Hardly a day goes by that genetically modified foods don’t make the news in some form: legal battles over labeling requirements, rumbles in the blogosphere about potential new products, theories about the harm these products might do to people or other species, or a new scientific perspective that becomes ammo in the battle over these foods’ very right to exist. Is genetic technology applied to our food supply a boon to modern food systems, a balm for world hunger? Or is it a danger to human health, Mother Nature—and our state’s economy?
Just what are genetically modified foods? Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), as they are called, have had their genetic makeup changed by the addition of genetic material from a different species. Herbicide-resistant genes taken from bacteria are inserted into soybeans, for instance, to create plants that resist certain herbicides. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons for the genetic manipulation; resistance to pests is another.
Those resistant plants may ultimately lead to hardier crops—a possible future weapon against world hunger. But critics worry that human health impacts of these foods are largely untested; it’s not definitively known what, if any, effect the added genetic material will have, long or short term, on humans. So far, there is no proof of ill effect, and the FDA classifies GMO crops as safe.
Some fear GMO plants might contaminate nearby “natural” crops—a potentially huge issue locally because some of our state’s trade partners, including France and other European countries, have banned imports of GMO corn and other GMO crops.
At the very least, critics say, the use of GMOs should be disclosed; right now, there is no requirement to label GMO foods. With little action at the federal level, states, including Washington, are now turning up the heat, putting forward GMO-labeling bills. In January, state Senator Maralyn Chase introduced Senate Bill 6298 to require the labeling of foods that contain genetically engineered material. Her motivation is twofold: Give consumers the tools to make informed choices about the foods they eat, and protect local farmers, whose export markets may come to depend on their ability to assure potential buyers that their crops are free of GMOs. The bill recently stalled out in committee, but “this is going to happen eventually,” Chase says, noting that she will reintroduce the bill in future sessions as often as it takes. “We’re asking for transparency in the labeling of the food we eat, and I don’t think that’s asking too much.”
GMO foods are in wide circulation: As much as 80 percent of what’s on grocery store shelves today contains GMOs. Our lack of labeling laws stands in stark contrast to much of the rest of the world.
Chase is finding support for her mission from experts, citizens and businesspeople, including Trudy Bialic, director of public affairs for PCC Natural Markets, who testified in support of the bill. “[PCC shoppers] ask us, ‘Tell us at the shelf level [if a food has GMOs],’” she says, “‘Tell us at the point of sale.’” But store employees can’t do that if they don’t know themselves.
Given the degree to which these crops are used in our food supply, GMO foods are in wide circulation; as much as 80 percent of what’s on grocery store shelves today contains GMOs. Our lack of labeling laws stands in stark contrast to much of the rest of the world: Nearly 50 countries—including China, Japan, European Union nations, Russia and Australia—either require GMO labeling or ban GMO products to some degree.
Use of GMOs is on the rise in this country; recent reports indicate that as much as 94 percent of the soybeans grown in the U.S. are from genetically modified seed, as is 88 percent of the corn, more than 90 percent of the canola and about 90 percent of the cottonseed. The latter two are used for their oil, in cooking oils and processed products. Most commercial GMO corn is used as animal feed; some is transformed into universal ingredients such as corn syrups and dextrose. Seed giant Monsanto did, however, recently release GMO sweet corn seed that may show up in fresh corn supplies this summer. GMO soy appears in soy sauce and tofu, and in soy lecithin, which is often used as an emulsifier.
While there is currently no GMO wheat in commercial production in the U.S., many consider it to be just a matter of time. In our state, wheat is one of our top agricultural products, covering more than 2 million acres. More than 85 percent of that is shipped overseas, making it one of the state’s most valuable export products. Whenever GMO wheat becomes a reality, without labeling policies in place, it is possible that wheat that can’t be guaranteed to be free of GMOs could be rejected by trade partners, a nightmare scenario for local farmers. For its part, the Washington Association of Wheat Growers has submitted a public statement that it believes the labeling issue should be managed at a federal level.
Until we see decisive action on the GMO labeling front, there are tools for those who want to steer clear of genetically engineered foods. For one: Go organic to reduce your chances of GMO content. Based on the USDA certification requirements, genetic engineering cannot be used in the production of organic food (but a trace amount of GMO content will be tolerated). Look for voluntary “no GMO” labels, but buyer beware: The lack of standardized labeling requirements means the consumer can’t be certain of consistent assessment behind the “no GMO” statements used by some manufacturers.
The Bellingham-based nonprofit Non-GMO Project is the country’s only third-party entity that verifies GMO avoidance. The founders created detailed verification standards, including rigorous and regular testing, to ensure ongoing compliance. “Non-GMO is the thing in the [food] industry right now,” says Megan Westgate, executive director of the Non-GMO Project. To date, more than 4,000 products have received Non-GMO Project verification (find a list at nongmoproject.org), among them, some products by Fremont-based Theo Chocolate. “As a brand, we stand for transparency with regard to how our products are made,” says Debra Music, Theo’s vice president of sales and marketing. “We firmly believe in the consumer’s right to know what’s in their food.”
Consumers echo that sentiment. In a national survey conducted in the fall of 2010, 93 percent said genetically engineered food should be labeled. But even as state lawmakers push for that outcome, the presence of GMOs in our food system won’t change any time soon.