What you need to know about GMO foods

If you haven't been following the issue closely, you might be surprised to learn about the exponential growth of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food supply. Between 1996 and 2011, the total surface area of land cultivated with GMOs increased from 4.2 million acres to 395 million acres 10 percent of the world's crop lands.

The beginning of genetically modified foods can be traced back to the 1980s when scientists discovered that pieces of DNA can transfer between organisms. In 1983 the first genetically modified plant was produced: an antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant. In 1994, the tomato was genetically modified to delay ripening after picking. The big breakthrough came in 1995, when biotech giant Monsanto introduced a soybean that would resist Roundup, the most widely used herbicide on the planet. Also in 1995, the Bt potato was approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, making it the first crop approved in the U.S. to contain its own built-in pesticide.

From the beginning, critics have objected to GMOs on several grounds, including ecological concerns, health issues, and economics (stemming from the fact that GMOs are very expensive and subject to intellectual property law). They claim that GMOs are responsible for herbicide-resistant super-weeds, insecticide-resistant super-pests and huge increases in the use of toxic pesticides.

According to the Organic Consumers Association, no one really knows the long-term health effects of GMO foods because they have been on the market only since 1994, and research on humans is scarce. To date, most of the studies have been done on animals. Some of those studies link GMO foods to altered metabolism, inflammation, kidney and liver malfunction, and reduced fertility.

In the United States, regulation of GMO foods is in the hands of three agencies: the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. Needless to say, given the deep pockets of powerful multinational corporations such as Monsanto, any attempt by consumer groups to secure effective health and safety laws regarding GMO foods inevitably becomes a long, complex saga of bureaucratic red tape. Product labeling laws have become an especially heated issue.

Recently, Kellogg made headlines when it was discovered that its Kashi brand of cereal products touted for its "natural" and wholesome ingredients contain Roundup ready soybeans. Consumers were justifiably outraged. USA Today reported that consumers felt "duped" into believing that Kashi was all-natural when it's not. In response to the outcry, Kashi general manager David DeSouza told USA Today that since the FDA doesn't regulate the term "natural," the cereal maker did nothing wrong by defining "natural" as minimally-processed with no artificial flavors, colors, preservatives or sweeteners.

Attempts by consumer groups to compel GMO product labeling resulted in a "voluntary" system in which GMO foods would be designated on the 5-digit Price Look-Up code (PLU sticker). A PLU beginning with the digit 8 indicates genetically modified food. However, the system is all but useless, as no retailer to date has elected to use the digit in voluntarily labeling GMO foods.

Given the ubiquity of GMO foods and the lack of effective labeling laws to date, what can we do? Consumers who wish to avoid GMO products in the marketplace can adopt these five strategies:

1. Buy organic. Certified organic products cannot intentionally include any GMO ingredients.
2. Look for products labeled with the Non-GMO Project seal. The Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit organization committed to providing consumers with clearly labeled and independently verified non-GMO choices.
3. Look for dairy products labeled "No rBGH or rBST," or "artificial hormone-free."
4. Avoid at-risk ingredients. If it's not labeled organic or verified non-GMO, avoid products made with ingredients that are likely to be derived from GMOs. The eight major GM food crops are corn, soybeans, canola, cottonseed, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, zucchini and yellow squash.
5. Avoid processed foods whenever possible. Most of these have "hidden" GMO ingredients.

Organic Consumers Association
Non-GMO Shopping Guide
Institute for Responsible Technology

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