GMOs (genetically modified organisms) Part 2 – How to Avoid Them in Your Diet

NonGMO Project Logo

This week’s article discusses how to avoid GM (genetically modified) foods in your diet. Last week described the most common types of modifications introduced into GM food crops and their health risks.

If you are concerned about the safety of GMOs, how can GMO-containing foods be identified? The short answer is that they generally cannot be identified because there is no law requiring producers to label GMO-containing food products. By all accounts, GM foods are very widespread in the US food supply. If you read the ingredients on packaged and processed food products, you will find that most contain soy and/or corn or their derivatives among other GM foods.

Given that 88 percent of corn and 94 percent of soy are from GM plants, then one might have to stop eating many of the processed and packaged foods to avoid GMOs. Packaged and processed foods are a way of life for the majority of people these days because of their convenience.

Consequently, avoiding GMOs may be a tall order that may be difficult for many. It requires discipline and a strong commitment. Considering the fact that your health and that of your children may be at stake, it is worth the sacrifice?

If certain GM foods, especially corn and soy, are ubiquitous and unlabeled, then how can they be avoided? The answer is to look for foods that are labeled to indicate that they do not contain GMOs. However, there are only two such labels of which I am aware that are reliable. They are described below.

Organic Logo  The simplest approach to avoiding GMOs is to eat only organic foods and food products. Part of the USDA criteria for labeling a food as organic is that it must not contain GMO ingredients. In other words, the seal at left means the food is not GMO. Preparing your own meals with organic ingredients is the best way to assure that you are eating safe, chemical-free foods.

For a more detailed explanation of the USDA organic label, as well as other labels that are, and are not, regulated by the USDA go here.

Fresh produce in the US often has a little sticker or bundle band with a number on it. The first digit of the number allows you to determine whether or not the fruit or vegetable is organic. A number beginning with nine is organic. However, these stickers do not allow one to determine if non-organic foods are GMO. This is something that must change.

Food brands that are not organic but made with nonGMO ingredients can be identified by the NonGMO Project logo shown at the beginning of this article. The NonGMO Project provides an independent assessment of foods for the presence of GMOs. On their web site, you can search specific brand names to see which products have been verified as free of GMOs.

In addition to organic fresh and frozen produce, there is a wide variety of organic prepared foods available. You can download a nonGMO shopping guide for your computer and an app for your smart phone at the following link: http://nongmoshoppingguide.com/ . The shopping guide provides the same listing as the nonGMO Project web site of brand names offering one or more products that have been verified to be GMO-free. When shopping you still need to look for the USDA organic seal or the nonGMO Project logo since not all products from some brand names are nonGMO.

There is another problem developing as a result of the growing demand for nonGM food products that needs to be addressed. Companies wanting to convert their products to nonGMO are finding it difficult to find sufficient sources of nonGM food crops, especially corn and soy. The organic farming industry currently caters primarily to individuals.

The number and size of farms growing GM crops exceeds the number and acreage of organic and nonGMO farms by a huge margin. It was estimated in 2009 that only 0.9 percent of the farmland acreage worldwide used organic farming methods. This means that organic crops are in relatively limited supply. This will become a more and more serious problem as the demand for nonGMO foods grows in response to rejection of GMOs by the public.

The increasing demand for nonGMO foods provides an opportunity for farmers to get out in front of this issue by abandoning GMO farming and returning to traditional, more eco-friendly farming methods, especially organic cultivation. Although profits may go down some in the short term as a result, farmers who make the change will have the peace of mind and satisfaction that they are doing what is right and not hurting people or animals that consume their products.

Organic farming methods are earth-friendly in part because they use naturally occurring fertilizers and pesticides rather than chemically produced and formulated compounds that pollute and poison. A Google search provides a plethora of information about organic farming methods and benefits for those interested in the topic.

Applying the above methods to identify nonGMO foods may require some changes in how and where you shop for food for your family. However, the extra effort will be worth it in the long run. You will have greatly reduced exposure of your family to potentially harmful chemicals, and if you choose to go organic, you will have also reduced harm to the broader ecosystem and the planet. Over time, I hope to see greedy and irresponsible companies like Monsanto put in check by the caring and responsible actions of the public.

Part 3 of the series on GMOs will examine some environmental and spiritual factors.

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) Part 1 – What Are They and What’s All the Fuss?

Credit: dna-footprints.com

Credit: dna-footprints.com

There is a major health and environmental threat that too many, at least in the US, know little about. I am referring to GMOs (genetically modified organisms), specifically food crops and food products.

Genetic engineering in general, including the production of GM (genetically modified) plants involves altering the genome, the DNA of an organism, by introducing foreign genes and/or amplifying existing genes. The process is imprecise, irreversible, and oftentimes causes unexpected results. The most common strategy involves introducing or amplifying genes that produce high levels of pesticides inside the plant cells, and others that confer the plant with a high resistance to external application of herbicides.

As a scientist, and perhaps to those who have an affinity for technology, the idea of altering the genes of food crops to increase productivity sounds appealing. However, the theoretical appeal quickly dims when you dig deeper into the gene modification process, its risks, and its potential consequences.

The theoretical rationale for genetic engineering research includes seeking to improve health and quality of life and improving productivity in the cultivation of food crops to increase the food supply. Superficially, this sounds good, but what is the down side? First, the genetic modifications have not resulted in increased crop yields. Second, the GM crops and food products you eat contain unnaturally high levels of the plant pesticides and herbicides. Finally, the purpose of conferring the GM plants with resistance to herbicides (commonly referred to as Roudup Ready plants) is so that large amounts that will kill normal, unmodified crops, can be applied to reduce or eliminate competition by weeds more effectively. This means that high concentrations of herbicides are being introduced into the environment and affecting our water supply, the soil, and other organisms that come in contact with them.

Further, the GM, Roundup-ready plants have been shown to have elevated levels of the herbicide inside the plant tissues. In addition, if the herbicides are not thoroughly removed from the surface of GM crops during processing, then we are ingesting even more of the chemicals. How many of us would knowingly eat pesticides and herbicides or feed them to our children?

As was the case for cigarettes for decades, Monsanto, and other companies that engineer and sell GM plants and the herbicides used to farm them, say they are safe with little research to back up such claims. In fact, there is growing evidence to the contrary. An overview of the potential health risks associated with the farming of GM crops can be found here .  A database of research studies and articles can be found here.

A life span study in mice who were fed a diet containing approximately 11-30 percent GM corn found high frequencies of premature death, breast cancer, liver and kidney damage, and a transgenerational reduction in fertility (a separate, more recent confirmatory study in rats can be found here). The findings of the original life span study in mice have been challenged as have short term (90 day) studies by the genetic engineering companies that suggest GMOs are safe.

We know from the tobacco story that 90 days is not nearly enough to reveal harmful effects of exposure to carcinogens. Yet, 90 days of exposure is all that is required by the FDA in order for approval to be given. However, the pesticides and herbicides associated with farming GM crops are known poisons and carcinogens; shouldn’t that raise a red flag and demand more extensive study?

There is an expanding variety of GM food crops currently on the market, including crops such as soy, corn, potatoes, cotton (oil), canola (oil), sugar from sugar beets, zucchini, yellow squash, Hawaiian papaya, and alfalfa among others. To determine whether or not specific plants/crops have been genetically altered and approved for sale, see the database found here.

It is estimated that approximately 75 percent of all corn and 95 percent of soy found in foods today in the US is GM. Both of these are ubiquitous in processed and prepared food products in this country. They are also widely used as feeds for meat and dairy animals.

Some countries in Europe have banned GM produce and food products. In the US there is a strong lobby by the chemical and genetic engineering companies against simply labeling GM foods. A lot more research is needed, especially long term studies to adequately assess the health risks of GMOs. For my own part, I am not waiting. I reject GM food sources from a scientific, health, and spiritual perspective.

Part two of this topic will address how to avoid GM foods.