Where do we go from here?

Posted on March 13, 2011


This is the third part of my series on GMOs.  Originally the series ended here, but now with unlimited virtual space at my disposal, I’m thinking about exploring the topic further.  In the meantime I hope you enjoy this installment:

Making the decision to include or exclude Genetically Modified (GM) food from your diet can be complicated.  Advocates on both sides of the debate are emphatic that their position is the correct one. The FDA has approved many of these crops for public consumption, and the companies who produce them claim that they are safe.  Others, including some doctors and scientists, believe that the long term consequences of GMO consumption on our environment and health aren’t worth the risk. Ultimately the decision is a personal one and I won’t attempt to make it for you. But if you do decide to avoid GMO products I have a few tips to make the process easier.

Unfortunately companies who use GM ingredients in their products are not required to tell you. The FDA has decided that these foods are functionally equivalent to their non-GMO relatives and as such they do not require special labeling. And cross-contamination through pollination or during shipping only adds to the difficulty of avoiding GMOs. In the end the easiest route may be to search out products that clearly do not contain GMOs, rather than trying to figure out which products do.

When you take this approach, things begin to get a bit simpler. There are several easy to find labels that will indicate a food is free from genetically modified ingredients. The first is the USDA Organic seal. “The NOP (National Organic Program) regulations prohibit the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge in organic production and handling.” Any food carrying this label will therefore be free of genetically modified ingredients. (It will also be produced without sewage sludge.  Though, personally, I was a little disturbed to find out that they would need to specify that!)

Another indication that a product is GMO free is Fair Trade certification.  According to the FLO (Fair TradeLabeling Organizations), “The Fairtrade environmental criteria includes reducing chemical fertilizers and pesticides, no slash and burn or genetically modified products, protecting water and natural resources, and waste prevention and recycling.”  There are several groups that do this certification, but in the U.S. most Fair Trade products will be marked with the familiar black and white TransFair label.

Aside from these guaranteed GMO-free indicators you will sometimes find single products, or lines of products, from large brand-name companies that do not contain GMOs. These products are usually clearly labeled with the phrase “Does not contain GMO ingredients,” or something similar.  They can be a bit harder to find though as there is currently no standard label or seal to help identify these products.  The easiest way to find them is to read labels. You can start by looking for items marked “natural” or “made with organic ingredients”, but read the label carefully! Use of the term natural is not regulated by the FDA so you’ll need to judge each product individually.

You might also consider calling the product information number for any company you routinely buy from. This number is usually located on the back panel or below the ingredient and nutrition labeling. It might take a little time to get an answer this way, but by contacting the company you are letting them know that people really do want to know whether or not their food contains GMOs.

You may also want to grow your own non-GMO food. When you start a plant in your own home you can choose the seeds, the soil, and the pest control measures yourself. By purchasing certified organic seeds you can be sure your vegetables will not be genetically modified. And if you are feeling adventurous you might want to explore the world of heirloom varieties. These beautiful “old-fashioned” varieties not only look and taste great, but growing them contributes to the genetic diversity of our food supply as well. If gardening is your thing you may even wish to connect with others via a program like the Seed Savers Exchange to improve access to non-GMO seeds.

Genetic Diversity in our food system is actually very important. In planting monocultures you risk large scale famine if a new disease or pest arises.  Also the practice of copyrighting GM seeds, especially when they constitute so much of the corn and soy produced in this country, puts farmers and consumers at the mercy of a few large corporations. This topic is simply too large to address here but there are many resources available if you would like to learn more. I suggest checking out the film The Future of Food which you can watch for free online.

I hope you’ve found this series of articles to be interesting and useful.  The question of what role GMOs should and will play in our food system has yet to be decided. It’s only by getting educated that we, as consumers, can truly play an informed part in the making of that decision.

For more info check out these links:
Fair Trade info: http://www.fairtrade.net/
National Organic Program: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop
Seed saving: http://www.seedsavers.org/
Future of food: http://www.thefutureoffood.com/onlinevideo.html

(This article was first written for the GreenTree Co-op Newsletter.)