By Tracy Lee, Home Garden Vegetable Seed Product Development Manager for Sakata Seed America. and Doylestown Food Market co-op supporter.
We read and hear a lot in the media about avoiding GMO foods and the importance of GMO labeling. It is imperative that as we spread the word about our beliefs, we rely on precise and proven information. We can be most successful in changing the food choices we are all given if we are well armed and well versed.
The terms GE and GMO are often used interchangeably, but they do not mean the same thing; it is really modern genetic engineering that is the subject of much debate regarding our food supply.
Genetic engineering describes the high-tech methods used since the 1980s. Genes are spliced from one organism into another to impart specific traits to that organism. The only way scientists can transfer genes between organisms that are not sexually compatible is to use recombinant DNA techniques (like ‘gene blasting’). The plants that result do not occur in nature; they are “ genetically engineered” (GE) by human intervention and manipulation. This is what the public should be concerned about in their food supply.
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is currently defined by the USDA as an organism produced through any type of genetic modification, whether by high-tech modern genetic engineering, OR long time traditional plant breeding methods. When plant breeders, working with conventional or organically produced varieties, select for traits like uniformity or disease resistance in an open-pollinated variety or create a hybrid cross between two cultivars, they are making the same kind of selections which can also occur in nature over longer periods of time. Examples of 20th century breeding work, or "genetic modification", include familiar fruits and vegetables such as seedless watermelons, broccoli and tomatoes.
So, the important point to remember here is that, while the "label GMO's" terminology is unlikely to change, what we are most concerned with avoiding are GE, or genetically engineered, crops.
What crops fall into this category? Right now, the following are the only GE crops that are commercially grown:
- Alfalfa (first planting 2011, used as feed crop)
- Canola (~ 90% of U.S. crop 2011; mainly oil)
- Corn (~ 88% of U.S. crop 2011; mainly field corn used as livestock feed and in processing: HFCS – high fructose corn syrup)
- Cotton (~ 90% of U.S. crop 2011; used in oil)
- Papaya (most of Hawaiian crop, ~ 988 acres 2011)
- Soy (~ 94% of U.S. crop 2011)
- Sugar Beets (~ 95% + of U.S. crop 2011)
- Zucchini and Yellow Summer Squash (~ 25,000 acres 2011)
- Sweet Corn (Monsanto varieties include Seminis Performance Series (Obsession II, Passion II, Temptation II, Exp. Variety SV9010SA). Syngenta’s variety is the Roger’s Brand ‘Attribute’. Acres unknown: Farmers planted Monsanto varieties for the first time this past season. Syngenta’s has been commercially available since 1998.)
(APHIS and NOP figures & ASTA industry data)
What does this list mean when we are trying to avoid GE foods in the grocery store? The foods that contain some form of the above crops is daunting. A good source list to download the “Non-GMO Shopping Tips” brochure from The Institute for Responsible Technology (www.responsibletechnology.org).
Another good place to start is to avoid all non-organic packaged foods. These main ingredients in packaged foods are the prime offenders: corn, corn flour, corn meal, oil (except olive oil), soy flour, soy protein, sugar (except pure cane sugar), and high fructose corn syrup. There are also many sweeteners and preservatives in 'freshly' baked items in the store that are derived from GE crops. In addition, primary exposure may also come from non-organic green or golden zucchini and sweet corn, if the varieties are from Seminis (Monsanto) or Syngenta.
Secondary exposure to GE crops may occur with non-organic dairy products from animals fed GE crops as feed and non-organic meat & poultry fed GE crops.
What CAN you buy then? Well, this presents one of the best reasons to BUY LOCAL! Farm markets, stands and stores, local Co-op grocery stores, and CSA’s all either label where their food comes from and how it was grown or you can always ask and they will know the answer.
Small scale farmers purchase seeds for their produce and feed crops through distributors that know and disclose if they are selling GE seed. The farmer will know if he is using GE seed.
It is important to remember though, that whether a local farmer uses conventional or organic growing methods is independent of whether or not he uses GE seeds. One has nothing to do with the other. He or she can offer heirlooms or hybrid varieties, grown conventionally or organically, and still not use GE crops or support companies that develop them. So ask specific questions.
The other way to avoid GE crops is to supplement your purchases from local growers with your own home-grown produce. Currently, there are NO GE seed varieties being sold to home gardeners, whether conventional or organic. Stores that offer young vegetable plants may unknowingly offer GE zucchini or corn plants, but there is no reason to buy these anyway – they should be direct sown in the garden!
Remember, these labels do not mean a seed is GE: treated seed, hybrid seed, non-organic seed. We may want to avoid these for other reasons, but they are not synonymous with GMO/GE.
If you want to make sure that the companies you buy seed from continue to never offer GE seeds, you can purchase from those who have signed the Safe Seed Pledge. The Council for Responsible Genetics (www.councilforresponsiblegenetics.org) maintains a “Safe Seed Pledge List” . When in doubt go directly to a seed company’s website and they will display the pledge if they have signed it!
So while it may be difficult to rid your home of foods containing genetically engineered crops if you rely heavily on pre-packaged foods, you can reduce your exposure by adopting a few key habits. First, if you do buy packaged items, buy organic. If you are worried about secondary exposure, buy organic meats and dairy products too. Buy from local farmers who know what varieties of feed crops and fresh vegetables they use. And grow your own! Until labeling laws are passed, combining these tactics drastically decreased your exposure to GE (commonly known as GMO) foods.
This editorial can be downloaded here.
To watch an extended presentation on Genetically Engineered foods by Tracy Lee, please click here.