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Frankenfood: It's Not Easy to Live GMO-Free
October 31, 2003
By Chaelan MacTavish

First, you have to know what a GMO is. It's a Genetically Modified Organism. What does that mean? It means something that nature made and man manipulated is going into your belly. What does it do? Who knows?

Monsanto, the country's leading biotech company, developed a soybean to be genetically resistant to its weed-killer Roundup, so that farmers may use liberal sprayings on their crop without fear of damaging their soybeans. A strand of foreign DNA was inserted into the soybean DNA, in order to give it this resistance. Three years ago, however, Monsanto announced that the DNA of their soybean had "changed." On either side of the inserted strand, the chromosomes of the original soybean were changing. Monsanto offered no explanation, and we were assured by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture (a former CEO of Monsanto) that this posed no risk whatsoever to human consumption.

If there is no risk, why are so many countries around the world banning GMOs from being allowed over their borders? The bald fact is, we don't know if there is a risk or not. We don't know what genetic modification will do to the original plant, or to the animals that consume it. This is an extremely new science, and many leaders around the world are not willing to gamble the health of their populace on slightly cheaper soybeans.

A poignant example is the country of Zimbabwe. Because of the decades-long famine in Africa, the U.S. Congress has decided to send humanitarian aid packages to the continent every year. Two years ago they sent millions of dollars worth of corn to Zimbabwe. The ship was stopped at the docks, and a port official asked for documents that would certify the cargo as being genetically unmodified. The ship's captain had no such documents, and did not know where the corn originally came from, or from what seed stock it was grown. The Zimbabwe government courteously thanked the captain for his time, told him to go home, and to take his corn with him. A poor starving country turned down tons of free corn because - well, they didn't know what it would do.

In restaurants in the European Union, one may notice while scanning the menu that an occasional small "gm" note will be stuck to the side of certain dishes. This is because it is required by law to label any dishes or foods that may contain genetically modified ingredients. Living in Europe, it is relatively easily to live GMO-free. You simply read the labels and eat what you want.

In America, it is much more difficult. If genetically modified foods are labeled, Monsanto argues, their sales would go down. And since there is no conclusive evidence that GMOs can harm you in any way, there is no legal basis for doing something that would negatively impact their sales. Any motions to make GMO labeling mandatory have been killed in committee (by senators or representatives whose campaigns were heavily funded by agribusiness), and referendums to do so have been met with multi-million dollar advertising campaigns. In Oregon last year, a public referendum to label GMOs went on the ballot; every newspaper and commercial break extolled the bill as unfair to America's farmers, with personal quotes from rural Oregonians who feared being put out of business should this bill pass. The bill failed, and the huge Agribusiness giants in the Midwest (that are the primary growers of GM crops) were safe from having us know who grew their food.

Difficult it is, to live GMO-free, but not impossible. While 35% of our domestic corn crop is genetically modified, as well as 69% of the domestic soy crop, there are still organically grown foods, as well. The booming organic industry, estimated to top $15 billion dollars this year worldwide, is addressing the needs of a large segment of consumers who have begun to question what they are eating. Popular health-food chains, such as Whole Foods, Nature's, and Wild Oats, now have customers ranging from the barefoot hippie, to the soccer mom, to the retired civil servant. Many people are opting to put tastier, healthier organic food on their table - and a rebellious few have taken the extra step to eliminating GMOs from their diet altogether.

But the difficulties in eating GMO-free are subtle. In America, unlike the rest of the world, being "organic" doesn't necessarily mean being GMO-free. The new FDA rules say that you can label a product as "organic" if only 95% of all of the ingredients are certified organic. Soy lecithin and corn starch are such a small amount of the ingredient batch that almost every organic product on the shelves contains them in a non-organic form.

For people who want to ease all GMO foods out of their diet, it usually takes about two years. If there were labels on all of our foods, telling us whether they contained GMOs or not, it would be simple. However, it takes a fair amount of detective work to really know what you can and can't eat. Most all the food in the grocery store that comes in a box has corn starch, canola oil, or the dreaded emulsifier: soy lecithin. Many boxes of organic toaster waffles and bags of organic chips still have tiny amounts of corn or soy in them, without the *organic behind their listing. As a result, many budding GMO-freers start eating healthier, learn how to cook rice, and plunk down the cash for a vegetable steamer.

What people find most difficult is eating out. In any given restaurant, you have absolutely no idea what quality of ingredients are being used to make what is on your plate. It is a safe bet, however, that a restaurant will not take the care that you use in your own kitchen. Most restaurants order their food from large companies like Sysco, who deliver food wholesale all around the country. If they aren't the biggest purchaser of Agribusiness crops, then I don't know who would be. Sysco makes its money because it can deliver food to restaurants cheaper than a restaurant could buy it for anywhere else. Agribusiness makes money because they are so huge and have so much supply that they can sell for extremely cheap prices to edge out competition. Restaurants make money because they can buy cheap food from Sysco.

Someone eating GMO-free usually begins by taking things out of their diet in stages; first fast food, then packaged foods with GMOs, then non-organic meat, then beer and wine, and lastly, eating out. This last step is usually the hardest, and shows the greatest commitment for one's own body, by being unable to go out for a bite with friends, or stopping to pick up dinner on the way home from work, to make food that you know is safe in your own kitchen.

Eating at home, all the time, with only organic food will definitely increase your grocery bills; but if you don't go out to eat, it averages out quite nicely. It is definitely cheaper to get all your food from a grocery chain like Albertsons, but the higher prices of organic food is what food really costs. To grow an ear of corn, get it to the farmers market, and to your plate, it costs twice as much as what a corporate chain would charge to get it from a subsidized Agribusiness farm onto their shelves. But that food isn't really food - its profit margins.

Try an experiment for yourself to see. Buy an organic apple, and a conventionally grown apple. Take a bite of one, and a bite of the other. You will see that one of them will taste like an apple. Ask yourself what the other one tastes like. Eating organic in the United States is extremely difficult. But, as more people make the shift to all organic food, it will steadily become easier. Already there are all-organic restaurants in New York and San Francisco, and there is even a fast-food chain in Maine that is 100% no-GMO organic. There are rumblings to open an all-organic café here in Santa Fe. And, of course, the fight for mandatory labels still goes on.

In capitalism, capital is what counts. If you would like to see more organic foods in your community, vote with your dollars, and start buying all organic. The businesses will follow, and eating GMO-free will soon be as simple as looking on the label.

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