If there were something in your food that scientists, healthcare researchers, and consumer advocates thought questionable, you’d probably want to know, right? Well, if you live in the U.S., this information may be more difficult to obtain than you’d think.
The reason: Our country doesn’t require labeling for foods that have been genetically modified (GM). While genetic modification of food is a complex process, the bottom line is this: the DNA of the seeds from which the food is grown have been altered, oftentimes by mixing it with the genetic code from other species.
Why don’t we have the liberty to know which of our foods are “real” and which are grown from manipulated GM seeds?
While the answer is complex and beyond the scope of this article, it is worth noting that the government committee responsible for setting GM food in motion was headed by a chemical industry executive and included no members of the USDA or FDA. (This committee was actually spearheaded by ex-VP Dan Quayle, which is kind of ironic when you think that the man infamous for not being able to spell “potato” played a great role in casting the dye for this arena of our government’s food policy.)
If GM seeds were just a novelty, this may not be much of an issue. But novelty they aren’t: in fact, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, more than five years ago, had estimated that about 70% of all packaged foods sold here contained a GM ingredient. So chances are you’re likely to come across these foods on any given grocery-shopping outing. And yet not know.
Aren’t we just following suit with accepted worldwide food policy? Actually, that’s not the case. In fact, E.U. nations, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries require that the label of GM-ingredient foods include this information. It’s buyer be aware and beware. In turn, consumers can make informed decisions as to which foods they want to purchase. There. But not here.
If It’s Too Good To Be True, Is It True?
The promises of GM foods are appealing. After all, advocates argue, why not use science and technology to improve the value and production of the global food supply.
That would be well and good—actually even great—if there were conclusive evidence that supported the save-the-world-in-a-safe-and-healthy-way claims that have been made for the genetic engineering of food. But we’re not there yet. And many wonder whether we may ever be.
For example, many GM seeds are touted for their high yield, that they will produce more plants per acre or hectare of land. Yet, the Soil Association and others have issued reports that dispute this, finding that many GM seeds actually result in reduced food production.
There may also be other negative social and environmental outcomes of GM foods. For example, its impact on the economics of farming and the sustenance of the small farmer as well as its contribution to climate change and reduced soil quality—let alone its overall ecological effects—have been called into question.
As have, also importantly, their impact upon our health.
Your Health and GMOs
“They are using these seeds to grow our food and we aren’t sure they are safe?” I can hear you thinking (or maybe I’m just projecting my concerns onto you, dear reader). You’d think given the fact our food can be grown from them and that the FDA classifies them as GRAS—“generally recognized as safe”—that this wouldn’t even be a question. But, unfortunately, it is.
From my perspective the answer to the question is, at best: We don’t really know enough about GM foods to confirm that they are safe for and supportive of our health. (Again, I’m making this as a best-case-scenario statement. On most days, I’m more aligned with the worst-case scenario that there is something very problematic about science tampering with the nature of our food.) That’s because there has been minimal research—no well-designed, long-term studies feeding humans GM foods—undertaken, even given the concern for issues such as toxicity, food allergies, and the undermining of health.
While it’s tough to draw definitive conclusions on human health from animal research, the results of a recent study from Austria (which seemed to fly under the mainstream media radar) may give you pause. It showed that feeding lab animals a commonly consumed strain of GM corn negatively impacted their fertility, resulting in a reduction in their ability to reproduce. Many of the offspring that they did give birth to had lower birth weights.
The Power of We, The People
If you’re concerned about GM foods—whether you want to avoid them or just want to learn more—there are tangible steps you can take. These actions are important as they may help to safeguard the healthfulness of our food supply, both today and tomorrow.
For Today: Watch Out for the Big 4
While it isn’t mandatory for the labels of foods—as well as dietary supplements—to tell you whether the ingredients within come from GM seeds, they can still provide you with great insights. For example, soybeans, corn, canola, and cotton (in the form of cottonseed oil) should be high on your radar when you read food labels as they are the Big 4 when it comes to crops most likely to be genetically modified. (In 2002, the USDA estimated that 87% of the soy, 52% of the corn, and 79% of the cotton grown in the U.S. were from seeds that were genetically engineered.) These foods—notably soybeans and corn—are not only grown for human consumption but serve as the foundation of what is fed to the animals whose meat we consume.
Due to the rising awareness of this issue, some companies will either use organically grown ingredients (more on this below) or clearly state that the ingredients included in their product are “non-GMO.” Look for these signs of sustainability on the label of foods.
Remember, though, it’s important to not just look for these foods in their whole form because there are many derivative products made from them. For example, on the soy front there’s soy flour, soy protein isolates, and lecithin. Corn-based ingredients include cornstarch, corn flour, and, of course, the ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup.
If you have any questions about the origins of the ingredients in a food of interest, don’t hesitate to contact the manufacturer’s customer service department. After all, that’s what they are there for.
For Today: Buy Organic
In the U.S., the laws stipulate that foods that are labeled as organically grown cannot come from genetically modified seeds (and meats and dairy products labeled as organic cannot come from animals that were fed GM foods). So these are your best bets if you want to ensure that you are eating whole foods, grown from seeds as nature intended.
Yet, remember that unless the label says 100% organic, a packaged food can contain conventionally grown ingredients. So, don’t just stop your evaluation by looking at a food’s front or back panel—where the marketing language lives. Instead, read the ingredients list to see whether it contains any items made from the Big 4 that are not organically grown (or not listed as non-GMO).
For Tomorrow: Lobby for Labeling
President Obama ran on the platform of change. Hopefully, this mantra also applies to his administration’s positions toward labeling of GM foods (as well as a general approach to sustainably safeguarding our food supply). While Obama and his USDA head, Tom Vilsack, both seem to be supporters of GM technology, each has mentioned at one time or another their desire for stronger regulatory oversight that takes the health of the public into consideration.
While this may or may not be political rhetoric, since we’re still in the infancy of the Obama administration and no policies have been set in stone (let alone no head of the FDA picked at the time of this writing), we are in an important window of opportunity to let our voices be heard about this labeling issue. If you’re interested, write, call, or email your Senators and Representatives and tell them that you believe that it is the public’s right to know what is in our food and that labeling of GM foods would be an important step in that direction. Also, look into signing your name to online petitions, like the one on the Responsible Technology website, to make President Obama aware of your interest in this issue.
There is a growing amount of information available on the topic of GM foods. One of my favorites is the compelling movie, The Future of Food.
The future of our food, as reflected in the issue of GM foods and their labeling, is unknown. Yet, with the planet Saturn residing in Virgo until mid-2010, we are in the midst of a period where critical attention may be paid to our food supply—including the role it can play in our health as well as how to best safeguard food safety. Therefore, it’s not surprising that issues like this are strongly resonating with more people. It’s a great time to take action, lobby for GM labeling, and vote with your fork by choosing foods that you believe are those most sustainable for your health and the environment. The future of our food may depend upon it.
The subject of GM foods is controversial and all the facts may not yet be known. I encourage you to share your thoughts on this subject with myself and other readers in the Comments section.