By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
This month as I prowled the web getting educated on the GM food battle percolating in our capital and courtrooms (as farmers sue Monsanto, and vice-versa), I stumbled upon a useful little booklet: The “True Food Shopper’s Guide” to avoiding GMO foods.
Created by the Center for Food Safety, which has been all over this issue of genetically modified (GM) or genetically engineered (GE) foods for several years, the guide is a lifesaver if you’re looking to reduce your exposure to edibles that have been genetically altered by Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta and Dow Chemical.
Like most American consumers, I’ve bought plenty of GM foods, simply because they seep into so many grocery items — corn tortillas, snack foods, breads, oils, frozen dinners etc. — and also because the takeover of US corn and soybeans by the biotech industry is nearly complete. More than 80 percent of the corn and soybeans grown in the US are genetically modified.
But I’m uneasy about this unrequested incursion of GM organisms onto my plate.
I’ve been buying an increasing number of organic products, which reduces my exposure to pesticide residues and defuses the threat of GM ingredients. A 100-percent organic food product cannot include GM ingredients. But often times there’s simply no organic alternative to buy. My favorite organic corn tortillas, made by Garden of Eatin, can be hard to find. The mainstream grocery nearby doesn’t carry them anymore and the other brands of taco shells and corn tortillas are most likely made with GE corn. I cannot tell for sure, because the US government does not require labeling of GM or GE products.
I don’t know how dangerous or safe GM products are. I have too little information to assess the situation. For the record, the biotech firms say there’s nothing to worry about.
Still, I don’t like being in the dark on this matter and I’m in good company. Polls show most Americans want labeling and several food groups are campaigning for GE labels on foods, which already are required in Australia, Brazil, Japan, China and the United Kingdom. So far, though, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stood behind the long-used rationale that GM foods are not “materially” different from their naturally produced cousins, and therefore labeling is not necessary.
This response drives natural food advocates bananas, because that claim can be traced to industry statements made when GM seeds were introduced. It appears to have little foundation in research, and it also suggests that the US government has simply adopted the self-interested assertions of biotech firms, in place of looking more closely at these foods, which are altered in ways that go well beyond simple hybridization.
Our government appears willing to allow virtually every US resident — those who eat food — to serve as test cases in the GM experiment.
Food activists complain that we, and they, been left outside a wall of secrecy protecting the industry’s patents, and forced to take their word on GM safety. That’s why they’ve petitioned the government for labeling.
As the Center for Food Safety puts it:
“There is no long-term study showing that GE foods or crops are safe, yet the biotech industry and government have allowed our environment and our families to become guinea pigs in these experiments. Doctors around the world have warned that GE foods may cause unexpected health consequences that may take years to develop. Laboratory and field evidence shows that GE crops can harm beneficial insects, damage soils and transfer GE genes in the environment, thereby contaminating neighboring crops and potentially creating uncontrollable weeds.”
Labeling would be a step toward transparency, and while the public still wouldn’t have adequate information to assess whether GM foods are safe or not, people would at least be able to avoid them.
Obviously, the big food and crop companies oppose labeling, because it could lead to consumer fall off, while alternative food companies, and even a few members of Congress, think its a good idea.
It seem to me that we consumers should have a right to this information, given that the food we eat greatly influences health and also that our tax dollars are funding this grand experiment. (You can read more about the labeling debate at several websites, including the Center for Food Safety, which is featuring a video by Food Inc. director Robert Kenner.)
In the meantime, if you want to reduce your exposure to GM foods, you can consult the “True Food Shopper’s Guide.”
We used it to sort out the best veggie burgers. Several, made with conventional corn or soybeans, are GM products. Happily, there are many options on the “non” side of the list, including our current favorite, the Sunshine Burger.
The guide contains some good news:
- Very few fresh fruits and vegetables sold in the US are genetically modified. Small amounts of crookneck squash and sweet corn may be GM. The only produce that’s likely to be GM is papaya from Hawaii, about half of which is now GM. On the downside, produce is the new frontier for biotechnology.
- There’s a long list of organic dairy and dairy-alternative products, soy and almond milks that are non-GMO.
- Most fruit juices are made with non-GM fruits, but avoid those sweetened with corn syrup, which is almost always derived from genetically modified corn.
It also offers several valuable warnings, such as:
- GE salmon are in the pipeline. When the guide was updated in 2011, this was a possibility. It’s now a reality and you can read the latest at GE-fish.org.
- Watch out for corn, canola, soybean and cottonseed oils/components in canned, processed and frozen foods. Activists call these basic crops “the Big Four” because they’re almost always GE/GM.
- Watch out for GM sweeteners in candy and chocolate, and also in artificial sweeteners, which are derived from genetically modified micro-organisms. Choose products sweetened with cane sugar, organic brown sugar and molasses instead.
Want to know more?
- Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety has written a book, Your Right to Know: Genetic Engineering and the Secret Changes in Your Food.
- Here’s a video that’s dated, but does a good job of explaining how genetically modified foods are created. It illustrates why people are concerned about the process of creating transgenic foods, and how it could affect human biology.
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