Food for Thought, Choice and Action
by Tracy Chipman
Genetically engineered foods, also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are a very real, complex and controversial 21st century concern.
Around the region and the country, people are becoming more conscious about the foods they eat and serve to their children. There is a growing concern amongst many that when a parent goes to the store to purchase food for his or her family, that parent is not privy to a full disclosure of ingredients. Do we as consumers have the right to know what we are eating and feeding our children?
When you purchase a box of cereal, a can of soup or a bag of tortilla chips, the FDA requires the labeling of over 3,000 ingredients, additives, and processes. By reading the label you will know if your food contains gluten, aspartame, high-fructose corn syrup, trans-fats or MSG. The FDA also requires labeling for major food allergens such as peanuts, wheat, shellfish and others.
Right now, in 49 countries around the world, including all of Europe, people have the right to know whether or not they are eating food containing genetically modified organisms or GMOs. However, here in the United States thus far, we do not have this opportunity. Many states, including California and Vermont, are trying to pass policy requiring labeling of GE foods. There have also been attempts to create policy on a national level giving states the right to require labels on food products which are genetically engineered.
What Is a GMO?
A genetically modified organism is something that is developed in a laboratory setting. When creating a GMO, the genetic material from one species is forced into the DNA of an unrelated plant or animal. This non-naturally occurring genetic swapping takes place between bacteria, viruses, insects, animals, and human beings. Commonly genetically modified foods include corn, soy, and certain fruits and vegetables.
In agriculture, there are two types of GE crops: 1) Herbicide Tolerant and 2) Self-generating Insecticide. The herbicide tolerant variety is designed to survive high doses of toxic weed killers, like Roundup. Such toxic weed killers are themselves linked to a string of health disorders like birth defects, cancer, and hormone disruption. When used on highly resistant crops, some of these toxins end up in our food…and in our bodies.
Self-generating insecticide GM foods are designed to produce their own insecticide in each and every cell. An example of this is BT-toxin. BT-toxin is an insecticide that breaks open the stomachs of insects in order to kill them. It has been reported that BT-toxin can also break the wall of human cells. According to one study, BT-toxin from genetically modified corn was found in the blood of 93% of pregnant women and 80% of their unborn fetuses.
In his recent appeal to the U.S. Senate regarding an amendment to the agriculture bill, which would give states the right to require labels on food products which are genetically engineered, Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) stated the following: “Poll after poll during the past decade showed that nine out of ten Americans agree that food with genetically engineered ingredients should say so on the label.” Presently, close to one million Californians signed a petition to get labeling of genetically engineered food on this November’s ballot. They want the right to know what is in their food.
Senator Sanders goes on to say “Vermont state legislators this year tried to pass a bill that would have required foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients to disclose that information on the label. There was a huge public response. The Vermont House Agriculture Committee heard from 111 witnesses in favor of the bill. Hundreds more showed up at the Statehouse to show their support. Of course, there are those who disagree. Monsanto, one of the world’s leading producers of genetically engineered foods, doesn’t like the idea. It is also the world’s largest producer of the herbicide Roundup as well as so-called “Roundup-ready” seeds that have been genetically engineered to resist the pesticide. So, once it seemed like the bill was headed for passage, Monsanto threatened to sue. The strong-arm tactic worked. Despite passing out of the House Agriculture Committee by a vote of 9 to 1, the bill went nowhere.
Our US Senate voted down The Sanders-Boxer Amendment in this past June. Now our best chance to make this a national referendum is with the California ballot initiative this November, which if passed would require GMO labeling of our food, specifically baby formula.
So it seems at the present time, unlike people in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Ireland, Australia, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Brazil, China, Russia, New Zealand and other countries where labels are required, Americans do not know if the food they eat has been genetically altered.
In the 1990s, scientists at the FDA were concerned that genetically engineered foods could have new and different risks such as hidden allergens, increased plant-toxin levels, and the potential to hasten the spread of antibiotic-resistant disease. It seems that those concerns have been more or less brushed aside, leaving many unanswered questions about the effects of GE foods. In the U.S., the American Public Health Association and the American Nurses Association passed resolutions calling for labeling of genetically engineered foods. In an independent study in Canada, doctors there published findings in the peer-reviewed journal Reproductive Toxicology that the toxins from soil bacterium engineered into corn to kill pests were present in the bloodstream of 93% of all pregnant women. In Senator Sanders’ recent address to the Senate, he continues to elucidate that “there is a great need for additional research because there have never been mandatory human clinical trials of genetically engineered crops, no tests for carcinogenicity or harm to fetuses, no long-term testing for human health risks, no requirement for long-term testing on animals, and only limited allergy testing. What this means is that, for all intents and purposes, the long-term health study of genetically engineered food is being done on all of the American people.”
Until more studies are completed and/or labeling of GE foods is required by food manufacturers, there is more information and resources available to consumers with which they educate themselves and make more informed choices.
What You Can Do:
1. Buy Organic — certified organic products cannot intentionally include any GMO ingredients.
2. Look for “Non-GMO Project” verified seals in your grocery tore.
3. Avoid at-risk ingredients like soybeans, canola, cottonseed, corn, and sugar from sugar beets.
4. Buy products listed in the non-GMO Shopping Guide — http://nongmoshoppingguide.com/
Other Sources of GMOs:
• Dairy products from cows injected with the GM hormone rBGH
• Food additives, enzymes, flavorings, and processing agents, including the sweetener aspartame (NutraSweet) and rennet used to make hard cheeses
• Meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals that have eaten GM feed
• Honey and bee pollen that may have GM sources of pollen
• Contamination or pollination caused by GM seeds or pollen
Some of the ingredients that may be genetically modified: vegetable oil, vegetable fat and margarines (made with soy, corn, cottonseed, and/or canola).
Ingredients derived from soybeans: soy flour, soy protein, soy isolates, soy isoflavones, soy lecithin, vegetable proteins, textured vegetable protein (TVP), tofu, tamari, tempeh, and soy protein supplements. Ingredients derived from corn: corn flour, corn gluten, corn masa, corn starch, corn syrup, cornmeal, and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
Buy local, organic foods when possible. The Buy Local, Buy Organics Movement is growing stronger and stronger by the day. There are more organic farms sprouting up each year in this area – it is wonderful! Many smaller, family-run organic farms can supply you with healthy meats, vegetables, dairy, eggs and even grains. By seeking out the small farmers in your area and supporting them, you support the local economy and your family. That is so HUGE! Also, with such easy access to organic seeds, growing your own is always a wonderful option!
Disclosure of the ingredients in our food is a cornerstone of a Democratic society, period. Let your publically elected government officials know your thoughts on this. Email and call your congress people and senators. The conversation is complex and controversial: there are people’s livelihoods (farmers) at stake on the one side of this conversation and the whole country’s health at risk on the other but as consumers we need to know what is in our food. Until this changes, as informed consumers we have more power than we sometimes think. From an informed position we can act on and choose what is best for us and our families. Choice = Power.
Tracy Chipman lives in Menomonie, WI. When she’s not storytelling or teaching yoga, she’s playing in the garden, eating fresh picked carrots, peas and arugula.