GMO- What's in it for You?

GMO and How It Impacts Your Food Choices

I started this morning with my feet in gumboots feeding the chooks. Then I took out the rubbish to the street complete with a rat-ruined box of stuff from the garage. in the rain. Yuck! The gumboots, chooks, and rain were fine, but the other, well, it was a job to be acknowledged and then done. So, I started this day, slightly soggy, with happy chooks and grass, and happy cows knowing the grass was growing, as well as clean bins and a tidy garage. The rat task was unpleasant to contemplate at the start, but it is so satisfying having it done.

This week's article from John is one of the challenging ones. It invites you to slow down and look at some of the issues that surround the food you eat. It may be more complex than you thought, with political trade-offs and unbridled commerce being powerful agents in what choices you have for your food. Just as with my unpleasant job this morning, if you don't acknowledge these things, they do not go away, and they impact your life whether you choose to deal with them or not. Once you have dealt with them, you get that great feeling of satisfaction, and yes, it is worth it!

Take your time with this one. John worked very hard to make an article covering wide, complex, and divisive territory into something that is digestible.

In health, Becky

GMO Food- What's in it for You?

John Sanderson

GMO food

Over the years, I've read plenty of articles and watched a number of movies concerned with the state of the food situation in the world. Many issues are raised including soil erosion, destruction of microbial soil life by salt-based fertilisers (which then requires an even larger input of salt fertilisers), and toxic residues on the food grown due to the pesticides used to combat pests which flourish in a monoculture cropping environment.

Dr. Arden Anderson one of the USA's pre-eminent soil and food scientists claims that the nutrient density of most foods has deteriorated significantly since the advent of chemical agriculture, particularly since the end of World War II. <em>(Science in Agriculture, Advanced Methods for Sustainable Farming 2000)</em>

He also states that pests are natures garbage collectors- they only attack the crops not fit for human consumption. If our civilization was to re-evaluate farming in that light, it would have a profound effect on the way we grew food.

Added to these concerns increasingly is the threat posed by Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO's) in our food. While the topic is controversial, with biotech corporations claiming that they are feeding a hungry world, a cursory look at the strategies used and some common traits that are being engineered would suggest otherwise. One could ask oneself not only is GM food-safe, but what is the benefit of consuming it.

Concerns about GMO's include:

  • Terminator seeds producing plants that don't seed i.e. requiring seed to be repurchased yearly from their company
  • Engineering Roundup-resistant crops, so that the crops can be sprayed to kill weeds with Roundup without killing the crop that we will nevertheless be eating
  • Engineering toxins into plants to act as insecticides
  • Accidental contamination of non-GMO crops with GMO material, and then suing the landowner in question for having their patented GM material
  • Numerous studies on animals show GM material to be hormone disruptors and carcinogenic.
  • The basic human right to be able to choose what we eat. People have a right be able to choose not to eat GMO contaminated food for any number of reasons if they so wish, including health, ethical, political, spiritual. This choice is severely compromised if food is not adequately labeled. There are currently plenty of loopholes in NZ's GM labeling of foods.
  • The Biotech industry is against a robust labeling system for GMO's because they are well aware that many people will not buy food labeled GM.

Kyra Xavia has written an excellent article for Organic NZ magazine on the dangers of GMOs. If you are not sure why you should care about these in your food, this is a great place to start. Included are references to various studies highlighting the risks of GMOs.

Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement

GMO's are highly topical at the moment with the NZ Government negotiating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) for a regional Pacific trade agreement that would include the USA. Highly concerning in these meetings is that the National Government is not releasing the details of those negotiations, i.e. what bargaining points they are prepared to give away. Also of concern is the way that the TPPA fits into the framework of Codex Alimentarius, a worldwide structure of food regulations and food control. Potentially signing the TPPA will further restrict NZ's autonomy in making decisions about our imports and bind future Governments to it for fear of being expelled from the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Compliance with the WTO is already affecting the way the Food Stands Safety Authority (FSANZ ) operates.

The US position on NZ's Environmental Protection Agency (NZ EPA) is well documented. The NZ EPA is directed to take a precautionary approach to GMOs if it so wishes by the HSNO Act. Wikileaks released cables from America's NZ embassy stating that this stance was a key barrier to signing a Free Trade Agreement between the two countries. The US is paying attention to NZ, and it translates into pressure. Hillary Clinton was here last year lobbying the NZ government regarding the Biotech industry followed by a well known US pro-GM scientist on a PR tour.

NZ's already weak GMO labeling laws would likely disappear upon ratification of the TPPA. If this happens, the NZ government is moving directly counter to the wishes of Kiwis. A recent poll shows over 80% of NZer's support GM labeling in NZ.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) recently approved the importation of GMO corn and soy in processed food. They included concerns they would be in breach of WTO regulations if they didn't approve it, regardless of health concerns. The general wishes of the population are not something the department (or any other government department for that matter) need to take into account. However, the Minister does have the power to step in and alter decisions if politically warranted.

Biotech multinationals have attempted to sue several EU countries for breach of trade agreements regarding bans on GM imports, arguing that the science countries are using is flawed. This highlights that world trade and globalisation are impacting nations' rights to self-determination in regards to food sovereignty.

Even without signing the TPPA, the WTO is having a significant influence on FSANZ and what we import. This decision is being appealed by GE Free NZ as announced in their February 1 press release.

What you can do

While there are many activist things you can do to show your concern about these issues such as writing to your MP, Minister of Environment, Minister of Trade, Minister of Agriculture and Food submissions to your local council, etc, not all of us are going to prioritise such actions.

I would like to include some ideas of what you can do to help yourself and your immediate circle, and thereby still have an impact on our wider environment and community. Most of the GMO food is in a handful of crops e.g. Soy, Canola, Corn, Papaya, and animals fed those crops, and processed foods containing those crops.

In the US approximately 85% Soy and 80% Corn is GM. But the situation is even worse because GM and non-GM conventional is blended together meaning almost all of the nonorganic products containing these ingredients that are manufactured in the US will have GM material in them. Importing these materials from the US means it is highly likely they contain GM material.

In the US companies can use the word "organic" with up to 30% conventionally grown ingredients. Certified organic products with the USDA can still contain up to 5% conventionally grown ingredients as long as they contain no GMO's, sewage sludge, or irradiated foods. Due to a lack of checks on finished products, it is actually possible that this 5% contains GM ingredients. The only way to be sure is with the higher USDA standard of "100% Organic." Why do we care about US products and certification? Well, we import a lot of processed food from the States.

NZ does have a food labeling regime that nominally includes GMO's. However, there are many thresholds and loopholes to make it ineffective, including meat from animals fed on imported GM grains with novel DNA and proteins. There's an exemption for highly refined foods containing no original DNA or proteins and a 1% threshold if it is unintentionally in there. NZ and Australia have the same food standards. Just because a product does not have GM label on it does not mean that it is GMO-free. GM Free is a claim that is administered by the Fair Trading Act and it gives us reasonable assurance that it is true to label.

In NZ there is no regulation over the words "natural" or "organic." There are 4 main organic certifying agencies in NZ that certify products from NZ. Many companies/growers/farmers choose to certify to reflect their commitment to growing healthy food. Buying local, where you know the producer (farmers markets are a great way to do this) or buying Certified Organic is the best reassurance that what you think you are eating is what you are eating.

Shopping = Power

Supermarkets only stock what we buy. The more shelf space that you see dedicated to a product indicates how much of it we are buying. What we buy says we support or endorse that product and the organization that makes it. We have the power to vote with our dollars, and that is a lot of responsibility. We have the power to buy only products we like, and from organizations whose ethics we support.

Greenpeace Australia publishes a Consumer Guide that lists companies and products in relation to documented GMO's. (Note: Greenpeace NZ used to publish one just for NZ but have discontinued due to limited resources and a focus on other projects. Many of the companies operating in Australia are the same as here in NZ, so the Greenpeace Australia list will still be relevant).

  • Either contains or may contain GMO's, company can't prove it or doesn't – Red
  • In conversion to phase out GMO ingredients – Orange
  • Does not contain GMO ingredients – Green

I'm sure that some brands on the Red list will surprise you. Shopping by brands off the Greenpeace list is a good place to start.

Read labels for the ingredients. Avoid processed foods that contain Canola, Soy or Corn. It's best to also avoid "vegetable oil" as this is a generic term that can include Canola.

Avoid eating animals that are fed Canola, Soy, or Corn. Again the Greenpeace list can help here. It is great that NZ lamb and beef is mainly pasture-fed. There are no GM grasses in NZ, although the NZ government is contributing to research currently taking place in Australia for GM Ryegrass.

It is quite possible, however, that conventionally raised chickens and pigs in farms are being fed imported GM feed. Again shop by Greenpeace Good Foods recommendations or buy organic.

Cutting out as much processed food as possible will lower your exposure to GMOs as well as lowering your exposure to food with less vitality. Buy products with GM Free labels. Eating organic, either local and you know the producer or certified organic will take the guesswork out of how to avoid eating GMO's, not to mention pesticides and salt fertiliser weakened produce. I know a lot of people say they can't afford organic food. The question really though is whether you can afford not to eat organic food. Organic food reflects the true cost of production. If conventional and GMO food was produced on a level playing field with the environmental costs and health costs of consuming these foods added in, organic food would be significantly cheaper. This is particularly true in light of climate change issues where it has been shown that organically administered land sequesters significantly more carbon.

So the next time you're in the supermarket, think about what companies and products you are going to support.

Last but not least – Grow your own food organically, of course! No area or living situation is too small to start having a go. Even if it's a few pot plants in a sunny room.

Happy Healthy Eating.

About the author

John Sanderson

John spent his childhood in a variety of suburban neighbourhoods. It was a fairly uneventful existence, although there were plenty of opportunities to roam the streets in packs of kids, to explore far and wide, and to go fishing. It was during his career as an avionics technician at Air NZ in Wellington, that he started paddling whitewater. It became what John lived for. An opportunity to take redundancy took him to Queenstown and the start of a rafting and kayaking way of life. John spent most of the 90s overseas rafting and kayaking. It was during a season in Nepal, minding his own business, working hard as a good kiwi raft guide does, that he met Becky when they had been assigned to work a trip together. Life would never be the same.

After coming back to Queenstown at the end of the 90s, all John could think to do was swap seasons and do it all over again- working winters as a ski patroller. Marriage, two kids (blonde, mischievous and way too smart, like their Mum), a wonderful few years living in Karamea in summers and Queenstown in winters, has brought him to Kerikeri and his current life as a house husband. John clings precariously to his past life by trying to fit in some heliski guiding in winter.