My path to GMO awareness started with an interview for this story. Of course, I had heard of GMOs, but I had fazed them out of consciousness—sort of. This summer we had decided to not eat conventional corn, and I guess I figured that was enough of a sacrifice. I was too busy trying to monitor non toxic personal care products, keep the dirty dozen straight, and decide which foods we could afford to buy organic to have the extra bandwidth for the GMO debate too.
According to the World Health Organization, GMOs are “organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.” Major corporations such as Monsanto, Dow, Bayer and DuPont engineer GMO foods. They use relatively new science that forces DNA from one species into a different species—and results in an unstable hybrid. Many experts attribute the rise in allergies, liver problems and other reactions to GMOs’ current prevalence. The truth is, we just don’t know what the long-term affects of GMOs are—and we should have the right to know if they are present in the food we eat or not.
My willful ignorance changed after I talked with chef/restaurateur Bradford Heap, who is leading the vanguard for GMO labeling transparency. After months of research into non-GMO options, and years spent setting up partnerships with local farmers and purveyors, the kitchens at Heap’s two Boulder County restaurants no longer serve anything that contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs.) Most of their beverages are GMO-free as well.
Heap’s 100 percent GMO-free commitment, in spite of the time and resources it took, was a natural next step for him as he became increasingly dissatisfied with the current GMO status quo (the equivalent of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy recently discontinued by the military). Heap has always cared deeply about the food he sources and serves: not only for himself and his family, but also for his customers, the farmers and producers he works with, and the earth as a whole. “I wouldn’t eat GMO foods or serve GMO foods to my family, why would I serve them to my customers?” he says.
He points out that we are one of the few industrialized nation that doesn’t require GMO labeling. In Europe all products containing more than .9 percent GMO are labeled as such.
Heap is a man committed to food transparency, so much so that he was willing to make his own tabasco rather than use one out of GMO corn vinegar. He pointed to the importance of sourcing meat, eggs and dairy carefully, as conventional cows eat mostly corn feed. And all this time I thought avoiding milk or dairy that contained rGBH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) was enough!
One thing that you may not know about being a journalist: it’s hard to keep your distance from research, especially when it’s compelling—and hits close to home.
After I got off the phone with Heap, his inspiring stories of food ethics prompted me to call up the dairy that delivers my milk. I asked the customer service person, “Do you know whether the cows ate feed that had GMO corn?” “I can’t say that they don’t,” he says. And with that, my milk delivery service was over. Goodbye glass bottles, goodbye supporting local dairies. The quest to ban GMOs from my family’s diet had begun.
And the interesting thing? I am in good company.
According to abc news, “More than half of Americans believe that GMOs are unsafe to eat. Nearly everyone, moreover — 93 percent — says the federal government should require labels on food saying whether it’s been genetically modified, or “bio-engineered” (this poll used both phrases). Such near-unanimity in public opinion is rare.”
Basically if it doesn’t say non-GMO, or doesn’t say organic, and it contains any corn product, such as corn syrup, corn oil, or corn, or has sugar, it has GMOs. The FDA says most processed foods include some of these ingredients, like cornstarch in soups and sauces and corn syrup as a general-purpose sweetener.
Here’s a snapshot of my new label sleuthing. See that mom with a full cart frantically searching on her iPhone as she nears the checkout? That’s me at Costco, torn between a discount on Pirate Booty and the growing realization that it might not be the kid-friendly, healthy alternative to cheese puffs that she had been duped into thinking it was. Sure enough, Pirate Booty does include corn that has GMOs. Trader Joe’s, on the other hand, has guaranteed that their own label uses non-GMO foods (and they make a tasty version of corn puffs too).
So what’s the upshot of the GMO debate, besides becoming more savvy about how to read a label? The answer is basic. Buy whole foods, cook ‘em and eat ‘em. Shop the periphery of the grocery store. Buy tons of vegetables, grains, and smaller portions of meat, making up in quality what you’ve given up in quantity. When you eat out, become more conscious about which restaurants embrace GMO transparency. So far only one, Chipotle, has given consumers 100% transparency by labeling GMOs in their foods. But it’s a start.
And GMO transparency is picking up steam like nobody’s business. Whole Foods has committed to labeling all food products in their US and Canadian stores to indicate whether they contain GMOs by 2018. Vermont was the first state to approve GMO labeling—but the grocery manufacturers Association filed a lawsuit that challenges the law. With a looming Nov. 4 ballot measure on GMO labeling (Oregon also has it on its ballot), Colorado is now at the forefront of the controversy. If the measure passes here, by 2016 packaged or raw foods made with GMOs that are sold in retail outlets in Colorado must be labeled with the phrase “produced with genetic engineering.” Delis and restaurants will be exempt, but that too could change as the cause starts to gain momentum. In the meantime, organic has started looking doubly attractive.
Tip: the best place to buy non-GMO foods, snacks & supplements is at Vitacost.com!