Thanksgiving is about autumn harvest (our yearly love affair with pumpkin pie!) and giving thanks for the food bounty we have around us. Unfortunately, there is less bounty than you might think. Over the past century three quarters of plant genetic resources have been lost. This loss of biodiversity is not an accident and is closely tied to how our food is produced and who has control over this production. The ever-growing control of agribusiness (from the seed and agrochemicals industry, to grain processors and traders) and food companies (food brands and retailers) over what we eat is driving unsustainable agriculture and less true consumer choice.
So, what does this mean for you when you think about shopping for your Thanksgiving dinner? One critical example of corporate control of our food in the U.S. is the pervasiveness of genetically engineered (GE) ingredients in our processed food. According to the Center for Food Safety (CFS), about 60-70 percent of food on supermarket shelves contain ingredients from genetically engineered crops.
GE crops can lead to loss of biodiversity, development of super resistant weeds and super resistant pests leading to increased use of toxic pesticides, contamination of crops, and harm to beneficial organisms. Potential health risks associated with GE food include allergic reactions, the development of antibiotic resistance, and nutritional changes including increases in plant toxins.
Consumers have been fighting for years to get the government to force companies to label food that contains GE ingredients so they can make an informed choice over what they eat. Unfortunately, the strong agribusiness lobby has made sure that consumers still don’t know whether they are eating GE or not.
- A recent New York Times poll found that 93 percent of Americans favor labeling of GE food.
- Nearly half of all U.S. states have introduced bills requiring labeling or prohibiting genetically engineered foods. CFS has a website that goes state by state on legislation on GE foods.
- Just a couple of weeks ago, a ballot initiative in Washington State to label GE foods was narrowly defeated. Huge food and chemical companies spent $22 million to mislead the public, the most money ever spent in Washington State on a ballot initiative, and yet they only won by 3 percent of the vote.
- Labeling is possible and happening around the globe: 61 countries, including member countries of the European Union, Russia, China, Brazil, Australia, Turkey and South Africa require standards of mandatory GE food labeling.
Here are 7 things we can do to avoid GE foods and promote ecological farming during the holiday:
- Until the US government requires GE labeling, buying foods that are certified organic is the best way to avoid eating GE foods. ‘Natural foods’ have no strict legal definition, so they are not necessarily GE-free.
- Most GE ingredients are made from corn, soybeans, canola, cottonseed, and sugar beets. So, avoiding processed foods made with these ingredients is a good start.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables are largely GE-free. The only commercialized GE produce is papaya from Hawaii (not generally a Thanksgiving regular). Small amounts of zucchini, yellow crookneck squash, and sweet corn might be GE, so either avoid those vegetables or buy organic.
- When you cook those side dishes and salads, watch out for condiments, oils, and dressings. Corn, soybean, cottonseed, and canola oils probably contain GE ingredients. Ketchup usually uses corn syrup. And, mayo and conventional salad dressings generally use these oils as major ingredients.
- By far the ‘greenest’ way to eat your Thanksgiving meal is to skip the turkey and fill up on those vegetarian choices. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 30% of the Earth’s land mass is used to raise animals for food! Unfortunately for vegetarians, many alternative meat and dairy products include GE ingredients like soy. But that’s no reason to avoid a vegetarian Thanksgiving! A shoppers guide compiled by CFS lists the brands that do and don’t use GE soy.
- If you feel you don’t want to go fully vegetarian for Thanksgiving, you’ll be pleased to know that no bioengineered meat is yet approved. However, most of the feed for livestock, poultry (including egg-laying chickens), and fish comes from GE grains and alfalfa. Only organic and free range meat, dairy, and eggs are guaranteed to use GE-free feed.
- Thankfully, consumer and farmer pressure has kept GE wheat out of the market. So, when you go for that pumpkin pie, the main concern is avoiding baked goods containing GE ingredients like soy or corn syrup.