the going green store on gmo's

What is a GMO*?

Genetically engineered foods are created when the genetic material from one organism is inserted into another. Most GE** foods are commodity crops such as corn and soy, but research is underway to develop genetically modified fruits and vegetables. A common example of a GMO is Roundup Ready corn. Roundup is a trade name for a broad-spectrum herbicide marketed by Monsanto, and Roundup Ready corn comes from seed also patented by Monsanto. (Convenient for them, eh?) You plant the corn, spray the herbicide, and it works against all grasses except the corn, which has been altered genetically to withstand the chemical. Because the seed is the intellectual property of Monsanto, you may not save your seed from one year to the next, as humans have done for millennia. Instead, you must buy seed each year from the company. This represents a marked shift in agriculture - farmers no longer have control over their production, from seed to harvest, but are dependent on a large company for their most fundamental inputs.

Why Should I Be Concerned?

According to the Environmental Working Group, the average U.S. American eats 193 pounds of genetically engineered food in one year. And this is an underestimate! The study zeroed in on only four of the foods most commonly derived from GMO crops: sugar, corn-based sweeteners, salad oil and “corn products.” The study did not consider other significant sources of GMOs such as feed for the animals whose meat we eat. Certain conventional crops are almost certainly genetically modified: USDA data shows that 93% of soybeans, 88% of corn, and 95% of sugar beets are genetically engineered.

GMOs are still so relatively new that little is known about their long term effects on human health. Independent research has turned up disturbing health implications such as deteriorating liver and kidney function and impaired embryonic development. But all research so far has been limited by licensing agreements that control the use of genetically engineered seeds. Because the seeds are patented, they are not able to be cultivated for research purposes. And because genetically engineered foods are not required to be labeled, the FDA cannot effectively track the health results in people consuming them.

Mark Bittman of The New York Times takes a different tack. Sidestepping the controversy over the unknown direct effects of eating GMOs, he points out that GMO crops are bad for all of us in another way. The purpose of most genetically engineered crops is to withstand the chemical herbicides that are used to grow them. These chemicals are definitively dangerous to human health (particularly the farmers applying them!) and their constant use leads to resistance in the weeds they are meant to kill in the first place, which leads to the use of stronger and stronger chemicals. A recent study from Washington State University shows that, coinciding with the rise of GMO crops, herbicide use has increased by 527 million pounds or 11% since 1996.

Environmental Working Group founder Ken Cook also points out that GMO technology has precipitated the spread of monoculture plantings of corn and soybeans, contributing to the already dire loss of biodiversity. In the last four years, over 23 million acres (an area the size of Indiana) of wetlands and grasslands have been plowed up to plant more of these commodity crops.

GMOs in the News

GMOs had a moment in the last election when Prop 37 in California, which would have required labeling for foods containing GMOs, was defeated. This is a shame for all of us - not just Californians - because legislation mandating labeling of GMO foods in California would have affected packaging across the country.

According to results compiled by the Center for Food Safety, over 90% of Americans consistently believe that foods containing GMOs should be labeled. And they’re not alone; more than 50 countries require GMO labeling. So what happened in the 2012 election? Wealthy interests, including heavyweights like Monsanto, Kraft, Heinz, and Pepsico raised $45.9 million to campaign against Prop 37, while supporters (dubbed by NPR “a far crunchier lineup”) were able to raise only around $9 million. (For a list of those who donated to support labeling, check out this friendlier list, which includes some of our crunchy favorites, like Dr. Bronner’s, Seed Savers Exchange, Dr. Mercola, and Nutiva.)

But there is hope!

Even though Prop 37 was defeated last year, it may have raised awareness and galvanized support for the labeling of genetically engineered food. There are many other state and local initiatives currently underway to require GMO labeling. The city of Cincinnati became the first in Ohio to pass such a resolution on November 15th, 2012. For more information on labeling campaigns, visit Just Label It! or The Center for Food Safety.

What Can I Do Now?

In the meantime, until we have effective GMO labeling, there are a few ways that you can avoid genetically modified foods in your diet:

Avoid processed foods.
This general guideline is good for your health in so many ways. When your food enters your kitchen as a whole food, there is no question about what you’re putting in your body. Strive as much as possible to start with whole grains, beans, vegetables...

Choose Organic.
Certified Organic foods may not contain GMO ingredients, or be grown from genetically engineered seed.

Look for the Non-GMO Project label.
Support companies like Ohio’s Berlin Bakery that have taken a stand against GMOs. Visit the Non-GMO Project website for a complete searchable list of verified products and retailers or download a shopping guide to your computer or iPhone.

Support Farmers You Know Who Grow Real Food
It’s a complicated issue! In reference to GE seeds, EWG’s Ken Cook has written: “It turns out that we need better farmers and a better farm bill, not better seeds.” One way to ensure the survival of these “better farmers” - who raise a wide variety of crops that are food for humans, rather than crops that are industrial inputs - is to support them directly. Shop at the farmers market, join a CSA, or look for truly local food products wherever you shop. Also think about how you could source more of you staple foods locally. Support Ohio business like Shagbark Seed & Mill, Stutzman Farms and Berlin Bakery that provide and process Ohio-grown grains and beans.

Educate yourself.
You can avoid the crops most likely to be genetically modified: corn, soy, canola, and (sugar beet) sugar, but sometimes it’s difficult to tell which ingredients come from these plants. Familiarize yourself with the many different variations of ingredients that come from corn and soy.


Center for Food Safety: GE Food Labeling

Opinionator: Buying the Vote on GMOs

Cincinnati Passes Resolution Requiring GE Food Labeling

Americans Eat Their Weight in Genetically Engineered Food

California Rejects Labeling of Genetically Modified Food

Another Environmentalist Apologizes Over GMOs

*GMO = Genetically Modified Organism
**GE = Genetically Engineered