The New Food Fight
Foods containing genetically engineered ingredients are almost everywhere. Here’s what families need to know about these potentially dangerous foods. From KIWI’s April/May issue.
Photographs by Peter Tak
Here’s a startling fact: Every day, most of us—even natural food enthusiasts—eat foods that contain ingredients whose DNA has been altered in a science lab. Whether it’s the string cheese kids pull apart at lunch or the popcorn you snack on after dinner, there’s a good chance the item in question includes genetically modified organisms, which some experts say could have harmful consequences for people—especially kids. Here, an in-depth look at GMOs’ effect on our health and the environment, plus how you can keep your family safe.
What are GMOs?
Genetically modified organisms, also known as genetically engineered (GE) food, have DNA that has been altered in a way that does not occur in nature. While natural selection and traditional agriculture can change a plant’s DNA structure over a long period of time (for example, quinoa has developed a soapy coating to repel insects, and farmers continually replant the seeds of their juiciest tomatoes to yield a juicer breed over time), the biotechnology responsible for creating GMOs is far quicker: In a lab, desirable genes are inserted into a plant’s cells, becoming a part of the plant’s DNA. The result is a new version of the plant.
How you can protect your family
At first glance, the solution seems simple: Avoid foods containing genetically modified organisms. But unfortunately, the ever-expanding reach of genetically engineered foods means it’s becoming more and more difficult to avoid them completely: GMOs show up in the vast majority of packaged foods, and new GMO crops are continuing to be deregulated by the government, further contaminating the food system. If you buy natural and organic foods much of the time, you may be ahead of the game—but not necessarily so. Here, ways you can significantly reduce your family’s exposure:
Step one: Know the big GE foods
First, the good news: Currently, there are only nine GE crops in the U.S. food system: The majority of soybeans, canola seeds, corn, and cotton (which can be used to make cottonseed oil) are genetically engineered; small amounts of zucchini, squash, and Hawaiian papaya are also genetically engineered. This past January, the USDA approved genetically modified alfalfa, a purple flowering plant that people don’t usually eat, but is often fed to livestock. And, beginning in May, farmers will again be allowed to plant GE sugar beets (planting was approved by the USDA in 2005, but courts ruled against it in 2010).
The bad news? These crops tend to end up in just about everything. Processed versions of soy, canola, and corn (like soy lecithin, canola oil, and high fructose corn syrup) find their way into about 80 percent of packaged food items like cereal, salad dressing, canned soup, soy-based meat alternatives, and infant formula. Soy and corn, too, along with alfalfa, are fed to the cows, pigs, and chickens that produce meat, milk, and eggs. (Conventional dairy cows are also given the genetically engineered hormone rBGH to boost milk production.) Many more foods also contain cottonseed or canola oil, plus sugar from sugar beets.
Step two: Choose safe alternatives
Unlike countries in the European Union, the United States doesn’t require foods containing GMOs to be labeled, so it’s better to choose foods that specifically indicate they’re GMO-free, like those tested by the Non-GMO Project. After independently testing and verifying a food item’s ingredients, the package receives the Non-GMO Project’s Verified seal (see “Know Your Labels”). Many major natural and organic brands currently participate in the program, including Silk, Organic Valley, Eden, and Whole Foods Markets’ store-brand products (find a full list at nongmoproject.org). “People can look for the Non-GMO Project Seal and trust that rigorous practices for GMO avoidance have been followed,” says Westgate. Another option: Check out the True Food Shopper’s Guide (or download the app), a comprehensive list of GMO brands and their non-GMO counterparts from the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit environmental and public health organization (centerforfoodsafety.org).
USDA-certified organic foods are the next best option, but since GE crops can be grown in close proximity to organic ones, they aren’t entirely immune from potential cross-pollination. Pollen from a GE crop can blow into the field of an organic crop and potentially intermingle with the organic crops’ reproductive system, causing the GE DNA to get into the organic crops’ DNA. “But in general, we know the risk of contamination to organic foods is significantly lower than to conventional foods. Organics are a good place to look to avoid GMOs, but consumers should still look for certified non-GMO products when possible,” Westgate says.
What about foods without packaging—like fruits, vegetables, and meat? For now, the vast majority of fresh fruits and vegetables are safe. The exceptions are some zucchini, yellow squash, Hawaiian papaya, and sweet corn—small amounts of which are genetically modified. Here, it’s advisable to buy organic or from a local farmer who can guarantee his crops aren’t genetically engineered (you can also ask if he is near any large-scale GE farms that might cause cross-contamination). Less reassuring is the fact that “conventional chicken, cows, and pigs have been raised on a near-complete diet of GM corn, soy, and now alfalfa,” says Benbrook—so concerned families should choose certified organic, 100 percent grass-fed meats whenever possible.
Step three: Stand up for your health
The U.S. government is likely to continue to support GMO foods. The USDA’s January ruling in favor of genetically engineered alfalfa means more foods will contain GMOs, and organic crops risk further contamination from cross-pollination. Even major players in the fight against GMOs, like Whole Foods Market and the Organic Trade Association, say that a co-existence between organic, GMO-free food, and genetically engineered food may be the best option available for now, since the government hasn’t established further organic-protecting regulation. Others, like the Organic Consumer Association, want to push for mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs with a grassroots campaign, Millions Against Monsanto. (To find out how you can sign petitions and volunteer for the cause, visit millionsagainstmonsanto.org.) The best way to support organics? Use the power of your purchases. “In Europe, consumer rejection was achieved—and brands removed GMOs from their products. If enough American consumers stop buying GMO foods here, it could make the same impact,” Smith says. The bottom line is: The choice for what to feed your family should always be yours.
Learn even more about GMOs—and keep up with the ongoing debate surrounding GE alfalfa—from these organizations:
- Center for Food Safety’s True Food Network
- Organic Consumers Association
- Non-GMO Project
- Say No to GMOs!
Learn more about GMOs—and how to keep your family safe—by purchasing KIWI’s digital edition.
Talk About It
Do you actively avoid foods containing GMOs? Do you think GM foods should be labeled?