GMOs have become big business - not only for those marketing them, but for those businesses catering to the people who wish to avoid them. This has resulted in a lot of confusing labels, controversy and mis-information. Hopefully this post will help clear up a few things.
You may ask why you should even care about this. Well, it's up to you to decide if it's important or not. I recently wrote about why I care.
The term "GMO" stands for "Genetically Modified Organism." This refers to "an organism or microorganism whose genetic material has been altered by means of genetic engineering." (dictionary.com) GMOs were first marketed in the mid 1990's. Before that there was no such thing as a GMO food.
Now, keep in mind that most (perhaps all?) modern food has been "genetically altered" in that it is different from its ancient, wild ancestors. Farmers have been cross breeding and hybridizing for as long as they've been farming. Because of that, the watermelon you eat is probably very different from the watermelon your great grandparents ate but it is NOT GMO. It is hybrid.
You will hear people say that due to pollination, air pollution, or the intervention of the Alien Overlords (OK. I made that last one up. But people get a little extremist at times) there is no such thing as organic food any more. Well... that's a can of worms for another day. Let's keep it simple for now.
Here's a few of the facts and fictions about GMOs that you need to know to understand what you are buying.
"GMOs must be labeled." - FICTION
Vermont recently passed a law about GMO labeling. Otherwise, there are no laws governing labels for GMO foods. This means consumers who aren't well informed can be swindled from both sides of the aisle. GMOs can be in anything and no one has to tell you. On the other hand, marketers can slap a "no GMO" label on something and charge you more when the reality is there is no such thing as a GMO variety of that product.
A great example of this is popcorn. Pretty much all corn used for human or animal consumption in the USA is GMO unless it is specifically labeled as "heirloom" or "organic." HOWEVER, there are no strains of GMO popcorn being sold in this country. Most likely there is very little difference in the expensive "No GMO" brand and the cheaper store brand right next to it.
"Any pre-packaged food is GMO." - FACT (sort of)
For all practical purposes you can assume that any corn, soy, canola, and sugar (not including cane sugar) in the US is GMO. You will be extremely hard-pressed to find any kind of processed food, be it a loaf of bread, a TV dinner or a bottle of salad dressing, that doesn't contain at least one of those products in some form.
There are exceptions. There are a a handful of companies that are not necessarily "Certified Organic" but that do not use GMO products. Most (though not all) of these products have a "Non GMO Project" certification. Your best bet is to know the facts and read labels very carefully.
"Nothing in the produce department is GMO." - FICTION
Papaya, sugar beets, zucchini, yellow squash and sweet corn are all likely to be GMO unless specifically labeled otherwise. There is also a modified red-fleshed pineapple from Del Monte that is legal for sale in the US, though I've never seen it in any of the stores in my area.
Some items, however, are commonly "accused" of being GMO when they are not.
Biotech companies are pushing to develop GMO oranges in response to a disease that is destroying orange crops but they do not have an approved product as of the publication of this post.
There are also no GMO tomatoes, potatoes, melons or apples being sold in American grocery stores at this time.
"There is no such thing as GMO meat." - FACT (technically)
This is a true statement in that the animals being sent to market have not been genetically modified. However, the VAST majority of commercially raised animals are fed GMO corn or soy. Many processed meats, like ham and sausage, are processed with GMO enzymes. So... I guess it's up to you to do the math on that and make your choices accordingly.
It is my understanding that Certified Organic meat, eggs and dairy must come from animals fed non GMO feed. If I'm wrong I hope someone will point it out to me.
"Cheese is GMO." - TRUE
Most hard cheeses (cheddar, parmesan, etc.) are made with enzymes that are modified. This includes kosher cheese, unless it specifically states otherwise.
"Wheat is GMO." -FALSE (but bread usually is)
There is no GMO wheat currently approved for sale in the US. Not long ago there was a massive controversy when a wheat field was found to be contaminated with GMO pollen but that seems to have been a one-time event. The wheat used in most modern products is hybridized and processed so as to be practically a different food all-together from wheat 100 years ago, but it is not GMO.
However, most products on the grocer's shelves, including whole grain bread, IS GMO because they contain corn, soy, sugar or some combination of those.
"All Certified Organic foods are non GMO." - TRUE
I have heard people argue that manufacturers may use a tiny portion of modified ingredients and still use the "Certified Organic" label but I have never seen any reputable evidence that that is the case. If you would like more details on the various wording of organic labels ("Made with organic ingredients," "100% organic," etc) this is an excellent guide.
"Organic and Non GMO are the same thing." - FALSE
Certified Organic foods are grown without any sort of synthetic herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers. There are other environmental and production standards that farmers must meet as well, to achieve their certification. They must be inspected, fill out a small library worth of paperwork and pay to be legally Certified Organic.
Something can be Non GMO and completely soaked in chemicals. In fact, the Non GMO version of some foods is MORE chemical laden than the "conventional" version! GMO crops are designed to be resistant to disease and pests so farmers need to spray them less often.
"It's all garbage, so there's no point in trying to figure it out." - FALSE!
Don't get discouraged or overwhelmed! There is A LOT of information out there but a little diligence on your part will go a long way. It IS possible to understand food labels. It IS possible to GREATLY reduce the number of harmful ingredients in your food. It IS possible to eat whole, healthy, natural foods regardless of where you live. You may have to put a little effort into it, and you may come up against some critics, but... hey... who wants to be a sheeple anyway?!
Keep reading. Keep researching. Don't believe everything you see on Facebook! Find out for yourself from a reputable source. Most of all, don't reach a point where you are afraid of your food! You know that a carrot, in any form, from any source, is healthier than a PopTart. No one has to tell you that. Trust your instincts and beware of slick marketing and you'll be just fine.
Are you, too, seeking to save the earth, promote world peace and raise productive citizens without expending too much effort?
If we work on our goals together, they may be a little easier to achieve!
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