Out to Lunch (Part Two)
In the recently released documentary Genetic Roulette, Jeffrey M. Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, an organization that educates policy makers and the public about genetically modified foods, says that GM crops in the US amount to 94% of all soy, 90% of cotton, 90% of canola, 95% of sugar beets, 88% of corn, more than 50% of Hawaiian papaya, and over 24,000 acres of zucchini and yellow squash. This means that approximately 70% of the foods available in North American grocery stores are genetically modified or contain GM ingredients.
A study released in July, 2012 published the results from feeding research carried out over a 10-year period by scientists in Norway. The verdict: If you want to avoid obesity, don’t eat genetically modified corn, corn-based products, and animals that are fed a diet of GM grain. In addition to becoming obese, the animals “were less able to digest proteins” and suffered from immune system alterations. Government sponsored research in Italy on mice who were fed Bt corn shows elevated antibodies, which are typically associated with allergies and infections.
Many countries have already banned GM foods, or require labeling to allow consumers to make informed choices about what they eat. Not all efforts to do so, however, have proven successful. In California, Proposition 37, the “California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” was defeated in 2012, 53 to 47 percent, even though polls showed that 91 percent of people would prefer to know if they were eating a GM food. Many GM supporters claim labeling is unnecessary, since FDA policy requires large corporations to conduct their own 90-day studies on their GMO crops, but opponents say independent studies would be in the public interest. Thomas Wittman, who sits on the board of directors for the Ecological Farming Association, told Santa Cruz.com, “We should have been really dwelling on the health effects, and not just on our right to know. The message never was as strong as it should have been.” Wittman also points to the fact that Monsanto, a multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation who largely funded the Prop 37 opposition campaign, had previously told the public that Agent Orange and DDT were safe. Both were later found to be harmful to humans as well as the environment.
The spread of GM foods has spawned a new generation of food savants. Padgett’s daughter Tegan, 27, is a BSc student majoring in Biology at Vancouver Island University. She says that, while she understands the need to research and develop biotechnologies, she also believes that it must be done with a respect for, and responsibility toward, the environment. “It’s so easy to invent new technologies and practices without really understanding what the effect will be.” Genetic modification of crops has advanced too fast, and “there has not been enough time given to properly test and understand the side-effects and consequences to us physiologically, socially, and ecologically.”
Those looking to improve their eating habits can start small, she says. “Switch to organic milk or try a dairy-free alternative. Shop locally if you can but don’t become overwhelmed by trying to make a dramatic change overnight.” She suggests reading labels and looking up ingredients that you’re not aware of. If you see one you don’t recognize, research it. Once you have found out what it is, share the information.
The Institute for Responsible Technology has produced a “Non-GMO Shopping Guide,” containing information about GM products, from baby food and infant formula to vitamins and supplements. Top of the list is High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), which seems to be in pretty much everything these days, followed by all things soy. The guide goes on to highlight any corn, soybean, cottonseed, or canola oils produced in North America as almost certainly containing GM products. While many fruits and vegetables are non-GM, those in the squash family, as well as frozen, packaged, or canned products, should be checked for GM additives.
Check out your local farmers markets. Becker is President of the Bowen Road Farmers’ Market in Nanaimo, now in its fifth year. Operating from May to October, the market provides organic, local produce, with vendors limited to those growing produce within a 50 mile radius. Less than 6% of the food on Vancouver Island is grown locally, but Becker says demand will change that. “As people become aware, they start changing the way they live and as they change the way they live they come to the markets more often and they tell others.” Plans are underway to expand the market to year-round operation.
And education is key. Becoming aware of how the food industry works and the impact your choices make is a critical step. Last year British Columbia expanded its BC School Fruit and Vegetable Nutritional Program. The program introduces BC students to locally grown produce, which is brought directly to the classrooms every two weeks, ensuring that kids are introduced to fruits and vegetables early in life and to the benefits of locally sourced produce. ”I like to know where my food comes from, how far it traveled to get to me, and its nutritional value,” says Tegan, “I love food, but it’s important to eat with awareness.”