Saturday, April 2, 2011

How to avoid GM food, and why it should be labelled

GM foods have recently been making news, with two new GM crops, beet sugar and alfalfa,
getting the go-ahead from USDA, and fast-growing GM farmed salmon awaiting FDA approval . Already, 86 percent of all U.S. corn and 93 percent of soy are GM. On the bright side, Orchids at the Halekulani, a greenmarket gourmet restaurant in Honolulu, where I live, launched a GMO-free menu this month.

We want to know what we’re eating, and more than half of Americans polled have said they don’t want food that’s been genetically engineered (GE), popularly re ferred to as genetically modified (GM). What it means: biotechnicians insert genes from one organism into another, unrelated, organism with which it could not be naturally bred. Example: corn carrying the Bt bacteria gene, which secretes an insecticide. Yum!

But how to avoid GM food, when an estimated 60-70 percent of processed foods in grocery stores contain GE ingredients, but these are not required by law to be labelled (and so are not)?

There are three easy ways.

1. Choose food labeled USDA certified organic, which forbids GE.

2. Choose food labeled “Non GM” and dairy labeled “cows not given rBGH” (see “Why Avoid GMOs,” below)

3. Weed out processed foods from your diet and eat more fresh, seasonal whole foods–-one of the 12 top green goals in my “This is the Year I’ll...” article in the April Whole Living. With the exception of about 50% of Hawaiian papayas, there is no commercialized GM produce–yet.

Halekulani's Chef Vikram Garg, whom I met for a taste of his GMO-free menu, told me he sources non-GM foods by choosing organic, or foods from local farmers who provide him with written verification that their crops or animal products are GE-free. “Fresh, minimally processed,” is this chef’s rule of thumb. He expressed concern that “people are consuming so much processed food–I want to encourage people to eat simply.” He selects organic or all-grass-fed (not corn “finished”) animal products, since conventional animal feed is likely to contain GM corn, soy and, now, alfalfa–and dairy cows are given GE recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH).

Why Avoid GM Foods?

“Personally I’m not against anything GM,” Chef Vikram told me, “but if it’s in the plant you eat, it’s going in your body.”

Reasons you might not want GMOs in your body–or in our environment-- include:

Personal health: Synthetic recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbgh, also known as rbst),produced by splicing cattle and bacteria genes has higher levels of, insulin-like growth factor 1, linked to several cancers.

There is also concern that an increase in food allergies may be partly due to the spread of GE foods.

Protecting Genetic Diversity and Keeping Organic Organic:Contamination of organic crops and shrinking crop diversity due to GM pollen drift are very real risks.

Vegetarians do not want to consume foods with animal genes inserted in them.

What matters most to Chef Vikram, he says, is the superior taste of the fresh, sustainably produced local foods that are the focus of his GMO-free menu. We eat a GMO-free, all-local salad arrives, composed of lightly grilled, mushrooms, plus hearts of palm, red onions, and watercress.“The main idea is that people not think that with GM-free you can’t have a dish that tastes like this,” Garg says. “On the contrary, you get the best of all these flavors.”

The entree is organic green lentil risotto, local tomatoes, and organic brown rice, seasoned with turmeric, cumin, salt and asafoetida. “It’s non-GM, but there are other healthy properties–it’s a wholesome, holistic dish,"Chef Vikram says. "Spices such as cumin have ayurvedic, anti-inflammatory properties, and asoefetida aids digestion," he adds.

This is pure comfort food, with a delicate, light texture and taste.“We call it kichidi, and this is my mom’s recipe; when I go home to India this is always my first dinner,” he says, noting that his parents raised him on a meat-free diet based on what’s fresh and seasonal in the market that day.

The Center for Food Safety’s excellent True Food Shopper’s Guide lists specific products to choose or avoid.


Join the Organic Consumers Association campaign seeking required labeling of GE ingredients in food.

If you’re opposed to GE salmon, which may harm endangered wild Atlantic salmon by outcompeting them for food and other resources, let your Congressional representatives know.
Join a campaign asking major candy manufacturers not to use GE sugar beets.

These tips, and many others, come from my book, Do One Green Thing, and grow out of questions and suggestions from valued readers like you. For more green, healthy living news and tips, please sign up for our free monthy e-newsletter at and ask me questions there or in the comment section of this blog

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