This month the Co-op is partnering with the Non-GMO Project to raise awareness about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in our food system. The Non-GMO Project was founded in 2005 when The Big Carrot Natural Food Market from Toronto, Ontario and The Natural Grocery Company from Berkley, California joined forces around a shared goal of creating a standardized definition of “Non-GMO” for the North American food industry. Both retailers had already enacted GMO awareness campaigns in their communities, but had struggled without an industry-wide definition of what it meant for a product to be GMO-free. Upon creating the Non-GMO Project, the team began working with the Global ID Group, a world leader in non-GMO testing, certification and consulting. Today, the Non-GMO project has created a complex and encompassing definition of what it means to be “non-GMO” and offers a voluntary third-party verification program. Participants in the program go through the certification process, and those that qualify are awarded with the Non-GMO Project Verified seal. So far, the Non-GMO project is the only organization offering independent verification of testing and GMO controls in the U.S. and Canada.
It is important to note that Non-GMO Project verification does not mean that a product is 100% GMO-free. What it does mean is that the product “has been produced according to rigorous best practices for GMO avoidance, including testing of risk ingredients.” The seal is an indication that the producer of that product is serious about avoiding GMOs.
A Genetically Modified Organism (GMO), or Genetically Engineered (GE) Organism, is an organism or microorganism that has had its genetic material altered via genetic engineering. These alterations are achieved through gene-splicing techniques, which enable scientists to take DNA from one species and place it into another, at times completely dissimilar, species.
When I talk about GMOs, a common question I get is, “How is this different than what human beings have been doing for centuries?” It is true; human beings have been engaging in plant/animal genetic modification for centuries, employing crossbreeding, selection techniques, etc. We have developed more fruitful or flavorful crops, new varieties of animals, etc. The primary difference between this age-old form of DNA manipulation and the relatively new biotechnology techniques described above is that there were a great deal of limitations built into those old methods. Selection and breeding processes could take generations to make lasting changes to a plant or animal’s DNA, and there were limitations to the kinds of genetic combinations we could achieve. Take, for instance, the myriad breeds of dogs that exist today. It is hypothesized that all dogs descended from one common relative (the grey wolf) and over time have adapted to environments and been bred by humans to create a dazzling array of diversity. This is an example of traditional manipulation/modification of a species. With gene-splicing, it is theoretically possible to take genetic material from a completely dissimilar species like, say, a fish, and inject it into the dog to create a desired trait in either that very animal, or in the next generation. It accelerates the timeline for change, and creates new genetic combinations that simply would not occur in nature or via crossbreeding.
GMOs, as I’m sure many of you know, are quite controversial, especially when it comes to food. Some people feel that they offer excellent potential advancements in agriculture. They argue that GMOs offer a potential solution to world hunger, since you can adapt plants to new environmental realities very quickly (for example, making drought-resistant rice) or crops with enhanced nutritional value (like Golden Rice, which has high levels of beta-carotene added). Others raise concerns about the safety, environmental impacts, and the possibility of organic foods continuing with genetically engineered foods.
There are so many different facets to this debate, and there is no way for me to even touch on all of them in this article without taking up the entire Reader. Books can (and have been) written on this topic. Compounding the problem is the lack of conclusive, independent research on the current and future effects of GMOs on people and the plant. However, I would like to offer a broad and basic overview of some of the concerns people have with GMOs. At the Willy Street Co-op, we are dedicated to educating consumers about the potential risks of GMOs so that shoppers can make informed choices for themselves and their families. Here are some of the most common concerns:
Since genetic engineering is a relatively new technology, questions have been raised about whether or not GMO foods are truly safe to eat. Thirty other countries around the world, including all of the countries in the European Union, have restrictions or outright bans on GMO food because they feel there isn’t conclusive data proving that such foods are safe for human consumption. In the U.S. there has been arguably lax oversight of GMO development and approval, with the FDA approving “commercial production of GMOs based on studies conducted by the companies who created them and profit for their sale.” (From GMO-Project website: www.nongmoproject.org/consumers/about-gmos.)
One area of concern lies in the increased exposure to herbicides and pesticides as a result of farming practices associated with GMOs. One example of this comes from January of this year. Last winter, well-known plant pathologist and retired Purdue University professor Don Huber sent a letter to Tom Vilsack, U.S. Agriculture Secretary. In this letter he states, “A team... [has] recently brought to my attention the discovery of an electron microscopic pathogen that appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals and probably humans. Based on a review of this data, it is widespread, very serious, and is in much higher concentrations in Roundup Ready (RR) soybeans and corn, suggesting a link to the RR gene or more likely the presence of Roundup. This organism appears new to science!” He goes on to describe detrimental effects to plants and livestock, including spontaneous abortions and infertility in pigs, cattle and other livestock.
Roundup is the brand name of a broad-spectrum herbicide produced by the U.S. GMO giant Monsanto. It is the top-selling weed-killer used worldwide. Monsanto has created genetically modified crops (including soybeans and corn) that can withstand large doses of this herbicide. A key ingredient in Roundup herbicide is glyphosate. Regulators in U.S. and Canada are now conducting formal review of glyphosate’s safety. The EPA has set a deadline of 2015 to determine if glyphosate should continue to be sold or in some way limited.
Another troubling study has emerged from Argentina, which has seen an explosion in the numbers of GM crops planted in the country. Scientists there have shown that glyphosate causes malformations in frog and chick embryos. During the study, directed by leading embryologist Dr. Andres Carrasco, frog embryo cells were injected with glyphosate and the results documented. According to Americas Program of the Center for International Policy, the embryos “looked like something from a futuristic horror film” with visible defects like “one eye the size of the head, spinal cord deformations, and kidneys that are not fully developed.”
Horizontal Gene Transfer
“Horizontal gene transfer” is another area of concern with genetically engineered organisms. Horizontal gene transfer (also called linear gene transfer) is when genetic material is transmitted between organisms that are not parent/offspring. In the case of GMO foods, there is concern that altered DNA could be transferred into the body of the people or animals that consume it. The UK’s Food Standards Agency has found in an initial human study that consuming genetically engineered soy can result in horizontal gene transfer by bacteria in the gut taking up the soy’s modified DNA.
Allergic reactions are another area of concern when it comes to GMOs. Since food producers are not required to label that a food is genetically modified, let alone how it has been modified, it is possible that an allergen could be present in a food that would never contain it otherwise. Also, some preliminary studies have linked genetically modified foods with increased allergic reactions and a rise in food sensitivities and allergies in general. The Institute for Responsible Technology, a GMO watchdog group, states, “Genetically modified foods have been linked to toxic and allergic reactions, sick, sterile, and dead livestock, and damage to virtually every organ studied in lab animals. The effects on humans of consuming these new combinations of proteins produced in GMOs are unknown and have not been studied.”
Altered nutritional values are another area of concern. For example, GMO salmon has 40% more IGF1, a hormone linked to prostate, breast and colon cancers in humans. It also has the lowest omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of all the studies the FDA reviewed.
In addition to health safety concerns, many individuals fear the impacts of genetically engineered organisms (and the processes used to cultivate them) can have detrimental effects on our environment.
Increased Chemical Use
Many GMO crops have been engineered to be resistant to certain kinds of pesticides or herbicides. This allows farmers to use that chemical on their fields without having to worry about their crops being damaged. Unfortunately for the farmers, weeds are highly adaptable. Already more than 130 types of weeds (as of April 2011) have developed levels of herbicide resistance in more than 40 U.S. states, more resistant weeds than found in any other country. Experts estimate glyphosate-resistant weeds have infested close to 11 million acres. This requires increased levels of chemical application. GE crops increased herbicide use by 383 million pounds from 1996 to 2008, with 46 percent of the total increase occurring in 2007 and 2008, according to the Organic Center’s new report titled “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Thirteen Years.” Considering that more than 2 billion pounds of herbicides were used globally in 2007, with one quarter of that total—531 million pounds—used in the United States in that timeframe (according to a report issued in February by the EPA), that means a lot of chemicals are going onto our food, into our soils, down our rivers and into our groundwater.
GMO organisms and the farming techniques used to produce them also affect ecosystems in other ways. Other animals in the system also consume the new genetic material, from birds eating seeds and insects, to deer and other herbivores grazing on the field leavings, to the carnivores that eat the deer. If horizontal transfer of genes from GE organisms is possible, this could have far-reaching effects.
Many GM crops cross-pollinate. This means that genes from GMO crops can jump to native species, as has happened with corn in Mexico. Scientists have also shown that pollen from GM crops can kill beneficial insects and microorganisms in the soil. Take the example of the T.aripo: “The Bt gene in corn poisons pests like the European corn borer but could also inadvertently wipe out the valuable Typhlodromalus aripo. The T.aripo, as it is known, eats both corn pollen and the ignominious green mite, which wreaked havoc on Africa’s cassava crop in the 1980s and early 90s. The mite was accidentally introduced from South America and scientists combated it in 1993 by importing the T.aripo from Brazil. After it went to work eating mites, it immediately increased cassava yields by 35%. The addition of Bt pollen to that diet could be a boon to the mites and a disaster for T.aripo and farmers. ‘If it destabilized cassava,’ says Andrew Paul Gutierrez, a Berkeley researcher who has done computer modeling on GM crops, ‘it could destroy the basic food staple for 220 million Africans in an area twice the size of the United States.’” (Mother Jones, February, 2009 “Yes, It’s True: GMOs Contaminate Mexican Corn.”)
There are also a lot of unknowns when it comes to genetically modified organisms. UC Berkley professor Ignacio Chapela explains it this way, “What troubles some scientists the most about GM crops are behavioral quirks known as pleiotropic effects. These variations in how a plant looks and acts are caused unintentionally when technicians insert plants with new genes, and they can’t be predicted. For example, a gene spliced into a plant’s DNA may make it resistant to insects, as a scientist plans, but it could also make the same plant change color, grow more slowly, or produce only tiny leaves, all for no foreseeable reason. The government does not require testing for pleiotropic effects in GM crops, and with a nearly infinite number of the effects conceivable in each engineered plant, doing so would be impractical anyway. No crop approved for commercial use has exhibited an ecologically destructive pleiotropic effect, but some experiments have shown it could happen more easily than once thought.”
Organic Integrity and Food Sovereignty
Since GMO crops can cross-pollinate, they are a direct threat to the integrity of organic crops. It is impossible for an organic farmer neighboring a GMO farm to prevent the transfer of genetic material from the GE crop to their organic varieties. This is an issue that has and continues to be taken up in court.
Cross-pollination also threatens native plant species. All GMOs are patented, meaning the actual genes within the organisms technically “belong” to an entity, usually a corporation. Not only does GMO contamination of native plant species threaten that plant variety’s ability to survive, but it also opens farmers up to litigation on the part of corporations for using patented seed without permission. There are also cycles of dependency, as many GE seeds do not create viable seed, farmers need to buy the seed again and again from the supplying company. This can create a dark cycle of dependence, compounded by the need for the company-produced herbicide/pesticide (which, due to increased resistance, increases over time as well).
Making YOUR Choice
More research on GMO crops and the effects they have on our health, food system and ecosystems will continue to develop in the months and years to come. In the meantime, whether or not you want to be personally concerned about GMO foods is up to you. GMO foods do exist in the foods we eat now. According to the USDA, in 2009 93% of soy, 93% of cotton, and 86% of corn grown in the U.S. were genetically modified organisms. It is estimated that over 90% of canola grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered, and there are also commercially produced GM varieties of sugar beets, squash and Hawaiian papaya. Indeed, it is estimated that GMOs are present in more than 80% of packaged products in the average U.S. grocery store.
What are the Most Common GMOs in the USA?
Genetically modified corn was first released in the US in 1995. As of 2009, 86% of corn grown in the U.S. came from genetically modified seed, and the number was rising each year. Up until this year, genetically modified sweet corn was not available, though Monsanto launched its first biotech sweet corn in August of 2011.
Ever see the movie King Corn? If you have, you know that corn is in a shocking amount of our food. Most of that corn is genetically modified. GM corn is used to make other corn products, like corn flour, corn gluten, corn masa, corn starch, corn syrup, cornmeal, and High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). GMO corn is also used as livestock feed, and for various fibers.
GM soybeans were also first released in the United States in 1995. In 1997, about 8% of all soybeans cultivated in the United States for the commercial market were GE. In 2010, the number had risen to 93%. In 2007 over half the world’s soybean crop was genetically modified, a higher percentage than for any other crop. In the latest news, as of August 2011 Monsanto has announced that it is seeking approval for a new, low-fat GMO soybean.
GMO soybeans can be found in most soy products. This includes soy flour, soy protein, soy isolates, soy isoflavones, soy lecithin, vegetable proteins, textured vegetable protein (TVP), tofu, tamari, tempeh, and soy protein supplements. Soy is also used in food additives and animal feed.
Like corn and soy, canola (derived from rapeseed) is a major cash crop in the United States. GE canola was first introduced in Canada in 1995. ConAgra is currently being sued for calling their Canola oil “all natural” when it is made from genetically engineered canola. A 2010 study conducted in North Dakota found herbicide resistant transgenes in 80% of wild natural rapeseed plants. The escape of the genetically modified plants has raised concerns that the build-up of herbicide resistance in feral canola and related weeds could make it more difficult to manage these plants using herbicides.
Canola is primarily used to make oil, which is in turn used in many different products. Canola oil’s low level of saturated fats and high cooking temperature has made it a popular option as food service providers and food manufacturers look to decrease the trans fats in their food.
On February 4th, 2011 the USDA announced that it would allow farmers to plant “Round-up Ready” GMO sugar beets to “avoid a shortage of U.S. sugar.” This ruling defied a federal court order that banned the planting of GMO sugar beets until a study of their environmental impact could be done. In the U.S., almost all sugar beets are genetically modified. It is highly likely that any non-organic product made in North America that lists “sugar” as an ingredient is made from a combination of cane sugar and sugar from GM beets.
Monsanto controls about 95% of the sugar beet seed market with its Roundup Ready genes, and sugar beets provide about 50% of the sugar consumed in the U.S. (usually mixed with cane). “The company’s stranglehold over the beet market demonstrates its insidious market power. When a federal judge demanded in August 2010 that farmers stop planting Monsanto’s GM beet seeds pending an impact study, farmers quickly found out that virtually no non-GM seed was available. Between 2005, when the USDA first green lighted GM beets, and 2010, Monsanto had essentially driven all competition out of the market... [And,] as with alfalfa, blanketing cropland with GM beets raises the threat of cross-pollination—genetic material from modified beets could make its way into organic table beet and chard crops, both of which can cross-pollinate with sugar beets.” (Grist’s February 2011 article “USDA ‘partially deregulates’ GM sugar beets, defying court order.”)
Monsanto first introduced GMO cottonseed in the U.S. in 1996. It is used in a variety of products, including textile fibers, livestock feed and cottonseed oil. As of 2007, 43% of the world’s cotton was genetically modified. It is also used in various processed food ingredients. In 2009, a Texas researcher engineered a new form of cottonseed that could be eaten by pigs, chickens, fish and humans, and is projected to show up in protein bars, shakes, breads, cookies and other foods within the next 10 years.
Alfalfa is the fourth-biggest U.S. crop by acreage, according to the Wall Street Journal and is the number one forage crop in the United States. It is primarily used to make hay, which is fed to dairy cows and to horses. Only one percent is organic.
Monsanto received initial approval for its GM Roundup Ready alfalfa in June 2005. In 2007, a court found that the USDA had violated environmental laws by failing to look at the risks of contamination of organic and conventional lines of alfalfa (alfalfa is an open-pollinating crop that uses bees as a vector), weed resistance to Roundup, and the effects of increased use of herbicides. The court banned new plantings of alfalfa until a comprehensive assessment of these impacts. In June 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ban. However, on January 27th, 2011 the USDA announced that it would allow the planning of genetically modified alfalfa without any restriction or labeling requirements.
Papaya is the only commercialized GM fruit, and it makes up about 50% of Hawaii’s papaya crop. GE papaya was approved for use in Hawaii in 1998, and was approved for planting on mainland U.S. in 2009.
AquaAdvantage Salmon (created by AquaBounty), also known as “Frankenfish,” is an Atlantic salmon with a Chinook salmon growth gene inserted into its DNA, along with a growth promoter from an ocean pout. The fish are able to grow to a large size very quickly, since the genetic material from the ocean pout flips the Chinook growth gene into a permanently “on” position. These fish are cloned in Canada, grown in Panama, and than flown to the United Sates.
Ironically, there seems to be little need for a GM salmon. According to the State of Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, the 2011 wild Alaskan salmon harvest is projected to be one of the largest since Alaska became a state. Salmon are harvested under the strict supervision and scrutiny of the Fish and Game Department, and the Marine Stewardship Council has certified nearly the entire harvest as sustainable. According to polls conducted by the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, only about 36 percent of consumers would willingly eat genetically modified salmon if it were labeled as such. And in European markets zero percent would eat it.
The genetic material inserted into these salmon has been classified by the FDA as a “veterinary drug.” The animal drug approval process keeps companies’ “proprietary” information confidential and also takes it off the food radar. The FDA has noted evidence of “increased frequency of skeletal malformations and increased prevalence of jaw erosions and multisystemic, focal inflammation” in the tissues of GMO salmon, but concluded that those were no more common than found in intensely farmed fish, according to Ronnie Cummins’ article “10 Freakiest Things About Frankenfish.”
Other GMOs of Note:
Not common in the U.S., but widely touted as an example of the positive benefits of GMOs, this bioengineered grain has enhanced levels of vitamin A to combat the childhood blindness that poses a problem in some developing countries in Asia.
Currently undergoing tests in Australia and formerly Canada, but the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) recently announced in April that it has no plans to research GM Wheat.
Pigs, tilapia, goats, small amounts of zucchini and yellow squash, flax (in Canada), carnations (Australia), and bluegrass. The sweetener aspartame is also derived from GM microorganisms.
Making an Informed Choice in the Grocery Aisle
If you aren’t concerned about GMOs, then you can ignore this section and shop at will! If, however, you want to avoid genetically engineered foods, here are some ways to do so:
- Assume that any processed food products without the non-GMO project seal or that are not certified organic will likely contain GMOs.
- Read those labels! Avoid the most at-risk ingredients, especially corn, soybeans, canola and cottonseed.
- Look for the Organic Food Seal from USDA, which does not allow for GMOs. The organic industry is the only agricultural system in the U.S. that requires a paper trail from seed to shelf.
- Look for the Non-GMO project seal.
- Ask your farmer. Another benefit of eating local is that you can literally ask your farmer whether or not they plant GMO crops, or graze their livestock on GMO feed.
- Ask your grocer to ID the non-GMO foods in the store via the Non-GMO project or other future third-party verification organizations.
- It is generally safe to assume that fruits and vegetables (excepting papayas and sweet corn) are non-GMO. Thus far it has not been profitable for big corporations to create genetically modified varieties of these foods. However, keep your eye out for changes in the future...
- Download a GMO shopping guide from either of these websites:
- Keep your eyes on the news for any updates on GMO lawsuits, new releases, or other updates.