The results on Washington Initiative 522, which would require labeling foods that contain GMOs, are coming in… and it looks like it won’t pass. I voted for the measure, but, as I was admitting to David the other day, not for very nice reasons. I want to put companies that push GM seed and farming out of business. I think the “No” side is right- putting “made with GMOs” labels on produce and processed foods will amount to putting warning labels on them. And while GMO labels may not increase the price of GM food itself, I do think that people would end up spending more money on their grocery bill to buy non-GM food, just like they spend more money to buy fair trade chocolate and coffee, and to avoid clothing and shoes made with child labor (though, Nicholas Kristof says that the only worse thing than being exploited in a sweat shop is not being exploited in a sweat shop- gotta start somewhere.)

So, what do we do if this initiative fails? How do we avoid buying and consuming GM food?

First, why are we avoiding GM food? I would hazard a guess that most people are against GM foods because it is unclear whether consuming them is safe. Because they are relatively new, I don’t think we have enough evidence to say one way or the other. Given that the FDA tends to operate on a guilty-until-proven-innocent platform, waiting until food additives have been shown to cause tumors or brain damage in rats and infertility (or what have you) in humans before banning them from US food, it might be smart for consumers to play it safe and not eat them. But as I argued in an earlier post, the foreign gene inserted into the crop (the one that makes corn cobs have those horribly ugly faces on protestors’ signs) is the least of our worries. On the other hand, there is ample evidence suggesting that agricultural pesticides are bad for us (Round-up ready crops get DOUSED in round-up) and other critters, and that monocropping (which GM companies like Monsanto brutally push) is bad for the soil, the waterways, the oceans, and our future ability to grow enough food to support ourselves during unpredictable and harsh climate changes. The wave of fear and disgust toward weird monster corn genes may not be enough to get WA I-522 passed, but there are plenty of other reasons to avoid GM foods.

Here are some suggestions:

The simplest is to buy organic. USDA organic regulations do not allow GM ingredients in processed food, nor do they allow animals to be fed GM feed (which is where most of the GM crops produced in the US go- animal feed), so consumers can avoid GMOs by buying organic produce, meat, and processed foods like breakfast cereal. Buying organic also has the advantage of avoiding antibiotics used to raise animals, which have contributed to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and have led to lapses in cleanliness in slaughtering and processing procedures. (Logic being, why wash shit off the cow hide when the cow is pumped full of drugs?)

But, organic food is expensive. Is there any way to half-ass it? What are the most important foods to buy organic and which are not so important?

If the goal is to avoid GM ingredients,
1) stay away from conventional meat, dairy, and eggs (as animals are often raised with feed containing GM soy and corn)
2) or buy pasture-raised meat and dairy products (I don’t think they’ve genetically engineered grass yet…)
3) don’t buy conventional baked goods or grain products (GM corn and soy), or processed foods (GM corn syrup and soybean oil)
4) avoid particular products that you know have been genetically engineered, like some apples, sweet corn, and salmon- instead, buy organic and wild-caught versions of those foods.
5) uh… what’s left to eat? Based on this list, pasta, beans, and rice.

If the goal is avoiding pesticides, buy organic based on this list compiled by the Environmental Working Group. Some produce is more heavily sprayed than others. Produce grown by small farms often carries less pesticide residue than produce grown by huge farms, but even if you shop for local fruits and veggies at the farmers market, wash your produce before eating or cooking it.

Lastly, if you want to avoid GMOs because of the effect farming them has on the environment, on genetic diversity, or on small farms, buying your produce, meat, dairy, and bread at a local farmers market is your best bet. How much extra money are we willing to spend to save the environment, our health, and local businesses? That’s a tricky question. If you come up with a dollar amount appropriate for yourself or your family, spend it at the farmers market!

-I apologize for not citing my sources- it feels wrong… but perhaps when I’m finally finished with my PhD- two weeks till my defense!- I will come back and write about this in a more scientific way…