As we’re approaching the November election and the presence of Proposition 37 on the California ballot mandating the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), it is a good time to consider the implications of GMOs in the food supply and in our environment.

When we eat packaged and processed foods, most of the time they come with a “cide” of something we did not order, such as pesticides, herbicides and insecticides.  In addition to these ‘cides, we now have an increasing number of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in the food supply. In fact, according to, Dr. Oz and others, as much as 80 percent of conventional, non-organic packaged, and processed foods sold in the United States today contain GMOs, foods that have been engineered with foreign DNA from other organisms.

One of the reasons that a plant may be genetically modified is to generate its own insecticide or to tolerate the heavy spraying of herbicides like the weed killer, Roundup, as is the case with so-called “Roundup Ready” crops.  Use of these chemicals allows farmers to save on labor costs and is supposed to increase crop yields; however, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) reported in an April 2009 press release that “genetic engineering has failed to significantly boost U.S. crop yields despite biotech industry claims.”

In a 2004 interview with Sierra Magazine, Michael Pollan, food journalist and author of The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto stated, “GMOs have mainly been a way to sell more Roundup herbicide.”  In a 2009 interview at the Long Now Foundation, Pollan stated further that genetic engineering is increasing the problem of monocultures and their related use of pesticides to defend them.  The largest of these monoculture crops are corn, soy, cotton, and canola; coincidentally, all of which are grown with greater than 85 percent genetically engineered organisms and are specifically designed to produce or withstand the heavy use of ‘cides.

Given the prevalence of GMOs in our food system and their inherent use of ‘cides, shouldn’t we wonder what the health and environmental impacts of this grand science experiment are?  The biggest problem in answering this question is that biotech companies like Monsanto own the intellectual property rights to the GMOs, and so in order to study them, independent scientists are required to obtain written permission from Monsanto to perform the studies and get their prior approval before publishing them (Pollan 2009). Further, since the USDA considers GMOs “substantially equivalent” to conventionally-grown crops, the USDA does not require safety studies of GMOs.

Opponents of genetic engineering like the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) suggest on their website and in the position paper at that the specific health risks of GMOs include endocrine disruption, organ damage, decreased fertility and reproductive disorders, immunosuppression, increased allergies, inflammation and even accelerated aging.  Additionally, in his book, Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, Jeffrey M. Smith, director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, documents at least 65 serious health risks from GM food products, including toxic and allergic reactions in humans and sick and sterile livestock. The World Health Organization reports in “20 Questions on Genetically Modified Foods” that the three main issues with GMOs are tendencies to provoke allergic reaction (allergenicity), gene transfer to cells of the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, and outcrossing – the “movement of genes from GM plants into conventional crops or related species in the wild.” While studies conducted specifically on GMOs in the United States are few, a European analysis of nineteen studies conducted on mammals fed commercialized genetically modified soybean and corn over the course of ninety days showed significant dysfunction in the liver and kidneys and raised the question of how the impact could worsen over longer-term consumption.

Other studies have indicated that GMO crops grown in fields treated with Roundup leave behind residue of Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, which has been recently linked to decreasing good bacteria in the gut and, in rats, lowering testosterone levels and causing infertility and birth defects.  In addition, Mother Earth News reported in 2005 that “scientific studies link Roundup (glyphosate), the most widely used herbicide in the world, to a host of health risks, such as cancer, miscarriages and disruption of human sex hormones.”  Sadly, glyphosate is so prevalent that in 2011, the U.S. Geological Survey documented it not only in rain and the Mississippi River watershed, but also in the air and streams, indicating “transport from its point of use into the broader environment.” Further, increasing the use of GMO crops has increased the use of weed-killing chemicals by hundreds of millions of pounds since their introduction. According to Organic Center chief scientist Dr. Charles Benbrook at UCS, “383 million additional pounds of herbicides have been used on Genetically Engineered (GE) crops since 1996, compared to what likely would have been used if GE crops had been replaced by conventional, non-GE varieties. Forty-six percent of the total increase occurred in the last two years studied (2007 and 2008).”  Yet, the USDA has been essentially silent on the impacts of GE crops on pesticide use.  And now, “super weeds” have flourished which are becoming resistant to the chemicals, and in turn, have sparked the need for harsher herbicides and therefore greater risks to farm workers, consumers and the environment.

The four most common crops grown in the United States today are common GMOs: corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton.  According to the Center for Food Safety, up to 85 percent of all corn and 91 percent of all soy grown in the United States is genetically engineered.  These commodity crops are used as the primary feed for conventional livestock and are found in processed foods such as cereals, baby foods, breads, chips, sodas, vegetarian meat substitutes,  and a long list of other products not labeled organic.

With the increase of GMO crops, one of the pressing issues is the lack of labeling. Whether we agree with the health and environmental risks of GMOs, shouldn’t we at least have the option to make a choice?  Unfortunately, neither the FDA nor USDA requires labeling even though many surveys and polls have shown that most Americans indicate they want to know if they are eating GMOs. (In an October 2010 study conducted by Thomson Reuters, “National Survey of Healthcare Consumers: Genetically Engineered Food,” 93% of respondents said genetically engineered foods should be labeled.) Therefore, the onus is on the consumer to do the research.  Until GMOs are clearly labeled, here at least are some guidelines to help you avoid GMOs and their ‘cides.

  1. Avoid Packaged/Processed Foods or Opt for Organic or Non-GMO Varieties.
    1. The most certain way to avoid GMOs in all foods and especially in prepared or packaged foods is to look for certified organic labeling.  The USDA requires that certified organic products are not allowed to contain any GMOs. Purchase products labeled “100% organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic ingredients;” all ingredients in these products are not allowed to be produced from GMOs.
    2. Look for “non-GMO” labeling (a newer option).  Many companies are voluntarily labeling products non-GMO or “made without genetically modified ingredients.”  Products labeled with the “Non-GMO Project Seal” have been subject to third-party verification for compliance with Non-GMO Project standards for GMO avoidance.
    3. Avoid the Riskiest Ingredients.   If organic or non-GMO options are not available,  scrutinize ingredient labels to avoid these foods that are likely GMOs:

i.     Corn: corn flour, meal, oil, starch, gluten, and syrup;  sweeteners such as fructose, dextrose, and glucose.

ii.     Soy:  tofu, edamame, soy flour, lecithin, protein, isolate, and isoflavone; soybean oil and vegetable protein.

iii.     Papaya from Hawaii, yellow squash, zucchini, and beet sugar.

iv.     Oils: canola (sometimes labeled rapeseed), vegetable and cottonseed oils

  1. Pick your PLUs for produce.  While most of our produce is free from genetic engineering, some varieties of zucchini and crookneck squash are genetically modified, as well as some tomatoes and 50 percent of the papaya from Hawaii.  When shopping for grocery store produce, read the PLU code on the attached sticker; a five-digit number starting with an 8 means that item was genetically engineered.  For example, a GM vine ripe tomato would be labeled 84805.
  2. Mind your Animal Products. When shopping for fish, choose wild varieties instead of farmed to avoid GMO feed. Be aware that because so-called “Frankenfish,” or salmon engineered to grow more quickly, may be approved soon.  If you eat meat, look for 100 percent grass-fed animals to avoid GM feed.  Many conventionally raised dairy cows are fed with GM grains and are treated with the genetically engineered hormone rBGH, (also called rBST) to boost milk production. While rBGH-free labeling ensures growth hormones were not used, organic dairy products go one step further and ensure GM grains were not used as feed.  Dairy products from pastured animals like sheep and goats are predominantly grass-fed, as well as being free from hormones, GM feed and antibiotics.
  3. Aim for Cane (sugar that is).  Much of our refined sugar now comes from GM beets (according to the Center for Food Safety, 95 percent of all sugar beets grown in the US are now genetically engineered).  When eating sweets, chocolate, and candy, read ingredient lists and look for cane sugar, organic sugar, or evaporated cane juice.
  4. Consult the NonGMO Shopping Guide for a list of products that are specifically non-genetically modified.
  5. Download the iphone app: ShopNonGmo

Are you feeling overwhelmed and wishing you had the right to know?  Many countries already require such labeling or ban the use of GMO ingredients outright.  In Use your vote and your voice to protect the environment and your own health.  Demand labeling of GMOs:

  • Vote YES on Proposition 37 on the November ballot in California.
  • Get educated and/or involved in California at
  • Not a resident of California, but still want to use your voice?  Tell the FDA to label GMOs – go to  to sign an online petition and make your voice heard.

Every bite we take is an opportunity to vote via our forks for a fairer food system.  If you don’t order or buy genetically modified products, producers will stop producing them and restaurants will stop buying them. Having the freedom to decide what we put in our bodies begins by being informed through responsible labeling.

What to do when you’re eating out?

According to Jeffrey Smith, follow these recommendations to go GMO-free when visiting a restaurant:

  • Choose establishments that cook from scratch, rather than those serving a lot of fast or processed foods. Processed foods contain GM ingredients in almost every item.
  • Consult the list of at-risk ingredients on the Non-GMO shopping guide an avoid them. These include: derivatives of soy, corn, cottonseed oil, canola oil, sugar beets, zucchini, yellow squash.
  • Many at-risk ingredients are obvious, such as: corn, zucchini, yellow squash, tofu, sugar, and aspartame.
  • Choose pure cane sugar over other varieties of packaged or processed sugar.
  • Hidden ingredients or those less visible include cooking oils (cottonseed, corn, and canola oils are frequently GM).
  • Ask what kind of oil the kitchen uses. If they say they cook with olive oil, make sure it is a pure oil, and not a blend with canola oil (a common practice).
  • Ask if your dish can be made with olive oil or other alternative oil, or even without any oil at all. Often restaurants are accommodating and will even prepare a higher quality meal with a greater level of attention.
  • Buy copies of the pocket shopping guide in bulk, and leave one at the restaurant.

Learn More in Person!

At the Conscious Life Expo from October 7-8, there will be a number of events related to the GMO issue including film screenings, panel discussions, and sessions geared toward healthcare professionals. Visit:;;

The Green Lifestyle Film Festival is hosting and EcoSalon Wellness Open House Thursday, October 11 with Master of Ceremonies Tamara Henry. Speakers, food tastings, wellness practitioners, a screening of Jeffrey Smith’s film Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of Our Lives and a keynote by attorney and Alliance for Bio-Integrity founder Steve Drucker. $10 donation. 11 October, 6:00 – 10:00 pm, MOA Wellness Center, 4533 S Centinela Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90066. 310-574-9900.

Red Jen Ford is a Certified Holistic Health Coach, Yoga Instructor and Seasonal Eating Expert.  Jen teaches the benefits and simplicity of eating local, sustainably grown food.

Mural by WERC, VYAL, & Voice of Art
Photo by David-Young Wolff

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