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You Are What You Eat

Author: Nancy Sands Johnson
July, 2013 Issue


What are GMOS? And why should you care?

 
 
Prop 37, which would have required labeling foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), was one of the most controversial initiatives on California’s November 2012 ballot. Despite a poll showing 91 percent of the American public in favor of GMO labeling, the measure was voted down 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent.
 
The No on 37 campaign cited voter concern over frivolous lawsuits and deceptive labeling as reasons for the measure’s failure. But Sebastopol-based journalist and media innovator Jonathan Greenberg offers a different explanation.
 
“More than $45.6 million was spent to defeat Prop 37,” writes Greenberg in a Huffington Post article. “The top three funders alone, Monsanto [who brought us, and declared safe, Agent Orange and DDT], DuPont, and Dow Chemical [of Bhopal fame], spent almost double the $8.7 million that the advocates of Prop 37 raised.”
 
In the months since Prop 37 went down, the debate about GMO labeling—and GMOs in general—has grown rather than been quelled. The pro-GMO lobby scored in March 2013, when Congress passed the Farmer Assurance Provision, a rider anonymously inserted in the emergency budget bill. Monsanto describes the provision as enabling “farmers to continue to plant and cultivate their crops subject to appropriate environmental safeguards.” Others call it the “Monsanto Protection Act” and see it as granting legal immunity to U.S. agritech companies if GMO seeds turn out to be dangerous.
 
On the other hand, GMO-labeling legislation is pending in 30 states, and public outcry over the Farmer Assurance Act is generating action at the federal level. Local Congressman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), for example, is sponsoring three bipartisan bills aimed at curbing or labeling GMOs, including two that deal specifically with genetically engineered fish. “We need more transparency and accountability in food safety, not less,” says Huffman, whose district includes all of Marin and part of Sonoma County. In late May, approximately 2 million people in 52 countries around the world joined together for an organized “March Against Monsanto,” demonstrating the global reach not only of GMOs but also of the concern about them.
 
Many North Bay companies aren’t waiting for the government to decide the labeling argument. Producers and manufacturers are investing time, money and energy to make part or all of their products GMO-free and label them accordingly. Local independent retailers are educating consumers and showcasing GMO-free products. And Austin, Tex.-based Whole Foods Market, the largest natural foods grocer in the United States (with eight stores in the North Bay), announced its own GMO-labeling initiative, which will require all products sold in its stores to be verified as GMO-free or labeled as containing GMOs by 2018.
 
“When consumers are able to knowingly choose products that don’t contain GMOs and vote with their dollars, we’ll see a significant shift,” says Andy Berliner, co-founder and co-owner of Sonoma County’s Amy’s Kitchen. “Those against labeling may have more funds, but we have the numbers among consumers.”
 

What’s in a seed?

Depending on whom you ask, GMOs are either the greatest agricultural innovation of the late 20th century or a tragic example of science gone wrong.
 
Monsanto Company, based in St. Louis, Mo., takes the former view. In the 1980s, the company’s scientists discovered how to imbue seeds at the genetic level with beneficial traits from other organisms. Soybeans, for example, were genetically modified with the DNA of the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to gain Bt’s insecticidal properties and resistance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Farmers who used these genetically engineered (GE) seeds were promised plants that could protect themselves from insect damage and withstand Roundup applications while the weeds around them died—which, in turn, would deliver higher yield and crop quality with less money and time.
 
But these advantages come at a price. Farmers and seed purveyors are forbidden to save and replant the GE seed from one year to the next, because Monsanto has patented not only its GE technology but also the seeds themselves. The company’s policy of investigating anyone found growing or selling the company’s GE seed without proper authority or compensation has led to several high-profile lawsuits against small farmers and seed purveyors in Canadian and U.S. courts.
 
By 2011, Monsanto and other companies had applied the GE approach to a number of crops and animals. Some ventures have failed, but others have been embraced by large agricultural enterprises and family farmers alike. The result is that, in the United States today, nearly all of the soy, corn, cotton, canola, sugar beet and Hawaiian papaya crops are genetically modified. Thousands of acres of GE summer squash and GE alfalfa have been planted, and a GE salmon awaits FDA approval (it may even be approved by the time you read this).
 
The pervasive influence of GMOs—and the companies that create them—frightens Paul Wallace, manager of Baker Creek Heirloom SeedsPetaluma Seed Bank, located in the historic Sonoma National Bank building in downtown Petaluma. “Everything comes from seed,” explains Wallace. “When chemical companies genetically modify, patent and control the seeds, they control life itself.”
 
Headquartered in Mansfield, Mo., about 200 miles from Monsanto’s corporate headquarters, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds celebrates an approach to farming and home gardening that contrasts sharply with genetic engineering and the Monsanto business model.
 
Central to the Baker Creek philosophy is a focus on seeds that have been passed down through the generations, savored, saved and honored as part of each culture. It produces seeds the old-fashioned way—on farms, not in laboratories—and doesn’t ask customers to sign a “no seed saving” contract. In contrast, it provides free advice on how to save seeds and encourages customers to do so. Yet it’s a thriving business that offers 1,450 varieties of rare and unique vegetables, flowers and herbs from more than 70 countries.
 
In 2011, Baker Creek held its first National Heirloom Exposition at the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, drawing 10,000 people that year and 15,000 in 2012. Wallace expects this year’s event, planned for September 10 through 12, to attract thousands more, and says the event appeals to those who value pure food. “Heirloom seeds are passed down from generation to generation because they have a quality people deem worth saving,” explains Wallace.
 
Though quite successful in its niche market, Baker Creek isn’t immune to the effects of genetically modified agriculture. Each year, it must verify its seeds are GMO-free, and in the eight years since it started testing each lot of heirloom corn it sells, it’s found that about 50 percent of America’s “heirloom” corn supply is already contaminated with GMO varieties.
 
“All told, GMO corn has cost our company thousands of dollars in lost crops and sales,” writes Baker Creek’s founder Jere Gettle in the company’s 2013 catalog. “Worst of all, though, is that several varieties have been lost because of this contamination.”
 
In January 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association et al. v. Monsanto case, in which Baker Creek and other plaintiffs challenge Monsanto’s patents on genetically modified seed. The case is pending, but similar lawsuits have ended in Monsanto’s favor—evidence, Wallace claims, of a system that favors wealthy corporations rather than small businesses or individual citizens.
 
Wallace believes mandatory GMO labeling might help bring the system back into balance as well as address GMO opponents’ concerns that consuming genetically modified ingredients presents health risks. Early on, the FDA ruled there was no inherent difference between genetically modified foods and traditional foods, a move that’s enabled Monsanto to skip the rigorous testing process required for other food products or for drugs. Scientific studies and anecdotal evidence from farmers who fed their livestock GMO feed suggest GMOs can cause disease—a claim Monsanto vehemently denies.
 
“Labeling would bring accountability and traceability,” says Wallace. “It would enable us to discover if there’s a link between GMOs and the increase we’ve seen in diabetes, autism and other health problems. Labeling would let consumers make informed choices about what they put in their bodies and in their children’s bodies.”
 

A producer’s dilemma

Petaluma-based Clover Stornetta Farms has always been about informed choices—for its customers and for its member dairies. The company offers both certified organic and conventional products, and it was the first company west of the Mississippi to incentivize its dairies not to use bovine growth hormones (another product developed by Monsanto) and to be certified by the American Humane Association for animal welfare.
 
About 25 dairies provide milk to Clover-Stornetta, in a nearly even split between those that are certified organic and those that operate with conventional methods. Its certified organic producers are already mandated under USDA requirements to use non-GMO feeds. In 2006, Clover Stornetta sought to develop non-GMO feeds for its conventional producers, as well, but it ran into a roadblock: The crops used to supplement dairy animals’ diets—corn, soy, alfalfa and cotton—are dominated by GMOs.
 
Consequently, the only non-GMO feed available is certified organic, which is prohibitively expensive in a conventional dairy’s business model. Sourcing non-GMO feed directly from farmers is untenable because of the number of crops, regions and processing mills involved and the limited quantities available. And since each dairy works closely with a nutritionist to develop a feed formula, changing feed components to avoid GMO crops altogether is too risky, both for the health of the animals and for the economic health of the individual dairy.
 
“All our dairies are innovators, and they’re constantly evolving to surpass the expectations of our local consumers,” says Marcus Benedetti, president/CEO of Clover Stornetta Farms.
 
Benedetti hasn’t given up hope for non-GMO feed and believes market forces will help to drive this innovation. “Opportunities emerge anytime there’s an attempt to create a monopoly, as with GMO crops right now,” he says. “I’d love to see a non-GMO feed industry take off. And when it does, we’d be interested in being a customer.”
 

Manufacturing solutions to the GMO problem

Another company trying to stay ahead of consumer concerns about GMOs is La Tortilla Factory, based in Santa Rosa, which is well-known for offering products that promote a healthy lifestyle. It was the first in its industry to launch a low-fat tortilla and a low-carb tortilla and, in addition to offering traditionally crafted corn and wheat tortillas, it offers products for diabetics and people with wheat sensitivities. La Tortilla Factory’s Sonoma line of certified organic products is non-GMO, but in 2012, the company asked itself, “Is it time for all our products to be GMO-free?”
 
Answering that question has been a complex undertaking, says Stacey Payne, director of marketing at La Tortilla Factory. “Our R&D team is investing a lot of time and energy into it,” she explains. “We’re reaching out to our ingredient vendors to understand what’s available to us and then evaluating our options.”
 
According to Payne, La Tortilla Factory can prove that more than 80 percent of its ingredients are already non-GMO. The challenge then, lies in determining whether the remaining 20 percent of ingredients should go non-GMO. With little FDA guidance—and studies from those on both sides of the GMO argument showing conflicting results—the company has to make a judgment call based on ingredient availability, market demand and economic factors.
 
“Concern about health and community health is deeply rooted in our family and in our brand,” explains Payne. “At the same time, we want to be competitive in the marketplace and provide a superior product at a reasonable price to as many households as possible. It’s definitely a balancing act.”
 
As the company explores the non-GMO universe, it’s fielding inquiries about GMOs from its customer base, particularly in California. Questions about wheat (not yet a GMO crop) come up frequently, and the team at La Tortilla Factory is doing its best to educate as well as be transparent about its non-GMO and GMO ingredients. 
 
“The GMO issue is reaching a critical mass of awareness,” says Payne. “We take GMOs seriously because, as our founder Carlos Tamayo always said, we want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
 

What about wine?

Concern about GMO contamination in the North Bay’s natural food and beverage industry raises questions about our other local (and supremely natural) product: wine.
 
Jon Ruel, COO at Trefethen Family Vineyards and president of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, says the risk of GMO contamination in North Bay wine is low. That’s because winemaking involves a small number of ingredients—usually just winegrapes and yeast. Most North Bay winemakers hold the belief, the more natural, the better.
 
“In many ways, viticulture here is cutting-edge, but in other ways, we cling to tradition,” explains Ruel. “We like the intact genetic code of ancient wine varieties, some dating back to 600 AD. The yeast we use comes from the air around us or from different locations around the world. We choose non-GMO flowers and legumes to plant as cover crops.”
 
Ruel recognizes that farmers often turn to GMOs because they earn small margins per acre and are under tremendous strain to produce high yields. In the GMO model, entire crops are sprayed directly with chemical herbicides, something Ruel can’t imagine doing to grapevines.
 
“We’re not interested in using GMO products, because we don’t see the economic benefit of it and also because we have an industry that’s very transparent,” says Ruel. “We want people to come ask us how we grow grapevines, we want them to walk in the vineyards, and we want to be able to explain the whole process to them.”
 
The type of gene-based research Ruel embraces is being spearheaded by M. Andrew Walker, Ph.D., a professor and geneticist at UC Davis.
 
“Dr. Walker’s research is centered on technology-assisted breeding, not genetic modification or engineering,” says Ruel. “From an industry perspective, it’s interesting, but we’re not there yet.”
 

Organic + Non-GMO Project verified

The Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit organization committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products and educating consumers. It’s also North America’s only independent verification provider for products made according to best practices for GMO avoidance. Sales of Non-GMO Project verified products—9,000 in total—have surpassed $3.5 billion annually. It’s the fastest growing label in the natural products industry, providing companies another way to differentiate their products on store shelves.
 
“Coconut isn’t a GMO-endangered crop, but we chose to become Non-GMO Project certified to show our whole-hearted support for this important organization and to be able to proudly display their symbol on all of our packaging,” explains a spokesperson for Mill Valley-based Coconut Secret, which creates certified organic, low-glycemic products made from coconut and other ingredients.
 
Sebastopol-based Traditional Medicinals (TM), a leading seller of organic tea in the United States, uses a multi-pronged approach to avoid GMOs in its products. The company has made significant financial investment over the past 20 years, bringing it well within reach of its goal of eventually developing a 100 percent organic supply chain. It adopts special measures with ingredients at risk of GMO contamination, like organic papaya leaf, which it sources from Africa because genetically engineered papaya dominates U.S. fruit markets. And it enrolls all its ingredients in the Non-GMO Project to ensure credibility and inspire consumer confidence.
 
“Consumers have the right to know our teas have been produced using best practices to avoid GMO contamination,” says Matt Crum, vice president of marketing at TM. “Being GMO-free fits well as a proof point for our strengths around quality and sustainability, and we’re proud to be on the leading edge of certification.”
 
Novato-based Andalou Naturals—a rapidly growing manufacturer of fruit stem cell-based skin, hair, bath and body care products—was already gluten-free, 100 percent vegetarian, eco-friendly and cruelty-free when it earned the distinction in early 2013 of being the first beauty brand to be Non-GMO Project verified.
 
“Partnering with the Non-GMO Project and achieving third-party verification was consistent with our brand standard to use natural and organic ingredients,” says Stacey Kelly Egide, Andalou Naturals co-founder and CEO. “We’re confident in our supply chain and value their support of transparency from farm to shelf.”
 
This ambitious effort required Andalou staff, in cooperation with manufacturers and suppliers, to confirm not only that source ingredients were non-GMO, but also that the manufacturing process for each final ingredient did not include GMOs. All 60 of Andalou’s products—a total of 200 ingredients—were involved in the project. 
 
Andalou Naturals’ non-GMO status has proven to be a hit in the marketplace. 
 
“Our customers and retailers are excited about this important point of difference and see non-GMO verification as another step in the evolution of our industry,” Egide reports. “We’ve received really positive feedback and support for our commitment to thoughtful, responsible and sustainable products for consumers, their families and the environment.”
 

Non-GMO x 170 million

Amy’s Kitchen, a world leader in the production of natural and organic convenience foods, exemplifies the ripple effect of going non-GMO. Amy’s sources ingredients from 25,000 acres of organic, GMO-free crops to make its line of 250 products, including frozen entrees and burritos, soups and pasta sauce, even cakes and candy bars, to name a few. The company estimates it will make 170 million organic, GMO-free meals in 2013.
 
“Since we began 25 years ago, we’ve actively supported organic and GMO-free foods,” says Berliner. “GMOs are banned in organic agriculture, and we fully support certified organic foods as the best choice for consumers who wish to avoid GMOs in their diet.”
 
Amy’s employs a variety of strategies to keep GMOs out of its foods. For example, the company doesn’t use canola oil at all and has a strict policy that requires its products not contain any GMOs/bioengineered ingredients. To confirm this, Amy’s has long conducted its own program involving testing and certification/affidavits from suppliers. These strategies also work to Amy’s advantage in manufacturing for the European market, where GMO labeling has been mandatory since 1997.
 
“Once mandatory labeling was enacted in the European Union (EU), the majority of consumers made a choice not to eat GMO-containing products,” says Berliner. “As the demand changed, the agriculture and food production system adapted back to using regular seed varieties. In the EU, we see less concern with GMO cross-contamination, because the general consumer is more aware of the issue through transparency in labeling.”
 
Amy’s Kitchen is a founding member of the Just Label It campaign, which is focused on mandatory labeling of GMO ingredients as part of consumers’ rights to know what they’re eating and to make informed choices. The company was a strong backer, both financially and organizationally, of the Prop 37 campaign and is providing support to a GMO labeling effort in Washington state. It’s also lobbying the FDA for a federal ruling on GMO labeling nationally and is involved in many other grassroots efforts.
 
The purity of Amy’s product comes at a premium. Organic ingredients are already more expensive than conventional, and testing for GMO contamination is an additional cost. Currently, there are no compensation protocols in place for GMO contamination of organic ingredients by conventional agriculture producers and handlers; these costs are borne by organic growers and producers.
 
“There are challenges regarding the agricultural ‘coexistence’ of organic and conventional farming,” says Berliner. “That’s why we need consequences to address cross contamination of organic crops by GMO seeds.”
 

The retail influence

Manufacturers big and small recognize their products must add value not only to their customers but also to their distribution chain, including retail shops and third-party distributors. Products live—or die—based on factors like their location on a grocery store shelf and the enthusiasm of a purchasing manager. At the same time, retailers know that when consumers get hooked on a product, they’ll go to the store that carries it.
 
That relationship among consumers, retailers and manufacturers played out in interesting ways during and shortly after the Prop 37 campaign.
 
With six stores in the North Bay, specialty retailer Trader Joe’s—based in Pasadena, Calif., but owned by a private German company—took no official position on Prop 37. However, during the election, placards outside its Novato store informed customers that Trader Joe’s does not sell products containing GMOs. In December 2012, the company posted clarification on its GMO policies on its website, assuring customers that its private label products are GMO-free as verified by an internal process.
 
Whole Foods Market, a $337 million, publicly traded company, has taken an aggressive pro-GMO labeling stance. The company generated support for the Yes on 37 campaign through regional social media channels, in-store signage and videos aimed at educating team members and customers. Today, the company has GMO informational kiosks in all its California stores and publicizes Non-GMO Project verified products on its website and through special tags placed directly under the products on the shelf. Whole Foods also has enrolled its entire private label—its 365 line—in the Non-GMO Project.
 
The move that sent shock waves around the industry, however, was Whole Foods’ announcement in March 2013 that all products in its stores must be labeled for GMOs by 2018—the first mandatory GMO-labeling initiative among national retailers.
 
“It will take us five years, because our suppliers and our vendor partners need time to source non-GMO ingredients or find the best way to label their products,” says Jessica Hurtado, marketing and community relations team leader at the Whole Foods market in Coddingtown. “We want to make sure we honor them, as they have honored us by supplying so many amazing products over the years.”
 
Tom Scott, co-owner of Sonoma County’s Oliver’s Markets, explains that, as a crossover store, Oliver’s sells natural products but also “products that aren’t necessarily good for people or the world, like cigarettes. For us, the real issue is choice,” he explains. “Some of our customers don’t care about GMOs. But then again, those customers wouldn’t be hurt by a labeling initiative. The people who get hurt are those who want to know and aren’t given what they need to make an informed decision.”
 
As concern about GMOs spreads from the niche natural market into the rest of the United States, other grocery chains might be inspired to follow in Whole Foods’ food steps—or push for federal labeling to avoid the logistical nightmare of multiple state programs. The New YorkTimes reports that consumer boycotts and bad publicity over the conventional food industry’s financial opposition to Prop 37 inspired a secret meeting in January 2013, where mega-retailers like Walmart, large food conglomerates like PepsiCo and labeling advocacy groups discussed a national GMO-labeling initiative.
 

Making an informed choice

In the absence of a federal GMO-labeling program, consumers must recognize that most processed foods, beverages and nutritional supplements contain GMO ingredients in some form or another (see sidebar below).
 
“People are generally not aware of how pervasive GMOs are in food products,” says Mark Squire, co-owner and president at Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax. “The more you learn about GMOs, the more you wonder, ‘How did this happen without our realizing it?’”
 
Good Earth strongly opposes GMOs, but even this North Bay natural foods icon has to make concessions.
 
Explains Squire, “We insist products not have major ingredients that are GMO. Unfortunately, there might be situations where we’re presented with a product that offers a unique choice to customers—it’s gluten-free, for example—but contains minor food ingredients like citric acid or soy lecithin that might be GMO. In those cases, we might tolerate the product.”
 
Squire recommends customers who want to avoid all GMOs buy products certified with the Non-GMO Project. But Michael Girkout, president of Alvarado Street Bakery in Petaluma, feels certified organic status is another way to convey the non-GMO message. “We try to assure consumers that they can trust certified organic products to be non-GMO,” says Girkout, who’s enrolled some of Alvarado Street Bakery’s products in the Non-GMO Project and hs begun the process of adding “No GMOs” to all its packaging. “You can’t be a certified organic bakery and use GMO ingredients.”
 
With GMOs, as with other food issues, consumers must apply their own litmus test. The good news is, North Bay consumers who are ready to add non-GMO to their list of requirements—along with certified organic, sustainably farmed, vegan, fair trade, local or all of the above—have plenty of North Bay companies ready to meet their needs, whether it be for products or for more information.
 
“It’s exciting to educate people about how our food system fits into a bigger picture of environmentalism and the public health debate,” muses Squire. “I’d get bored if I were just a grocer.”
 

Know Your GMOs

According to the Non-GMO Project, high-risk GMO crops include:
 
• Alfalfa  (first planting 2011)
 
Canola  (approx. 90% of U.S. crop)
 
• Corn  (approx. 88% of U.S. crop in 2011)
 
• Cotton  (approx. 90% of U.S. crop in 2011)
 
• Papaya  (most of Hawaiian crop)
 
• Soy  (approx. 94% of U.S. crop in 2011)
 
• Sugar Beets  (approx. 95% of U.S. crop in 2010)
 
• Zucchini and Yellow Summer Squash  (approx. 25,000 acres)
 
 

Read the Label

Common ingredients derived from GMO risk crops include amino acids, aspartame, ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbate, vitamin C, citric acid, sodium citrate, ethanol, flavorings (“natural” and “artificial”), high-fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, lactic acid, maltodextrins, molasses, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sucrose, textured vegetable protein (TVP), xanthan gum, vitamins, yeast products.
 


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