GMOs at the Grocery Store
As I was servicing a front yard garden last week, a gentleman walking a dog approached me to ask about the plants I was tending.
"Are those all heirlooms?"
I pointed out the brandywine tomatoes and yellow crookneck squash, and explained that the garden was a mixture of heirloom and hybrid varieties.
"Well, everything you buy at the grocery store has Monsanto GMOs in it these days, I'm happy to see there's another option. Keep up the good work."
Our conversation reminded me that the issue of genetically modified crop varieties has sparked a large amount of confusion amongst the general public. While genetically modified crops are increasingly common, many people don't know how common GM crops are, and the best ways to avoid these crops if a consumer chooses.
As Marion Nestle explains
, there is a tendency to exaggerate how commonly genetically modified foods appear in the supermarket:
If, however, you restrict the definition of GM foods to those involving actual manipulations of DNA [...] then the number of GM foods approved for production in the United States is quite limited.
The FDA provides a list of such foods [...] The list includes GM corn, soybeans, cotton, cotton, alfalfa, canola, and sugar beets, most of which are fed to animals or used as ingredients in processed foods. But what about supermarket fruits and vegetables? To answer this question requires a clear separation between approval of production and actual production.
To date, the FDA has approved production of GM varieties of plums, cantaloupe, papaya, squash, radicchio, tomatoes, and potatoes. Note: sweet corn—the kind you eat off the cob—is not on the list.
Even if approved, the GM varieties may not be in your supermarket. GM varieties, it turns out, are difficult to produce under field conditions.
The United States does not mandate that growers label foods grown from genetically modified seed stock. As a result, most consumers have great difficulty distinguishing whether supermarket produce has been genetically modified or not. Because the FDA has not approved any genetically modified squash, you can be fairly certain that your butternut soup is GMO-free, but there's almost no way to know one way or the other about your tomatoes, potatoes, and cantaloupe.
In the absence of mandated labeling requirements, there are still some ways that an informed consumer can avoid GMOs at the supermarket.
The USDA's National Organics Program
prohibits the use of GM seed stock in USDA Certified Organic produce. Although the National Organics Program (NOP) has been criticized
for its use of third-party organizations for enforcement, the issue of genetically modified crops on USDA Certified Organic farms is strictly prohibited under the NOP. Assuming that the NOP regulations were enforced, certified organic produce should be GM-free.
In the case of conventionally grown produce, there are voluntary third-party certification processes that allow products to be certified as GM-free. The Non GMO Project
, for instance, maintains a searchable database
of products that the organization has confirmed do not contain genetically modified foods. As you shop at the supermarket, you can look for the organization's GMO-free seal to confirm that a product is free of GMOs.
Perhaps the best way to avoid genetically modified produce is to grow your food yourself. As Dan mentioned
in his last entry, knowing your farmer allows you to verify the safety and quality of your food. If you are your own farmer, you'll have direct knowledge of the food production process, which allows you to select crops that fit your family's exact needs. In your home garden, you can choose between hybrids and heirlooms, organic and conventionally grown seed stock.
Making these choices can be difficult; you have endless choices in seed suppliers, and there is a lot of terminology to learn. Tomorrow, in Part II of my series on seed varieties, I'll give you insight in to Farmscape's seed purchasing decisions and help you navigate this confusing territory for yourself.
Supermarket Image from Flickr user Rick Audit, "Produce." Accessed 9/28/10. Creative Commons.