This morning, I had a conversation with the Media Director for California Right to Know 2012 Ballot Initiative (Prop 37), Stacy Malkan.
Proposition 37 (up for vote in California in November) requires labels letting consumers know if foods are genetically modified.
Last time I mentioned something about GMOs in my blog and on my Facebook page, I got a wide array of comments from people which made me realize that this time, I should give a little background and information on GMOs before getting too deep.
So, what exactly is a genetically modified organism or GMO?
Wikipedia describes GMOs as: “an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. These techniques… use DNA molecules from different sources, which are combined into one molecule to create a new set of genes. This DNA is then transferred into an organism, giving it modified or novel genes. Transgenic organisms, a subset of GMOs, are organisms that have inserted DNA from a different species. GMOs are the constituents of genetically modified foods.”
What foods are genetically modified?
The world of researching GMO and the companies that are responsible for introducing GMOs into the food supply, (like Monsanto), is seemingly endless. It’s hard to discern what exactly is fact or fiction when it comes to health reports/studies around GM foods.
That said, there are facts and figures out there agreed upon by both sides (proponents and opponents of GMOs). For example, what GM foods are currently in circulation?
This is from the website for The Non-GMO project. (They provide a certification process for food companies (voluntary) to achieve a “Non-GMO project verified” label.)
- Alfalfa (first planting 2011)
- Canola (approx. 90% of U.S. crop)
- Corn (approx. 88% of U.S. crop in 2011)
- Cotton (approx. 90% of U.S. crop in 2011)
- Papaya (most of Hawaiian crop; approximately 988 acres)
- Soy (approx. 94% of U.S. crop in 2011)
- Sugar Beets (approx. 95% of U.S. crop in 2010)
- Zucchini and Yellow Summer Squash (approx. 25,000 acres)
Now, think about a trip to your local grocery store. Considering most processed foods (things found in boxes, cans and fruit or soda drinks, etc.) contain soy (e.g. soybean oil) or high fructose corn syrup (or beet sugar) and/or canola oil, you can just imagine how prevalent GMOs are in the national food supply. (Unless, of course, something is labeled organic.)
Why produce GM foods?
Corn is an easy example to look at.
While the crop grows, corn has a natural predator. A type of caterpillar which turns into an equally ‘hungry for corn’ moth . It burrows its way into the nose of the corn and eats away at the plant. One of the methods for preventing this moth from infiltrating a corn crop is to use a toxin found in an herbicide called Bt Toxin. Instead of spraying the corn with this herbicide or other pesticides, genetic engineers have taken a gene from that toxin and inserted it into the corn so that the corn grows with that pesticide as part of its genetic makeup. The corn is then resistant to that moth which will not survive its journey into the corn.
The toxin has been deemed safe by the USDA in that it is at a low level and will presumably be broken down by our digestive system before being absorbed into our bloodstream.
On one hand, the prospect of not having to spray pesticides on acres and acres of land is a wonderful thing, on the other hand, how do we really know ingesting Bt corn is not harmful, especially when it has only been recently introduced into the food chain?
Other concerns are the environmental effect of the toxin (will it prevent other insects, like monarch butterflies, from proliferating), could it be damaging to the soil, will the pollen travel and mix with non GMO plants, will the moth evolve to become resistant to the Bt corn?
One more thing I think important to point out, for your information, is that Walmart has just approved the selling of this Bt corn in their supermarkets. It’s the first direct-to-consumer sold GM corn (to date, GM corn has only been used only for animal feed and processed foods, i.e. refining the corn to make corn oil, corn flour, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup and a myriad of other products that are made out of corn, like modified cornstarch, dextrose, glucose… and so on.) However, with no GMO labeling required, you will not know if the corn you are purchasing is genetically modified or conventionally grown corn.
There are a lot of unanswered questions about GMOs simply because they are newbies in our food system.
All that said, pros and cons, shouldn’t we, as consumers, have the choice as to whether or not we want to buy, cook with and eat/feed our friends and families GMOs?
Which brings me back to my conversation with Stacy this morning from “California Right to Know.”
She shared with me that “Big Ag” (big food companies) have invested $25 million (that’s a lot of Lattes!) in opposition of labeling GMOs.
This is the age of information sharing.
If Big Ag believes GMOs to be harmless and actually helping the environment and global food problems (think GM drought-resistant crops or apples that won’t brown), then shouldn’t they be encouraging labeling?
Personally and professionally, as a chef, I am constantly researching about the food I eat. That’s why I love to visit farms, shop at my local farmers markets, visit artisans, speak with chefs. I want to know what’s in my food and how it’s grown or made.
I for one am looking forward to participating in empowering others with more knowledge, not less.
Regardless of how we all feel about GMOs, a vote on prop 37 will be coming up in November in California, so let’s educate ourselves and keep the conversation alive so that we are able to choose what’s best, not only for us, but also our community.