This month in Chicago, consumers have been conveying their distaste for genetically modified foods outside a Whole Foods Market. Surprising? Not when you learn more about how we’ve been handling genetic modification of crops in the United States. According to Department of Agriculture data, over 90% of soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified to be herbicide resistant. A similar story goes for corn, with over 60% of the crop treated to be insecticide resistant. The second part of the shock: in 1996, only 1.4% of the crop was genetically modified to be insecticide resistant. With that kind of coverage, no supermarket can escape genetically modified foods.
The great debate in this post is not whether genetic modification has a negative impact on health status, the environment, or the social welfare of farmers. What is more concerning is that these foods are not labeled. Read: there is no clear way to easily identify foods that have genetically modified ingredients. In fact, you have to be a pretty savvy consumer to avoid food made with these ingredients. The Chicago Tribune points out that food manufacturers are not on your side either:
Industry representatives say that GMOs are safe and that labeling them is unnecessary, citing a 1992 statement from the FDA saying the agency had no reason to believe GMOs “differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way.” No mainstream regulatory organization in the U.S. has opposed the introduction of GMOs.
A precedent was set for this sort of labeling back in the mid-1990s, when a majority of the public became aware that dairy cows were treated with growth hormones (rBST being the main hormone). Back then, the FDA ruled that manufacturers could voluntarily label their cheese, yogurt, and dairy products that weren’t made with milk from cows treated with growth hormones. However, this voluntary claim also had to include a statement pointing out that there was no difference between milk from rBST-treated cows and non-rBST-treated cows. The FDA seemed to be very worried that without this statement, consumers would be misled, drawing incorrect conclusions about the safety of dairy products from hormone-treated cows. (Strangely, this knight-in-shining-armor behavior doesn’t seem to appear in other instances where consumers are definitely misled.)
But when it comes to genetically modified foods, we don’t even have a backhanded compliment to guide us. Individuals who want to exercise their right to choose are rendered practically impotent. As a result, we have the chart above. It’s highly unlikely that our corn and soybean portfolio would look like it does today if genetically-modified foods were labeled. To increase transparency around GM foods, the best course of action is to reach out to your elected representatives and voice your opinion. In the meantime, if you are interested in avoiding genetically-modified foods follow these three tips.
1. Stick to whole foods. There are very few fruits and vegetables in the produce section that have been genetically modified. Sweet corn (that you see in the summer) is typically not modified. The only other GMO produce varieties that have been approved are tomatoes and Hawaiian papaya. GM tomatoes didn’t do well with consumers and papaya isn’t really something you eat that often anyway. Despite the fact that there aren’t many GM fruits and veggies, the produce section is the one place where you can easily identify GMOs.
2. If you do go the processed food route, buy organic. The USDA organic standard prohibits the use of genetically modified crops.
4. (updated October 2011) Join others and ask the FDA to label genetically-modified foods.