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Hi, I'm Malcolm Woods

I’m the New Media Editor at Outpost, though I’m the old media editor, as well. In both capacities, I read, hear, photograph and write about food. I also eat food pretty regularly, all of which means I spend a lot of time thinking about food in...
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Malcolm Woods

The Slow Fight Against GMOs

Postscript
Food, Love and Policy By Malcolm Woods on August 7, 2012

 

Do the foods you eat contain GMOs?

 

GMOs are genetically modified organisms, plants and animals that have undergone alterations to their original genetic material at the cellular level.

 

First experimented with in the mid-1970s, genetic engineering has rapidly grown in sophistication and frequency. Early experiments revolved around methods to make plants less susceptible to frost, but researchers soon moved onto transgenic engineering, in which genetic material from different species are combined into one organism.

 

Some genetic engineering is targeted at increasing the nutritional content of foods. So-called golden rice, for example, has been genetically altered to contain large amounts of beta carotene, in hopes of fighting Vitamin A deficiency among peoples who depend upon rice as a mainstay of their diets.

 

More often, GMO crops are engineered to increase yields, foster faster growth or make plants that are more tolerant to the pesticides used in conventional farming.

 

And chances are, we eat them. Genetically modified foods first received approval for cultivation in the mid-1990s and today, the US is the largest producer of GMO crops in the world. GMO crops raised in the US include soybean, corn, canola, squash, papaya, alfalfa and sugarbeets, and the switch to those GMO versions has often been rapid. In 2010, more than 90% of the corn, soybean and sugarbeet crops were GMO versions.

 

But GMO foods have plenty of critics. Opponents worry about damage to the environment, the impact on local ecosystems from the growing of GMO plants, economic issues due to intellectual property laws and about potential health issues associated with the consumption of GMO foods.

 

Many opponents, citing the range of issues listed above, have called for mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs, so consumers could make informed decisions about whether or not to purchase GMO foods. Outpost has long supported mandatory labeling of GMOs and is a sustaining member of the Truth in Labeling Coalition.

 

The Non-GMO Project

The Non-GMO Project Verified Seal was developed by a group of retailers to step into the vacuum created by the absence of mandatory labeling laws in the US. Products submitted for approval undergo a series of tests designed to identify the presence of any GMOs. It’s important to note that the test cannot guarantee that a product is free of GMOs. To begin with, the testing threshold is 0.9%, meaning even samples from foods approved to carry the Non-GMO seal may contain nearly one percent GMO content. Further, as acknowledged by the testing company itself, GMO-free claims are not legally or scientifically defensible. That’s because of limitations in the testing process and the possibility of contamination. For example, a food tested by the group may test below the 0.9% threshold, but there is no way to guarantee that other samples of that same product test similarly.

 

So what does the Non-GMO seal mean? Its backers hope that you’ll see participation by food producers as evidence of that company’s commitment to avoiding the use of GMOs. It is the only organization offering independent testing of GMOs in the US and Canada and its website suggests that buying products bearing the seal is the best way to support non-GMO food choices.

 

Consumers can also chose organic foods whenever possible. In the US, foods which are USDA certified as organic cannot contain GMOs. Again, however, given the preponderance of GMO crops and the chance of contamination, there is no 100% guarantee that a food is GMO-free.

 

Kashi’s Cereals and the Cornucopia Institute

Enter Kashi, a natural foods cereal and snack producer now owned by Kellogg’s. Last October, the company was blasted in a report published by the Cornucopia Institute, an organization devoted to building support for sustainable and organic agriculture. The Institute’s “Cereal Crimes” study examined the contents of a variety of breakfast cereals labeled “natural.” The report concluded that many products labeled natural actually contained ingredients that were grown conventionally, with pesticides, and also likely contained GMOs.

 

The study illustrates that the term “natural” is not a USDA regulated term  and can thus mean whatever the producer says it means. Kashi was one of several companies given the lowest score by Cornucopia, which noted that only four of the company’s 24 cereal products were certified organic.

 

Since the study was released, Kashi company officials have committed to participating in the Non-GMO Project and to increasing the company’s share of organic and Non-GMO Project Verified foods. You can read what the company has to say here. Currently, seven of the company’s cereals bear the Non-GMO seal and two more have been submitted for testing. The company has also pledged that all Kashi Go-Lean cereals will be Non-GMO certified by the end of 2014 and that in 2015, all new offerings will contain at least 70% organic ingredients and be Non-GMO Product Verified.

 

Ironically, the company’s size may be hampering efforts to convert more of its cereals to Non-GMO offerings. Since almost all of the conventionally grown soybeans in the US now contain DNA material sourced from bacteria, Kashi will likely have to find adequate sources of organic soybeans. Developing a supplier stream that can furnish enough organic ingredients won’t happen overnight.

 

Outpost sells Kashi cereals, alongside other brands that scored much higher in the Cornucopia study. While we do not support the use of GMOs because of concerns about their impact on the environment and potential health risks, we realize that there is no way to ensure that foods are completely GMO free and that it’s better to assume that conventional foods, even ones labeled as natural, may contain GMOs. Our policy on issues such as these is to inform customers so that they may make informed decisions.

 

What can you do?

Buy organic. Your shopping dollars will help to support growers and producers committed to avoiding GMOs. In addition, your food choices when you shop at Outpost ultimately help determine which products are carried and which are dropped. You can also lend your voice to the call for mandatory labeling here

 

 

 

 

 

 

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