As I have been devouring books and articles related to this topic, I have to admit that I am still left feeling confused and often overwhelmed. At the outset, it seems pretty straightforward: either the food we eat is GMO or it isn’t. I mean, there are only a handfuls of fruit and vegetable crops that are GMOs such as corn, wheat, cotton, papayas and zucchinis. It would seem super easy to avoid. But it is not… mostly because of one four-letter word: CORN
The truth is that shopping becomes long and tedious and difficult when making a conscious effort to avoid GMOs. Even when you think you are being super-smart by avoiding the whole GMO thing by buying “organic” you may be smugger than you should be. Let me give you two examples. First, just because you are buying that can of organic tomato sauce, does not mean that everything in that can of tomato sauce is organic. Whaaaa? And really, why are there more than tomatoes in that can!? As my husband always states–really, like, he says this every time we go to the grocery store– “it is so hard to buy real food in this country.” But despite us being devout label readers, labels do not always tell the whole story.
Under the The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 ( codified in Title 7 of the Code of Federal Regulations) the USDS has more than one category that can be identified as organic in some form. The unfortunate truth is that if that organic food product does not actually state 100% organic, up to 5% of the ingredients do not have to be organic. And to make things even worse, there is a pretty long list of non-organically derived items that can be in there. (See the actual code, specifically 7 CFR 205.605 and 7 CFR 205.606). That’s a long list of stuff! This can include those little extras such as pectin and citric acid and dextrose–all products often derived from corn, with a really good chance that it is GM corn. The problem is that you don’t know, and the label doesn’t have to tell you (unless of course it is labelled 100% organic.)
The non-GMO project also leaves a bit of guessing room, though not quite as much. Their standard is to allow up to .09% of what they term micro-ingredients that do not have to be evaluated. See Section A (2) (3) of their standards. A micro-ingredient is any ingredient that represents less than 0.5% of the product and is not a defining ingredient. This leaves a lot of room for things such as dextrose, citric acid and other such ingredients which are often corn-based. As as these additive are considered micro-ingredients (and up to 10 micro-ingredients can be included) and they total less than .09% of the total ingredients, it could be GMO derived and still be verified by the non-GMO project. Okay, so over 99% non-GMO is pretty stinking good. And if you learn enough to stay away from those micro-ingredients, then the non-GMO project brand label is a great tool.
As if all this was not confusing enough, the USDA has recently come up with another labeling program entitled the “Process Verified Program.” However, it seems that the program is only designed to verify the claims made by each producer. So I guess you first have to figure out what the claim is before you can even figure out what the process verification stamp is worth. For more information see this link.
The second example of why avoiding GMOs is very difficult does not have to do with the food. Even when you think you are avoiding the corn problem by buying something that is 100% organic, you might still encounter problems such as packaging. In 2010, for example, Stonyfield Organic made headlines when it switched many of its products to bio-based packaging. It touted this change as better for the environment both in the lower energy costs of the product but also in the bio-degradeability of the plastic. But you know what bio-based probably means? Corn. And that corn is likely GM corn. Stonyfield admitted that while it encouraged growers to grow non-GM Corn, it could not know that the bio-packaging it purchased was made with non-GM corn. On top of plastic containers, we also have to consider things such as the glues used to hold packaging together and the plastic windows in boxes, … much of it is corn derived. Luckily the non-GMO project also verifies packaging . Just one more label to look for! Packages are soon going to start looking like the back of a hippy’s VW bus.
Nonetheless, as a consumer, you are left floundering. Even when you know you do not want to put any money in the pockets of any industry that relies on GM plants, it’s really hard. This, of course, leads to the conclusion every year that I need to know where my food comes from and I need to buy it locally or grow my own… which leads us to OMG GMOs no. 3 where I finally talk about GMOs and vegetable seeds.
In the meantime, I would love to hear your comments and experiences as you have explored this issue and some of the challenges you have come across in the grocery store.