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Gene pool

(article, Mary Butler)

Strolling the supermarket these days can feel like attending a label convention. Every product, it seems, claims to be healthy: “No Trans Fat!” “No Hydrogenated Oil!” “Calcium and Vitamin Enriched!” And one day soon, a new label will appear: “Non-GMO Verified.”

In March, six natural-foods producers (including the national grocery chain Whole Foods) announced that they were seeking certification guaranteeing the absence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs, also known as transgenic foods) in some or all of their products. The idea behind this bold step was to raise awareness of the ubiquity of genetically engineered foods in the American diet. 

[%image nongmo float=left width=200 caption="The Non-GMO Project wants non-GM food to say so."]

Genetically modified food sold in the U.S. is not currently required to sport GMO labels. Which means that most Americans are eating GM food, without knowing it, every day.

GMOs exist in such common ingredients as soy lecithin, soy protein, corn syrup, and corn starch, which are found in everything from baby formula to tortilla chips, veggie burgers to muffin mix. Even organic food may not be GM-free; while organic crops are required to be isolated from other crops, it appears they can still become tainted when genetically modified pollen and stray GM seeds blow onto farmers’ land or farm equipment. 

Last year, California organic dairy farmer Albert Straus — whose Straus Family Creamery expects to be the first in the nation to verify and label its products GMO-free through the new program — suspected such crop corruption might be taking place. Straus tested the organic corn fed to his cows, and found that about 6 percent of it was contaminated by GMOs. 

“I think a major shift is happening. Industry leaders are recognizing that without setting up a system like The Non-GMO Project, organics could be at risk,” says Megan Thompson, the program director for The Non-GMO Project, creator of the non-GMO-verified labeling program. “The time to intervene is now, to ensure there is such a thing as organic.”


What separates organic and conventional crops from GM plants is pure laboratory science. GM seeds have been altered using “gene technology,” also called “recombinant DNA technology.” The expression of certain traits, or the proteins a plant produces, can be altered through the modification of its genes. 

The technology allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another — including between non-related species. Typically, it is done to make crops more resistant to herbicides, pesticides, and plant diseases caused by insects and viruses.

However, anti-GMO activists worry that the risks may outweigh the benefits. The technology’s effects on human health and the environment have yet to be studied thoroughly, and no one truly knows the long-term consequences of consuming GMOs. At the very least, activists say, consumers should be alerted to the presence of GMOs in their food. 

“I think a lot of people, they assume a certain amount of trust in what the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) says is safe,” The Non-GMO Project’s Thompson says. 
h3. Taking notice

The Non-GMO Project was born five years ago when customers at The Natural Grocery Company, a small natural-foods grocery store in Berkeley, California, aired their concerns about the GM soy lecithin in products sold there. The customers started a letter-writing campaign, endorsed by 160 natural-foods stores nationwide, urging manufacturers to clearly label products containing GMOs. 

[%image "feature-image" width=300 float=left caption="In the United States, 89 percent of soybeans grown are genetically modified, according to the USDA."]The problem, Thompson says, was that the manufacturers couldn’t comply with the request even if they wanted to, because they often didn’t know whether a product contained ingredients at risk for GMO contamination. 

The Non-GMO Project sought to eliminate that ambiguity. The nonprofit partnered with a testing lab, Genetic ID, and is now in the process of creating a centralized database of ingredients so food producers can track which are meeting non-GMO protocols.

“Now you can trace all the way down the supply chain to make sure there are identity-preservation tactics,” Thompson says. “All the way from the growing of seeds to the manufacturing of a final product: where it’s coming from, how it’s handled, and the risk for contamination.” 

The goal, she says, is to provide consumers with the information they need to make accurate choices about what to buy.  

In the U.S., widespread planting of genetically engineered crops began in 1996. By 2006, GM crops accounted for 89 percent of the soybeans and 61 percent of the corn grown in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. GM cotton has also been rapidly adopted. So far, efforts to introduce GM wheat have been unsuccessful. But several other GM crops have been FDA-approved for market, including varieties of sugar beets, tomatoes, canola, flax, papaya, alfalfa, squash, and rice. (The FDA lists GM foods submitted for its approval online.) 

While GMOs have gained a foothold in the U.S., labeling laws have greatly limited their use in Europe, Japan, and some African nations, which reject international food aid containing them. An anti-GMO food campaign in Europe erupted in 1999 following a controversial study that suggested some strains of genetically modified potatoes might be toxic to laboratory rats. The campaign was among the factors that resulted in strict labeling laws and food regulations in the European Union and beyond. 

U.S. consumer groups also began to seriously question GMOs in 1999. That year, Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, conducted DNA analysis on everyday groceries purchased at stores around the nation and confirmed positive results for GMOs in several unexpected places, including Bac-Os Bacon Flavor bits and Ovaltine Malt powdered beverage mix. (The results were published in the September 1999 issue.) At the time, the magazine reported, just one-third of Americans surveyed were aware that genetically engineered foods were available in the supermarket. 

[%image tomato float=right width=400 caption="Would you eat a GM tomato?" credit="Photo: iStockphoto/lisegagne"]

It’s been more than a decade since GM foods were introduced into the American diet, and we still know surprisingly little about their health effects. “There’s been no follow-up, in terms of tracking whether there have been health effects, by the government,” says Bill Lilliston, a co-author of the book Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers and the communications director for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a nonprofit dedicated to family farms. “It’s really hard, if not impossible, to say there have been negative health effects.”

We do know, Lilliston says, that introducing new proteins into the food supply has been linked to health concerns in the past. And GMOs produce proteins previously unknown to humans. Some people could be allergic to the new proteins, but there’s no way to know for sure, Lilliston says. 


The best-known example, he says, is StarLink corn. Scientific advisors to the Environmental Protection Agency warned that the GM corn might cause allergies. The EPA allowed the corn to be sold only for non-food uses, but in 2000 it was found in taco shells and other products sold at grocery stores. The contamination of the food supply led to more than 300 product recalls and crippled U.S. corn exports for months.

Jeffrey M. Smith, in his book Seeds of Deception, writes that much energy has been wasted attacking and defending GMO viewpoints, while very little energy has been spent on safety testing. All you have to do, says Smith, is “follow the money”; this will answer the question of why institutes, scientific panels, research journals, and even government officials allow GM foods into the food chain despite the lack of research and the potential for risk. 

“With less research money available from public sources, more and more scientists in the U. S. and Europe are dependent on corporate sponsors, and hence, corporate acceptance of their research and results,” Smith writes. 

The top five federally subsidized crops — soy, corn, wheat, cotton, and rice — nearly mirrors the list of top-produced GM crops (with the exception of wheat), begging the question of whether there are incentives for companies to produce GM versions of these crops. 

Farm subsidies don’t specify whether a crop is GM or not. But some people argue that the USDA and the Farm Bill subsidize the agricultural biotech industry in other ways, the IATP’s Lilliston says. The U.S. government has spent big money researching GM crops and then “essentially handed over the patents” for the biotech industry to develop them, Lilliston says. 


h1. GMOs on film

The 2004 documentary "The Future of Food," by Deborah Koons Garcia, explores the "gene revolution" in modern agriculture. 

After profiling farmers sued by Monsanto for allowing GMO crops to drift into their fields, Koons Garcia explains how gene splicing works, how GMOs might affect public health, and how the lack of modern crop diversity is directly related to the lack of intellectual diversity at research institutions. 

"The Future of Food" gives viewers plenty to chew over.


“And they have spent a tremendous amount of time pushing other countries to accept biotech crops, including aggressively attacking African countries for not accepting the food as aid, and the European Union by attacking their GM policy at the World Trade Organization,” he says. 

“There are no real consumer benefits from GMOs,” Lilliston points out. “That’s a real limiting factor. When they were first introduced 15 years ago, biotech companies said they would be able to produce GMO crops with more vitamins that were healthier. And that’s never materialized.” 

“What you see is, really, private industry and consumers taking the initiative because government has dropped the ball,” he concludes. 

h3. Taking action

One of the first legislative efforts tackling GMOs was the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act, HR 3377. It was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives in November 1999 by Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich; its companion legislation, S 2080, was introduced into the Senate by California Senator Barbara Boxer in February 2000. Both bills died. 

In September 2000, the Minneapolis City Council jumped on the anti-GMO wagon, passing a “zucchini resolution” urging Congress to label all genetically modified foods and pushing Minneapolis schools to offer organic foods as an alternative. 

Since then, there have been several unsuccessful attempts at both the federal and state levels to create labeling laws, including an Oregon state ballot initiative in 2002. Corporate and biotechnology interests — including Monsanto, the world’s largest genetically engineered seed producer — spent more than $5 million to defeat the Oregon measure. 

Together, Monsanto and agricultural biotech companies have also fought efforts at the city and county levels to ban GM foods; so-called “Monsanto laws” now exist in 15 states and pre-empt local governments from outlawing which kinds of crops are planted in their communities. 


h1. Goodbye, GMOs

Here are five ways to tackle genetically modified food.

1. Write to natural-food producers and ask that they seek non-GMO verification.

2. Buy organic and whole foods.

3. Avoid processed foods.

4. Join a CSA (community-supported agriculture) food program.

5. Write to your local, state, and federal legislators, voicing your support for labeling of GMOs and more GMO oversight.


Ohio’s Kucinich, a Democrat running for president, continues to pursue the issue. He again unsuccessfully introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act, HR 5269, in May 2006. Currently, several state bills seeking greater oversight of GM crops are pending in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New York, and West Virginia.

The anti-GMO movement has, however, racked up several successes. They've managed to ban the cultivation of GM crops in California’s Mendocino, Marin, Santa Cruz, and Trinity counties, as well as in nearly 100 towns in New England. In Washington state, they've banned the cultivation of genetically engineered fish. And they've succeeded in passing the U.S.'s first law, in Alaska, requiring the labeling of genetically engineered food. 

Under the Alaska law, all genetically engineered fish must be "conspicuously labeled to identify the fish or fish product as a genetically modified fish or fish product," whether packaged or unpackaged. The Alaskan fishing industry harvests more than half of the nation's fish; in 2003, the state's total catch was more than five billion pounds.

“The community should be able to shape their food supply,” says Britt Bailey, the co-author of two books about GM crops, Engineering the Farm and Against the Grain, and the director of Environmental Commons, an environmental advocacy group. “I am actually heartened and energized by what I’m seeing,” Bailey says. 

h3. Taking on the future

Craig Winters, a co-founder of The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, says momentum is building in the effort to label products containing GM ingredients. For instance, an anti-GMO conference titled the BioReality Conference was held in Washington, D.C., in late March. The conference brought together such groups as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to work on disseminating greater awareness of the issues surrounding GMOs. 

“The natural-products industry has changed quite a bit,” Winters says. Over the past decade, mom-and-pop natural-foods businesses have been snapped up by big corporations, such as Kraft, Kellogg, and Coca-Cola. That’s one of the reasons, he says, it’s taken more time to gain the critical mass needed to push the issue of GMOs. “The people who are passionate about the issue are not in charge anymore,” he says.  

While that’s been a stumbling block for anti-GMO activists, Winters says, there’s always more than one way to solve a problem. What if, Winters wonders, natural-foods co-ops around the nation boycotted Kraft’s Boca products in a call for GMO labeling? Such a move could attract publicity and cause a significant decline in sales. “You attack them high, attack them low, and in the middle,” he says. 

In the meantime, activists say, people can support greater regulation of GMOs with their pens and their wallets. (See sidebar.) “Spread the word,” The Non-GMO Project’s Thompson says. 

And keep in mind, anti-GMO activists say, that sometimes it’s the food lacking a label that needs one the most.    

p(bio). Mary Butler is a writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado.

*Elsewhere on Culinate: Articles on GMO foods at the store and in the fields.

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