Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are foods that look the same as naturally grown foods, but have had their genetic makeup altered in some way. Most often, this genetic engineering makes foods herbicide-tolerant or able to produce their own internal insecticide. Soybeans, for example, can be altered to make them resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. When the herbicide is sprayed on the fields, everything—except the soybean plant—is killed. Corn plants are also often injected with the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, causing the plant to synthesize Bt toxin, which kills the European corn borer, a common insect attacker. Bt toxin can also be inserted into cotton and apples as well.
GMOs are not necessarily approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for human consumption. Instead, the FDA requires companies to enter into a voluntary consultation process (to date all GM foods on the market have gone through the process).1 The FDA doesn’t conduct its own safety studies but rather leaves that up to the food companies growing or processing the food. Independent research on animals indicates the potential for considerable health risks from eating GMOs. There are environmental, farmer’s rights, and local economy concerns associated with GMOs as well.2,3,4,5,6,7,8 For these reasons, more than 36 countries world-wide have banned the cultivation of GM crops.
Nine out of ten Americans support mandatory labeling of GM food.9,10 On July 1, 2016, Vermont became the first state to require on-package labeling with the words “partially produced with genetic engineering.” But on July 29, 2016, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill that will undermine Vermont’s labeling law by preventing states from establishing their own labeling requirements and allowing food companies to substitute the on-label wording with QR codes, 800-numbers, or other text or symbols to indicate GM ingredients. There are many concerns about the law that will take years to sort out, prompting Andy Kimbrell executive director at the Center for Food Safety to call it “a vague multi-year bureaucratic process specifically designed to provide less transparency to consumers.”11
In the absence of mandatory labeling, there are still ways to avoid GMOs.
1. Look for the Label
Buy 100% USDA Organic.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines organic food as having been produced through practices that promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. The use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering is prohibited.
There are certified organic options for most items at your local grocery store. While they may cost 15-20 percent more, consider it a small investment in your long-term health.
The “Non-GMO Project” Label.
The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization and North America’s only third-party verification and labeling entity for non-GMO food and products, including testing of at-risk ingredients. Get a complete list of verified products here.
The also make an app for iPhone and Android that can help while you’re shopping.
2. Avoid High Risk Crops
There are 11 primary at-risk GMO foods.
• Corn (including but not limited to corn oil, cornmeal, cornstarch, corn syrup, hominy, and polenta)
• Canola oil
• Cottonseed oil
• Papaya (from Hawaii and China)
• Soybeans (soybean oil, soy protein, soy milk, tofu, and other soy-based ingredients)
• Sugar beets (if it contains sugar it’s most likely a combination of sugar cane and GM sugar beets)
• Yellow squash and zucchini
Additionally, AquAdvantage salmon—a genetically modified Atlantic salmon—will soon appear in both grocery stores and restaurants. Recent federal approvals of Arctic Apples and Innate potatoes, too—both of which have been modified so that they don’t brown—will increasingly appear in food supplies across the country.
3. Check out the PLU Code
The price lookup (PLU) code on fresh produce can provide some insight as to whether or not it’s a GMO. A 4-digit number indicates a conventionally produced food that may or may not be GM. A 5-digit number beginning with 8 means it’s GM, though such PLU labeling is optional. Lastly a 5-digit number that starts with 9 means it’s organic and GMO-free. For example a Fuji apple with the PLU code of 4131 is conventionally grown, a Fuji apple with a PLU code of 94131 is organically grown, and 84131 is a GM Fuji apple.
4. Avoid Indirect Sources of GMOs
Conventional meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy are often raised on feed that contains GMOs, such as alfalfa. The best way to avoid these is to look for Non-GMO Project Verified products or switch to organically raised beef, chicken, eggs, and wild-caught fish. Click here for more information on animal labels (Sept article link).
Additionally, the more you reduce or eliminate processed foods, the less likely you are to consume GMOs. It is estimated that 75 percent or more processed foods contain GMOs, including soda, cookies, chips, soups, and condiments.12
5. Shop Locally or Grow Your Own
Most GM crops come from large industrial farms. By shopping locally through farmers’ markets or Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), you can connect with the farmer directly and support the local economy. However, shopping locally doesn’t guarantee the food is GMO-free; be sure to ask if they use GM seeds before purchasing.
Avoiding GMOs takes practice, but it’s not impossible. If you are interested in eliminating them from your diet—or at least knowing when you’re eating them—don’t hesitate to get started learning how to identify them, even if means eating one GMO-free meal a day.
- Smith J. (2006) Genetically Engineered Crop May Produce Herbicide Inside Our Intestines. Institute For Responsible Technology e-newsletter Spilling the Beans
- Anderson, T. (2007). Counterpoint: GMO Foods are Unsafe. Science Reference Center
- Capulalpam. (2002) Risking Corn, Risking Culture. World Watch, 15: 9-11