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Eating GMO-free: Can genetically modified food really be avoided?

When it comes to food, I have always considered myself to be a well-informed, health-conscious consumer. I’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, watched Food, Inc., shielded my son from the Golden Arches, and forked over extra cash for organic produce, but until recently, I had never given much thought to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Back in September, I learned that the FDA was deliberating on whether to approve the first GM – or genetically engineered (GE) – animal: a fast-growing type of salmon that could show up in supermarkets within a few years. And this week, the USDA will decide whether to green light the production of GE alfalfa, the fourth most widely grown crop in the U.S., and one that is also an important feed source for dairy animals. At the Brooklyn co-op where I shop, earnest, liberal arts-college types have started handing out fliers about the supposed evils of GMOs. Could I be feeding these to my family unknowingly? I decided to dig deeper.

Soon I was reading startling statistics – like the fact that approximately 80% of packaged foods contain GMOs – and was being confronted with widely diverging viewpoints (GMOs are toxic! GM crops help alleviate world hunger!). But before I could make sense of the data, I had to figure out exactly what GMOs are.

GMOs are organisms that have been constructed in labs – one species is injected into another species, resulting in combinations of plants, animals, bacteria, and viral genes that don’t occur in nature. This has included such novel creations as potatoes with bacteria genes to tomatoes with flounder genes, but most of the GM crops grown in the U.S. – the major ones are canola, corn, cotton, and soybeans – are simply produced to be insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant. (In this country, only ingredients derived from these crops – such as natural and artificial flavors, maltodextrins, and yeast products – and a handful of fruits and vegetables have been genetically engineered. The FDA’s decision on GE salmon is still pending.) GM proponents say these bioengineered crops lead to higher yields, better products, and more money in farmers’ pockets. But opponents challenge those claims and point out that GM crops threaten to contaminate conventionally grown and organic versions of the same crops, the central issue in the current GE alfalfa controversy.

For me, especially as a mother, the more troubling question is whether consuming GMOs might cause long-term health problems. Both advocates and critics of GMOs cite research that supposedly proves either the danger or harmlessness associated with eating GM food. One study, which was conducted in 1999 by Stanley Ewen and Arpad Pusztai and whose findings were published in The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, tested the effects of feeding GM potatoes to rats and found that “diets containing [GM potatoes] had variable effects on different parts of the rats’ gastrointestinal tracts…particularly on the small intestine.” But the University of California at Davis, in a 2006 document measuring the safety of GE food, called the findings insufficient and stated that “evidence to date has not indicated that any foods developed for human consumption using genetic-engineering techniques pose risks greater than foods produced using traditional methods.” Still, a large body of skeptics remains, and organizations such as the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists suggest that GMOs could be especially risky for people with allergies and that consuming them could also lead to antibiotic resistance.

I’m not a conspiracy-theory type, but the subtext here – that the financial gains of these huge, bio-tech companies are more important than consumer safety – is all too familiar. So I decided to try a little experiment: for one week, I would make sure that my family (my husband, two-year-old son, and I) ate a completely GMO-free diet. That would mean careful label reading at the grocery store, thoughtfully planned meals, and no eating out at restaurants. (Luckily for me, my husband and son didn’t have a say in this.) I was up for the challenge.

Despite moments of weakness, like going out to brunch and ordering non-organic scrambled eggs that had probably been saut’ed in GM vegetable oil, I learned that – restaurants aside – steering clear of GMOs really isn’t that hard. If, like me, you already buy organic groceries and keep processed foods to a minimum, you’ve probably been avoiding GMOs without even realizing it. By following these simple steps, you can eliminate the GMO risk entirely and trust that what you’re feeding your family (and yourself) is good, unadulterated food:

  • Buy organic

    If GMOs give you the creeps, organic is definitely the way to go. There are only a few GE fruits and vegetables sold in the U.S. – small amounts of zucchini, yellow summer squash, sugar beets, sweet corn, and Hawaiian papaya. A USDA Organic stamp on produce certifies that the food was grown without the use of genetic engineering and that any pesticides or herbicides used were approved by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). On meat, eggs, milk, and other animal products, the seal attests that the product came from animals that were fed 100% organic feed and were not injected with hormones or antibiotics.

  • Avoid at-risk ingredients

    Packaged goods like cereal, frozen dinners, condiments, and snack foods, among others, are likely to include ingredients derived from corn, soy, and canola, so you can bet they’ll contain GMOs. (Here’s a complete list of commonly found GM ingredients.) During our GMO-less week, the chocolate bunny cookies that my son covets were off-limits (a close inspection of the label revealed that they were just 75% organic and contain the GM-likely ingredient “natural flavors”) as were the fish sticks that he gets when I don’t feel like cooking. The good news is that, thanks to the Non-GMO Project, more companies now have an incentive to find alternatives to using GM ingredients.

  • Look for the non-GMO project seal

    Does a USDA Organic label certify that a product is GMO-free? According to the Non-GMO Project, when it comes to processed foods, the answer is no, which is where the five-year-old organization enters the equation. You’ll find the non-profit’s seal on more products (including the Whole Foods 365 brand) in the coming months; their label signals that the product adheres to third-party standards for GMO avoidance. (If you don’t see the label, check the Non-GMO Project site for participating products.)

So, can an average, busy family realistically go GMO-free? Absolutely. Will it be annoying at times? Totally. But for me, it was reassuring to discover that although GM ingredients are not clearly labeled, we do have the resources we need to avoid them if we want to. I’m still undecided on whether GMOs are always bad. On one hand, thanks to genetic modification, companies like HarvestPlus are figuring out ways to grow more nutrient-rich staple crops in impoverished countries that are rocked by malnutrition. And on the other hand, I worry about the unknown, future health implications of tinkering with DNA (my son is only 2!). For now, I plan to keep up a less militant form of GM policing in my household. I’ve already started reaching for products with the Non-GMO seal, especially when feeding my son. But those chocolate bunny cookies? We’re not ready to ditch those just yet.

For more information on how to avoid GMOs, check out the following organizations:

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