The Savvy Shopper
The most contentious food-fight on the planet has been transformed into a war of words. Actually, letters. Three of them: GMO. They stand for genetically modified organism.
The battle is being waged in Congress, state legislatures and via social media. The question -- whether food producers should be required to put those three letters on labels of products that have been genetically modified.
Boiled down, the argument goes like this:
- Producers of genetically modified seeds and companies that use GMOs in the foods they produce say extensive scientific research has shown the food to be as nutritious as non-GMO foods and safe for human and non-human consumption, so there is no need to label them.
- A diverse coalition, which includes organic farmers, scientists, doctors, Consumers Union, community organizations, and a host of internet sites devoted to nutrition, healthful eating, food safety, and the public’s right to know, say GMO science is still too new to be decreed safe in the long term. Besides, they ask, if it’s safe, why not give consumers a conscious choice in what they eat by labeling genetically modified food?
A lot of money has been spent lobbying members of Congress to
oppose mandatory labeling of GMOS, and even to prohibit farmers from suing Monsanto, the largest producer of GMO seeds, over its requirement that farmers buy new GMO seeds from the company every year. Last year, the House of Representatives passed what labeling proponents dubbed the DARK Act (Deny Americans the Right to Know Act). Local Reps. Sean Maloney, D-18th District, and Chris Gibson, R-19th District, both opposed the bill, which would have preempted a state’s right to require labeling of GMOs. However, under pressure in December to get a budget bill passed to avoid another government shutdown, the House did not include the GMO measure in its final omnibus budget bill. With the Senate also approving the budget bill and President Obama signing it into law, advocates of GMO labeling took this as a victory in the ongoing battle.
In yet another victory for the advocates of mandatory labeling, Campbell Soups, a major food company, recently announced it would no longer oppose such labeling, It said it has withdrawn from the food industry campaign for voluntary labeling and is urging a national standard, to avoid confusion for consumers. CEO Denise Morrison said the company is not “disputing the science of GMOs or their safety.” But, she added, GMOS have become a major issue with consumers and, “We have always believed that consumers have the right to know what’s in their food.” She said if a federal standard isn’t established “in a reasonable amount of time,” Campbell’s would begin labeling its own products, which include Pepperidge Farm, Prego, Swanson and SpaghettiOs.
Meanwhile, the legal status quo remains and states are free to pass laws requiring labeling of GMO foods. Vermont is the only state to have enacted such a law. Maine and Connecticut have passed similar laws that go into effect when enough neighboring states do likewise. Vermont’s law is scheduled to go into effect in July. Labeling laws are currently being considered in many other states and the issue is also far from dead in Congress.
So, what’s a health-conscious, label-reading shopper to do in the meantime when the label may be no help on GMOs? For one thing, get enough information about the subject. That can help make for more-informed choices at the supermarket or farmer’s market, no matter what the politicians do. The following may help.
- What are GMOS? GMOs are seeds whose genes have been altered in a laboratory to change certain properties. Generally, proponents of GMOs say they are more resistant to extreme weather and pesticides, are able to produce a higher yield in smaller acreage and have a longer shelf life. The Food and Drug Administration has approved a GMO apple that supposedly won’t turn brown when sliced and a potato that resists bruising. These are not in wide use. (The FDA also recently approved a GMO salmon. See sidebar.) Opponents say they are concerned about GMOs contaminating nearby conventional crops or posing serious health problems since they contain the chemical pesticide to which they have been made resistant. They also say GMOs allow for wider use of pesticide spraying of crops.
- How much of our food is genetically modified? Lots. Maybe 90 percent of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified. Other major GMO crops are cotton, squash, canola, papaya and sugar beets. Since several of these crops are common ingredients in packaged foods, it’s estimated that 75 percent or more of processed food products in the U.S. contain GMOs. More food companies have begun to voluntarily include “Non-GMO” or other similar information on their labels.
- Do other countries require labeling of GMO foods? Yes. Australia, Russia, most of Europe, Iceland, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have stringent labeling laws, according to the Center for Food Safety. Others that have labeling requirements include Brazil, China, Japan, South Africa and South Korea.
- How do I tell what’s true about GMOs and what’s not if I check on the Internet? Good luck. This debate changes every day, with major corporations spending millions of dollars in advertising, lobbying and research grants to scientists to bolster their arguments and organic food organizations and consumer groups spending considerably less money, but no less energy, in an effort to counter them. This is why labeling has become the focal point of the controversy.
Maire Ullrich is the go-to GMO person at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Middletown, N.Y. As agriculture program leader, she offers interested groups a 40-60 minute talk on GMOs. She says the agency takes no position on GMOs. “There’s no good data that says it’s not safe,” she says, “but you still have a choice to be an educated consumer. People need to be really wise to the back of the package, not just read the labels on the front” if they want to know what they’re eating,
For example, she cited a product label boasting of non-GMO oil. But that oil was only 5 percent of the oil in the can. The other 95 percent was canola, which was modified.
Ullrich says most of the produce at local stores and farmers markets is non-GMO (“there are no GMO onions”) because of “the pushback from consumers.” She says farmers are more reluctant to grow GM crops. “Of course, if it’s labeled organic, you know it’s not GMO.”
“Part of what I teach is that if you want to use labels, you have to be scientific in your argument,” she says. “Is it your right to know growing practices and ingredients? Argue for consumer knowledge and transparency. If you don’t like the economics behind GMOs, it’s OK to say so.”
As for that GMO potato, “It’s been an abject failure,” she says. “McDonald’s wouldn’t buy it.” The non-bruising GMO apple? Ullrich says, “If McDonald’s won’t buy a GMO potato, do you think they’ll buy a GMO apple for a kiddie meal?” Both will wind up being processed for other, less obvious, uses.
Meanwhile, the food fight continues.
Bob Gaydos is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Is it really a salmon?
The $1.1 trillion budget bill passed by Congress in December also contained another significant victory for proponents of GMO labeling. In it, Congress instructed the Food and Drug Administration to prohibit the sale of GMO salmon until the agency creates labeling guidelines and a program to disclose to consumers whether a fish has been genetically altered. The FDA in November approved salmon as the first genetically modified animal safe for human consumption. It required no labeling of the Atlantic salmon produced by AquAdvantage.
The salmon contains a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and a gene from the ocean pout. The modification reduces the time required for the fish to grow large enough for consumption to 18 months instead of the usual three years. The fish is also considerably larger than the average salmon.
Critics of the product and commercial fisherman raise the same questions posed about GMO vegetables and fruits: Is the fish safe to eat and what might happen if the fish escapes from its breeding tanks into the environment and mates with wild salmon?
AquAdvantage says the fish are safe to eat, are all sterile females and its land-based breeding areas are secure.
While it is unclear when the fish might be ready for sale, some food chains, including Whole Foods, Target, Trader Joe’s and Aldi, have said they will not sell it. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who fought for the labeling language, said, "There's a question as to whether this fish should even be called a salmon. The FDA made no mandatory labeling requirement. Instead, they said it could be labeled voluntarily. But no manufacturer of a 'Frankenfish' is going to label it as such. ... At least now people will have the opportunity, the chance, to know what it is that they are purchasing."
To schedule a talk on GMOs, Maire Ullrich, agriculture program leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension, Orange County, can be reached at:
-- (845) 344-1234