Your Right to Know About GMOs

Elizabeth Marglin

by | Updated: December 4th, 2016 | Read time: 4 minutes

As you magnanimously dole out Pirate Booty to your hungry kids, did you know, that until recently, most of the corn used in the puffs—the key ingredient in their products—was genetically modified?

Your Right to Know About GMOs

Most parents are shocked when they realize a snack marketed as containing no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives can still contain GMOs. In fact, consumer demand for full disclosure regarding GMO ingredients was so insistent that in June of 2014 they started offering non-GMO versions of their signature puffs in supermarkets such as Whole Foods. The Pirate Brands says on their website that while “Many of the most influential regulatory agencies in the world that study the safety of the food supply have found that GM food ingredients are safe and that there are no negative health effects associated with their use. We appreciate, however, that some consumers may want additional choices.”

The Pirate Booty brouhaha—a tempest in snack bag—is a microcosm of the larger, even more rancorous debate surrounding genetically modified food. (Most recently, Chipotle became the first fast food chain to remove GMO ingredients from its menu.) GMO foods have come to signify a cluster of disturbing abuses of power: corporate control of the regulatory process, lack of transparency, an increase in pesticides, the dominance of Big Food, and a monopolization of seeds.

Today, GMOs are especially prevalent in processed foods that contain staple crops such as soybeans and corn—the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy estimates that 85 percent of U.S. corn, for example, is genetically modified. Other widely modified crops include canola oil, alfalfa and sugar beets. If a non-organic product made in North American lists “sugar” as an ingredient but doesn’t stipulate pure cane sugar, most likely its sourced from a combination of sugar cane and GM sugar beets.

What does this mean at the supermarket? GMOs are everywhere, especially prevalent in non-organic packaged food—corn-based chips, cereals, frozen foods, canned soup, baby formula and non-organic meat and dairy (livestock tends to eat GMO corn feed).The Environmental Working Group’s conservative estimate is that each American consumes about 190 pounds of GM foods every year. For me, the most convincing GMO red flag is what’s still unknown about their impact—there’s not much study into the long-term health effects on our bodies. Whether the risk is negligible or significant remains to be determined.

Here is a closer look at a few of the controversies.

A side of pesticides with your produce

One of the most debated aspects of GMO foods is whether or not they reduce pesticide, insecticide, and herbicide use. According to Dr. Nina Federoff, a Penn State University professor known for her research in life sciences and biotechnology, “GMOs have led to a one third reduction in insecticide use in corn.” But many GMO detractors dispute those findings, saying rather than reduce pesticide use, GMOs are causing them to actually skyrocket in amount and toxicity. Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, a populist farm policy research group based in Wisconsin, says “there are some disturbing indications that there is an exponential increase in glyphosate, leading to contamination in the soil, water, air and food. GMO foods are lower in nutritional value, and contain residues of antibiotics, hormones, and other chemicals. “

And while the FDA proclaims the safety of GMO food, pesticides are more problematic. The American Academy of Pediatrics several years ago took the step of issuing a policy statement urging government, schools, parents and medical professionals to take concerted action to protect children from pesticides. “The chronic health implications from both acute and chronic exposure are emerging. Epidemiologic evidence demonstrates associations between early life exposure to pesticides and pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems. For many children, diet may be the most influential source of pesticides,” the report states.

Labeling: The right to know

As a stopgap solution to the data limbo, many consumers are pressing for more disclosure regarding GMO labeling. And despite GMO advocates boasting about the technology as the solution to world hunger, there is a huge resistance on their part to more transparency vis-à-vis GMO labeling. A backlash is in the works: According to natural food market research firm SPINS, food with the “non-GMO” label is one of the fastest growing segments of product sales in the United States. More supermarkets are creating their own initiatives. In response to mounting consumer pressure, Whole Foods is the first national grocery chain to commit to providing full GMO transparency for its customers by 2018.

In the era of Big Food, one of our few remaining choices is to vote with our fork (and our wallets) about what our priorities are. It may be the most important decision we keep making—we do it three times a day, on average. “Deciding on the food we buy is the most intimate thing we do. Name anything else we do with our money that has more of an impact on our bodies, the environment, and the health of our children and future generations,” says Kastel.

Tip: the best place to buy non-GMO foods & snacks is at!