Consumers have the right to know if their food has been genetically engineered. However, the US government does not require labeling of such foods so that shoppers can make informed decisions.
More than 60 other nations—including France, Germany, Japan, Australia, Russia, China and the United Kingdom—require GE labeling. (GE stands for “genetically engineered,” a term interchangeable with “genetically modified organism,” or GMO.)
Scientists have not determined whether GE foods pose any risks to human health. Still, consumers have many good reasons to avoid eating genetically engineered ingredients.
Here are a few reasons to avoid GE foods:
- There are very few safety studies. The government does not require that GE food be tested for carcinogenicity, for harm to fetuses, or for risks over the long-term to animals or humans. Few such studies have been conducted by independent scientific institutions.
- They increase the use of toxic herbicides. Genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant crops have spurred so-called “superweeds,” pest plants that have mutated to survive herbicides. More than 61 million acres of American farmland are infested with Roundup-resistant weeds. A 2012 survey found that nearly half of American farmers reported finding superweeds in their fields. To control these hardy plants, many farmers have resorted to older, more toxic herbicides like dicamba, and 2,4-D. Both dicamba and 2,4-D are known to cause reproductive problems and birth defects and pose increased risks of cancer.
- Unintended GE contamination has become a major issue for organic growers hoping to sell their crops in places that strictly regulate or ban GE foods. According to an estimate by the Union of Concern Scientists, potential lost income for farmers growing organic corn may total $90 million annually.
The agricultural chemical industry developed genetically engineered crops and introduced them to the market with the promise of significantly higher crop yields. While crop yields may in fact be on the rise, the contribution of GE technology is a matter of considerable debate. Some groups attribute the increase in yields to improvements in conventional agriculture.
Any benefits provided by GE technology have been overshadowed by increased use of toxic pesticides and proliferation of herbicide-resistant weeds.
3 ways to avoid GE food:
Until Congress or state governments enact mandatory labeling of GE ingredients in food, American shoppers are left in the dark. So if they want to avoid food with GE ingredients, what are they to do?
- Buy organic. National and state organic certification rules do not allow genetically engineered foods to be labeled “organic.” When you buy organic, you buy food free not only of synthetic pesticides but also GE ingredients.
- Buy food certified as “Non-GMO Project Verified.” The non-profit organization Non-GMO Project operates a detailed, voluntary certification process so that food producers can test and verify that, to the best of their knowledge, they have avoided using GE ingredients in their products. The Non-GMO Project is the only organization offering independent verification for GMO products in the U.S. and Canada.
- Use EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Avoiding GE Food. This can help you find foods made without ingredients likely to be genetically engineered. Eating only organic and certified GE-free food is not an option for some people. EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Avoiding GE Food helps consumers find products made without ingredients that are likely to be genetically engineered. As well, it aims to help shoppers decide which products are the most important to buy organic or certified GE-free.
The four most common GE foods and ingredients
Avoiding GE ingredients isn’t easy. In fact, some estimates indicate that more than 75% of the food in supermarkets is genetically engineered or contains GE ingredients. Consumers need to know what to look for to make informed purchasing decisions.
1. Field corn and corn-derived ingredients
The U.S. is the world’s largest corn producer. According to the USDA, last year, American farmers planted more corn than any other crop, covering 95 million acres. Some 90% of corn grown in the US is genetically engineered. Most of the crop is field corn cultivated for animal feed, but about 12% is processed to corn flour, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, masa, corn meal and corn oil that end up in foods consumed by people. Consumers should assume that ingredients in processed food are genetically engineered. (Less than 1% of the American corn crop is sweet corn, also known as table corn.)
2. Soybeans and soybean-derived ingredients.
Soybeans are the second most planted American crop, covering more than 76 million acres last year. Some 93% of soybeans grown in this country have been genetically engineered. Soybean-based products and soybean-derived ingredients are common on supermarket shelves. Consumers should assume that products whose labels disclose the presence of soy proteins, soybean oil, soy milk, soy flour, soy sauce, tofu or soy lecithin have been made with GE ingredients unless they are certified organic or GE-free.
About 55% of the sugar produced in the U.S. comes from sugar beets, 95% of which have been genetically engineered. If a product label does not specify that it has been made with “pure cane” sugar, chances are significant that it contains GE beet sugar.
4. Vegetable oils
Consumers should assume that vegetable oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil and corn oil are genetically engineered. About 90% of American oilseed production is soybeans, which are almost entirely genetically engineered. The remaining 10% of oilseed crops are cottonseed, sunflower seed, canola, rapeseed, and peanut. Canola and cottonseed oil primarily come from GE varieties. More than 90% of corn oil is derived from genetically engineered corn.
WATCH LIST: Foods that could be GE
According to the Hawaiian Papaya Industry Association, more than 75% of Hawaiian papaya is genetically engineered to resist the ringspot virus.
Zucchini and yellow summer squash
A few varieties of squash are genetically engineered. Without adequate labeling, concerned consumers can’t spot GE varieties. If you want to be sure, opt for organic varieties.
Most sweet corn sold in supermarkets and farm stands is not grown from genetically engineered seeds, but a few varieties are, so it’s best to buy organic sweet corn.
Many other GE foods could be coming soon to a grocery store near you.
These have either been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration or are being considered for approval. Among them: salmon, flax, plums, potato, radicchio, rice, tomato and wheat.
The FDA is considering a producer’s application for GE AquAdvantage salmon. Normal salmon produce growth hormones only in summer months. These fish produce them year round and grow at twice the normal rate. If the FDA approves AquAdvantage salmon, it will be the first genetically engineered animal available in American supermarkets.
The FDA faces two other controversial decisions: whether to approve apples genetically modified to not to turn brown when sliced, peeled or bruised and new varieties of corn and soybean genetically modified to resist the toxic herbicide 2,4-D.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com