by Tracy Lee
Many people have read or heard about the importance of avoiding genetically modified organisms (GMO) and labeling GMOs in food. We often hear the terms genetically engineered (GE) and GMO used interchangeably, but they do not mean the same thing. GE describes the high-tech methods used to splice genes from one organism into another to impart specific traits to that organism. The only way scientists can transfer genes between organisms that are not sexually compatible is to use recombinant DNA techniques. The resulting plants do not occur in nature and should be the most concerning to the public.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently defines a genetically modified organism (GMO) as one produced through any type of genetic modification, whether it is modern genetic engineering or traditional plant breeding methods. When plant breeders select for desired traits to create a hybrid, they make the same kind of selections that can occur in nature over long periods of time. These include familiar fruits and vegetables such as seedless watermelons, broccoli and tomatoes.
While the terminology in the “Label GMOs” movement is unlikely to change, the important point to remember is that it is genetically engineered (GE) crops that people should avoid because they would never result from natural selection and usually have not been sufficiently tested with regard to their effects on nature, the environment or the humans and animals that consume them.
Because the number of foods that contain some form of the GE crops is daunting, it is helpful to download the Non-GMO Shopping Tips brochure from The Institute for Responsible Technology (ResponsibleTechnology.org).
To avoid GE ingredients, it is best to avoid any non-organic versions of the most common GE foods, including corn, soy, canola and sugar, and their by-products, such as oils and flours made from those ingredients. Secondary exposure to GE crops may occur with non-organic meat, poultry and dairy products because the animals from which these products are derived are likely to have been fed GE crops, including GE alfalfa.
It’s possible to minimize exposure to genetically engineered crops by adopting a few key habits.
- The first and best habit is to buy organically grown foods, which according to current USDA regulations, prevent the use of GE seeds, crops and their derivatives. Pre-packaged and processed foods, especially, often contain ingredients made from GE crops. When it is impossible to avoid processed or pre-packaged foods, make sure all of the ingredients are organic.
- Plant a garden. Currently, there are NO GE seed varieties being sold to home gardeners, whether conventional or organic. To ensure that companies continue never to offer GE seeds, purchase from those who have signed the Safe Seed Pledge. The Council for Responsible Genetics (CouncilForResponsibleGenetics.org) maintains a Safe Seed Pledge List. When in doubt, visit the seed company’s website to find out if it has signed the pledge.
- Buy from local farmers who know and can confirm that the varieties of seed and feed crops that they use are not genetically engineered. When buying locally from farmers’ markets, local food cooperatives (co-ops) and community-supported agricultural farms (CSAs), it is important to know that being local does not ensure that a farmer uses non-GE seed and organic growing methods, so ask specific questions.
Until labeling laws are passed, these tactics can reduce one’s exposure to GE (commonly known as GMO) foods.
Tracy Lee is a horticulturalist who has worked in the seed industry for more than fifteen years. She is involved in the organic labeling committee of the Seed Industry Crop Organization and a member of the Doylestown Food Co-op.