As you know, we pay very close attention to the products that come in and out of our kitchen every day. We’re paying attention to farming practices, plant varieties, animal feed, and even cleanliness with the goal of providing you the most delicious and least toxic meals possible. Because we source exclusively organic, biodynamic, and heirloom ingredients, we’ll never serve you a GMO. Genetically modified organisms are not our idea of real food.
We’re sure that many of you have different levels of concern about GMO safety with regards to our own health and the planet’s well-being. While the health concerns about specific GMO crops remains debatable, the environmental consequences of continuing to promote GMO monoculture-based farming practices are undeniable. We firmly believe in plant and farm diversity, and as such will continue to support small farmers and ranchers who keep GMOs off of their land.
Until all GMO foods are labeled, it can be tricky to avoid them at the grocery store. To help you make an informed choice,we’ve included a few tips for avoiding GM products below. If you’d like to learn more about the science of and controversy behind genetic engineering, read on!
FOUR WAYS TO AVOID GMOS
Buy organic: In order to be certified 100% organic, a product or ingredient cannot contain GMOs. Stick to the organic produce section and read ingredient labels carefully — labels that read “made with organic ingredients” can still contain non-organic GM products up to a certain percentage.
Buy products with a “Non-GMO Project Verified” label: The Non-GMO Project certifies products that have been made according to the best practices for GMO avoidance. The group pays particularly close attention to “at-risk” ingredients like soy, corn, and sugar, and requires ongoing testing for any company working with those foods.
Avoid at-risk ingredients: Canola oil, cottonseed oil, soybean products, corn, papaya, and sugar (made from beets) are all highly likely to contain at least some amount of GM crops. Avoid any non-organic products made using these ingredients.
Use a non-GMO product list as a guide: There are multiple non-GMO product lists that you can download and use as a reference point when shopping. The Non-GMO Project and The Institute for Responsible Technology’s Non-GMO Shopping Guide are both great resources. The Institute for Responsible Technology was founded by Jeffrey Smith, a renowned lecturer and author, and it is a particularly good resource on non-GMO advocacy.
NERD OUT ON GMOS
The debate surrounding growth and use of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is fraught with passion and misinformation. Instead of getting heated, we’d like to present the science-based information as it stands today, and leave your shopping choices in your own hands.
What exactly is a GMO?
A GMO is any organism — plant, animal, insect, or microorganism — whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering technique. GMOs are best known as food crops, but they are also widely used in scientific research and to produce other goods like diabetic insulin and vegetable rennet for cheese making. They’re produced by inserting genes from one species to another by what is called “horizontal gene transfer,” or any type of gene transfer other than traditional reproduction. There are several ways that genes can be transferred between species this way, but the two most common are by using a gene gun or by using bacteria. The gene gun fires very small particles of DNA (bound to tiny particles of gold or tungsten) into plant tissue or single cells under high pressure. At this high pressure, the DNA makes its way through the cell wall and membranes and into the nucleus, where it integrates with the host DNA. Other species are produced using a bacteria called Agrobacterium, a parasite that inserts its genes into hosts. The desired gene sequence is attached to the bacterium, and it is then passed on to the host plant.
When genetic material from one species is added to another, the new DNA is called recombinant DNA, and the resulting organism is described as transgenic. If the two organisms in question are closely related species, the resulting GMO is called cisgenic. Organisms who have been modified by deleting certain genes instead of adding genes are called subgenic. All of the GM plants grown for food use in the United States are are considered transgenic.
A Brief History of GMOs
Humans have been manipulating genetic traits via selective breeding for as long as we’ve been domesticating plants and animals. Dog breeding came first (around 12,000 BC), and other animals like cats, sheep, goats, and pigs followed. The first selectively bred plants were likely emmer and einkorn wheat in Southwest Asia around 10,000 BC.
While we’ve been breeding plants since ancient times, it is only recently that we have learned how it actually works. Our understanding of genetic inheritance can be traced to Gregor Mendel’s pea experiments the mid-19th century. The term “genetics” wasn’t coined until 1905. Over the next 70 years, further development in genetic research led to an understanding of DNA’s shape, structure, and purpose, as well as methods of manipulation. Today, we have successfully sequenced and mapped the human genome.
Our understanding of genetics helped to establish the process of genetic engineering. The first recombinant DNA was produced by Paul Berg in 1972, and the first direct manipulation of genes occurred in 1973. 1973 also saw the birth of the first transgenic mouse. Tobacco was the first GM plant (developed in the 1980s), and it was followed closely by the development of the now discontinued Flavr Savr tomato and the Bt potato. The first GM crops approved for food production first appeared on the market in 1996.
Today, 60 countries have approved GM crops for import, export, food use, and other energy or agricultural purposes. Twenty-seven of these countries specialize in the five major GM crops: corn, cotton, canola, potato, and soybean. As of 2013, the United States, Brazil, and Argentina lead the pack in GMO agriculture, and over 18 million farmers worldwide grew some form of GM crop. It is important to note that not all of the GM crops grown today are grown directly for food. Many are grown for animal feed (much of which makes its way into our food supply), industrial oil production, and scientific research.
What makes GMOs different from other plants?
Before the advent of genetic engineering, we relied on selective, generational breeding of plants within species. Today, there are three types of non-GM seed types:
- Open-pollinated seeds grow plants that are pollinated by an insect, bird, wind, human, or another other natural mechanism. They are highly diverse and have a great amount of variation within plant populations, which allows them to adapt to local growing conditions and climate. If they are grown carefully, and pollen is not exchanged between different varieties of the same species, a saved seed will produce a true-to-type offspring.
- Heirloom seeds grow specific, prized cultivars of plants that have been passed down through multiple generations. All heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated seeds are necessarily heirlooms.
- Hybrid seeds are produced by a controlled method of pollination in which two different species or varieties are crossed by human intervention. While hybridization can occur naturally through random pollination, commercial hybrid seeds are deliberately created to breed a desired trait. Hybrid seeds cannot be saved after the first generation because the second generation plants are genetically unstable and produce plants that are considerably less vigorous and not true-to-type. Because of these characteristics, hybrid seeds are often confused with GMOs.
Given our name, you will not be surprised to know that we prefer heirloom and other open-pollinated types. Hybrid seeds present some of the same problems as GMOs: they are often created and sold by large corporations like Monsanto and DuPont and they cannot be saved and re-used by the farmer.
All breeding, no matter the process, can result in undesired results. For example, in the late 1980s, celery growers bred a hybrid variety of celery that contained a high amount of a compound called psoralen in order to increase the vegetable’s resistance to insects and other damage. Unfortunately, psoralen is phototoxic to human skin, and it made the growers extremely sensitive to sunlight. This sensitivity caused an outbreak of a severe and potentially carcinogenic rash called photodermatitis. Because of this outbreak, we pay particularly close attention to the celery used in our kitchen.
The biggest difference between GM breeding practices and all other breeding practices is that GM varieties are made by inserting DNA directly into the organism’s genome instead of tailoring the breeding process via plant reproduction.
Today, the most common GM crops have been modified in one of two ways: they are either bred to be “Roundup-Ready” or to include the Bt-toxin in their genome. (Some crops, like “Triple Stack” corn, carry both of these modifications.)
Roundup Ready: Monsanto developed the technology to breed plants to be resistant to Roundup, a glyphosate-based herbicide that the company also manufactures. Glyphosate is a type of herbicide that has a relatively low environmental impact because it typically doesn’t move vertically through the soil below six inches and is readily degraded by soil microbes. However, glyphosate is not readily broken down by water or sunlight, so if it reaches a water source, it will likely contaminate the surface water. Glyphosate kills weeds by destroying the weed’s mechanism for synthesizing amino acids. Since animals get their amino acids from food, and do not synthesize them internally, it is thought that glyphosate does not affect them.
The theory behind Roundup Ready crops development is that these crops can be sprayed with a small amount of glyphosate, killing the surrounding weeds but leaving the crop intact. If Roundup Ready agriculture worked as planned, the measured use Roundup would reduce total herbicide use, reduce tilling and weeding, and increase yield when the crop is planted in close rows. Unfortunately, the extensive use of Roundup has actually led to the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds that require the use of many additional herbicides with varying levels of toxicity and environmental impact. Today, there are 222 weeds known to be resistant to glyphosate. Herbicide tolerance is a problem with all monoculture; it is not exclusive to Roundup Ready crops. However, the large distribution of these plants raises questions about the future of safe industrial agriculture. Vast fields of single crops sprayed with rounds of herbicides do not produce a healthy or reliable food system.
In addition to the tolerance concerns, glyphosate can also be problematic farm workers, causing irritation, rashes, nausea, and headaches. Glyphosate is also often used in formulations with other chemicals, and these secondary ingredients can potentially cause more harm than the herbicide itself.
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt): Bt is an insecticide developed from a strain of bacteria. When ingested by certain insects like the cotton bollworm, the bacteria infect the pest and paralyze their digestive system. Bt has historically been used as a sprayed insecticide, even on organic farms, and is known by the trade names DiPel and Thuricide. Today genes from the Bt bacteria are inserted into crops like cotton and corn, making them resistant to specific insect pests without being sprayed with insecticide.
In theory, Bt-modified crops are very environmentally friendly — they don’t, after all, require spraying. However, just as with Roundup Ready, insects can develop resistance to the Bt toxin if the crop fields are not managed properly. Once Bt resistance develops, a new strain of Bt-modified seed needs to be bred and distributed to avoid the pest. In addition, there is a dispute over whether the Bt toxin could affect humans in the same way that it affects insect pests. If like us, you are concerned about the effect of Bt on your own digestive system, it is best to avoid those products.
Other GMO types: Roundup Ready and Bt crops are not the only GMOs on the marketplace. GM papaya is the most commonly distributed papaya in North America, and it has been essentially “vaccinated” against the papaya ringspot virus. Golden rice is a variety of rice that has been bred to have high levels of vitamin A. Other crops, like bananas resistant to Banana Xanthomonas wilt disease are amidst the study and regulation process. Some of these genetic modifications (like the banana and the papaya) have been developed by small research labs or companies, others have been developed by large corporations like Monsanto.
Today, there are eight major GM crops grown in the United States: corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beet, alfalfa, papaya, and summer squash. (Recombinant bovine growth hormone is used in some dairies for increasing milk production. Potatoes, apples, and salmon are currently in the midst of testing and approval.) Cotton isn’t typically used for food production, and GM alfalfa is used only for animal feed. Most of the GM soybean and corn crop is used for animal feed or industrial use as well.
The process of GMO regulation is possibly the most contentious aspect of their production, and regulation differs from country to country. (The European Union, for example, has tighter regulations than the United States.) For our purposes, we’ll focus on how the United States runs its regulatory process. The FDA regulates GMOs in conjunction with the USDA and the EPA.
GM crops intended for food use have different rules than those not allowed for food use. Crops that are intended only for animal feed and industrial use (like ethanol) are not subject to much regulation at all. Crops that are intended to be sold as food, on the other hand, need to be shown to be “substantially equivalent” to their non-GM relatives in order to be approved for human consumption. If the food is shown to be “substantially equivalent,” no further testing is needed. If the food is found to be different, the crop is not necessarily unapproved. Instead, it goes through several more tests to assess the risk of gene transfer to humans, the potential allergenicity of the new crop, estimate any toxicological and/or nutritional problems in the food, and to estimate the amount of the American diet that the new crop will make up.
There are a couple of problems with this regulation strategy. First, many of the regulators have close relationships to the companies producing the GM products. For example, Michael Taylor, the Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA was a former lobbyist and VP at Monsanto. It can be suspected that the regulating bodies have incentives to approve GM crops without strict scrutiny. In addition, the theory of “substantial equivalence” is itself a subject of controversy. Critics have argued that it is not enough to simply compare the appearance of two similar varieties; “substantial equivalence” should be considered a starting point for further testing on all crops. Others point out that some foods, like industrial soy, have also not been proven to be safe for consumption, so the comparison is moot. Indeed, it is important to remember that we don’t regulate the safety of any other food crops in the U.S., so any amount of testing and regulation on GM products is more than what is performed on any other food crops for sale.
There have been many scientific studies done on the safety of GMOs in the diet. Most of the studies have used in vitro or else on rat models, and most peer-reviewed journal articles have found no proven health risks in the consumption of GMOs. However, not all of these studies have looked at the long-term effects of GMO consumption, and they have also not analyzed every type of GM crop on the marketplace. Prior to 2010, there was only limited access given to independent researchers looking for GM seeds or plants for research because of restricted agreements relating to seed patents.
Most tests center around isolated versions of the genetic modification (reaction to isolated Bt toxin, for example) and not the actual crop on the shelf. The physical reaction of eating Bt and Roundup Ready corn over decades may have a very different effect on the human body than eating a piece of GM zucchini every once in awhile. Just like humans, each crop is different. However, the FDA and the World Health Organization argue that long-term human studies are not feasible because there is no plausible hypothesis to test and there is very little known about the potential long-term effects of any foods. They also argue that identification of such effects is further confounded by the great variability in the way people react to foods, and that epidemiological studies are not likely to differentiate the health effects of modified foods from the many undesirable effects of conventional foods.
The USDA does not require any form of labeling regarding GMO content in packaged foods. Vermont, Maine and Connecticut have passed their own labeling laws, and other states are debating their own rules. Some companies have voluntarily subjected their products to testing for GMOs; if they contain less than 0.9% GM ingredients, they can carry a label from The Non-GMO Project.
GMOs and the Environment
Human safety is not the only concern with GMOs. Most GM crops have been billed as environmentally friendly solutions, but they haven’t necessarily been proven as such. One 2012 study of pesticide use from 1996 to 2011 demonstrated that herbicide-resistant crop technology led to a 239 million-kilogram increase in herbicide use. The same study found a 56 million-kilogram decrease in the use of insecticides on Bt crops. Overall, pesticide use has increased by about 7% since the advent of GM crops. While the news about insecticide decrease is wonderful news, there are still concerns that the widespread use of Bt could adversely affect populations of beneficial and/or harmless insects.
Furthermore, the increase in monoculture, no matter which seeds used, leads to worries that the overall genetic diversity of food crops might decrease. If plant biodiversity continues to decrease, it will likely affect the diversity of other organisms, soil bacteria and insects. Bees, in particular, are susceptible to the proliferation of monoculture. You can learn more about bees, biodynamics, and GMOs in the documentary Queen of the Sun.
Even if GM crops are grown responsibly and without the use of excessive herbicides, they can still potentially affect non-GM crops. There is concern that pollen from GM crops can be carried to non-GM crops and create potentially risky new varieties. There’s also a concern that herbicide-resistant weeds from Roundup Ready fields could contaminate non-GMO fields, wreaking havoc on the farm.
Like hybrid seeds, most GM seeds cannot be saved — but it isn’t because the plants won’t produce quality offspring. Large corporations like Monsanto own the largest share of GM seeds on the marketplace, and they have the patents to prove it. Farmers who wish to plant GM seeds from Monsanto must agree to plant them by their rules. One of those rules is that they can only grow the plants for one generation. If they’d like to plant them again the following year, they must once again purchase the seeds from Monsanto.
Michael Pollan described the agreement in a 1998 essay on the now-discontinued New Leaf Potato:
“After digging two shallow trenches in my garden and lining them with compost, I untied the purple mesh bag of seed potatoes that Monsanto had sent and opened up the Grower Guide tied around its neck. (Potatoes, you may recall from kindergarten experiments, are grown not from seed but from the eyes of other potatoes.) The guide put me in mind not so much of planting potatoes as booting up a new software release. By ”opening and using this product,” the card stated, I was now ”licensed” to grow these potatoes, but only for a single generation; the crop I would water and tend and harvest was mine, yet also not mine. That is, the potatoes I will harvest come August are mine to eat or sell, but their genes remain the intellectual property of Monsanto, protected under numerous United States patents, including Nos. 5,196,525, 5,164,316, 5,322,938 and 5,352,605. Were I to save even one of them to plant next year — something I’ve routinely done with potatoes in the past — I would be breaking Federal law.”
If we continue to give control of our country’s crops to large corporations, there is little hope for a shift in the way the United States views large-scale agriculture. Planting a patented seed takes away the magic and beautiful unpredictability of learning to grow food on your own. It reduces discovery and values perfection over flavor and health. We should instead support smaller companies, independent research, and the hard-working organic farmers who are committed to growing the best food they can.