I've been receiving several emails about genetically modified salmon entering our food system. Will it be labeled? If not, how can I tell if I'm eating something that's been genetically modified?
- Brit, Silverthorne
Today, genetically modified foods are not required to be labeled as GE or GMO, so most aren't. The only way to determine if something is GMO-free is to buy certified organic. However, there a few secrets to decoding the PLU number on vegetable and fruit labels that can help you identify if something is genetically altered.
The International Federation for Produce Standards provides a guideline for differentiating between PLU numbers and states that conventionally grown produce will have a four-digit code (tomato #4087); organically grown will have a #9 in front of four-digit code (organic tomato #94087); and genetically engineered produce will have a #8 in front of the four-digit code (GE tomato #84087). Unfortunately, this detective work doesn't apply to the rest of our packaged food.
So what's the deal with GE salmon? According to The Cornucopia Institute, the DNA of GE salmon has been genetically modified to produce growth hormones for its entire life. These growth hormones allow it to not only grow year-round but at a much faster rate than wild salmon. Also known as "FrankenFish," GE salmon has already been FDA-approved for human consumption in the U.S. and could be found at a supermarket near you by the end of the year.
AquAdvantage salmon is a transgenic Atlantic salmon that can grow twice the rate of natural salmon. Transgenic is a process where DNA from one species is shifted to another species that can result in a mixture of plant, bacteria, animal and viral gene pools. One of the major fears with GE salmon (beyond what it does to our bodies) is interbreeding with natural salmon. Even though the supplier AquaBounty claims the fish is sterile, scientists have found that only 95 percent of the fish are actually sterile.
Another major safety concern with GE foods is their risk of introducing new dietary allergens or aggravating existing allergens in humans. The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network found that between 1997 and 2007, food allergies increased by 20 percent.
Last year, many of us eagerly watched California's Proposition 37 as it went to vote as the first state to label GMO food. The results were disappointing, but a fairly slim margin in my eyes - 51.5 percent voted "no" and 48.5 percent voted "yes." It was still a "win" because of the amount of dollars that small, mission-driven companies put forth in support of the proposition (almost $9 million) and the nearly 6 million citizens that took a stand for labeling GMO products.
The good news is that the "Yes on Labeling" campaign raised tremendous awareness across the nation about this problem. Proposition 37 has sparked a movement that has now facilitated two formal legislation initiatives: Washington state's "People's Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act" (I-522) and New Mexico's Senate Bill 18.
At the same time, "GMO-Free" campaigns are spreading like wildfire by seeking to collect signatures to place similar labelling legislation on the ballot for 2014. These grassroots efforts are popping up in Oregon, Vermont, Illinois, Virginia, the Carolinas, Florida, New York, Iowa, Minnesota and Colorado.
These grassroots movements are essential for connecting people to the real story of where their food comes from. Of course the GMO giants also have something up their sleeves. A recent report from Grist stated that representatives from General Mills, Coca-Cola, and others met with the FDA on Jan. 11 to lobby for mandatory federal GMO labeling. You read that correctly! And why should we trust these mammoth corporations who have always looked out for their profit instead of our health?
Michele Simon from Food Safety News cautioned against such agendas. She said there's a pattern here. As soon as grassroots efforts gain momentum on the state level and big industry realizes the fight is expensive and losing ground, industry will flip sides and lobby for "their own weak bill passed, or work with advocates to pass a compromise version." She stated that "its industry's way of ensuring uniformity and stopping grassroots efforts." If this happens, federal law will prevent states from passing independent, stronger laws.
Now is the time for you, as a citizen and consumer, to fight for your food rights. You can sign petitions that vote against GE salmon and vote for GMO labeling. You can also hop on the campaign and educate everyone you know. This is one gigantic step towards taking back our food system for ourselves and future generations.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.