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Swimming Against The Non-GMO Tide

Mon, 10/04/2010 - 9:25am
Jeffrey M. Smith, Executive Director, Institute for Responsible Technology

It’s unknown whether genetically engineered (GE) salmon will make it onto the dinner tables of Americans, but they are already swimming wildly in people’s imaginations. Not since GE corn pollen threatened monarch butterflies have concerns about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) caused such a media stir in the U.S.

The FDA wanted to fast-track the Frankenfish, but their advisory committee reeled them in. AquaBounty, whose rapidly-growing gene-spliced Atlantic salmon is causing such a ruckus, is being asked by the FDA’s advisors to provide additional safety and environmental data. However, from what has currently been submitted, the research suggests that the fish, outfitted with an extra growth hormone gene, may have higher levels of a second hormone, the cancer-promoting IGF-1, as well as require more antibiotics, and have higher levels of allergens.

Medical groups cite GMO health risks

For those following GMOs, this is Déjà vu. The milk from cows injected with the controversial GE bovine growth hormone also has higher levels of IGF-1 and more antibiotics. Now it’s condemned by the American Public Health Association and the American Nurses Association and banned in most other countries.

The GE soy and corn on the market also has higher levels of allergens. For that reason, and numerous others, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) urged all physicians to prescribe non-GMO diets to all patients.

The coming non-GMO tipping point

It’s health concerns like higher levels of allergens and certain hormones that lead to tipping points of consumer rejection against GE products. In Europe, for example, just a few weeks of high profile media coverage about GE health risks in 1999 prompted the food industry to quickly commit to stop using GMOs. In the U.S., consumer concern about rbGH has pushed the drug’s use out of Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Yoplait, Dannon, and most U.S. dairies.

Now there are indications that a U.S. tipping point against all GMOs is just over the horizon. “GMO-Free” is one of the fastest growing health claims among U.S. brands for the past two years, according to Nielsen. Supermarket News predicted that 2010 would see an unprecedented upsurge in consumer awareness and concern about GMOs, even hinting that it may join the ranks of transfats as a new food culprit.

Unlike transfats, however, the current generation of GMOs offers no consumer benefits. Therefore, if even a small number of shoppers—say 5 percent—were to reject brands with GMOs, we would likely see a Euro-style industry dump of all genetically modified ingredients.

Non-GMO Month and the new non-GMO standard

With such a small number of non-GMO trendsetters required to move the market, the non-GMO movement is getting a substantial boost with October declared as Non-GMO Month (10-10-10 is Non-GMO Day).

More than 600 retailers and manufacturers are using the occasion to rally consumer and industry support behind a new third party verified standard-bearer called the Non-GMO Project, which is the nation’s first system designed to test whether a product has met defined standards for the absence of GMOs. Thousands of enrolled products will soon bear the Non-GMO Project Verified seal. These are not just small boutique brands. Silk, for example, which commands more than a 70 percent market share in the soymilk market, is enrolled, as is Nature’s Path, which dominates the organic cereal aisles, and Whole Foods Market, which registered all of its store brands.

Converting to non-GMO

The level of difficulty to clean out GMOs varies with how many at-risk ingredients are used in a particular product. The eight GM food crops are soy, corn, cotton, canola, sugar beets, zucchini, yellow squash and Hawaiian papaya. There is also GE bovine growth hormone, and all animal products from livestock fed GMO feed.

With so many brands working toward a uniform standard, there is an increased number of already-verified ingredient suppliers which can benefit the newly converted. But once the expected non-GMO tidal wave hits, there may be some scrambling by unprepared companies chasing limited supplies. Of course eventually the corn and soy processors will put out the word to farmers, who will switch to non-GMO seed. But I expect some brand switching to go on in the interim.

Consumers are buzzing

There are by far more consumers who are now enthusiastically promoting non-GMO diets than ever before. And, they are well-informed and armed with solid evidence. They quote the AAEM’s list of GMO-related disorders, such as reproductive problems, immune system dysfunction, accelerated aging, gastrointestinal disorders, and organ damage. They carry well-worn Non-GMO Shopping Guides. And they are institutionalizing the non-GMO message in doctors’ offices, patient support organizations, PTAs, churches and among other health-conscious consumers that shop the green aisles.

The GE salmon, which is a serious threat to the non-GMO eater, may actually, in the end, prove to be an ally. As mainstream Americans start scratching their heads about whether they’re comfortable eating Frankenfish (and 91% are not according to a recent poll), they are also asking questions about the Frankencrops already on their plates. Thus, this GE product may have inadvertently spawned the early onset of the non-GMO tidal wave.

Jeffrey M. Smith is the author of Seeds of Deception and Genetic Roulette. He has spoken in more than 30 countries, and has been quoted in hundreds of media outlets including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Time Magazine. He is the Executive Director of the Campaign for Healthier Eating in America, which produces the Non-GMO Shopping Guide, Health Risk Brochures, Non-GMO Education Centers and other consumer education tools.

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