Even without mandatory labeling, there are surefire strategies you can follow to avoid buying unnatural and untested genetically modified foods.
A whopping 97 percent of consumers are now aware of GMOs in foods—a much higher figure than in previous years. Forty-six percent of American consumers in a recent survey say they avoid genetically modified foods (compared to only 15 percent in 2007), and sales of Non-GMO Project Verified products grew from $2 billion in sales in 2011 to more than $25 billion in 2017. But even while consumers are actively avoiding GMOs, there is still much confusion about them, including the awareness that certified organic foods are, by definition, free of GMOs.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) look like traditionally grown foods but they are very different on the inside. Engineers insert genes from one living thing into the DNA of an unrelated living thing to create a GMO with different traits that would never occur in nature. The practice of inserting genes from one species into another unrelated species is a modern technology and is very different from traditional breeding methods that have been utilized for centuries.
The two most common types of GM crops on the market are those that have been engineered to have a little bit of insecticide inside every bite and those that resist (i.e., don’t die from) repeated applications of herbicides such as Roundup weed killer. Newer types of genetic engineering have emerged in recent years, such as the use of “gene silencing” to alter potatoes and apples so they don’t brown when sliced, and CRISPR and RNAi technologies, which involve turning genes on and off and creating new sequences of DNA.
Contrary to what many people think, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t conduct safety studies on GM foods; it leaves determining their safety up to the companies that make them. What’s more, animal research points to serious health risks from eating GM foods, including infertility, immune system problems, gastrointestinal problems, organ changes, and tumors.
A big focus of concern in recent years has been the herbicides used on GM crops. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup weed killer sprayed on the vast majority of GM crops, was declared a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency for the Research on Cancer in 2015. In August of this year, a jury determined that Ranger Pro (Monsanto’s generic version of Roundup) caused a former groundskeeper’s terminal cancer and ruled that the maker of the weed killer, Monsanto, pay $289 million in damages. Thousands of similar lawsuits are pending against the company. Human exposure to glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, has increased approximately 500 percent since the introduction of GMOs. A 2014 study reported that chronically ill people have higher residues of glyphosate in their urine.
Pollen and seed from GM crops can easily spread in an open environment and contaminate both non-GMO and organic food. Also, the herbicides sprayed on GMOs pollute our land and water and harm vegetation that birds and animals use for food. One example: Roundup herbicide kills milkweed, a primary food source for Monarch butterflies.
There is a growing desire among consumers for more natural foods. Even without a complete understanding of all the issues surrounding GMOs, shoppers generally have an aversion to GMOs because they are uncomfortable with the idea of something natural being changed into something that is unnatural.
The number one reason people avoid GMOs is because they worry about GMO’s impact on health, according to the Hartman Group’s Organic & Natural 2018 survey and report. Seventy percent of those who avoid GMOs say they do so because they are concerned about the consequences or risks to health from eating GMOs.
Avoiding or limiting exposure to pesticides is another top reason to steer clear of GMOs.
Other reasons people give for avoiding GMOs include wanting to know exactly what goes into the food they eat, being concerned about negative impacts on the environment and farm workers from GMOs and the pesticides that go with them, and not wanting to support companies that use GMOs.
One of the main takeaways from the 2018 report is that trust in food companies and transparency of the ingredients in food products are very important to consumers, according to Helen Lundell, senior consultant at the Hartman Group, which conducted the study. Overall, consumers lack trust in big business, which they believe should have more humility, she says.
Details of the proposed new U.S. GMO labeling law (called The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard) were not finalized at the time of publication of this article. But consumer advocates see the controversial new law as convoluted and fraught with problems for shoppers, including that the law is not likely to offer the clear on-package labeling that consumers want. But even without mandatory GMO labeling in the United States, you can still successfully avoid GM foods when you use the right strategies.
To make the most informed shopping decisions for you and your family, it’s important to understand the difference between products labeled Non-GMO Project Verified and USDA Organic. Products that carry the Non-GMO Project Verified label are independently verified to be in compliance with North America’s only third party standard for GMO avoidance, including testing of at-risk ingredients. They are verified to be free of GMOs but they still could have been sprayed with synthetic pesticides and grown with synthetic fertilizers.
In contrast, products that have the USDA Organic seal cannot, by law, contain any GM ingredients. They also must be produced without irradiation, sewage sludge, antibiotics, and growth hormones, and without synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides, including glyphosate.
For the best protection against GMOs, choose products with the USDA Organic label. Additionally, look for the Non-GMO Project Verified label or other third-party certifiers such as NSF International, A Greener World, or SGS—or avoid foods made with, or derived from, GM ingredients, like corn, canola, cottonseed, soy, and sugar from sugar beets. Opt instead for foods that have not been genetically modified, such as nuts, most vegetables, and most fruits.
Take note: In many stores, corn, potatoes, yellow squash, zucchini, apples, and papaya are produce items that could be GM if they are not labeled organic. However, bear in mind that Natural Grocers only sells organic produce. Organic foods by definition cannot contain GMOs. Natural Grocers also has a policy in place requiring all new products it brings into its stores to be non-GMO.
In late 2015, against widespread consumer and business opposition, the FDA approved AquaBounty’s genetically modified salmon—the first genetically engineered animal—for sale in the United States.[i] Commercialization of the fish was delayed while the FDA sorted out the question of labeling it. But sales of the controversial farmed GM salmon have started in Canada and it is not labeled.
The fish, which grows much faster and larger than conventional salmon, is made by inserting a fragment of DNA from the ocean pout fish (a type of eel), along with a growth hormone gene from Chinook Pacific salmon, into a fertilized Atlantic salmon egg. The FDA’s food safety evaluation of GM salmon was widely criticized as grossly inadequate. For example, the FDA treats the salmon as if it were an animal drug, not a food for human consumption. The agency didn’t conduct its own safety studies. It also dismissed data showing elevated levels of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor) that may significantly increase the risk of colorectal, breast, and prostate cancer. Data also suggests potentially increased allergenicity and higher levels of antibiotics in the fish. Most people say they do not want to eat the fish and take unintended risks with their health.
To avoid GM salmon when traveling in Canada, either don’t eat salmon or buy only wild caught.
If and when GM salmon is commercialized in the United States, know that there is a commercial boycott of it in place with restaurants, chefs, and grocery retailers pledging to keep GM salmon out of their establishments. More than 80 grocery store chains across the United States have made firm commitments to not sell GM salmon. Rest assured that Natural Grocers is a chain that has made that commitment.