FREE. When you hear this word, happy thoughts probably spring to mind. Thoughts of flying, or running through a field of daisies dressed in a dirndl. “Free,” is generally a good thing.
So, when you read the words, “free of X,” it’s natural to conclude that X must be bad. This has proved especially true when it comes to food labeling.
Take, for example, “gluten-free,” “fat-free,” and “dairy-free.” Science has proved that these nutrients are perfectly healthy for most people to consume, and, yet, many avoid them for no reason other than marketing innuendo.
Could the same also be said for GMOs?
WHAT IS A GMO?
G.M.O. stands for genetically modified organism. The term is generally used for any food that has had its genes changed using biotechnology. The purpose of genetically modifying a food is to give it certain qualities, such as making it more resistant to viruses, insects, or pesticides.
Genetic modification can also be used to increase a plant’s nutritional value, allow it to grow faster, or make it taste different. Sounds pretty good, right?
THE PROS OF GMOS
Proponents of GMOs argue that these crops are not only safe for humans but also better for the environment. In theory, plants which are engineered to be resistant to herbicides and insects make it easier for farmers to kill weeds and protect crops from harmful pests. Fewer weeds also means less plowing, and, thus, reduced use of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions.
Perhaps most importantly, the ability to manipulate foods to increase desirable components such as nutrient content, presents one of the only viable answers to the global hunger crisis.
While there are a growing number of efforts dedicated to creating more nutritious GM crops – Golden Rice, for example, was developed to prevent vitamin A deficiency in children of developing countries – more than 80% of all GMOs grown worldwide are engineered for herbicide tolerance.
Herbicide tolerance means that a farmer can spray weed-killer (herbicide) directly on to a crop without killing it. This sounds like a great idea – in theory. Unfortunately, in practice, herbicide-resistant crops have spawned an unintended byproduct: herbicide-resistant weeds.
In recent years, more than two dozen weed species have become resistant to glyphosate – the chief ingredient in many herbicides. As a result, farmers have had to use increasing amounts of glyphosate and other weed-killing chemicals to try and control these “super weeds.”
According to research conducted at Washington State University, the increase in the amount of chemicals required to deal with these mutant weeds grew from 1.5 million pounds in 1999 to 90 million pounds in 2011. Not so great for the environment. And while there is no evidence proving that GMOs themselves cause harm in humans, a few animal studies suggest that consumption of herbicide residue – which can be left over on genetically engineered plants – may play a role in several adverse health conditions.
HOW CAN YOU SPOT THEM?
GMOs are not required to be labeled in the U.S. or Canada.
Currently, commercialized GM crops in the U.S. include soy, cotton, canola (rapeseed), sugar beets, corn, Hawaiian papaya, zucchini, and yellow squash. This may not seem like a big list, but nearly all packaged and processed foods contain ingredients derived from corn, soy, canola, or sugar beet. If you want to avoid GMOs in the supermarket, look for non-GMO labeling on packaged foods and goods.
You can also buy organic. All organic foods are inherently “GMO-free”. Additionally, these foods must be grown in a way that protects soil quality, and without the use of most synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
For organic meat, animals must be raised in responsible living conditions and cannot be administered antibiotics or growth hormones.
Eating out at restaurants could be trickier, as many – if not most – use corn, soy, or canola oil for cooking. While you can’t go into every restaurant and investigate their kitchen, you can look for the words “sustainable,” “local,” and “farm-to-table.”
These terms are usually a pretty good indication that the restaurant is putting extra care into the quality of their food.
Our favorite way to find food that’s good for us, the environment, and our community is to shop at local markets and farm stands whenever possible. While all the produce may not be certified organic – this process can be too expensive and time-consuming for small businesses – you can actually meet the faces behind the food and ask them what practices they use to grow their crops and raise their livestock.
WHAT WE THINK
At SmartyPants, we’re pretty obsessed with science. When we make our products, we’re committed to using ingredients that are time-tested and backed by research. All SmartyPants products are non-GMO because we have no scientific reason to include GM ingredients.
If one day, science proves that there are certain genetically modified nutrients that are better for our customers, our furry friends, and the planet, then we might change things up – and you’ll be the first to know.
Does that mean that we never consume GMOs in our daily lives? No. That’s probably impossible, and, in our (humble) opinion, a bit unnecessary. The scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs is well documented, but there is still concern about the long-term impacts on animals and the environment, so we try to keep things balanced.
We support sustainable agriculture by shopping at farmer’s markets and eating organic whenever possible, but we also eat at restaurants, food that’s not organic, and even from the occasional drive-through (gasp!). That’s life. We’re going to consume some GMOs every now and then, and we’re okay with (a little) of that. Until science says otherwise.