For nearly 20 years, most Americans have been in the dark about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the foods that contain them. But that is changing. Growing numbers of people are learning that we are the first generation to have these untested, unlabeled substances imperceptibly (yet pervasively) hidden in our foods.
According to surveys, ninety percent of Americans-which includes an almost even split among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents-want genetically modified foods labeled. More than a million people have signed the Just Label It! (justlabelit.com) petition that asks the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to implement mandatory labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods, with a bipartisan group of 55 members of Congress agreeing that labeling would "prevent consumer deception."
Last May, nearly one million voter signatures were submitted in California to place a GMO labeling initiative on the ballot in November. It's largely believed that such a law in California could help convince companies to switch to non-GMO versions of their products nationwide to avoid disclosing information about GMOs on their labels and risk turning off consumers.
But even without such laws in place, more people individually and collectively are turning away from GMOs. The Non-GMO Project Verified label is the fastest growing label claim in the natural foods industry, and sales of Non-GMO verified products increased 219 percent from 2010 to 2011. In addition, the number of local chapters in just one of several non-GMO activist groups-the Institute for Responsible Technology's Tipping Point Network-has tripled in the first half of 2012.
"The number of people who have taken a position against GMOs is greater than ever," says Jeffrey Smith, the author of Genetic Roulette, who has been crisscrossing the United States speaking about the dangers of GMOs since 2003. "Their commitment to that position is greater than ever, and I would say that millions of people, in my judgment, are actively seeking to reduce the amount of GMOs that they eat."
One telling example of increasing non-GMO activism occurred after a study by the Cornucopia Institute, an organic and agriculture policy group, found that certain brands of cereal contained GM ingredients. Some natural food stores acted on that information, pulling those cereals off their shelves. Consumers responded, too, writing a flurry of angry website and Facebook comments to the manufacturers of the offending products. The public outcry prompted at least one cereal company to pledge that beginning in 2015, all of the new foods that it introduces will be Non-GMO Project Verified and will contain at least 70 percent USDA organic certified ingredients.
Why the protest against GMOs? Unlike food that has been grown from seeds that have been handed down through generations, genetically modified foods are created in a laboratory. Genetic engineers artificially insert genes from bacteria, viruses, animals, or humans into the DNA of a food crop or animal to create an organism that would never occur in nature. Biotech companies do this for two main reasons: to make crops that are tolerant to herbicides such as RoundUp that kill other plants, and to make crops that produce their own insecticides.
The FDA's own scientists actually warned that these never-before-seen foods could create new toxins and new allergens and needed to be more thoroughly tested, but their concerns were largely ignored. Instead, the US government took the official position that GM foods were "substantially equivalent" to conventional foods and didn't require safety testing or labeling-in sharp contrast to 40 other countries that require such foods be clearly labeled. Commercial planting of genetically modified seeds in the United States began in 1996, and soon after, food products containing GMOs began appearing on store shelves, mostly without our knowledge.
By 2011, 94 percent of all soybeans and 88 percent of all corn grown in the United States was genetically modified. Soy and corn, along with other common GM foods (including canola oil, cottonseed oil, and sugar from sugar beets), are used as ingredients in countless other products, so many Americans-including health food shoppers-likely have been eating GM foods without realizing it.
No Benefits, Just Risks
What we didn't know about what we were eating may already be harming us. Based on animal research with GM foods, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) says that there are serious health risks associated with eating GM foods, including infertility, immune system problems, accelerated aging, disruption of insulin and cholesterol regulation, gastrointestinal issues, and changes in organs. In 2009, the AAEM urged doctors to prescribe non-GMO diets for all Americans, saying that doctors are probably seeing negative health effects in their patients right now without realizing that GM foods are major contributing factors.
Genetically modified crops pose risks to the environment, too, including the serious threat of GM seeds spreading to and contaminating both organic and conventional crop fields. Plus, the biotech industry claims that genetic engineering reduces the use of pesticides, but research shows otherwise. According to a 2009 report by the Organic Center, overall pesticide use dramatically increased-about 318 million pounds-in the first thirteen years after GM crops were introduced.
Herbicides sprayed in high amounts on GM herbicide-resistant crops have led to the development and spread of so-called "superweeds"-weeds that are able to adapt to and withstand typical herbicides. And the biotech companies' proposed solution to this problem? Create new GM crops that are resistant to ever more toxic chemicals, including 2, 4-D-a major component of Agent Orange. It's a "crazy" idea because weeds would eventually adapt to that herbicide and any others, says Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety and author of Your Right to Know: Genetic Engineering and the Secret Changes in Your Food.
The most important thing to know about GM foods is that they benefit only the chemical companies that produce them, says Kimbrell. "[The biotech companies] have yet to produce anything that benefits the consumer. There's no better taste, no better nutrition, no lower price. That's the dirty little secret that's hardly ever reported. That's why those companies don't want GM foods labeled. They don’t want the consumer to be able to have the choice to say, ‘I want the same price, less risky version.'"
The Power to Change Our Food
Both Kimbrell and Smith believe that passing the California GMO labeling initiative will be a critical step in the movement to convince food companies to create more GMO-free products. But even before the law is passed, consumers can help change the marketplace by exercising their power as shoppers.
Smith has estimated that if as little as 5 percent of the population starts consciously avoiding genetically modified foods, it can create a tipping point-a moment when major food companies realize that using GMOs is a liability and start pulling such ingredients from their products. Many recent signs-the amount of Internet traffic, attention by social media sites, coverage by mainstream media, and the increase in sales of non-GMO products-"all suggest that we're on the doorstep of that tipping point," says Smith.
So, if you don't like the idea of eating genetically modified foods, get educated and shop non-GMO. You and others like you just might change the future of our food.
How to Say No to GMOs
Tip #1: Buy Organic Certified organic products cannot intentionally include any GMO ingredients. Buy products labeled "100% organic," "organic," or "made with organic ingredients." You can be doubly sure if the product also has a Non-GMO Project Verified Seal (below).
Tip #2: Look for Non-GMO Project Seals. Products that carry the Non-GMO Project Seal are independently verified to be in compliance with North America's only third party standard for GMO avoidance, including testing of at-risk ingredients.
Tip #3: Avoid At-Risk ingredien.t Even if it's not labeled organic or verified non-GMO, you can still avoid products made with ingredients that are likely derived from GMOs. The eight most common GM food crops are:
- Corn (as in corn oil, cornmeal, cornstarch, and other corn-based ingredients)
- Soybeans (as in soybean oil, soy protein, soy lecithin, soy milk, tofu, and other soy-based ingredients)
- Canola (as in canola oil)
- Cottonseed (as in cottonseed oil)
- Sugar beets (the "sugar" listed on food labels is almost always derived from sugar cane and GM sugar beets).
- Most Hawaiian papaya
- A small amount of zucchini and yellow squash.
- Also, beware of dairy products, which may come from cows injected with GM bovine growth hormone, and meats from animals (including farmed fish) that have been fed GM foods. Look for dairy products labeled No rBGH or rBST, artificial hormone-free, or organic; wild-caught fish; and meat labeled organic or 100% grass-fed.
Tip #4: Use Non-GMO Shopping Guides Download either the new Non-GMO Shopping Tips brochure or Non-GMO Shopping Guide at nongmoshoppingguide.com to help identify and avoid GM foods and hidden GM ingredients on food labels. If you have an iPhone, download the ShopNoGMO guide for free from the iTunes store.
Melissa Diane Smith, our regular Go Gluten Free columnist, is a leading health writer and nutritionist, and an Institute for Responsible Technology-trained GMO speaker.