aren’t killed from the herbicides that are used on them. The biotech companies’ proposed solution to this problem is to create new GM crops resistant to more toxic chemicals, such as 2, 4-D, a major component of Agent Orange, the Vietnam War defoliant. It’s a “crazy” idea because weeds would adapt to that herbicide and any other herbicides that are used in the future, says Andrew Kimbrell, the executive director of the Center for Food Safety and the author of Your Right to Know: Genetic Engineering and the Secret Changes in Your Food.

The most important thing to know about genetically modified foods is they only benefit the chemical companies that produce them, says Kimbrell, “[The biotech companies] have yet to produce anything that benefits the consumer. There’s no better taste, no better nutrition, no lower price. That’s the dirty little secret that is hardly ever reported. That’s why those companies don’t want GM foods labeled. They don’t want the consumer to be able to have the choice to say, ‘I want the same price, less risky version,’” Kimbrell says.

The Power to Change Our Food

Both Kimbrell and Smith believe that passing the California GMO labeling initiative is a critical step in the movement to convince food companies to create more GMO-free products. But consumers can still exercise their power as shoppers right now and help move the market.

Smith estimates that when as little as 5 percent of the population avoids genetically modified foods when they shop, it can create a tipping point – a moment when major food companies realize that using GMOs is a liability in foods and they start pulling GM ingredients from their products.

Many recent signs – the amount of Internet traffic, attention by social media sites, coverage by mainstream media, and the increase in sales of non-GMO products – “all suggest that we are on the doorstep of that tipping point in the U.S.,” says Smith, the author of Genetic Roulette.

So, if you don’t like the idea of eating genetically modified foods, get educated and shop non-GMO. You and others like you just might change the future of our food.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the August issue of Better Nutrition magazine.



Tip #1: Buy Organic

Certified organic products cannot intentionally include any GMO ingredients. Buy products labeled “100% organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic ingredients.” You can be doubly sure if the product also has a Non-GMO Project Verified Seal.

Tip #2:  Look for Non-GMO Project Seals

Products that carry the Non-GMO Project Seal are independently verified to be in compliance with North America’s only third party standard for GMO avoidance, including testing of at-risk ingredients.

Tip #3:  Avoid at-risk ingredients

If it’s not labeled organic or verified non-GMO, avoid products made with ingredients that might be derived from GMOs. The eight GM food crops are:

  • Corn (as in corn oil, cornmeal, cornstarch and other corn-based ingredients)
  • Soybeans (as in soybean oil, soy protein, soy lecithin, soy milk, tofu, and other soy-based ingredients)
  • Canola (as in canola oil)
  • Cottonseed (as in cottonseed oil)
  • Sugar Beets (as in “sugar” in an ingredient, which is almost certainly a combination of sugar from both sugar cane and GM sugar beets)
  • Most Hawaiian Papaya
  • A small amount of Zucchini and Yellow Squash

Also, beware of Dairy Products, which may be from cows injected with GM bovine growth hormone, and Meats from animals or Farmed Fish fed GM foods. Look for dairy products labeled No rBGH or rBST, artificial hormone-free, or organic; wild-caught fish; and meat labeled organic or 100% grass-fed.

Tip #4: Use non-GMO Shopping Guides
Download either the new Non-GMO Shopping Tips brochure or redesigned Non-GMO Shopping Guide to help you identify and avoid GM foods and hidden GM ingredients on food labels. If you have an iPhone, download the ShopNoGMO guide for free from the iTunes store.

Source: Non-GMO Shopping Guide, www.nongmoshoppingguide.com, by the Institute for Responsible Technology

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